The audacity of hype: could Obama’s presidential memoir be the greatest ever
The literary output of former White House residents is a mixed bag. Surely this most writerly of politicians will produce a book to savour
(The Guardian ) -After Brexit and Trump, no one should make any predictions about politics – but here’s one anyway. The presidential memoirs of Barack Obama, whose purchase by Penguin Random House has just been announced, will be hailed as the very best in the genre.
Tricky to say that before a word has been written? Perhaps, but the bar is not set too high. Most of the men who sit in the Oval Office produce a volume of reminiscences afterwards, but few shine with literary merit. Most tend to follow a strict formula, recalling the highlights, explaining away the lowlights and pleading for clemency from the court of posterity. As such, they usually veer between self-justifying and self-pitying, often too bent on rehabilitation or legacy-burnishing to be a satisfying or even revealing read.
It means the reader has frequently to look to the margins to gain insight. George W Bush’s Decision Points, for example, was revealing for what it did not say. There was so little of the usual memoir fare – internal arguments, departmental turf wars and rows about policy – that Bush’s book could not help but expose the extent to which he had governed as an above-the-fray, out-of-the-loop figure. In a word that appears often in the book, Bush lamented that he had been “blindsided” by events, inadvertently confirming how frequently he was in the dark.
Bill Clinton’s My Life, was – characteristically – bigger and fuller, weighing it at nearly 1,000 pages, but it too reflected the author in a way that was perhaps not intended. The early chapters, on Clinton’s Arkansas boyhood, were riveting, painting an enduring portrait of life in the postwar, hard-up US south. But then, with the deadline looming, Clinton was reportedly forced to rush through the rest of the story, so that the presidency is recalled not thematically but chronologically, as if the author were simply writing-up his appointments diary. It was classic Clinton: full of promise, but let down by indiscipline.
Obama will approach this task entirely differently. Recall that long before he had held local political office, he had written an acclaimed memoir: the moving and evocative Dreams from My Father. That was followed in 2006 by The Audacity of Hope, effectively his platform for a presidential run.
He is a natural writer. Indeed, that writerly sensibility may account for some of his failings as president: his critics faulted him for being too cerebral, too dispassionate, for standing back and observing the world rather than shaping it.
But it means his memoir will surely be written with a self-awareness, eye for detail and sensitivity to the absurdity of life and high-level politics that has been lacking in previous presidential retrospectives. Obama was a writer who became president; for his rivals in the field, it was the other way around.
But we should not forget the other big contract announcement. Michelle Obama is also to write a book. And as we know from her campaign speeches in 2016, anything her husband can do, she can do just as well – if not better.