In TNR, Nicholas Lemann calls Barack Obama "The Cipher"
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"The Cipher" is the print title of The New Republic's review (by veteran liberal Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia School of Journalism) of the massive biography of Barack Obama by David Maraniss. Lemann's review confirms, from a different political standpoint, much of my recent review of Maraniss's biography in VDARE.

Lemann writes:

... If you belong to an extended family that gets together for holiday dinners, most of whose members are not active participants in the national political conversation, you surely can’t make it through a single gathering without some uncle or cousin saying something that, if it came out of the mouth of a member of Congress, would be treated as an instantly career-ending mistake. And if—less likely—you actually know a member of Congress well, you may have seen that even many of them, when feeling relaxed, haven’t fit the entirety of their views inside the acceptable range of the moment.

It isn’t so easy or natural to stay eternally within the white lines. Some people may be so naturally conventional that the project takes no effort. But what about the rest? Do they do it by calculation? By control? By willing themselves, like actors, into character? Questions like these come to mind especially in the case of Barack Obama, who spent his early life in circumstances where he was unlikely to imbibe and absorb standard-issue American politics from the people around him. “First black president” doesn’t begin to capture the improbability of Obama’s getting where he has gotten. The son of a teenage mother and an almost completely absent father, raised off the American mainland and in Indonesia, with relatives all over the cultural, geographic, and political map, wanting for any real homestead or hometown....

Obama didn’t start striking people as a future president until he was at Harvard Law School. Here he is a sensitive, searching, occasionally mesmerizing young man—as he was in Dreams from My Father. How and when did the big transition happen? We’ll have to wait for Maraniss’s next volume to find out.

... The many details that Maraniss has unearthed about Obama fall into two main categories: first, Obama’s childhood circumstances were more emotionally difficult than he has made them out to be; second, his narrative of finding a comfortable, lasting cultural identity by embracing his African Americanness seems too pat. ...

Obama’s mother was a remarkably determined and independent person who, under difficult circumstances, built a significant life for herself as an anthropologist in Indonesia, but Maraniss insistently points out what Obama himself was too diplomatic to say outright in Dreams from My Father: she consistently decided, from the time he was about ten, to structure her life so that she spent almost no time with him, and there is some evidence that he sensed this and resented it deeply. The current, therapeutically driven assumptions governing American upper-middle-class culture would surely lead to a prediction, from the evidence we have, that the adult Obama would be a complete basket case. He cannot possibly be as imperturbable as he appears to be, but it is still remarkable and unexplained how he wound up with both an unstoppable drive to power and complete self-control, a rare combination even in successful politicians.

... MARANISS HAS carefully established the true identities of the pseudonymous composite characters in Dreams from My Father, and found, in a couple of cases, that people whom Obama presented as crucial guides on his journey to blackness were actually not black. One can’t gainsay the genuineness of the feeling of homecoming Obama got from finding his way into the heart of the African American experience, most notably through his marriage, from a point completely outside it. But it is also a sign of the weirdness of America’s racial customs—most whites assume that anybody who has dark skin also has a set of identical, deeply ingrained experiences and attitudes that just weren’t part of Obama’s life growing up—that Obama has been able to sell this version of himself so successfully. As Maraniss puts it, “It does not diminish the importance of race to note that the formation of his persona began not with the color of his skin but the circumstances of his family—all of his family, on both sides, not just the absent father, as the title of his memoir suggests. All of his family—leaving and being left.” Being black serves in part as an effective cover for something else that is as deeply, or perhaps more deeply, part of him—a fundamental guardedness and unknowability.

So, who is the President really on the inside? The Muslim Manchurian candidate? An Alinskyite socialist? The committed follower of Rev. Wright, as he portrayed himself in his first autobiography? A U. of Chicago academic slightly to the left of Richard Epstein? A WASPish golfer? Or maybe there's not much there there ...

... [Girlfriend] Genevieve Cook’s diary brims over with frustration about her inability to breach the defenses Obama had erected around himself. “[A] wall—the veil,” she calls it at one point; “[b]ut he is so wary, wary ... resents extra weight,” she says at another.

... In his resistance to being pinned down in any way, there is a lot of his mother. As Maraniss puts it: “Ann had the will to avoid the traps life set for her, and she infused that same will in her son.”

THIS CAMPAIGN hasn’t cleared up the fundamental mysteriousness of Obama very much. He has been uncannily successful at making Mitt Romney, not himself, the main subject of the campaign. Ask yourself: what portion of your personal campaign conversational time this season has been devoted to Romney, and what portion has been devoted to the man who is far more likely to be our president for the next four years? On Election Day 2008, would you have predicted that Obama would soon move his whole stack of chips onto the venerable liberal cause of universal health care? How clear a sense do you have now of what Obama’s second term will look like?

The portion of Obama’s life story we get here gives us full satisfaction if the question is how he was able to give his celebrated and career-launching keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, in which he proposed that there could be a way of bridging all political and cultural divisions. Otherwise, Obama as president—what drives him, how he makes choices—is fundamentally mysterious, and neither Maraniss’s book nor this presidential campaign has done much to clear it up. If there is a politically applicable impression that emerges from the great mass of material, it is how much Obama is a child of the postcolonial era. Hawaii, Kenya, and Indonesia were all former colonies or possessions of the West, one of which was absorbed into a larger democratic nation, the other two of which became independent. The careers of Obama’s grandparents, his parents, and his stepfather all can be seen as workings out of the ways in which post-colonialism plays itself out in individual lives.

So, I guess Dinesh D'Souza isn't totally crazy like everybody said he was.

And though the term “post-colonial” reads as “left,” both of Obama’s parents, though they probably would have been comfortable with that equation as applying to them politically, chose to work not as lifelong rebels but in the sorts of establishment roles that the end of colonialism opened up: his mother, in Indonesia, at the Ford Foundation; his father, in Kenya, at Shell Oil and then in a government bureau meant to promote the tourist business.

Right. Obama's roots are in America's Cold War strategy to co-opt the Third World left by giving jobs and influence to people just to the right of the KGB.

... After the election, the chance that Obama will feel that he has finally been set free to let the world see who he really is and what he really believes is nil.

But it’s also a safe bet that his core convictions are not those of the old Democratic Leadership Council. Romney palpably wishes to restore American hegemony in the world; Obama (drone attacks and dead Osama bin Laden or not) does not. Romney believes in business as the core institution in society in a way that Obama does not. We will surely find out something more about Obama’s convictions and his priorities in the six months after Election Day—not before.


As to what that will be, it’s hard to think of any politician running for reelection about whom the question is more difficult to answer.

Nicholas Lemann is dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and is the author, most recently, of Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This article appeared in the October 25, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline "The Cipher."

One possibility is that Obama is intermittently worn down by the phoniness of his life. Here he is pretending to be the Heroic Man of Action when he's really a passive observer, an elegant writer undermined by his inability to come up with anything original to write in that prose-poetry style of his. He wrote a vast autobiography at age 33 to claim the advantages of being black in modern America, but by upbringing he doesn't feel black at all on the inside, and thus only associates with a tiny stratum of the most bourgeois blacks.

The main stereotypically black aspect about Obama is his vast self-esteem, which greatly enjoys the acclaim of being President. But he also has a skeptical underside — he doesn't like to flat out lie if there is some lawyerly language with which to trick the vast majority of his listeners and readers. And that part, the best part of him, perhaps finds his absurd career to be kind of depressing.

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