Oprahma
May 10, 2008, 04:45 AM
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One problem with Obama running on his biography is that he`s systematically misled voters into imagining things about the implications of his life story that aren`t true. He has a gift for telling people what they want to hear. But that comes with a second problem: one of those people is Barack Obama. He is weak at learning from his own biography, tending to draw lessons that are cliches from the conventional wisdom, no matter how obviously inapt they are.

Here, for example, is the emotional climax of Dreams from My Father, in which Barack Obama Jr. visits his father`s and paternal grandfather`s graves in Kenya (p. 429). His passionate reflections on his father strike me as heavily Oprah-influenced and bizarrely backward:

I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile. Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets and irrigation ditches and gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways. You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world. That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead-a faith in other people.

The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little of the laughter in Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. The loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles. Words of encouragement. An embrace. A strong, true love. For all your gifts-the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm-you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind….

This is the Daytime Television solution to all problems: Let`s get together and talk about our feelings! It doesn`t work all that often, and can easily make things worse (as the Jerry Springer show has demonstrated for years), but, who cares? It draws huge ratings because women like talking about feelings.

But, what in God`s name is Obama Jr. talking about in regard to his father`s faults: "shame," "fear," "silence"? Shamelessness, fearlessness, and won`t-shutupness would be a more accurate description of Obama Sr. Here`s a man who committed criminal bigamy twice in the U.S., who abandoned Barack Jr., who drove like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, and who could out-talk any man in the bar.

In the case of Barack Obama Sr., the son`s assertion that "silence" was his verbose father`s fundamental problem is particularly absurd, since, by all accounts, his drunken would-be Big Man father was All Talk, No Action — not exactly, the strong, silent type.

Here is a recollection by Kenyan newspaper editor Philip Ochieng, an old "drinking buddy" of Obama Sr.:

Like his father, although charming, generous and extraordinarily clever, Obama Senior was also imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his brain and his wealth.

It was this kind of boasting that proved his undoing in the Kenyatta system – although, as he said, there was tribalism in it –and left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego.

Like me, he was excessively fond of Scotch. In his later years, he had fallen into the habit of going home drunk every night. This was what forced Ruth to sue for a divorce to marry another friend of mine, a Tanzanian.

Scotch, indeed, was what proved to be Obama Senior`s final undoing. Driving a car always excited him excessively.

Obama Senior had had many extremely serious accidents. In time, both his legs had to be amputated and replaced with iron. But his pride was such that he could not tolerate "crawling like an insect" on the road. I was not surprised when I learned how he had finally died [in another drunken car accident.]

Now, there`s nothing here about Obama Sr. that`s not somewhere in Obama Jr.`s autobiography. Obama Jr. eventually got the full story on his father. (I quote Ochieng because he`s a more concise writer.) But what lessons did he draw from his father`s story? The two paragraphs I quoted from Obama above are his impassioned conclusions about his father, and they don`t make any sense.

Similarly, Obama`s Jr.`s contention that Obama Sr.`s downfall came from leaving African things behind is 180 degrees the reverse of the truth. He returned to Africa to play the Big Man, and there`s nothing more African than that. His life was a caricature of all that is notorious about African politicians. Unfortunately, the Big Man pyramid is steep, with room for only a few, and he ultimately fell off.

Obama Sr. had a number of political problems, such as being a Luo under a Kikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta. And he had initially staked out an ideological position to the left of the government`s pro-capitalist economic policy, although it`s hard to know how seriously ideology mattered in such a tribalist system. Yet, despite these disadvantages, he wouldn`t tone down his Big Man act, bringing down upon him the wrath of the biggest Big Man of them all, Kenyatta.

According to his daughter Auma, Obama Sr. insisted on playing the Big Man until the end, handing out money he couldn`t afford to give to relatives and hangers-on, and offering to drive everybody in the bar without a car home.

Moreover, rather than not having enough faith in other people, Obama Sr. had too much. He was a con man who conned himself into believing other people would believe his act. Lots of people did get suckered by him for awhile—such as the four women by whom he had about eight children (one of them by his first wife might have been a cuckoo`s egg), but eventually people figured him out.

So, what in the world, does Obama mean with all his talk of his father`s "silence"?

Clearly, he wishes his father had talked more ... to him, rather than to his cronies.

This is also a major theme in Winston Churchill`s autobiography—his bitter regret that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, rarely spoke to him before cracking up on a far grander scale than Obama Sr., resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer to precipitate a crisis that would make him Prime Minister, failing, then slowly going mad from syphilis in Parliament.

But, Churchill didn`t draw Oprahtastic conclusions from his personal pain.

Now, it could well be that Obama Jr. has actually drawn useful lessons from his father`s failure—he`s abstemious *, cautious, and, while he talks a lot, he seldom says anything that anybody who disagrees with him can understand. Still, it would be nice to know a few more things about Obama, like: In this grand finale of your autobiography, were you just pulling our leg in an attempt to make the Oprah Book Club? Or do you really think like that?

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* By the way, can we all now stop pressuring Obama to do shots of alcohol on the campaign trail to prove his regular guyness? Obama`s father died in a drunken car crash, his half-brother David died in a motorcycle crash after a night of drinking, his half-brother Roy / Abongo converted to Islam to battle his alcoholism, and his grandfather Stanley was a barfly. There are some serious alcohol problems running in his family tree. If Obama doesn`t want to drink, he knows best.