Thursday, February 14, 2008

"Dreams from my Father" -- a Review

This morning Neal Boortz said in plain language that barring some unforeseen circumstance he expected Barack Obama to be our next president. Dick Morris was a guest on his program and agreed. I didn't pay attention to the rest because I was busy. But I listen to Boortz as a way of keeping my finger on one of many political pulses.

He also mentioned Obama's book, Dreams from My Father, which will now be widely read as people look into who this man is, where he came from and how he thinks. I was naive enough to imagine that I could go to my favorite site dealing with out of print books and order a copy for my collection at a reasonable price. Well I can (they start as low as seven bucks or so plus shipping) but first editions start in the five hundred dollar range and go up. One place is offering a signed first edition for nearly three thousand dollars. File those little factoids away for some party small talk.

It didn't take long to find a review from someone who has been inspired to read the book. In this case inspired is not a misused word. Read this by Sarah Aswell.

As Super Tuesday approaches and we try to separate empty promises and strategic moves from real, actual thoughts and goals, I couldn’t have read a better book than Dreams From My Father.

Here’s why: even though I didn’t realize it when I picked it up, Obama wrote this book over ten years ago, when he was fresh out of law school and long before he was worrying about what people wanted to hear. It is, I think, a great way to “get to know” the candidate outside of the media, the hype, and the confusion that comes along with a presidential bid.

The book follows Barack through his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, his community work in Chicago, and his journey to meet his father’s family in Kenya. Along the way, he has to come to terms with the death of his absent father, being raised primarily by his white grandparents (you don’t hear about this much), and learning the ropes of being a community organizer in inner city Chicago.

The thing that amazed me most about the book was watching Obama 1) work through problems and 2) analyze both sides on an issue. These two traits came through in two different ways in the book: in personal situations (how he comes to understand and accept his troubled father and his Kenyan ancestry) and in political situations (how he comes to understand the long-standing and deep problems facing the urban poor).

It would have been very, very easy to have bad guys in this book. Evil high-up government officials who prevent community centers and jobs from reaching the impoverished in Chicago. His adulterous and alcoholic father who seemed to abandon his loved ones at every turn. But Barack thinks his way through these simple binary good/bad categories and goes far beyond them. He is constantly striving to 1) understand situations from all points of view and 2) think his way through to a solution. He has an uncanny ability to step away from the emotions of a problem and then systematically chip away at it.

He understands very well that you have to know why things are as they are before you develop a plan about how to fix it.
The best example of this might be his work in Chicago. Although it’s unheard of for anyone to criticize the black ministers who organize the urban black communities in Chicago, Obama quickly began to understand the huge problems that come with church-based activism in black communities. Churches would rarely work together to solve larger problems and ministers would rarely do more than preach (which, to be fair, is their job). The action that should have followed a sermon simply wasn’t organized. Because many black leaders were ministers, many black leaders were also, essentially, just talk. What followed was three years of work in which Obama not only made major, innovative steps in Chicago but in which he also learned how to inspire both individuals and small groups into action.

I was also impressed by what Barack Obama didn’t leave out of the book. He made a lot of mistakes, he deals with a lot of anger, and he doesn’t succeed at everything. Still, you can not only see him learning from his mistakes, but immediately applying those lessons to his next challenge.

The book, as a more general read, was good as well. The writing wasn’t stellar (something Obama is quick to point out in the forward to the reprint) but it was still much better than one might expect from someone who isn’t primarily a writer. Getting to see the inner struggle of a biracial person growing up in 60s and 70s America was also really fascinating.

There are a lot of great candidates in the upcoming election, and I feel positive about more than two of them. But especially after reading this book, my doubts about Obama’s lack of experience are gone. He has something that trumps years in Washington: a stellar judgment and an almost eerie ability to put himself in someone else’s shoes and understand both sides of an issue. More than that, his ability to inspire individuals to action is something that America could truly benefit from. You can even see it in his campaign: ordinary people stepping up and acting, even if they’ve never been involved in politics before.

I know that after reading his book, I donated to a political campaign for the first time in my life. He’s nothing less than inspiring.

Follow up...

I bought the book and was impressed with the candor with which Obama tells his story. He comes across to me as someone who has nothing to hide and makes no pretense about who he is or is not. His style of thinking, discussion and inquiry seems not to have changed from years ago, even though his ideas and opinions continue to mature. I'm writing this follow-up in August, half a year after posting this woman's review, and find myself to be an enthusiastic Obama supporter.

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