It's been so long since a talented writer last occupied the White House; no wonder, then, that American writers have been among the most prominent of all the demographic groups claiming a piece of Barack Obama for themselves. In the last year, Obama's 1995 memoir, "Dreams From My Father" (though not his later, more conventional campaign book, "The Audacity of Hope") has been discovered by the literary profession as if it were the Comstock Lode: He wrote it himself! Every sentence has its own graceful cadence! He could as easily be a novelist as a politician!
It's an uncommon coincidence. The solitary existence of the writer, recasting the world alone in a room, generally unfits him for the intensely sociable, collegial life of practical politics, just as most successful politicians would as soon turn into Trappist monks as face the daily silence and seclusion of the writer's study. There are of course exceptions: Benjamin Disraeli entered British politics as a fashionable novelist, and went on to twice become prime minister; the playwright Vaclav Havel became president of Czechoslovakia, then of the Czech Republic. But there's no particular correlation between literary ability and high political office: think of a Melville administration, or a novel by George Washington.
Yet writing has sometimes been as important an accomplishment for an American president as his skill as a general or diplomat, as when Jefferson, Madison and John Adams wrote the United States into being by lamplight, and Lincoln scribbled disconnected sentences on scraps of paper that he tucked for safe-keeping inside his hat. The two-minute speech that Lincoln read at Gettysburg, dedicating the battlefield as a cemetery, is a miracle of verbal compression, so tightly packed with layers of implication that even now historians and critics are still uncovering fresh subtleties in its scant 270 words of text. The Gettysburg Address redefined the purpose and meaning of the nation with such richness and precision, and with such breathtaking economy, that it has become a classic of American literature, at least as great a piece of writing as "Moby-Dick" or the very best poems in "Leaves of Grass."
Lincoln, steeped in the Bible and Shakespeare, set an impossibly high bar for presidential prose. One doesn't so much read as listen to him speak, on the floor of the U.S. House in July 1848, when he lays into Gen. Lewis Cass, the Democratic candidate for president against the Whig, Zachary Taylor. The cut-throat edge of Lincoln's sarcasm hasn't blunted: Mocking Cass, mocking himself, he is at once deadly serious and in high good humor, telling barnyard stories of hogs, dogs and old horses in his grating tenor voice, with perfect comic timing.
The speech took Lincoln an hour to deliver, and it doesn't flag for one second. The long-forgotten Gen. Cass comes splendidly to life as a chronic drain on the public purse, a spinning weathercock on the crucial issue of the presidential veto, and a Falstaffian boaster about military exploits in which he was only distantly involved. Comparing Cass at the Battle of the Thames in the War of 1812 with his own modest service in the Black Hawk War, Lincoln says, "By the way, Mr. Speaker, did you know I am a military hero?... If General Cass went in advance of me in picking huckleberries, I guess I surpassed him in charges upon the wild onions." Lincoln's performance as a young, one-term congressman reminds one that, like Shakespeare, his tragic genius was grounded in a relish for knockabout comedy and an extraordinarily agile wit.
No president has come near to rivaling Lincoln as a writer. It's customary to salute Ulysses Grant's "Personal Memoirs" as the greatest book ever written by a president; it has a somber grandeur and dispassion, but Grant on the Civil War is, on the whole, less vivid than his comrade-in-arms William T. Sherman, who brings the reader into the noise and stink of battle as Grant does not. The colossal reputation of "Personal Memoirs" owes much to the half-dozen pages, in chapter 67, where Grant accepts Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, and renders it as a dignified reunion of old friends ("The conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting"). The symbolism of that moment, as the Confederacy and the Union come together in a scene of almost dreamlike concord, is so deeply affecting that it elevates the whole book far above its otherwise gruff, soldierly prose. The battles (Chattanooga, Spottsylvania, Franklin, Nashville...) blur and fade; what we remember is Grant and Lee comfortably reminiscing about their shared past and thereby pointing the way forward for a nation at peace.
One professional writer made it to the White House -- Theodore Roosevelt, who, from his senior year at Harvard (when he began his well-received history of the naval War of 1812) until his death, couldn't stop churning out books. He was a glutton for literature, once boasting of the pleasure of feasting on Aristophanes in German translation, but his own roaring style seems perfectly untouched by his omnivorous reading. If his style has antecedents, they're the boys' adventure stories of G.A. Henty and the nature writing of John Burroughs: Whether biographizing Oliver Cromwell, regaling readers with his tales of killing large mammals in "Hunting the Grisly," or killing Spaniards in "The Rough Riders," Roosevelt managed to write on a single, continuous, trumpet note. "The Gatlings were up again!" "Then I heard a twig snap; and my blood leaped, for I knew the bear was at his supper." After a few pages of this, the sheer noise becomes deafening; it's like being trapped in the company of an unbearably hearty counselor at a wilderness summer camp.
At least T.R. wrote his own stuff, dying a few years before the hired ghosts showed up to write the speeches and memoirs of presidents too busy and gregarious to stand the solitary confinement of the writing life. Soon after his marriage, FDR began a novel about a Chicago millionaire, but sensibly abandoned it before he got to the end of page 2. John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer Prize for his "Profiles in Courage," but there is widespread agreement among historians that the book was assembled by a platoon of writers and "research associates" under Kennedy's command. Richard Nixon's autobiography, "RN," begins with the promising sentence, "I was born in a house my father built," but does that I belong to Nixon or his spook? One hears Bill Clinton's own voice in "My Life," the best presidential memoir in recent times, but it often sounds more taped than written; transcribed, punctuated and shaped by a loyal amanuensis. "My Life" has its virtues (such as the enormous data-storage capacity of the Clinton memory, a marvel in its own right) but one could hardly accuse it of having a prose style.
The only book by a modern president that bears serious comparison with Obama's "Dreams From My Father" is Jimmy Carter's short campaign autobiography, "Why Not the Best?", published in 1975. Almost every presidential candidate comes equipped with a professionally manufactured campaign bio, but it was apparently thought a novelty when Carter, little known outside his region, introduced himself to the national electorate with a personal memoir, written in his own hand, with no more than the usual amount of editorial assistance.
Carter wrote very engagingly of growing up on the family farm in segregated Georgia, and rather less so of his subsequent career in the U.S. Navy, the state capitol and the governor's mansion. At its best, his plain, well-carpentered prose has the air of a Sunday school teacher telling a Bible story. "My life on the farm during the Great Depression more nearly resembled farm life of fully two thousand years ago than farm life today," he writes, as if the tiny hamlet of Archery, Ga., and first-century Bethlehem lay just a few steps apart. First published as an inspirational book by a small evangelical press in Nashville, Carter's memoir quickly became a best-seller during the 1976 primary season, and clearly helped in his victory over Gerald Ford in November.
Obama was 14 when "Why Not the Best?" came out, and may conceivably have registered the book's surprising success. Certainly "Dreams From My Father," like Carter's book, betrays a political motive, not just the itch to write for writing's sake. Obama had come to Chicago as a carpetbagger by way of Hawaii and New York, and carpetbaggers have always been unwelcome in the cronyish world of Chicago politics. On one level (and the book has several), "Dreams" is intent on staking out Obama's claim to having put down deep and permanent roots in Illinois's First Congressional District, represented then, as now, by Bobby Rush.
The long midsection of the book, set among the housing projects of the South Side, where Obama spent less than three years as a community organizer, is a love letter to the people of Chicago and to Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor. "Dreams" came out in 1995; the next year, Obama successfully ran for the state senate; three years later he challenged Rush on his home turf for his congressional seat. Although he lost that primary, his presence in the race would have been unthinkable had he not so convincingly transformed himself into a full-blooded Chicagoan in the pages of "Dreams."
To build a political base in his adopted city, Obama had to write a book, but it's a measure of his seemingly unbounded confidence in his abilities that he set his sights on making the book a work of literary art. "Dreams" is less memoir than novel: Most of its characters are composites with fictional names; its total-recall dialogue is as much imagined as remembered; its time sequences are intricately shuffled. It has an old-fashioned plot, as it charts the progress of its hero, first met as a 21-year-old loner for whom "my solitude" was "the safest place I knew," on a Ulyssean quest for identity and community. Like a Trollope novel, "Dreams" ends with a wedding scene, in which all the warring fragments of Obama's life -- black and white, Hawaii and Indonesia, Kenya and Chicago -- finally cohere into one like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. Married to a South Side native, and, by inference, to the South Side itself, the wandering hero has at last come home, in -- as it so happens -- the very heart of Bobby Rush's political bailiwick.
Obama is a skillful realist. By day, the I of his book is a vigilant listener and watcher, a hoarder of contingent details, who hugs his observations to himself, then broods on them late into the night. It's in the insomniac small hours when -- alone except for his burning cigarette -- he comes into his own as a restless thinker, figuring out his world in passages of eloquent interior monologue. Three o'clock in the morning is a recurring time in "Dreams," the hour at which patterns reveal themselves, resolutions are made and the reader enjoys the illusion of unhindered intimacy with the author.
But the book really takes wing when Obama wriggles out of the constraints of the first person singular and, like a novelist, imagines his way into the skulls of other people. Early on, he tries to see Kansas in the 1930s through the young eyes of his white grandparents, "Toot" and "Gramps," when they were courting. Later, his 7-year-old self is playing with Lolo, his Indonesian stepfather, in the backyard of their house in a Jakarta suburb when Obama catches sight of his mother, watching them from behind a window. For the next five pages, he leaps inside her head to observe himself and Lolo through her eyes. It's a bravado performance, as the writer feels on his own pulse the pain of his mother's expatriation and her budding estrangement from her new husband, so troublingly different in his native Indonesia from the student with whom she fell in love in Honolulu.
In Kenya, Obama, who speaks only a few words of Luo, interrogates "Granny," his black grandmother, with the help of his English-speaking half-sister. From that single, halting conversation, he constructs for Granny a 28-page recitation, in formal, stately English like the language of translated Greek myth, in which she takes over the narrative reins of the book and tells the story of his family from the perspective of her African village.
There's nothing very original in Obama's recognition of the limitations of first-person storytelling as necessarily partial and monocular, his experiments with multiple, contending points of view, or his hyper-alertness to what he calls "the messy, contradictory details of our experience." These are the basic ingredients of modern literary realism, from Henry James and Joseph Conrad to E. L. Doctorow and Marilynne Robinson, two of Obama's favorite living authors. What's interesting is how very closely Obama's promised style of governance chimes with his proven style of writing.
In politics, "realism" is usually just another term for pragmatism, or Realpolitik. But "Dreams From My Father" suggests that for Obama the word is rooted less in a political than in a literary tradition, where it has a far richer meaning. It signifies the watchful eye and patiently attentive ear; a proper humility in the face of the multiplex character of human society; and, most of all, a belief in the power of the writer's imagination to comprehend and ultimately reconcile the manifold contradictions in his teeming world. It's not much to go on, but, so far, naming his cabinet and organizing his inauguration, incorporating into the narrative characters and voices quite different from his own (like Hillary Clinton's or Rick Warren's), Obama has demonstrated an impressive consistency between his instincts as a writer and his performance as president-elect. He reminds us that novelists, no less than apprentice politicians, are in the business of community organizing.
It would be quaint to expect Obama the writer to be conspicuously in evidence when he's in the White House. He, too, now employs a team of ghosts, led by the 27-year-old wunderkind Jon Favreau. He's said to have "input" into his own speeches, and to edit and modestly rewrite them -- a far cry from the time when he was composing "Dreams." But we can at least hope that his literary sensibility, his personal brand of meticulously observant realism, will continue to shape his thought while he's in power, and that, however well or badly his administration turns out, he'll write the best-ever presidential memoir when he leaves office.
He's a good -- even exceptionally good -- writer, but his best sentences still pale beside those of the president he echoes and alludes to in almost every speech. It's not, I think, an exaggeration to say that Obama is the most able writer to win the presidency since Lincoln. But so far Lincoln's grasp of homely metaphor, the scathing clarity of his logic, his capacity to make the gravest subject yield material for comedy, leave Obama in the dust. It's not just the great prose-poems of the Gettysburg Address and the two inaugurals; it's the wonderfully lucid -- and funny -- prose of Lincoln on the stump that stops the reader in his tracks, as no president has done before or since. Here he is, in New Haven, Conn., on March 6, 1860, speaking on the bitterly contentious subject of the introduction of slavery to Western states yet to be admitted to the Union, like Kansas and Nebraska (transcript from the New Haven Daily Palladium):
If I saw a venomous snake crawling in the road, any man would say I might seize the nearest stick and kill it; but if I found that snake in bed with my children, that would be another question. [Laughter.] I might hurt the children more than the snake, and it might bite them. [Applause.] Much more, if I found it in bed with my neighbor's children, and I had bound myself by a solemn compact not to meddle with his children under any circumstances, it would become me to let that particular mode of getting rid of the gentleman alone. [Great laughter.] But if there was a bed newly made up, to which the children were to be taken, and it was proposed to take a batch of young snakes and put them there with them, I take it no man would say there was any question how I ought to decide! [Prolonged applause and cheers.]
Obama, who's shown flashes of humor but little real wit, could usefully learn from Lincoln's genius for rousing so much laughter on an issue as menacingly serious as slavery. In a fragment of a speech written in 1858, describing those who stubbornly opposed the abolition of the slave trade in Britain, he came up with this marvelous sentence: "Though they blazed, like tallow-candles for a century, at last they flickered in the socket, died out, stank in the dark for a brief season, and were remembered no more, even by the smell."
Jonathan Raban's most recent books are the novel "Surveillance" and the essay collection "My Holy War."