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Book Reviews: Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

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I've read both of President Obama's books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. I recommend them to anyone who has an interest in politics generally or Barack Obama in particular. I doubt that reading the books will change anyone's basic opinion of the President and his political views. However, after reading them the extreme perceptions of some are likely to become more reasonable.

One issue that has generated speculation among some conservatives is whether Obama wrote the books himself. That's to be expected, given that anything that diminishes him is grist for their mill. The most comprehensive of these arguments against his authorship can be found at American Thinker. The first article posits that Bill Ayers helped write or re-write parts of Dreams; the second article argues that Jon Favreau, Obama's senior speechwriter, wrote most of Audacity.

Obviously, I can't make an authoritative statement that Obama wrote every word of both books. That's rarely true of any author. Manuscripts are reviewed by friends, relatives, and researchers, virtually all of whom suggest changes. Books are also reviewed by agents and edited by publishers, sometimes extensively. However, to falsely claim that you wrote a book, except for the contributions of others mentioned above, is a fraud.

For a president, it's a fraud that will inevitably damage him. For example, John F. Kennedy's image has been tarnished by revelations that Profiles in Courage was written mostly by Theodore Sorenson, his speechwriter and confidant. (That didn't deter Kennedy from accepting a Pulitzer Prize for the book.) Barack Obama is a highly intelligent man who certainly knows all this, and that leads me to believe that his claim of authorship for both books is valid.

However, there's no question that the writing style in each book is different. Dreams is written in a much more literary style than the second book. It's full of flowery descriptions and occasionally overwrought, sometimes inapt metaphors, much like an overly chatty novelist might write a non-fiction book. Audacity, on the other hand, is written in a much more straightforward style, like an academic might write a book on politics and public policy. Even in parts of the book that are about his personal life, that more direct and economical style prevails.

Dreams was first published in 1995. In the preface to the 2004 edition, Obama admits to wincing now and then at the writing style of his youth, and he was tempted to shorten it by about 50 pages (but didn't). He was right about that — the book is too long, and certain parts, especially on his time as a community organizer in Chicago, could have profited from a trimming. It covers his life from birth to his entry into Harvard Law School, when he was about 27. The genesis of the book was the publicity he received as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. A publisher and others thought his life to that point would be worthy of a book, and he was paid an advance for it. It took a long time to finish, as it turned out.

I have no idea why he chose the title Dreams from My Father. I can't imagine what worthwhile dreams he could have inherited from a man who played virtually no role in his life. The only time he saw him after he was old enough to remember was for a few weeks when he was 10 years old, and that time together didn't go very well. His father was intelligent and well-educated, but he was also a blowhard, a drunk, and a failure at just about everything he did except get married multiple times (sometimes with more than one active wife) and father children. Worse, according to recent statements by Obama's half-brother, he was prone to beat his wife and kids. That only relates to the half-brother's mother (the white American woman Obama married after he left Barack Obama's mother) and their two sons. But that pathology generally indicates the way a man probably would have treated his other wives and children.

The best and most interesting part of Dreams, toward the end, deals with his trip to Kenya to meet relatives and explore his heritage before he went to Harvard. Also interesting is his brief account of how he came to join Trinity United Church of Christ, home of the now infamous Pastor Jeremiah Wright, and his relationship with Wright. His acceptance of the extremist, anti-American, anti-Semitic Wright as a spiritual mentor apparently began at that point. It's clear that Obama joined the church as a useful step to facilitate his community organizing efforts, but that doesn't excuse his continuing relationship of over 20 years with Wright.

There are things missing from the book, including details about his mother that one would expect. She married Barack Obama when she was only 18, and he left her by the time their son was two years old. It's not clear when they were actually divorced, and the book leaves room for lingering suspicions about the facts of their marriage and the timing of their divorce. Not long afterward, she married an Indonesian student and followed him to Indonesia, her young son in tow. For four years they lived in very poor conditions in Indonesia, amid serious political unrest. Obama writes of this as a stimulating and exciting time in his life, and perhaps it was for one so young. But it leaves a lot to ponder in terms of his mother's common sense and overall outlook on life.

The main title of The Audacity of Hope was, in fact, taken from the title of one of Reverend Wright's sermons. The book was written after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, before Wright's extremism became known to the outside world and before the extent of Obama's relationship with him was of much significance. And frankly, I don't think Wright played a defining role in Obama's thinking or attitudes. As I said in an article elsewhere, Obama is something of a "faux golden boy," the kind of "modern man … who is mostly image without accomplishment. … Everything he touched somehow turned to gold just because he was himself." He joined Wright's church because it was the thing to do, and he maintained a personal relationship with Wright because it looked good to his primary constituency. When Wright became a liability, under the bus he went, and the golden boy was barely tarnished.

Audacity is a fairly direct discussion of Obama's political ideas, with personal touches that are interesting and relevant to an overall understanding of who and what he is. Like autobiographies in general and political autobiographies in particular, the book is somewhat self-serving. However, he doesn't shrink from saying what he thinks, even on topics that he knows a number of potential voters will dislike. His views on most issues aren't as extreme as some might think, and he shows that he's capable of seeing both sides of issues. This indicates a willingness to compromise, to accept less than he might have wanted in order to achieve an acceptable measure of progress. This is exactly what we've seen in his performance as president.

Those on the right who disagree fundamentally with liberal political philosophy aren't going to have their minds changed by Audacity. But they are the very people who can profit most from reading it because they will come away with a better understanding of the man with whom they so strongly disagree. And they'll come away with a better appreciation of Barack Obama as a kind and decent man who loves his country and tries to do what he believes to be right and good.

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