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President Prolix

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President Prolix

The length alone of Barack Obama’s new memoir tells us a good deal about our wordy former president. December 4, 2020
Politics and law

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama (Crown, 758 pp., $45)

When President Barack Obama called House Speaker John Boehner, Obama’s proclivity to lecture Boehner was so predictable that the Speaker would often put down the phone, light a cigarette, and take a long draft as he waited for Obama to finish. For most readers of Obama’s new memoir, A Promised Land, the former president’s passages on policy will make you sympathize with Boehner. In the introduction to nearly every key policy addressed by his presidency, Obama unleashes multi-page lectures, winding through the history of post-Soviet Russia, the evolution of health-care policy in the United States, and the origins of the State of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is not to say that the book is bad or boring. Obama is an engaging writer—or at least his collaborator, former speechwriter Cody Keenan, is—and the story, especially his rise from humble beginnings to the presidency, is fascinating. While the origin story also appears in his first book, Dreams from My Father, it is worth rereading here, as Obama now tells it with the knowledge of someone who knows where the story goes, as opposed to the youthful uncertainty of Dreams.

And the tale retold bears some differences: fewer mentions of his TV-watching habits and his pot-smoking friends, more mentions of his cigarette-smoking habit and his efforts to quit. He eventually does quit, upon the passage of his health-care legislation, but the frequent references to smoking are jarring in the light of the way cigarettes are now so much more socially unacceptable than they were when he first wrote Dreams (see sidebar).

The bulk of the new material, though, is about Obama’s political career, particularly the 2008 presidential campaign and the first few years of his presidency (the book ends with the killing of Osama Bin Laden, which took place on May 2, 2011). A second and possibly third memoir are to follow, which means that Obama’s combined presidential memoirs—not to mention his earlier two books—will easily surpass Bill Clinton’s nearly 1,000-page My Life, about which Jay Leno joked, “Even Clinton’s books are fat.” Of course, the 700-page book would be shorter without the history lessons, but in a way they are part of the book’s essence: A Promised Land appears to be an honest distillation of Obama’s thoughts as he worked on the monumental policy issues of the day, and his potted history lessons, giving the standard liberal take on the issue at hand, are an important component of his thought process.

Another enlightening aspect of the book is how Obama views his allies and adversaries. Allies are often referred to in the gentlest possible terms, while opponents rarely get the benefit of the doubt. At one point, Obama dismisses an argument from the Right as having come from “the likes of Karl Rove,” without telling us what it means to be from those “likes.” At another point, his reference to his critics as backers of theories that he had “dealt drugs, worked as a gay prostitute, that I had Marxist ties, and that I had fathered multiple children out of wedlock” lumps together three crackpot theories with one legitimate allegation: Stanley Kurtz’s heavily researched work into Obama’s early socialist associations. You don’t even have to agree with Kurtz’s conclusions to see that listing the four accusations together has a “one of these things is not like the others” quality. (Kurtz will be happy to know that Obama does acknowledge reading “Marx and Marcuse so I had something to say to the long-legged socialist who lived in my dorm.”)

Obama also alleges, misleadingly, that “Republican resistance hardened, independent of anything we said or did,” neglecting to remember that shortly after his inauguration, he told Republican Whip Eric Cantor that “Elections have consequences, and at the end of the day, I won.” Republicans resisted Obama, to be sure, but it is less clear that the resistance took place in the abstract, “independent of anything we said or did.” On at least one occasion, Obama even skips over the whole story to the detriment of a putative ally, National Economic Adviser Larry Summers, who, he claims, “had a public row with the prominent African American studies professor Cornel West.” It is true that they had a “row,” but Obama fails to note that the source of the disagreement was that Summers suggested that West produce scholarship rather than rap CDs. West blew up over the idea, eventually decamping to Princeton.

Smoke House

A Promised Land is surprisingly replete with references to Obama’s multi-decade cigarette habit. (He finally quit in 2010, with the help of nicotine gum from the White House doctor). The frequency of his mentions of smoking are jarring, especially considering how socially unacceptable smoking has become in upper-class America. Obama himself recognized how unpopular the habit is. Reporter Jeff Zeleny recently noted that Obama was “livid” after Zeleny reported that freshman senator Obama was seen smoking in 2005. The future president had good reason for wanting to hide the habit. Only about 14 percent of Americans now smoke, and only 4 percent of those with graduate degrees. Blue coastal elites strongly disapprove of the habit. And when Obama was courting Michelle Robinson, his smoking habit was a strike against him.

There is a good chance that Obama will be the last smoking president in American history. Donald Trump and Joe Biden are nonsmokers, and Biden was anti-smoking as far back as his college days. But many earlier presidents smoked, and the interactions between American presidents and what Obama derided as his “foul habit” makes for a colorful history, some examples of which follow.

Ulysses S. Grant: Grant died of throat cancer from his smoking habit, racing to the last minute to complete his famous memoir before he died. He clearly was a heavy smoker, once telling reporters that “When I was in the field I smoked eighteen or twenty cigars a day. Now I smoke only nine or ten.” Upon his death, Grant’s friend Mark Twain suggested a link between the cigarettes and his illness, but Grant’s doctor John Douglas adamantly denied any connection, saying, “This is not a result of smoking. Smoking has never hurt General Grant, and it will never hurt you.”

William McKinley: McKinley smoked cigars, but he was not proud of it. Once, when a photographer tried to take his picture, McKinley put down the cigar, saying, ‘’We must not let the young men of this country see their president smoking!’

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Roosevelt was one of the best-known presidential smokers, often pictured with his ubiquitous cigarette holder. Amusingly, FDR offered Josef Stalin a cigarette in Tehran, but Stalin refused because his doctor didn’t allow him. Roosevelt cheekily replied that “doctors should be obeyed,” but he did not listen to his own doctor, who advised him to cut down on his smoking. It’s likely that his last conversation had to do with cigarettes. On April 12, 1945, he collapsed in front of his cousin, Margaret Suckley. “Have you dropped your cigarette?” Suckley asked. Roosevelt responded, “I have a terrific pain in the back of my head.”

Dwight Eisenhower: Ike started smoking early. He received demerits at West Point for smoking in his room, hurting his class rank upon graduation—he finished 61st out of 164. The stress of World War II led him to smoke more; he smoked as many as 80 cigarettes a day when preparing for D-Day. The habit also contributed to his health troubles during his presidency: he survived a massive heart attack in 1955.

Lyndon Johnson: Johnson smoked nearly 60 cigarettes a day while serving as a senator, contributing to his 1955 heart attack, but he quit afterward and did not smoke as president. In 1969, after leaving the presidency, he returned to smoking, telling a disapproving daughter, “It’s my time.” He died in 1973, at 64.

Gerald Ford: Ford smoked pipes, having started the habit while serving in the Pacific in 1944. He had a collection of 35 pipes and even had a pipe rack in the Oval Office. On Election Night 1976, he offered a cigar to campaign manager James Baker, who tried to refuse. Baker had quit smoking in the wake of his first wife’s death from cancer. Ford insisted, though, and Baker eventually relented, but only at 3 a.m., when it was clear that Ford had lost the election.

Ronald Reagan: Reagan smoked Chesterfields and even appeared in Chesterfield ads but was no longer smoking by the time he became president. He later told Bill Clinton that his jelly bean habit saved him from smoking.

George W. Bush: Laura Bush was a smoker when she met George W. but claimed to have quit by 1994. There were, however, rumors that Bush smoked cigars while Laura smoked cigarettes, even while at the White House. Bush’s mother Barbara was a big smoker who once told a doctor, “Do you know why George is the way he is? Because I drank and smoked during his pregnancy.”

At the same time, Obama is sensitive to similar tactics directed at him, complaining, for example, that Rick Santelli’s legendary Tea Party rant in 2009 “was a familiar trick, I thought to myself, the kind of rhetorical sleight of hand that had become a staple of conservative pundits everywhere, whatever the issue: taking language once used by the disadvantaged to highlight a societal ill and turning it on its ear.” And when it comes to the extremely problematic “God damn America!”-style speeches of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, from whom Obama was forced to disassociate, he acknowledges that “There were times when I found Reverend Wright’s sermons a little over the top.” How comforting.

Readers look to presidential memoirs not for the story itself, but for the little revelations that presidents provide along the way. A Promised Land does deliver on this score with respect to debate preparation, telling us, for example, about how “exhausting but undeniably useful” a full 90-minute mock debate can be. Obama also gives us insight into his pre-debate ritual, which included listening to music, eating steak, and carrying various lucky charms that voters on the campaign trail had given him. For those interested, the musical selections ranged from jazz—Miles Davis’s “Freddie Freeloader,” John Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things,” Frank Sinatra’s “Luck Be a Lady”—to rap—Jay-Z’s “My First Song” and Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” The rap lyrics “felt tailored to my early underdog status,” Obama says. He makes the point that people see him today as the two-time presidential election winner, but it was not always obvious to him along the way how things would play out.

Obama reflects on the impact of his prominence on his family. To be sure, there are enormous advantages, including the international travel, the $65 million book deal he and his wife Michelle signed, and his daughter’s summer job working for Steven Spielberg, but there have been costs as well. He notes that he never again had the ability to lose himself in a crowd after his career-making speech to the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He wishes that he could have sometimes just taken his daughters out for activities like a normal father, and he makes clear how hard Michelle resisted his repeated early attempts to run for office. Michelle, it should be noted, comes across as a formidable figure. Obama recounts that her brother told him that he feared his sister was too tough ever to get married.

As presidential memoirs go, A Promised Land is pretty good, far better than Ronald Reagan’s An American Life—which Reagan joked that he had not read, much less written—or Lyndon Johnson’s The Vantage Point, which was written by committee. The story will continue in the next volume, or volumes, but likely with more policy lectures—and possibly fewer insights than we get in A Promised Land.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

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