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Awed by a politician’s book

Don Rogers

Just finished now-Sen. Barack Obama’s memoir written long before he became Illinios junior senator last election.

Never mind the political service ” state senator for three tems, failed congressional bid, keynote speaker last summer at the Democratic National Convention. This guy can write.

It’s almost too bad he’s in politics, although certainly that’s how we know him. That’s what sells his book, the second time through. I don’t believe it was a blip on the literary landscape when it first came out in 1995.



It should have been a sensation then, based solely on the writing and the story.



I was awed, frankly. The autobiography of a half-white, half black civil rights lawyer in Chicago has no relation to my life. At least not on the surface.

I think it was February, and something as hackneyed as African American Month, as I browsed at my favorite local bookstore in Vail ” Verbatim. Owner Robert Aikens, a friend, had a display of black literature out, and this one intrigued me.

This Obama guy had given such a stand-up speech and dominated his election so heavily at what for politics looks like such a young age. About my age, actually. (Nice to be considered “young” for something anymore.)



I suppose that just as in boxing and sadly, perhaps basketball, we have great white hopes, in politics we have great black hopes. At least I do. I don’t know why this is for me. I suppose it comes down not so much to white or black, but that last word, “hope.”

If we can elect Tom Bradley mayor of Los Angeles (1973) and get him within 55,000 votes of governor of California (1982), seriously contemplate Colin Powell in 1996 for the presidency before his wife put an end to that, and yes, elect Barack Obama as a U.S. senator (only the fifth black U.S. senator) ” I see great hope in that.

The election of a black person to the presidency will be that huge sign that we’ve finally crested the color barrior in choosing our leaders. We’ll be a better country then. No, I’m not black. Hardly. I’m so white I joke that I was kicked out of Hawaii, where I grew up in part, for lack of ability to tan. This kid is all Irish, Welsh, Scottish and English ” misty isles mutt, basically. I don’t tan, I pink.

But if my interest was piqued by this new political star, my awe was sustained by this guy’s talent as a writer. I mean, genuine talent. The memoir has the whole package: use of language, organization of the story, keen observation mixed with philosophical musings in balance, and his utter frankness in telling his story.

Obama is squandering his talent with politics, in my view. This book “Dreams from My Father,” written a few years out of Harvard Law School, is just astounding. I can only imagine what he’s capable of in maturity.

His story is about growing up the son of a mother from Kansas and a father from the bush of Kenya. He lived part of his early childhood in Indonesia, but mainly grew up in Hawaii, raised by his white mother and her parents in the same neighborhood where I lived freshly out of high school. I’m sure part of my affection for his story springs from that. He and I played pickup basketball on some of the same courts and I think the same time. We might well have played with and against each other there.

The story is mostly about his struggles to find his identity as a black man. I don’t relate at all to that. As a member of the still-privileged majority, I don’t think much about race at all. Just not one of my big issues.

But such was the power of his writing and his story that I was captivated.

I think Obama’s lasting impact could well be through his writing. It may be that the politics amounts to publicity for his books ” this one and the ones to come. I’m into writing first, so forgive me if I put the Word on a higher plane than the squalor that I see in the politicians’ world. Yeah, we need them too. But it’s the writers who will lift our eyes, challenge our souls and make every gain in politics possible.

So, Obama recently got his $1.9 million contract with Random House and Crown Publishers for more books. Two will be nonfiction and one will be a children’s book written by his wife, Michelle.

Whatever he does as an elected public servant ” hey, maybe run for president someday ” I want him to reach with his books. No cheap knock-offs, like Clinton’s and other like throwaways. No shilling for a party or candidacies. He’s capable of much better and enduring than that.

Obama has the genuine talent to write master works, ones that challenge us and the generations to come.

That’s a high calling, the highest, I believe. We’re talking the talent to turn out a true classic. Not to put any pressure on the man, but I guess I’ve got expectations now. So where to we go from awe? I can’t wait to see.


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