Reading memoirs of bygone politicians out to make a quick buck by reminiscing about their time in office is not exactly my cup of tea. But being in quarantine since last March in the Big Beautiful Apple teaches any old dog some new tricks.
Obama’s new book, A Promised Land, is already a social phenomenon, with some even suggesting it may help struggling bookstores in these pandemic times. It is the first of a planned two-volume set sold to Penguin Random House, along with his wife’s memoir Becoming, for a whopping $65 million. The publishers clearly thought they could make way more than the $65 million they gave to the Obamas by selling these memoirs across the world, and I made my modest contribution to their efforts to get a good return on their investment by buying my own copy. I even ordered the book on Amazon, making Jeff Bezos a bit richer in the process, too. Obama and Bezos delivered. The mighty volume was in my hands in 24 hours.
The carefully crafted paratext of this 768-page memoir, from the front cover featuring a handsome and ageing photograph of Obama to the back cover showing him looking towards the Washington Memorial through a window in the Oval Office, emits an august presidential aura. When you take the book in your hands and glance through its pages, you immediately know that you are in the presence of a mighty commander-in-chief, as the saying goes, with his own kill list and squadron of drones to boot.
The index is perhaps the most important part of the paratext, as it tells the reader what names and subjects matter the most. So I dived in there to have an understanding of Obama and his editors’ priorities. I first looked for the words Palestine and Palestinian. I could not find these words in the index, despite there being several discussions on Palestine in the main text. Obama tells us, for example, that he wanted to go to Tel Aviv in 2009, on his way back from Cairo where he delivered a speech calling for a “new beginning” in US-Muslim relations. The Israelis apparently declined his request, as they did not want him to create the impression that the Palestinian question was “the primary focus” of his Cairo speech or that “the Arab-Israeli conflict was the root cause of the Middle East’s turmoil”.
While such revelations were not deemed important enough to get the word Palestine included in the index, there are plenty of items under Israel and the Israel-Palestine “conflict”. It seems it is only the Palestinians and their homeland that do not exist in Obama’s index. Out of curiosity, I also looked for this publication, Al Jazeera, in the memoir’s index. It was there pointing to a segment complaining about Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas’s refusal to take part in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s political chicanery. While criticising Abbas for dismissing a promise by Israel to briefly halt the construction of illegal settlements as “meaningless”, Obama blames Al Jazeera for convincing other Arab leaders to take a similar stance.
“Other Arab leaders quickly echoed (Abbas’) sentiments,” the former president writes, “spurred in part by editorialising from Al Jazeera – the Qatari-controlled media outlet that had become the dominant news source in the region, having built its popularity by fanning the flames of anger and resentment among Arabs with the same algorithmic precision that Fox News deployed so skillfully with conservative white voters in the States.”
Wow! Just wow! One critical voice in the entirety of the Arab and Muslim world not beholden to Obama’s liberal imperialism and he compares it to the nastiest racist outlet in the United States! Then I looked for the word Iran. It was there, though the Index got the date of the CIA-MI6 coup in Iran wrong. It was in 1953, not in 1951 as the Index says. Imagine, the army of researchers, editors, speech writers and presidential staff that helped Obama put this book together could not even get one crucial date that changed the lives of millions of human beings right.
After going through the entries in the index for some time, I eventually began reading the book itself. The book, in the end, does not disappoint or surprise. It is what it is: an overdose of Obama’s endearing liberal chumminess, packaged nicely to appease millions of his admirers. A Promised Land is an autobiography of his innocence, his best intentions, his political enemies, his immoral dilemmas. But there is also an invisible ghost hovering over the book – Donald Trump, who was working to dismantle Obama’s legacy in the White House as he was writing these pages. The book is as much an overcompensation for Trump’s demolition derby presidency as it is a tribute to the Obama years.
The significance of Obama’s A Promised Land, published at this particular juncture in American history, overrides my disdain for his brand of hypocritical environmentalism, “gentler and kinder” warmongering and “liberal” Zionism. When you read Obama, no matter how much you may disagree with him, you feel reassured you are in the presence of a literate person, a man who can put three consecutive sentences together and form a meaningful paragraph. This may not mean much in any other civilised country, but in America, after four full years of Donald Trump’s deranged tweets, it is reassuring to remember that there are some among the species of American presidents who are capable of forming a basic argument.
But A Promised Land, while contrasting Trump with Obama, not only underlines the former’s illiteracy, but also the latter’s lack of conviction. It is as if the famous lines of WB Yeats’s signature poem, The Second Coming, were composed precisely for Obama and Trump.
Obama lacks conviction, and this sad truth is apparent in every page and chapter of A Promised Land. In this memoir, Obama offers little more than a detailed documentation of his gutless centrism and weak excuses and explanations for the hopelessly immoral and reactionary choices he made as president.