Farewell to the Writer-in-Chief
As a man of letters gives way to one barely literate, does politics have any place for literature anymore?
Even for those dreading the end of the Obama administration, there is one good reason to look forward to Jan. 20, 2017. On the day Barack Obama leaves the Oval Office, he can start thinking about the book he was born to write, one that many publishers are predicting will become an American classic: his presidential memoir. In fact, according to the New York Times, Obama could earn as much as $30 million for a multi book contract.
Fat deals like these are common for retired politicians. But the works produced, while often best-sellers, tend to be deliberately bland, more interested in defending reputations than in telling uncomfortable truths. Just look at Decision Points by George W. Bush or Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton, both careful to the point of tedium. The reality is that few politicians are naturally good writers. Even John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-winning Profiles in Courage — completed years before he took office — was most likely ghostwritten by speechwriter Ted Sorensen. A few accomplished presidential books have been produced without professional help; in fact, the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant is so well written that many doubted he’d written it himself, but historians now say the words are indisputably his own.
Obama’s book, too, may be an exception to the rule. As president, he has demonstrated a surprisingly authentic interest in contemporary literature. He regularly recommended new novels: Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland early in his presidency, Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad this year. He interviewed the novelist Marilynne Robinson for the New York Review of Books, and this fall he guest-edited an issue of Wired.
The president’s literary interests have long been part of his public identity. Even before he became a state senator in Illinois, he earned a reputation as a powerful writer with Dreams From My Father, a coming-of-age memoir about the son of a white American mother and an absent African father. The best-seller established Obama as a sensitive, introspective writer.
“When people who don’t know me well, black or white,” he wrote, “discover my background … I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am. Privately, they guess at my troubled heart, I suppose — the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds.”
Here, Obama does not explore questions of race, family, and community as policy issues, but as lived experiences. He admits to his own doubts and confusions in a way that is common in literary writing yet vanishingly rare in memoirs by politicians.
In turn, authors flocked to Obama’s campaign in 2008. This wasn’t just a matter of professional solidarity. Rather, in those heady, history-making days, many writers believed that having a literary mind in the White House would make possible a new era in politics. What if a president had the empathy and insight of a writer? Could such a leader unite an increasingly divided country, give voice to the voiceless, and act with a new kind of compassion and understanding? Underlying this hope was a vision of political leadership that can be traced to Plato’s concept of the philosopher-king; the trust was that Obama, as writer-president, would be a man of both theory and practice whose ideas on the page would play out in the world.
The most eloquent statement of this optimism was “Speaking in Tongues,” a lecture delivered by the British-born novelist Zadie Smith in December 2008, just a few weeks before Obama’s inauguration. Smith, who, like Obama, is biracial, praised the president-elect’s ability to inhabit many minds and voices. This literary empathy, she believed, was reflected not just in Obama’s language, but in his politics: “Throughout his campaign Obama was careful always to say ‘we.’ He was noticeably wary of ‘I.’ By speaking so, he wasn’t simply avoiding a singularity he didn’t feel, he was also drawing us in with him…. Most of us have complicated back stories, messy histories, multiple narratives.” Obama the writer, Smith said, would help Americans imagine their way into a more inclusive, pluralistic future.
Eight years later, this dream is in tatters, to the disappointment of millions both in the United States and around the world. Far from bringing Americans together, the election of the first black president sparked a backlash of racism and right-wing extremism. It started in 2009 with Joe Wilson, a Republican congressman from South Carolina, shouting, “You lie!” during Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress and culminated in the election of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, during his two terms, Obama showed that personal empathy, one of the qualities that make a writer, is often hard to translate into effective policy, especially foreign policy — as demonstrated by the administration’s hands-off strategy in Syria or its acquiescence in Saudi Arabia’s devastating war in Yemen.
Dismayingly, Obama the president has proved to be a much less effective communicator than Obama the candidate. His inwardness has widely been perceived as an aloof superiority by a public more accustomed to the practiced emotion of Bill Clinton or the chumminess of George W. Bush. It is open to doubt whether a writer is actually well equipped to communicate with the public in the age of Twitter. A media personality like Trump, who is used to performing as himself on television, may be better suited to this environment than an author like Obama.
In 2016, novelists and poets rallied together to protest this change. An open letter against Trump, signed by hundreds of literary figures, including Stephen King and Amy Tan, tried to revive the idea that writers have a particular role to play in democratic politics. But where Smith was optimistic eight years ago, this letter was pessimistic: “Because, as writers,” it began, “we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power.” Tellingly, this statement had no real effect on political discourse. The election of Trump, who exhibits not a fraction of Obama’s intimacy with writing, suggests that it will be a long time before another president tries to close the breach between literature and politics.
A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Edmon De Haro