Law Religion Culture Review

Exploring the intersections of law, religion and culture. Copyright by Richard J. Radcliffe. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Book Review: Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.

A nagging question occupied my reading of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama.

Did he or didn't he?

Did Barack Obama know he later would run for President when he wrote this book (originally published in 1995)?

On the one hand, candidate books penned while running for President tend to be far more obtuse or opaque. Nothing salient is revealed, and accordingly, essentially no one reads them. Lending credence to this view that he was not contemplating running for the nation's highest office when he wrote Dreams, Mr. Obama allows in the preface to the 2004 edition:

"For the first time in many years, I've pulled out a copy and read a few chapters to see how much my voice may have changed over time. I confess to wincing every so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced. I have the urge to cut the book by fifty pages or so, possessed as I am with a keener appreciation for brevity." (p. ix; emphasis supplied.)

On the other hand, this book holds back from directly exposing the world to Mr. Obama's thought-processes, especially in a political realm. He repeatedly places the most controversial statements in the dialogue of another, so often that it can't be accidental. Additionally, he stops short from admitting his thoughts. For example, when asked why he did community organizing, he simply alluded to having his reasons. (e.g., p. 179.)

As a result, I'm sure this book was written with high political aspirations in mind. Nevertheless, it makes for an intriguing read especially in light of the unusual route Mr. Obama has taken to the precipice of the Presidency. For example, he talks about growing up in Hawaii, living in Indonesia, working in Chicago and visiting Kenya. He doesn't speak much about his law studies or practice, but I found the following excerpt illuminating about his legal philosophy:

"The study of law can be disappointing at times, a matter of applying narrow rules and arcane procedure to an uncooperative reality; a sort of glorified accounting that served to regulate the affairs of those who have power--and that serves to regulate the affairs of those who have power--and all that too often seeks to explain, to those who do not, the ultimate wisdom and justness of their condition." (p. 437.)

I've been surprised that his political opponents have not delved into this book more. I predict that these "fifty pages or so" that Mr. Obama wants to excise will receive even greater attention in the general election. In fact, watch Republicans strip-mine this text and perhaps even more so the sound recording, where one can hear the potential President tossing off expletives. Too, there are portions related to Rev. Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ, which indicate that Mr. Obama was aware of his race-baiting ways as far back as at least the book's 1995 publication.

For example, Mr. Obama writes that upon meeting Rev. Wright, he told Mr. Obama: "'We don't buy into these false divisions here. It's not about income, Barack. Cops don't check my bank account when they pull me over and make me spread-eagle against the car. These miseducated brothers, like that sociologist at the University of Chicago, talking about "the declining significance of race." Now, what country is he living in?'" (p. 283.)

Rev. Wright continued: "Life's not safe for a black man in this country, Barack. Never has been. Probably never will be." (p. 284.)

In Dreams, Mr. Obama endorses the Church's "Black Value System," which included a "commitment to God, who will give us the strength to give up prayerful passivism and become Black Christian activists, soldiers for Black Freedom and the dignity of all humankind." Mr. Obama describes the list as "sensible." (p. 284.)

This is the rare exception to candidate books. Written over a decade before running for President, it's interesting, well-written and unconventional. Anyone with a passing interest in this election should add this book to his or her reading list immediately.

UPDATE: Here is my review of Barack Obama's The Audacity of Hope:

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