The Written and the Heard: Obama

A few months ago, when I got to interview Mr. Craig Fehrman, I asked him which presidential books he would recommend.  From his recommendation, I saved one of the best for last.


Reading The Audacity of Hope reminded me why I started this project in the first place. I’m a reader, and a listener. I like books, I like speeches, I like podcasts, and especially the sort with one person, possessed of a slow, subtle voice, reading to me from a script.* I feel like this is particularly lacking to me in this election landscape: aside from the debates, I can’t recall a single speech from this campaign cycle with any of its language intact. Clips, yes, excerpts, yes. The Access Hollywood tape and the deplorables comment, yes.

The last real speech I remember is from Michelle Obama, after the Trump tape came out. I sat down to listen to that one, and cried, watching on my phone at 6am, because even though I was the one listening, she articulated what I had been feeling so beautifully that I felt like I was the one being listened to.

The one before that is Sarah Palin’s endorsement of Trump, because even though it made my skin prickle, her use of language was wild and fascinating and articulate in a new, different way, and I couldn’t shake it from my head.

The one before that is President Obama’s eulogy for Reverend Pinckney, after the Charleston massacre. I turned it on while I was ironing, at home on summer vacation. A few minutes in, I unplugged the iron and leaned on the washing machine to listen, then spent the rest of the day quiet, and contemplative.

I think part of why I’m so drawn to these books is that reading feels like listening.  I’ve written about the intimacy of reading a book before, the physicality of obtaining and holding and turning the pages of a book, but there is also nothing quite so intimate as hearing the author’s voice echoing in your own mind as you read.  Reading these books feels a bit like hearing a speech.  I associate speeches with church, with the court, with other sacred moments.  I like the idea that we are a people who will hear each other out, even if we disagree.  I also like the idea that our politicians are sensitive people who have thought long and hard about how they intend to reflect the American soul to the American people–which saddens me, because this year, we’ve heard a lot of things not worth listening to.

Maybe as a reaction to there being so little worth listening to, my generation is native to a world of visual media.

I was in an art museum a while back, at an exhibit of beautiful, full-wall, colorful, textural paintings. A woman about my age, with long, curled hair and taller heels, came up to me and asked me to take her picture while she sat on a bench in front of one of the most dazzling walls, perfectly centered and facing away from the camera, in artful contemplation.  It was a beautiful picture.

The visual language of instagram and this election is about building on top of things that already exist. Not the passive appreciation of going to a gallery and then leaving, head full of paintings, but an active reckoning, creating a new image out of the raw material of the finished images on display, documenting the viewer’s relationship to the image for the consumption of another viewer. Literally showing where you stand in relation to a thing made for contemplation.

This lends itself to the world of clips, twitter and swift writing.  Video clips are obviously visual, but the way we interact with them is as well–in which forum do we share them, with what caption, how do we make our political position apparent by visually associating ourselves with one bit of video or another.  And there’s nothing wrong with this: one of the things that strikes me most, having just come home, is how skilled Americans are at self-making, how deftly people craft stories about themselves and then live up to them. Everyone here has a life story that they’re ready to tell at the drop of a hat, a focus, a goal, a vision. That vision involves locating yourself between poles of fixed positions and things already out there, building by reacting. How else have we ever built?  We are adept at lightning-quick evaluation, at efficient absorption, and at keeping each other awake by talking freely, openly about what we think and believe.  This is how I want politics in my country to happen, and I think my generation is great, even if they do get on my nerves sometimes, sibling-like.

But listening to share is the same thing as listening to reply, in many ways.  The conversation gets juggled forward, and we march on, satisfied that we have expressed ourselves so well–but disappointed, and having learned nothing new. Reading The Audacity of Hope, I suddenly remembered that I hadn’t watched anything longer than three minutes in a long time. And just when I feel like we most need a reconciler, someone who produces beautiful thoughts and words that give us solace–it’s the end of the Obama era.

I think one of the best ways to say goodbye is just to listen. Or to read.

I’m really glad I found this prologue in full online, because it’s beautiful.  Even without hearing it in Obama’s voice, it has a beautiful, measured, walking cadence to it that makes you slow down and hear each word.  It’s funny, and insightful, and it does so many things well in such a short space.  Where Walker and Cruz also both try the show of humility after a big defeat, Obama’s has so much more grace–genuine learning, and genuine wisdom, rather than spin, narrative-crafting.  Where almost every other candidate has a line about why they’re writing, Obama’s takes into account the material fact of writing a book, the skill and the practice to write a good one. This is political oratory, political writing as it should be. No matter what you think of Obama, this is a master at work in a difficult craft, and that’s worth paying attention to.

You should sit down and read this prologue.  There’s still a lot left of Sunday.  Make some tea.  Put your feet up.  Start saying goodbye.



*recommendations, please–I love Whistlestop, Lore, Myths and Legends, and I miss Nightvale from before it got repetitive and dull and felt compelled to have live audiences who seemed to miss all the wonderful irony.  Not quite ready to dive into Audible, but would still like some more being-read-to podcasts, if anyone has any.

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