Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1, 2008, issue of National Review.
Who is Barack Obama? Obama the presidential candidate presents himself as a man who has loved America from his earliest childhood, a man proud of his mixed-race roots who comfortably transcends polarized racial politics, a man who eschews the ideologies of Left and Right, an optimistic healer. But in his critically acclaimed autobiography, Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, Obama is something else entirely.
Obama published his autobiography in 1995, when he was in his mid-thirties. Unlike most books by politicians, which are concoctions of clichés penned by ghostwriters, Dreams was clearly written by Obama himself. Unlike most politicians, Obama can write and loves language. (He was contemplating a career as a novelist at the time he wrote Dreams.) Most important, Obama wrote his autobiography after he had become a political activist but before he was a politician; the book is therefore candid in a way a conventional politician’s memoir would never be.
Dreams is a complex, introspective book. Its theme is how Obama, born in Hawaii to a white student mother and Kenyan student father, grows to view himself and the white society around him. The Obama of Dreams abandons his multiracial roots to forge an alienated black identity — that of a man steeped in radical ideology who views history in terms of a huge chasm separating oppressor from oppressed, white from black, and rich from poor; a man who is never more emotionally at home than when sitting in the church pew listening to Rev. Jeremiah Wright rant about white racism.
People and politicians change, and the Obama of today may not be the one of 13 years ago. But he has never forsworn Dreams or given a detailed explanation of how he has evolved since writing it. The book thus remains an extraordinary window into Obama.
What does he like about America? Candidate Obama claims that “throughout my life, I have always taken my deep and abiding love for this country as a given.” He tells us his “heart swells with pride at the sight of our flag.”
In Dreams, his heart swells at many things but the sight of the flag certainly isn’t one of them. There he presents a warts-only history of the U.S., a story of evil and suffering. U.S. society is a “racial caste system” where “color and money” determine where you end up in life. He tells us of white children’s stoning black children, Jim Crow, and heatless Harlem housing projects. He describes “Japanese families interned behind barbed wire; young Russian Jews cutting patterns in Lower East Side sweatshops; dust-bowl farmers loading up their trucks with the remains of shattered lives.”
Obama says the Hawaiian islands, where he grew up, are beautiful, but quickly reminds us that behind the beauty lurks the “ugly conquest of the native Hawaiians . . . crippling disease brought by missionaries . . . the indenturing system that kept Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino immigrants stooped sunup to sunset in [the fields].”
Candidate Obama proudly tells audiences that his white grandparents were raised in the American heartland. But in Dreams he describes this heartland as the “landlocked center of the country, a place where decency and endurance and the pioneer spirit were joined at the hip with conformity and suspicion and the potential for unblinking cruelty.”
Candidate Obama fondly tells audiences that one of his earliest memories is of sitting on his grandfather’s shoulders proudly watching the Apollo astronauts return to Hawaii after their splashdown in the Pacific. But in Dreams, even this event is an occasion for outrage, as Obama asks: “How could America send men into space and still keep its black citizens in bondage?”
American affluence offends Obama. The vast upper-middle class lives in a land of isolation and sterility. As a teenager, he envies the white homes in the suburbs but senses that the big pretty houses contain “quiet depression” and “loneliness,” represented by “a mother sneaking a tumbler of gin in the afternoon.” American consumer culture is comforting but mentally and spiritually numbing, yielding a “long hibernation.”
Studying U.S. law at Harvard, Obama concludes it is mainly about “expediency or greed.” Working in a large modern corporation, he sees himself as a “spy behind enemy lines.” Even science and technology draw his disdain as he warns of “technology that spits out goods from its robot mouth.”
Finishing Dreams, I could not recall a single positive sentence about the United States or European society. I reread the book specifically looking for positive remarks. The pickings were lean. Obama does write glowingly of JFK’s Camelot and its promise of a “bright new world,” but concludes this promise was a mere illusion quickly transformed into “war, riot, and famine.” At the end of the book, Obama acknowledges that “faith in other people” can be found everywhere: among Christians as well as Muslims and in Kansas as well as his beloved Kenya. If you’re looking for rousing patriotism, that’s about as good as Obama gets.
Earlier this year, Michelle Obama made headlines by declaring that her husband’s primary victories were the first time she had ever been “proud of my country.” Michelle’s remark simply echoes the assessment Barack presents in his 442-page autobiography: Aside from a few comments about what he regards as the largely unsuccessful struggle for civil rights in the Sixties, Obama has nothing positive to say about his country. Even his hopes for the future are modest and “sometimes hard to sustain.”