The Write Stuff

Barack Obama is an excellent writer. Should it matter?

When, in late May, The New York Times’s book blog, Paper Cuts, posted a photograph of Barack Obama, his suit gracefully slung over his lanky figure and his finger stuck in a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, the photo circulated among political bloggers, who raced to analyze the image (the Huffington Post interviewed Zakaria about what he thought Obama should take away from his book, while The New Republic speculated about Obama’s take on Zakaria’s “common sense solutions.”)

Just as John McCain’s long-touted reputation as a “straight talker” made him a media darling in 2000, Obama’s literary leanings (and stylings) seem to have aroused in members of the media an enthusiasm to prove that they know an erudite comrade when they see one. But could they be a bit too attached to the idea of a president who can read and write as well as he can speak?

Earlier this week at Salon, Laura Miller argued that Obama’s literary influences offer some proof that he would govern from the center. Summarizing the lessons he might have learned from writers like Ralph Ellison (the search for truth), community organizer Saul Alinsky (compromise), and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (geopolitical realism), Miller concludes that Obama “the reader and writer has already shown an affinity for pragmatism.”

Obviously, it’s imprecise to use reading habits as some predictor of forthcoming political evolutions. But Miller’s piece reaches in other places, too, naming books that Obama has mentioned in passing as potential or even probable influences. This seems indicative of a larger pattern in coverage of the Illinois senator’s much-touted literary credentials: Bookworm reporters are all too quick to assume that good taste leads to good leadership.

There’s a masturbatory predilection at play here. For many journalists, it seems, covering Obama is like covering a kindred literary spirit. As such, they’re often all too ready to collapse Obama the writer into Obama the politician to create Obama the intellectual Renaissance man. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, a 1961 New York Times piece on John F. Kennedy, four years after he had won a Pulitzer for his second book, described him as such: “If he remains the man who wrote ‘Why England Slept’ and ‘Profiles in Courage,’ then he may have some surprises in store for us.”)

According to Andrew Delbanco, who elegantly takes a stab at literary biography in The New Republic this week, Obama’s masterful style as a writer is, at the very least, encouraging, and, at the most, predictive.

Performing close readings of Obama’s two books, Dreams from my Father and The Audacity of Hope, Delbanco investigates “what [Obama’s] style might tell us about his mind and heart.”

He writes about Obama the literary character (his “fall from paradise” comes, adorably, in the guise of a red-haired little girl) and about Obama the “unusually gifted writer,” who describes “playing basketball with short sentences, each ending in a percussive or sibilant monosyllable, then moves into a run-on sentence that mimics the flow of the game.”

It’s fascinating as either a close reading of a text or a literary biography, but Delbanco’s conclusion rings a bit sweet for me: “On the hopeful premise that style really does tell us something about the man, this man—to my ear, at least—is the real deal.”

Delbanco’s not the only one who thinks so. Obama, who counts such literary titles as Marilyn Robinson’s Gilead among his favorite books, has received glowing endorsements from a constellation of writers (from Michael Chabon to Tobias Wolff), who seem as charmed by his bookish sensibility as by his politics. Alice Walker, in a YouTube video endorsement of Obama, says, in her quiet voice, “We need someone now who is literary. Good writing matters.”

Sure, absolutely. I don’t disagree. Writing cultivates thoughtfulness, and a thoughtful leader is not a bad thing. There have certainly been great writer-leaders, with Winston Churchill topping the list as a talented politician, historian, and novelist. Disraeli, Eisenhower, and Vaclav Havel also make that list. But the implicit suggestion that a literate candidate is a better candidate for office is a misguided one. Lyndon B. Johnson, for instance, didn’t have to be a reader to be a skillful politician. And would anyone, even fans, really have wanted Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal in the Oval Office? There’s just no way to prove a direct correlation between literary talent and leadership skills, and as such, a “he’s one of us” line of reasoning for journalistic endorsement is a weak (and snooty) one.

But both Miller (an editor at Salon) and Delbanco (a literary critic) suggest that there is a certain vulnerability among reporters—a yearning to express a visceral affinity for a leader who can write about his own exploits; for a champion of the pen, someone who, in the future, will have actually read the books in his own memorial library. During his 2000 presidential campaign, McCain suggested that a reporter check out some I.B. Singer, as esoteric a reading choice as any. But Obama, with his intellectual magnetism, seems to have trumped McCain in the eyes of the press. It’s the highbrow equivalent of the “Who would you rather barbeque with?” likeability test, and it’s probably just as irrelevant.

Andrew Ferguson, in an article in The Weekly Standard last year, wrote that the “grandly bittersweet” sentences in Dreams From My Father were reminiscent of the ending lines of a Tennessee Williams play. But the most incisive point he made is that, between the writing of Obama’s first book and his second, “we have lost a writer and gained another politician.” It would behoove journalists to remember that.

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Jane Kim is a writer in New York.