Obama: The candor and poetry of not (yet) being a president

As I consider Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father, which we are discussing in a class I’m teaching at Antioch University McGregor, a couple overarching things tug at me. I am going to try to leave current politics, approval ratings, and Nobel peace prizes out of this.

The first thing: Throughout, Obama writes with such candor. Having been elected president four years after the 2004 edition was published, I find it fascinating to read his thoughtful and (I assume) unvarnished critique of the power centers, and the role of president and government. The type of openness Obama presents in these pages is blankly missing in the speech and rhetoric of so many politicians. When he first wrote this book, before 1995, he couldn’t have dreamed how his life would unfold. Something in that is refreshing.

The second thing: There is a poet in the White House. In some ways, Obama seems like a frustrated poet, but so much of his writing is pure poetry, too much to note here. One that sticks out: the end of the passage on p. 315, talking about a waiter in Kenya:

“And so he straddles two worlds, uncertain in each, always off balance, playing whichever game staves off the bottomless poverty, careful to let his anger vent itself only on those in the same condition.
A voice says to him yes, changes have come, the old ways lie broken, and you must find a way as fast as you can to feed your belly and stop the white man from laughing at you.
A voice says no, you will sooner burn the earth to the ground.”

The flow, and construction, to me, it’s simply poetry.

I keep thinking back to a speech I saw on C-SPAN when Obama was first running for president, where he talked about the importance of various subjects in school… “And poetry,” he added. At that moment, my husband (who is also a writer) and I agreed, “He’ll never get elected.” And yet…

In this book, his poetry is in his words, and his focus, the corners where he chooses to shine a light. So often, the book reads like a novel. So I keep thinking: what are the implications for us creative people, many of whom have spent careers feeling marginalized and invisible, to have someone who understands doing the job of the president?

Who are you this time?

(Quoting Tom Waits before coffee is always good. I could do it in my sleep. Sometimes I dream about Tom Waits; it’s always some sort of message about myself as an artist. But that’s not what I was going to write about.)

I’m teaching this academic writing and discourse class at Antioch University McGregor and yesterday was the in-person kickoff. It’s filled with an amazing, inspiring group of students from several disciplines and programs, but the beauty was in how they found common ground, talking about an address given by Paulo Freire. The address was called, “The Importance of the Act of Reading.” (It’s great, you should read it.)

After the first part of the session, where I’d done a little spiel about Lynda Barry and my academic writing demons, this student asked me, “Rebecca, are you actually Tina Fey?”

I don’t know what prompted the woman’s question, was it because I was being amusing and silly? Was it my eyeglasses? My purple silk disco shirt? Or because I look like Tina Fey? (Do I?) Or maybe because I come across as anxious and neurotic? (Am I?) Whatever the reason, I will take it as a compliment. Tina Fey cracks me up; I think she’s pretty brilliant, though some episodes of “30 Rock” seem to be a bit like the creators are playing with their food, but I will forgive that. Everyone needs to play with their food sometime. And by the way, I wouldn’t mind Tina Fey’s salary.

But I said, “No, I’m Sarah Palin.”

I thought it was a funny and somewhat sophisticated comeback, which I’m not usually known for, but the student just looked at me. Which proves it: I am not Tina Fey. Tina Fey would have gotten a laugh.