H. Rick Goff
My Book Review of "A Promised Land" by Barack Obama
For Black History Month I read former President Barack Obama's new book "A Promised Land". I read it slowly and overall, I probably read it twice since I re-read several pages and chapters because I enjoyed them so much. Yes, I needed a dictionary to look up several words (I actually used google ha-ha) because after all, Obama was a Law Professor, and his style can be a little academic. But that was not a distraction as his tone was relatable and his story so powerful and inspiring. I'm very eclectic in terms of what I read but I do enjoy non-fiction political drama. The behind the scenes back and forth of politics is intriguing and piques my interest. But some of the best parts of the book were the intimate family moments. Balancing being a husband and father with the duties of being President of the United States (POTUS), was a tricky proposition that Obama admitted was a tremendous challenge. He was very frank in describing the emotions of feeling he was missing parts of his girl’s youth; moments he knew he could never get back. This struck a nerve with me as I struggled with these same emotions in my professional life.
The book provided an exciting inside look at the inter-workings of Obama's long shot campaign to be the 44th POTUS. The energy of the campaign literally jumped off the pages and brought back the excitement I remember feeling when his candidacy became "real". It was history in the making and I was happy to have lived during the experience. As I read through the early chapters on his rise from unknown junior senator from Illinois to the Democratic Party Presidential nominee, I once again burst with pride and had the audacity to hope. The "Yes We Can" mantra ignited a movement rarely seen in politics and confirmed the belief that when united as a nation there is no enemy we can't defeat or any issue we can't solve. I shared and still share Barack Obama's sometimes naive and idealistic view of what our country is and could be. I have the same eternally optimistic hope that one day it will rise above its divisive issues and allow hope to become reality; then all can get a fair shake to benefit from the bounty with which we have been blessed.
Obama did not shy away from highlighting the doubts and insecurities that come with the territory of being POTUS. The full weight of the office tests and pushes every POTUS, and Obama was no exception. One of the more poignant examples in the book were his thoughts in the later years on a famous speech he gave at the University of Cairo where he addressed an excited group of Egyptian students. His Cairo speech on democracy, human rights, women's rights, religious freedom, and the need for peace between Israel and a Palestinian State was met with enthusiastic applause and approval from the audience. But, in what was one of the most revealing and one of my favorite parts of the book, Part Four, The Good Fight; he openly critiques himself after little changed in the Middle East after his two terms in office, with the following:
"But in the end, the facts of what happened are the facts, and I'm left with
the same set of questions I first wrestled with as a young organizer. How useful is
it to describe the world as it should be when efforts to achieve that world are bound to
fall short. Was Vaclav Havel correct in suggesting that by raising expectations, I was
doomed to disappoint them? Was it possible that abstract principles and high-minded
ideals were and always would be nothing more than a pretense, a palliative, a way to
beat back despair, but no match for the more primal urges that really moved us, so that
no matter what we said or did, history was sure to run along its predetermined course,
an endless cycle of fear, hunger and conflict, dominance and weakness?"
For sure this is not a message of hope but more an unfiltered dose of reality and recognition that the forces against Hope and Good never rests thus the fight for Hope and Good must be just as restless!
The book ends with Part Seven, On the High Wire; where Obama showed his resolve and commitment to protecting America by authorizing the raid on the compound where Osama Bin Laden was supposedly located. His moxy as Commander in Chief was often a big question and concern for his opponents; his cool, calm, and collective demeanor was often mistaken as aloofness and lack of commitment to using the military option. The circumstances surrounding the raid on the compound made it one of the more demanding decisions of his first term in office. The intelligence community could never guarantee for certain that the "Pacer" in the compound was actually Osama Bin Laden, and while the operational aspects of the mission were militarily challenging, the political ramifications if it failed would do irreparable damage to his Presidency as well as the psyche of the nation. While the book highlights a great example of collaborative leadership as Obama sought the opinions and expertise of his staff, military leaders, and others; the decision to go was his and his alone. The success of the raid and the national exuberance that followed showed a brief moment of unity that left Obama thinking, "Was the unity of effort, that common sense of purpose, possible only when the goal involved killing a terrorist". He wondered what America would look like if we as a nation applied the same unity of effort, the same persistence, the same level of expertise, and the same commitment of resources to reducing poverty, educating children or curbing greenhouse gases. His thoughts during what was considered one of the most significant events of his Presidency, to him only signified how much he fell short of his goals to make America better and how much work he felt he had left to do!
Obama's story is uniquely his own, but his humble upbringing by a single Mother and his Grandparents, is a story that can be told by many. It's obvious that having lived abroad in his youth and seeing America from a different perspective shaped his view of the true potential of our democracy experiment. The only female four star General in the USAF today, General Jacqueline D. Van Ovost, when asked what she meant to women in the military, simply responded, "You can't be what you can't see". The African American experience has long been just that, the struggle to not only be seen, but heard. President Barack Obama, two term 44th POTUS, provided the visual and the substance, and the effects of his Presidency will shape the lives of generations to come. He will always be the First African American President of the United States of America, but rest assured he will not be the last!