Editor's Notebook: Barack Obama's story became a prism for our collective psyche

Feb 1, 2007

Peggy Boyer Long
Credit WUIS/Illinois Issues

Will he or won't he? By the time you read this, you're likely to know. But in mid-January, as we get the issue ready for the printer, we don't have that advantage — despite lots of telephone conversations with and e-mails from Dan Vock, who wrote our cover story out of D.C., Webgrams from any number of sources and early reports by Anderson Cooper. 

All we know for sure is that Illinoisan Barack Obama, the state's junior U.S. senator, filed papers with the Federal Election Commission to establish a presidential exploratory committee — and that he'll be home February 10 to fill us in on his decision.

Obama issued an online statement January 16, paid for by his committee, offering assurances he was thinking hard. "Running for the presidency is a profound decision," the statement read, "a decision no one should make on the basis of media hype or personal ambition alone... ." (For more, go to http://www.barackobama.com.)

I know something else. While it will be easy to dismiss his chances in a White House run — too young, too little experience — it's wise not to. Whether he runs in 2008 or another year, or never, Barack Obama's future contributions to the nation shouldn't be underestimated.

We have some sense of this at Illinois Issues. At least I do. Every editor has made some dumb calls. We all have our excuses. I like to remember, for instance, the New York magazine editor who had to explain later why he rejected the first short story by some guy named Hemingway. Mostly, we prefer to keep such matters to ourselves. Sometimes, though, we can learn from our mistakes.

In late 1994 or early 1995, former state Senate President Phil Rock, a member of our Advisory Board and someone whose political judgment I admire, recommended a manuscript by a young civil rights lawyer. He's someone, Sen. Rock advised, worth keeping an eye on.

That's how I landed the uncorrected proofs of a memoir by one Barack Obama. Uncorrected proofs are just that. They may have typos and some of the content may be subject to last-minute change. And they come in unwieldy form, maybe bound by a rubber band.

I have, on occasion, wheedled out of publishers the proofs of books by well-known writers. But in this case, the publisher likely was peddling proofs of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.

I read it on Amtrak, going to or from Chicago. After all, Obama wasn't a complete stranger to Illinois Issues. He had written an essay for the August/September 1988 edition of the magazine about his experiences as a community organizer in Chicago, which the magazine republished as a chapter in a 1990 book, After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.

That chapter is still available online at 
http://civic.uis.edu/Alinsky/AlinskyObamachapter1990.htm.

Clearly, Obama can write. And the manuscript was interesting. But, I remember thinking, if I write about a memoir by one young up-and-comer, where will it end? And, besides, the book seemed way too intimate for our pages. I stacked it on a shelf and forgot about it.

Barack Obama was elected to the state Senate (we wrote about him often in the magazine), and Dreams from My Father went out of print.

End of story? Not quite. In the summer of 2002, I ran across those proofs again, still bound by that flimsy rubber band. Why, I wondered, would I possibly need this? So I tossed them.

I've often thought that if I had saved those proofs, if I had, perhaps, gotten them signed, they might have generated enough cash for the magazine on eBay to enable us to bypass a few fundraising letters to our readers. 

Instead, I purchased the 2004 edition — including the full text of that now-famous speech at the Democratic National Convention — shortly after it shot to the top of The New York Times best-seller list. 

The overwhelming response to Obama's memoir was enlightening. What I couldn't see in the mid-1990s is the public's hunger for authenticity, for deeper reflection on the part of public officials at all levels of government. I didn't realize that it's the details of Obama's story, and his intimate way of telling it, that transforms one man's memoir into a prism for our collective psyche, our own continuing struggles with race and identity.

By now, whether we've read the memoir or not, most of us know he's the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya; he was raised in Indonesia and Hawaii; he was a community organizer in Chicago; and he went to Harvard. His assessment of the meaning of that biography comes through in the speech that launched him onto the national stage. Still, it's never too late to recommend the memoir as a way to start getting at the subtext of this personal narrative.

I recommend reading Obama's second book next. By my lights, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream is the better book. If, in the memoir, we watch Obama reach inward toward an understanding of himself, in the second book we watch him reach outward toward an understanding of his place in the wider context of politics and policy.

In The Audacity of Hope, he weighs in on partisanship, grapples with the nation's constitutional foundations, assesses the role of faith in public life and addresses race and family matters. Most reporters will want to read about his decision — despite advice to the contrary — to speak out against the war in Iraq as early as 2002.

It's there (on page 294), but it's shortsighted to quit with a catalog of policy decisions. Taken together, Obama's books offer us a glimpse of how he makes those decisions. And that may, in the end, be more useful. 

 

Inaugural Day 

A prayer for peace 

From this vantage, the most challenging words at the inaugural ceremony for statewide officials were delivered in the form of a prayer.

The Rev. Thomas Hudson Cross called for a broader understanding of nationalism and a renewed use of religion. Rev. Cross is a retired pastor  at First United Methodist Church of Elmhurst. He also is the father of House Republican Leader Tom Cross of Oswego. 

Unlike a lot of what was said by politicians on Inauguration Day, Rev. Cross' prayer should resonate through these next perilous months in Springfield and Washington. In that spirit, we excerpt a bit of it here.

"[I]f our love of country becomes so limiting that it breeds a perception of anyone different as an enemy to be feared and conquered, then we have  forfeited our claim to be leaders and have thus become part of the squalor.

"A hymnist wrote 'forbid false love of country that blinds us to your call, who lifts above every nation the unity of all.' We need your guidance to gain a vision of a peace that is greater than our provincial interests, grander than our parochial needs.

"And, O God, you know that as our nationalistic chauvinism could stand some broadening, the way we use our religion could bear some renewal as well. Whether we are Protestants, Roman Catholic or Orthodox Christians, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bahai, it has been easy to use our religion to label and blame, to denounce and exclude, to judge and condemn, to even justify killing in your holy name. All of these we have done in the interest of certifying our own righteousness and securing our own safety." 

Amen.

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, February 2007