This is a piece that I wanted to write a long time ago. It was early in 2009. The shine was still on the Obama presidency, and I was just as hopeful as anybody else. But something had been bothering me since the previous summer—not about the man himself, but about the way that writers, in particular, had been responding to him. Michael Chabon, Zadie Smith, Darryl Pinckney, Jonathan Raban, James Wood, Andrew Delbanco, Hendrik Hertzberg: all sang variations on the same theme. He’s one of us! The writer-in-chief! His prose! His ear! His “voices”!
Chabon told us that “it was a mark of Obama’s fitness to lead, to me at least, that he possessed sufficient natural reserves of imagination to kick oratorical ass.” Smith marveled that he could “jive talk like a street hustler and orate like a senator” and conjectured that “the voice that speaks with such freedom, thus unburdened by dogma and personal bias, thus flooded with empathy, might make a good president.” Pinckney informed us that “we are enthralled by his voice and his intelligence, his literary gifts, his awareness of history.” Raban and Delbanco, while both initially acknowledging the utter lack of correlation between eloquence and leadership, convinced themselves otherwise by the end of their respective essays. Raban praised Obama’s “realism” in the literary sense: “a belief in the power of the writer’s imagination to comprehend and ultimately reconcile the manifold contradictions in his teeming world.” “On the hopeful premise that style really does tell us something about the man,” Delbanco concluded, “this man—to my ear, at least—is the real deal.”
A hopeful premise indeed. I don’t know what bothered me the most in all of this, the naïveté or the narcissism. The operating fantasy appeared to be the notion that the literary virtues might somehow coincide with the executive ones. Who better to be president, it turned out, than a writer? We weren’t completely irrelevant to—not to mention rather inept within—the sphere of action after all. But it was more than that. These people were supposed to be good at reading character; how could they have missed the fact that Obama’s whole strategy—those very “voices” his ability to impersonate they were so enamored of—consisted of appearing to be all things to all people? He could talk Harvard and say “yo mama”—yes, and be a writer to writers, a black to blacks, young to the youth, and “one of us” to the Wall Street crowd (his biggest donors), too. Leftist, centrist, urban, heartland, Christian, rationalist: he obtained multitudes. Never mind the fact that if his need to reconcile conflicting opposites signified anything, it was the coping strategies of a mixed-race child. (It is also worth noting that unlike another president who won the admiration of writers and intellectuals, John F. Kennedy, he gives no sign of requiting the emotion.)
Imagination, empathy, negative capability: in the event, these qualities have not been much in evidence in the Obama presidency. It’s not exactly clear how they were supposed to be, except, at best, at the margins. “Reconciling the manifold contradictions in his teeming world” is a lot different from reconciling the manifold contradictions in the U.S. Congress. One takes imagination; the other takes a bullwhip. Like the Nobel Prize Obama won before the ink was dry on his inauguration, the pieces I’ve cited, all of which were written before the end of January 2009, were a tremendous putting of the cart before the horse. Words were mistaken for deeds, promise for performance—unsurprisingly, perhaps, among writers, for whom words are deeds. But imagination is not action, and does not easily become action.
Still, rereading these essays now, my overwhelming feeling is simply one of sorrow. “The American mainstream has been reconfigured,” Pinckney told us. “Emphatically, comprehensively, the public has turned against conservatism,” Hertzberg promised. “The faith that unfettered markets and minimal taxes on the rich will solve every domestic problem … is dead for a generation or more. And the electoral strategy of ‘cultural’ resentment and fake populism has been dealt a grievous blow.” How, oh how, did it all go so terribly wrong?
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