As A Writer, Obama's No Lincoln
The teleprompters at President Barack Obama's inaugural address were still powering down when British literary heavyweight Jonathan Raban deemed Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln."
Raban was hardly alone in this enthusiasm. Later that year, Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, told a conference of (sigh!) grant writers, "This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln."
Never mind that Landesman, an Obama appointee, overlooked Grant, Wilson, Hoover, and Nixon among other book writers or that Lincoln never wrote a book. The point was made: Obama was Lincoln's literary heir apparent.
In a speech to an SRO crowd of historians in late 2010, Harvard's James Kloppenberg upped the adulatory ante. He described the president as "gifted," a "genius," a man of "exceptional intelligence," one who writes "brilliantly and poignantly." Obama, as Kloppenberg saw it, was a "true intellectual" in a class with Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Wilson, and, yes, Abraham Lincoln. According to the New York Times, the crowd greeted his extended gush "with prolonged applause."
Abraham Lincoln knew something about madness. If he feared anything more than "a human form with reason fled," the subject of an 1846 poem, it was "the wild and furious passions" of a mob. One could only imagine what he would have thought of a mania that not only carried a pretender like Barack Obama to the White House, but that also, fantastically, lifted him to the literary heights.
Thanks to Fred Kaplan's insightful 2008 book, Lincoln: the Biography of a Writer, the reader has a sense of how Lincoln might have responded. In Stephen Douglas, after all, Lincoln faced an opportunistic Illinois senator whose rhetoric combined "linguistic shiftiness, hyperbole, and disregard for the integrity of fact." He knew the type. As Kaplan shows, only Lincoln's relentless self-improvement as a thinker and writer enabled him, finally, to prevail.
That Lincoln could write at all was unusual for his time and place. His father, a hardscrabble farmer on civilization's edge, could not write and saw no reason for his son to learn. Young Abe simply willed himself. True, he did not have the distractions that plagued the young Obama -- say, TV's Brady Bunch or body-surfing at Waikiki -- but he did have distractions of his own. Backbreaking fieldwork comes to mind. Still, Lincoln persisted.
His friends noticed. However cursory his schooling, Lincoln was "always ahead of all the classes he ever was in," said one. He was "exceedingly studious," said another. He would write whenever he could, sometimes just on chalkboard if there was no paper. Even as a boy, he wrote about things of consequence -- temperance, slavery, cruelty to animals, American history. By nineteen, said a friend, Lincoln was "the best penman [writer] in the Neighborhood."
No one attests to Obama's early intellect or industry. Sympathetic biographer David Remnick tells us that he was an "unspectacular" student in his two years at Columbia University and at every stop before that going back to grade school. A Northwestern University prof who wrote a letter of reference for Obama tells Remnick, "I don't think [Obama] did too well in college."
Despite his luxurious education -- Punahou, Occidental, Columbia, Harvard Law -- Obama has left a surprisingly slim paper trail -- much slimmer, in fact, than that of the largely self-schooled Lincoln. Still, despite Obama's dogged efforts to bury his academic past, a few prose artifacts have surfaced, the earliest being an 1,800-word article in Columbia University's weekly news magazine, Sundial.
Remnick describes the March 1983 article, "Breaking The War Mentality," as "muddled." He is being kind. If the average citizen need not overly trouble himself with issues of syntax and grammar, a senior at an Ivy League university is expected to. Yet "Breaking" is so far below the Ivy norm that it raises serious questions about Obama's admission to Columbia, let alone his rapid literary ascent in the years to follow.
In the article, Obama celebrates "the flowering of the nuclear freeze movement." He then questions "whether this upsurge comes from young people's penchant for the latest 'happenings' or from growing awareness of the consequences of nuclear holocaust."
"Upsurge," of course, is the wrong word. "Happenings" should be singular, and even then it sounds like something Mike Brady would have said to Greg or Marcia, but, to answer Obama's question, the "upsurge" had its origins in the devious imagination of the KGB. Its agents orchestrated the movement to discourage President Reagan from deploying Pershing missiles in Western Germany. Despite the contributions of "useful idiots" like Obama, they failed.
To be sure, millions of well-meaning progressives were likewise duped, but few among them expressed their thoughts quite so ungrammatically. In at least five sentences, for instance, Obama cannot get the subject and verb to agree. This one nicely captures both the article's botched grammar and its baffling logic:
The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM's energies alive.
"SAM" stands for "Students Against Militarism." In the previous paragraph, Obama warned his readers about "the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country." In this paragraph, military institutions are said to be near death. What exactly energizes SAM is far from clear. Again, too, there is an agreement issue. The sentence should read, "The belief ... keeps SAM's energies alive." The random use of commas throws everything off. This is typical Obama circa 1983.
The young Lincoln had one advantage over Obama. A lthough elected president 100 years to the month before Obama was conceived, Lincoln had richer influences. Kaplan cites Gray, Addison, Cicero, Lord Mansfield, Lord Chesterton, and especially Shakespeare and the Bible.
Obama ignored the Western canon and looked instead to radical anti-imperialists like Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, communists like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and Stalin-loving fellow travelers like W.E.B. DuBois. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Obama gives no suggestion that this reading was a mere phase in his development. He moved on to no new school, embraced no new worldview.
Lincoln was a little more than a year older than Obama when he penned his first surviving prose piece. As a youthful candidate for the state legislature, he addressed the citizens of Sangamo County. The following excerpt gives a hint of his wit and humility, two qualities that seem to have escaped Obama. Observe, too, that Lincoln's subjects and verbs all agree.
Considering the great degree of modesty which should always attend youth, it is probable I have already been more presuming than becomes me. However, upon the subjects of which I have treated, I have spoken as I thought. I may be wrong in regard to any or all of them; but holding it a sound maxim, that it is better to be only sometimes right, than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.
Five years would pass before the best writer since Lincoln put anything else in print. In 1988, likely to pad his résumé, Obama wrote an essay titled "Why Organize?" for a publication called Illinois Issues. Like the Sundial article, this effort showed not a hint of style, sophistication, or promise.
The article repeats what was emerging as Obama's signature blunder, the failure to get subjects and verbs to see eye-to-eye. Obama also was developing a distinctive way of letting phrases dangle in space, for instance:
Facing these realities, at least three major strands of earlier movements are apparent.
Nothing works here. "Facing these realities" modifies nothing. "Strands," In any case, do not "face reality." People do. This is normative Obama circa 1988. He is now 27 years old.
Unlike Obama, Lincoln tirelessly practiced his craft, and it showed. As a 28-year-old, he addressed the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, on the subject of "our political institutions" and here specifically on the mythic histories that once sustained the nation:
They were a forest of giant oaks; but the all-resistless hurricane has swept over them, and left only, here and there, a lonely trunk, despoiled of its verdure, shorn of its foliage; unshading and unshaded ...
Lincoln could be funny as well as poetic. A few years later, he described a political opponent's preening at a local dance with such wicked precision that the satire very nearly led to a duel:
... and there was this same fellow Shields floatin' about on the air, without heft or earthly substances, just like a lock of cat fur where cats had been fighting.
Obama has no gift for the humorous or the poetic. As in his 1990 letter to the Harvard Law Record defending affirmative action, the unaided Obama prefers to pontificate -- awkwardly, illogically, and often ungrammatically.
In the letter's very first sentence, Obama leads with his signature failing: his inability to make subject and verb agree. "Since the merits of the Law Review's selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues," writes Obama, "I'd like to take the time to clarify exactly how our selection process works." This is one of at least four sentences with an agreement problem.
In this letter, Obama admits to having "undoubtedly benefited" from affirmative action programs, including perhaps, the Law Review's. What he refuses to concede, even to see, is that affirmative action does not bestow talent. As Lincoln knew, only God could bestow that, and only hard work could polish it.
Just four years later, of course, Barack Obama would magically find his mojo and write Dreams from My Father, a book the estimable Joe Klein of Time Magazine would call "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." Just as incredibly, no one in the literary establishment doubts he wrote every word of it. I do, and in my book, Deconstructing Obama, I explain why. The evidence overwhelms the objective observer.
Inexplicably, for a full decade after Dreams, this young literary lion confined his outsized talents to a semi-regular offering in the neighborhood newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald. If he wrote a single inspired or imaginative sentence in any of these columns, I was unable to find it. Articles headlined "Post Office Should Deliver Answers" and "Getting the Lead Out of Our Children" do not hold much promise in any case.
As an Illinois politician on the rise, Lincoln used his gifts for slightly bigger things, like ending slavery and preserving the union. In an 1854 speech at Peoria, he summarized the cause:
Let north and south -- let all Americans -- let all lovers of liberty everywhere -- join in the great and good work. If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.
On his own, Obama could never write a sentence this elegant or consequential. To be sure, his 2004 Democratic Convention speech wowed the crowd, but it was a crowd suffering from what George Bush might have called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." Even here, Obama advanced no cause but his own.
The same committee that wrote the convention speech wrote Obama's 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. In the acknowledgment section of Audacity, Obama lists an astonishing 24 people who provided "invaluable suggestions." (Lincoln did his own research.) Remnick generously called Audacity a "shrewd candidate's book." Bill Ayers, the primary craftsman behind Dreams, more accurately called it a "political hack book."
"We can be certain that he wrote every word to which his name is attached," says Kaplan of Lincoln. Obama only pretended to the same. "I've written two books," he told a crowd of teachers in Virginia in July of 2008. "I actually wrote them myself."
He did no such thing. And now in his hour of crisis, Obama lacks the confidence, the character, and the very word power that Lincoln developed through years of strenuous work and honest self-assessment.
Crises are hard on poseurs. Obama has no better angels to summon, no last full measure of devotion to evoke, and try as he might to bind up the nation's wounds, he will never do so by saying, "It was Bush's fault."