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'Obambi' bites back

US presidential candidate Barack Obama touts his optimism and street smarts

'Obambi' bites back

The Audacity of Hope
By Barack Obama
Published by Three Rivers Press
Available at Asia Books
Reviewed by James Eckardt
The Nation

Maureen Dowd is a cruel woman. Upon the gentle, compassionate, middle-of-the-road US presidential candidate Barack Obama, the New York Times columnist has pinned a pet nickname: Obambi. In a recent column, she mocked Obambi for feeling hurt that Hillary Clinton doesn't like him. Rudy Giuliani, she notes, couldn't care less.

Following his political autobiography "Dreams From My Father", Obama has now written his campaign manifesto: "The Audacity of Hope". This is a pretentious jackass of a title. But it bears some truth. Obama is nothing if not audacious. After his 17 minutes of fame as a keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention, the freshman senator leapt into the presidential race two years later, pre-empting Hillary Clinton, and proceeded to drum up more campaign funds, predominately in small bills.

"Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream" is the subtitle and Obama must be given credit: he wrote the book himself, unlike John Kennedy who had his college roommate Lem Billings write "Profiles in Courage" or Hillary Clinton who famously stiffed her ghost writers. And no less than the New York Times' Michiko Kakutani, the doyenne of American book critics, has this to say in a back cover blurb:

"[Obama] is that rare politician who can actually write - and write movingly and genuinely about himself ... [He] strives in these pages to ground his policy thinking in simple common sense ... while articulating these ideas in level-headed, non-partisan prose."

I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the prose. On the fourth page of his prologue, he speaks about the ambition that led him to make an abortive try for a congressional seat after seven years in the Illinois legislature:

"I began to harbour doubts about the path I had chosen; I began feeling the way I imagine an actor or athlete must feel when, after years of commitment to a particular dream, after years of waiting tables between auditions or scratching out hits in the minor leagues, he realises that he's gone just about as far as talent or fortune will take him. The dream will not happen, and he now faces the choice of accepting this fact like a grown-up and moving on to more sensible pursuits, or refusing the truth and ending up bitter, quarrelsome, and slightly pathetic."

That is a finely crafted sentence and there are plenty of them in this book. There's also plenty of preachy political boilerplate, but that's the nature of a presidential campaign book. He spends an entire chapter yammering on and on about American "values", stuff like "hard work, patriotism, personal responsibility, optimism and faith".

This provoked in this reader the dreaded MEGO syndrome: My Eyes Glaze Over. He retook my attention, though, with a realistic chapter on "Politics". He offers a meticulous description of the tightrope that an American senator must walk between raising campaign funds and caving into special interests, between cooperation and surrender to the Republicans, between opening up to reporters and being clobbered by them.

Seven years in the Illinois legislature left him with a huge voting record which his political opponents will comb through to find damaging votes. Once, for example, he mistakenly voted against a bill to protect children from sex offenders. He had accidentally pressed the wrong button on the bill and had it immediately corrected in the official record.

"Somehow I don't think that portion of the official record will make it into a Republican ad," says his media adviser David Axelroad.

"Anyway, cheer up," he adds, clapping Obama on the back. "I'm sure this will help you with the sex offender vote."

Another shameless aspect of American politics is the fierce gerrymandering of voting districts that ensures that instead of throwing the rascals out at election time, "Year after year we keep the rascals right where they are, with the reelection rate for House members hovering at around 96 per cent."

His conclusion?

"Indeed, it's not a stretch to say that most voters no longer choose their representatives; instead, representatives choose their voters."

His chapter on "Race" is a familiar mix of bromides. He's in favour of the Clinton welfare reforms and pro-affirmative action. But he's eloquent on the subject and this is his strong suit.

"Everybody's gotta have a gimmick," said that great American philosopher Gypsy Rose Lee. Obama's is his background, son of a white Kansan mother and black Kenyan father, who grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. After years of working as community organiser in Chicago, he went on to a brilliant career at Harvard Law School.

A couple years in the US Senate would not normally qualify a white candidate for the presidency, but Obama is a special case. Just as Elvis Presley shot to fame as a white guy who sang black, Obama became famous as a black guy who speaks white. Moreover, he's untainted by the hucksterism of the Reverends Jackson and Sharpton who have tried to snatch the mantle of Martin Luther King.

And he can talk tough when he wants to. Way back in October 2002, he gave a prescient speech at an anti-war rally in Chicago. Of the looming war in Iraq he said that it was "a dumb war, a rash war, a war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics."

American voters in Iowa will soon choose whether they will ratify the coronation of Hillary Clinton. I'm rooting for the underdog.

James Eckardt's eighth book, "Singapore Girl", published by Monsoon Books, is on sale at Kinokuniya, Bookazine and Asia Books.

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