I realize I’m a bit behind the times in reading this book. I was not one who got caught up in Obama fever during the 2008 election cycle, either pro or against. I was and still am ambivalent, toward the man, which is not to say that I don’t care, but rather I have conflicting opinions.
I have always disagreed with his politics. Without getting into a lengthy discussion about it, I realized somewhere around the time of the “Too Big To Fail” $700 billion bailout — which then-Senator Obama voted for — that I would never agree with him on that front. But as a Head of State, the figurehead for the country, a person to represent us to foreign nations and to break the partisan divide and unite us under one banner, I’ve long felt that if anyone can do it, Obama can.
Now, reading his pre-presidential-campaign manifesto, I’ve completely reaffirmed that belief. Consider:
You don’t need a poll to know that the vast majority of Americans–Republican, Democrat, and independent–are weary of the dead zone that politics has become, in which narrow interests vie for advantage and ideological minorities seek to impose their own versions of absolute truth. Whether we’re from red states or blue states, we feel in our gut the lack of honesty, rigor, and common sense in our policy debates, and dislike what appears to be a continuous menu of false or cramped choices. Religious or secular, black, white, or brown, we sense–correctly–that the nation’s most significant challenges are being ignored, and that if we don’t change course soon, we may be the first generation in a very long time that leaves behind a weaker and more fractured America than the one we inherited. Perhaps more than any other time in our recent history, we need a new kind of politics, one that can excavate and build upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans.
or the following passage:
The year that Democrats regained the majority in the Illinois state senate, I sponsored a bill to require the videotaping of interrogations and confessions in capital cases. While the evidence tells me that the death penalty does little to deter crime, I believe there are some crimes—mass murder, the rape and murder of a child—so heinous, so beyond the pale, that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment. On the other hand, the way capital cases were tried in Illinois at the time was so rife with error, questionable police tactics, racial bias, and shoddy lawyering that thirteen death row inmates had been exonerated and a Republican governor had decided to institute a moratorium on all executions.
Despite what appeared to be a death penalty system ripe for reform, few people gave my bill much chance of passing. The state prosecutors and police organizations were adamantly opposed, believing that videotaping would be expensive and cumbersome, and would hamstring their ability to close cases. Some who favored abolishing the death penalty feared that any efforts at reform would detract from their larger cause. My fellow legislators were skittish about appearing in any way to be soft on crime. And the newly elected Democratic governor had announced his opposition to videotaping of interrogations during the course of his campaign.
It would have been typical of today’s politics for each side to draw a line in the sand: for death penalty opponents to harp on racism and police misconduct and for law enforcement to suggest that my bill coddled criminals. Instead, over the course of several weeks, we convened sometimes daily meetings between prosecutors, public defenders, police organizations, and death penalty opponents, keeping our negotiations as much as possible out of the press.
Instead of focusing on the serious disagreements around the table, I talked about the common value that I believed everyone shared, regardless of how each of us might feel about the death penalty: that is, the basic principle that no innocent person should end up on death row, and that no person guilty of a capital offense should go free. When police representatives presented concrete problems with the bill’s design that would have impeded their investigations, we modified the bill. When police representatives offered to videotape only confessions, we held firm, pointing out that the whole purpose of the bill was to give the public confidence that confessions were obtained free of coercion. At the end of the process, the bill had the support of all the parties involved. It passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate and was signed into law.
It’s hard to hate a guy who talks like this. I don’t know if Obama used a ghostwriter (there’s none listed on the book, and a cursory search presented no conclusive evidence one way or the other), but the tone certainly matches those of his speeches. It’s highly eloquent, compassionate, passionate and authentic. Said one blogger: “Brief Review: It’s like an Obama speech, but 362 pages long,” which were my thoughts exactly. Even when specifically mentioning other politicians with whom he disagrees (my favorite was when he referred to the possibility of “a White House that would see a 51-48 victory as a call to humility and compromise rather than an irrefutable mandate”), the tone may be one of dissent or disappointment, but never rancor or indignation. The structure was loose, winding like a river with islets and rivulets that all eventually meet up in the same ocean, and somehow managing to stay interesting even though there was no plot, no story, no twists or surprises, nowhere obvious that the book was particularly going.
And although there a thousand places I could (and would) argue with him on his political philosophy, I have never been more confident that the man we have in the White House is the best hope we have for producing a united nation; one that’s able to resist the urge to fight with itself; a nation of people who are more interested in making a difference than they are in being right and winning.
And that, to be sure, is an audacious thing to hope.