Reflections on A Promised Land by Barack Obama

Part II: National Identity, Serendipity and the Right Skills

I recall Irwin Cotler calling me up and soliciting my advice. He had been asked to run for the Liberal Party in Westmount. Irwin was a driven man – driven to fulfill himself and to make the world a better place. But I asked, why politics? It is such a public realm. You expose yourself and at the same time have to deal with all kinds of distractions and bothersome details. But in discouraging him, I failed to take account of who he was, what was good for him and how much more he could contribute to the world if he entered the political fray. Thank goodness, he ignored my advice and my projection of my own character and preferences on him. And he continued to go on to make even greater accomplishments.

Obama too had initially viewed politics as a disrespectful dubious profession for people with blow-dried hair, wolfish grins, bromides and self-peddling. (11) But he went into the fray determined to retain his integrity while coping with all the downsides of the role. On the way, he encountered other models of important politicians with their own version of integrity and different combinations of skills who became his mentors. He lost his self-righteous disrespect for the political game without significantly compromising who he was, who he wanted to be and what he wanted to accomplish. He believed as I did that democracy was not a transactional exercise but an opportunity for a variety of people to express themselves and help determine a collective outcome better for all of us.

When Obama went to Columbia University for his last two years of college, he lived like a monk. As I read his account, I thought of living at 11 Harbord Street in Toronto in a coop that I managed, practicing Hatha yoga and living as a vegetarian with a very rigid schedule and my own lists of what I had to accomplish and read. I was still in medical school and, in order to read as much as I planned to make up for my gross ignorance, I was determined to limit my medical studies to a maximum of two hours every evening. This should have been a clue that I wanted to read philosophy and literature and especially read plays rather than study Gray’s anatomy or Ham’s physiology. There is a glimpse in his memoir that Obama during that period might have been as self-righteous and humourless as I was at the time.

That similarity was a possibility. But another was a certainty. Obama knew that he was not ready yet to accomplish much. “That uncertainty, that self-doubt, kept me from settling too quickly on easy answers. I got into the habit of questioning my own assumptions, and this, I think, ultimately came in handy, not only because it prevented me from becoming insufferable, but because it inoculated me against the revolutionary formulas embraced by a lot of people on the left at the dawn of the Reagan era.” (13)

But a distinction must be made – between questioning one’s own assumptions, questioning one’s own abilities versus questioning one’s self. Obama did not second guess himself. That is not what he means when he says he had self-doubt. He means that he was not a dogmatist. Further, he was always aware of the limitations as well as the proficiencies he brought to a task.

The issue of dogmatism and questioning existed acutely in the thirties and at the dawn of the fifties for me. Almost all my friends, including my brother with whom I was closest and in the same medical year, were admirers of Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution. I read translations of Castro’s speeches. In one in particular that had lasted 3½ hours, he addressed the federation of farmers’ cooperatives in Cuba. He told them that there was a shortage of seeds. Since those farmers only represented their own members and the interests of those members, he argued, he would have to allocate the limited supply of seeds only to collective farms which operated according to the interests of the whole state.

The cooperatives voted overwhelmingly to convert to state-owned collective farms. I thought Castro had acted like Joseph when he was vizier in Egypt and distributed grain during the famine only when the farmers voted to give up their freehold land and become serfs of Pharaoh. It was blackmail, pure and simple. When they had agreed to become serfs – in Egypt and in Cuba – suddenly there was enough grain or seeds for everyone. It was a shell game and I cannot count the number of arguments I had with my friends over my disparagement of their hero, Fidel Castro.

There was a major difference between myself and Barack Obama even though I was against Castro. He was an American. He believed in American exceptionalism. “America was the greatest country on earth – that was always a given.” (13) I was a Canadian at a time when we were discovering that we had a vision of ourselves as “beautiful losers.” We thought, or used to think, we were second best. Over and over, we had sold our inventions and our resources out to the Americans at bargain prices. But when we travelled south on the freedom marches, when we saw the horrific war that America fought against the Vietnamese in the sixties, by 1967 and the Canadian centenary, we had become proud Canadians. We were proud of our new flag. We took special pride that Americans wore Canadian flags on the backs of their jackets, otherwise they risked getting disparaged as they backpacked through Europe.

We overlapped in another sphere. In 1983, when Obama graduated from Columbia, he went to Chicago to become a community organizer. A little more than two decades earlier, I had become the co-initiator and president of the University of Toronto branch of the Combined Universities Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament. (CUCND) At the same time, I was a manager and developer of student co-op housing and grew the enterprise from four owned houses to twenty-eight. By the latter half of the sixties, we were building new coops in Waterloo and planning Rochdale and Neill-Wycik Colleges in Toronto.

In between, I had traveled on marches down to Washington and to the southern United States. We learned to become extremely critical of American exceptionalism as we developed our own sense of Canada as a very unique polity. Though I witnessed the racism Obama was up against, I never experienced it personally as he had. Though we named the three houses in the Dag Hammarskjold Co-op at the University of Waterloo after Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner who had been murdered by racists in the American south, I had never experienced any very serious antisemitism. As a kid, we avoided the territory controlled by the Jersey Gang when we went for Passover at my mother’s uncle’s apartment above a store on College west of Clinton Street. There was a sort of quota for Jews for entry into medical school by insisting that entrants be distributed throughout the province otherwise half the class would have come from Harbord Collegiate in Toronto if entry was based only on Grade XIII provincial exams. But even then, when Jews were about 2% of the population, 25% of our medical class consisted of Jews.

Once in an anatomy class, our professor was drawing back muscles on the blackboard with certain characteristic striations. If we were ordering a chuck steak from a cow, it would have a similar configuration, we were advised, and if it did not, you would know the butcher was trying to jew you. The silence in the class was palpable. The professor turned around to see what was wrong. Detecting nothing, he went back to the blackboard and his lecture. He was not an antisemite in any way we could detect. He was just insensitive and was still using “jew” as a verb to mean “cheat.” We were as guilty when we used “gyp” for the same meaning. Nothing was said to him, but we all became much more self-conscious of our own use of racist terms.

People, as Obama discovered, were mostly basically decent. The new age was dawning in which the conviction had begun to instill itself that the threads that united us were far more important than the divisive ones. At least this was what Obama professed to believe and preached. I have my doubts. People can be full of malice. Obama recognized this but tended to underplay it.

One additional lesson from my initial introduction to Barack Obama. In my co-op work, in my anti-nuclear organizing, in my participation in the Student Union for Peace Action, and especially in my efforts to establish a utopian vision of a university that I later learned really harked back to the amateur university of the early nineteenth century primarily dedicated to training the elite that would govern the society, I became an institutionalist. I learned that without continuity, without structures, without organization without proper governance, chaos would ensue. That is what happened in Rochdale College to my everlasting shame as one of the co-founders. Obama, like myself, is an institutionalist.

I also learned that in politics, hope is not enough. Obama believes in America. Obama believes in the power and ideals of American citizens. Recall that the audacity of hope became his trademark as did, “Yes we can.” But Obama knows that to realise those embedded ideals requires much more than hope. That hope had to be tempered with straight talk that was both clear, concise and forceful. For Barack, Michelle provided the standard. Hope was not only tempered with realism but driven by hard work. When Obama faced choices when two roads diverged in the wood, he ALWAYS saw himself as taking the harder and more demanding path.  As we shall see, I have reasons to question whether this self-assessment was always correct.

At the same time, we also learn how much of a sentimentalist Obama was. His mother’s death during his first political campaign unnerved him and he felt deep shame because he was not beside her in Hawaii when she died. He cried. He was beside his grandmother, “Toot” when she died just when he was preparing for his inauguration as president. Toot had congratulated him for “a very nice speech.” And then added, “You know I’m proud of you, don’t you?” Barack replied, “I know,” I said.” And it was only after I hung up that I allowed myself to cry.” (143) He also wiped away his tears again a few years later. “Right there, in that high school in the middle of the country on a cold winter night [He had been campaigning for the presidential nomination in Ohio] I had witnessed the community I had so long sought, the America I imagined made manifest. I thought of my mom then, and how happy she would have been to see it, and how proud she would have been, and I missed her terribly.” (107)

Barack Obama had to become president – for his mother, for his grandmother and for all the Blacks and whites in America who dreamed of a better country.

I also believe that it is critical that leaders inspire their citizens with hope. But for me, hope is an abstraction, not something to which I aspire or rely on. I am much more of a cynic. I counter the cynicism with the mantra that whatever the outcome, it is our obligation to work for change for the better even when there seems to be no sign of hope. The difference is important. A believer in hope is so much more effective in the political game.

However, though Obama and I differ in the role we allow hope to play, we are both indefatigable workers. But given two diverging paths, I almost always will take the easier one. In that sense, I have been very lucky – somehow the opportunities and paths that opened up were not very difficult to follow up successfully. It was a very different time, especially than now, when the world was literally our oyster.

But whether inspired by hope or resigned to realistic pessimism, serendipity is even more crucial. “Accidents and happenstance determine more than we care to admit.” (65) Look at Obama’s career – even just noting the different phases of that career up until he ran to be a presidential candidate:

  1. Political opportunities suddenly appeared when politicians occupying positions turned out to be crooks or where there were other

scandals; alternatively, they made other than the expected choices and left openings for him:

  1. Mel Reynolds, the congressman from the Second District of Illinois, had been indicted on several charges, including allegedly having sex with a sixteen-year-old volunteer campaign worker; an opportunity to run for office suddenly opened up
  2. State Senator Alice Palmer as a state senator wanted that seat in the federal legislature so did not run against Obama
  3. When he decided to first run for the U.S. Senate, there was no incumbent because Senator Carol Moseley Braun because of self-inflicted wounds from financial scandals
  4. Obama’s Republican opponent for the Illinois Senate race was Peter Fitzgerald, a wealthy, ultra conservative and humourless banker who withdrew from the race at the last minute
  5. His closest rival for the Senate Democratic nomination had his legal papers released from his divorce during the campaign in which his wife alleged abuse
  6. His Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, ran a bad campaign and, at one point, criticized Obama as a big spender using numbers that were widely off base.
  7. The support Obama had from his wife and mother, the two most important women in his life
  8. His success in attracting first class aides, such as Ron Davis who ensured that he had four times the number of accurate petitioners nominating him for office
  9. Alice Palmer reneged on her promise and decided to run again for the State Senate, but she lacked competent assistance and her petition for the nomination was a mess, with repeated names, indecipherable, ineligible out-of-district names and not nearly the seven hundred needed in the end
  10. Because no one wanted the job, thinking it was full of traps to make enemies, he was the only one open, even eager, to take up the task
  11. He was able to pair with Republican Kirk Dillard in the Illinois legislature to forge and get passed a law setting ethical boundaries for people running or in office
  12. He entered the political scene just when openings appeared to transform the Republican pattern of gerrymandering in Illinois to ensure a Republican majority
  13. Illinois at the time was becoming increasingly Democratic
  14. Getting David Axelrod (Axe) to join his campaign
  15. Given the extent of his victory on the first ballot against seven rivals for the Democratic candidate would-be’s, Obama was invited to address the Democratic National Convention; his speech there, in addition to making him a political star, propelled his book from the remainder table to a new best-selling edition that resolved his and Michelle’s money worries.

Luck may be very important. But so are intelligence and political skills.

Next: Part III: From Seeking the Nomination to Candidate


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