Some time in the next few years President Obama will write a book that looks back on his presidency. The book will be much anticipated, it will sell many copies, presidential scholars will critique it and Beltway pundits will argue about it.
The tradition of the post-presidency memoir is a long if somewhat prosaic tradition. A few are superb, such as Ulysses S. Grant’s, but most are forgettable tracts meant to sway the minds of historians.
In the years after their presidency, many presidents have written books as a way to contribute to the affairs of the day or to contemplate the events that shaped their own lives. Teddy Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter both excelled in this regard (Carter’s Turning Point and An Hour Before Daylight are his best works). TR is not only considered one of our best presidents, he’s also one of the finest writers to sit in the Oval Office, completing over 40 books in his lifetime.
It would not be surprising for Obama to chart a similar course as his fondness for the written word is well documented.
But, what if Obama flipped the script? What if this history-making president also made history after he left 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?
The books mentioned thus far are non-fiction, the realm in which most politicians—thankfully— prefer to stay.
What a welcome change it would be if Obama decided to sum up his White House years through fiction. If nothing else, such a book would keep politicos’ tongues wagging for several news cycles.
Obama would not be the first president to dabble in fiction (Carter wrote the Revolutionary War era novel The Hornet’s Nest in 2003), but he could be the first to use it as a mechanism with which to affect public opinion.
Imagine Obama using science fiction to write about the effects of climate change. Or a thriller about terrorism. Or a Lionel Shriver-like allegory about gun violence.
This is not as crazy as it sounds. We know that Obama is not afraid to venture into unchartered territory. There’s the obvious fact of his presidency, but earlier this summer he became the first sitting president to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.
As a writer, Obama is an elegant practitioner of prose, as his bildungsroman Dreams of My Father and political treatise The Audacity of Hope both prove.
But it’s Dreams of My Father that serves as a portent of what kind of a novelist Obama could be. In it, he references Faulkner and some of the 20th Century African American writers — Baldwin, Hughes, Wright — who are mandatory for any self-respecting intellectual.
Throughout the book, Obama demonstrates his ability to self-critique without navel graving. He’s a harsh judge of self in a way that departs from the faux humility of most politicians. Remember, he wasn’t a politician when the book was published.
His rendering of his grandparents’ life in the pre-war Great Plains is both romantic and evocative as are his descriptions of the African villages his father’s side of the family called home. He describes the slaughter of a hen and his anxiety before delivering his first public speech with equal aplomb. Unsurprisingly, he is a keen judge of racial and social dynamics. Working as a community organizer in a section of Chicago beaten down by decades of neglect he observes the “distance between our talk and our action.”
Having dinner with his brother, who is trying to conceal a strained marriage, Obama writes:
“He lowered his head, then looked at me somberly, the flame of tea candles dancing like
tiny bonfires across the lenses of his glasses.”
Obama has demonstrated such mastery over the non-fiction form that he is capable of illuminating both himself and the reader. But the commitment to facts and binding his opinions to those facts presents inherent limitations. An Obama free of such constraints, one that gives himself permission to use his intellect as a platform to prose that peers into the future or dissembles false narratives of the present, is capable of delivering truths on par with some of our greatest novelists. What we think of war, we gleaned from Hemingway. What we know of poverty, we understood from Steinbeck. What we learned of memory is influenced by Morrison.
Unencumbered by the political demands of the presidency, Obama the novelist is a tantalizing proposition for literati.
History will ultimately judge what kind of a president Barack Obama has been, but he’ll return to private life at age 55, a time when a writer is just hitting stride.