Or, DISCERNMENT AND RESPONSIBILITY
I'm thinking that maybe I should have reversed the order. Maybe I should have started with Barack Obama's second book, The Audacity of Hope, rather than with Dreams for My Father, his first. Perhaps it would have been better just to dive into Audacity, which seems more clearly a campaign book and then, if I wanted to probe more deeply, move on, or back, to Dreams.
Except that's not what I've done. Instead, I've taken the opposite, more linear route. In part, because Obama's candidacy is so unprecedented in so many ways and seems to demand more background information and greater scrutiny. But I've also chosen the linear path because my decision to support Obama has been a matter of strategy (backing him vs. the fatally flawed Hillary Clinton) rather than because I'm inspired by his personal story, or what I know of it; or because I'm enthused about his policy ideas, which seem cautious and rather conventional. I want to be able to explain, even defend my position, if only to myself.
My linear route seems to have been the right one. For on Page 16, in Obama's profile of his maternal grandfather, I find this knowing observation about American political character, an assessment made too early in his career (13 years ago) to have been the product of presidential ambition.
Referring to his grandfather, Obama writes,
His was an American character, one typical of men of his generation, men who embraced the notion of freedom and individualism and the open road without always knowing its price, and whose enthusiasms could as easily lead to the cowardice of McCarthyism as to the heroics of World War II. Men who were both dangerous and promising precisely because of their fundamental innocence; men prone, in the end, to disappointment.
Clearly, Obama has thought about the dangers of this national innocence, the product of our long-standing isolation, our belief in the myth of American exceptionalism and our preference for personality over policy. This innocence, as Obama knows, promotes the rise of demagogues in our national political life--most recently in the eight-year global disaster of the Bush II presidency. This innocence is also an enduring theme of our literature, in a novel like Elmer Gantry, from the 1920s; or a screenplay such as Budd Schulberg's A Face in the Crowd, from the 1950s.
What struck me in Obama's description of American political character, the one contained in the italicized quote above, was not simply its discernment. What also struck me was the powerful responsibility this observation places on Obama's shoulders. Because the truth is that innocence--and not simply the innocence of the young--is a large part of what has propelled and sustained his campaign, and by design.
As he gets closer and closer to being the Democratic nominee, I hope he's thinking about what comes later, when political innocence collides with political reality.