Barack Obama: in his own words - book review

 When Barack Obama came on the public radar - not long ago - I noticed that in 1995 he had published an autobiography. Intrigued, I got on to Amazon for a copy. While this book had been quietly received when it first came out, Dreams From My Father is now a best-seller because of interest in Obama as a hot presidential candidate. In Hillary Clinton he has been up against a truly formidable opponent, but whatever happens in the race for the White House, it is a safe bet that Barack Obama will be around for a very long time to come. He will also have gained from the worldwide recognition that being a candidate for the presidency bestows. Not being a US citizen, I have never understood why candidates for the presidency are often such disappointing and unremarkable people. I have heard it said that the US electorate is turned off by men who are too clever, too sophisticated or anything other than regular guys. That's all very well, but the rest of the world has to live with the consequences of the American voters' down-home choices. The rest of us would really appreciate an American President with truly remarkable qualities: someone to inspire the world.

This is a book that presents such a man. It is beautifully written and deeply evocative of his experiences as a Hawaiian-born youngster, with an African father - a man who disappears back to Kenya after two years' of marriage to Barack's white American mother. She soon remarries and the young Obama finds himself in Jakarta with an Indonesian stepfather and a relocated mother working in the American embassy. Concerned that the local education Barack is receiving is woefully inadequate, she has him doing extra work by way of American correspondence courses. Every morning she gets him up at 4am to study for three hours before leaving the house. From this early age she instills in him the will to achieve much, by aiming high and always making the extra effort. It has never left him. Back in Hawaii, living with his white grandparents he gets into a famous local school and his will to achieve strengthens further. Popular with all, Obama nevertheless goes through great uncertainty in his late teens, questioning his identity as an African-American with much-loved white grandparents. Puzzling for an adolescent! However, by the time he was studying at Columbia University and as a brilliant student at Harvard Law School, he had a settled, confident understanding of who he was and what he wanted to be.

The book reveals a man who is moving inexorably towards a role in public life. In Chicago he begins work as a Community Organiser rather than joining a law firm and earning serious money. His whole career to date has been an object lesson in service to people he believes he can help. He is, we realise, a sharp analyst, a gifted speaker and a nimble politician of integrity.

No-one can tell the Americans who to send to the White House, but if voters were to focus on Barack Obama's evident suitability and their own needs as a society, they might conceded that this candidate presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rediscover the spirit of the Founding Fathers. This is a deeply serious but inspiring and delightful book.

Dreams of My Father by Barack Obama is published by Canongate Books at £12.99.

This review appears in the February 2008 edition of Oremus, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral. The editor, Fr Tim Dean, has kindly given us permission to republish it here on ICN.

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