Obama’s memoirs are going to be extraordinary

October 10, 2016 Originally published on SFGate

Don’t take my word for it: Read through Jonathan Chait’s marvelous “5 Days That Shaped a Presidency” over in New York Magazine, and then click to Vanity Fair’s latest, wherein Obama chats fluently about the arc and churn of American history with the Pulitzer-winning presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. And then go back and re-read “The Obama Doctrine” from the Atlantic a few months back, among other fascinating, provocative articles and interviews, and be reminded of three things:

  1. This is one of the most articulate, thoughtful presidents in modern American history, able to effortlessly examine, extrapolate and personally reflect upon multiple facets of the global political miasma and his administration’s place in it, all with equal parts candor, ease and beautifully measured deliberation.
  2. Despite eight solid years of ruthless, acidic, racist-soaked antagonism from the GOP and the far right, Obama’s graciousness, humanity and intellectual curiosity remain blessedly – if more warily – intact, as does his unique combination of humility and pride in what he’s managed to accomplish. The fact he’s maintained such composure and equanimity, even an excellent sense of humor, where most of us would have imploded with furious exasperation years ago, is beyond estimable. We will not see anyone like him again for some time.
  3. His future memoirs – NY Mag deems the Chait piece “a very early preview” – will outsell Bill Clinton‘s autobiography, which was a blockbuster, selling well over 2 million copies. But it won’t be for the reasons you think. It won’t dish dirt on Tea Party, or Mitch McConnell’s shriveled soul, or the cretinous trolls of the NRA, et al. There will be no sex and scandal and bloopers. It will offer something far more appealing: The chance to spend time in the company a singular mind. The chance to learn from one of the best ever.

Do not misunderstand. This is no liberal excuse-making for his administration’s mistakes and flawed policies. Nor does it give him a free pass for some of the more egregious, disquieting issues that plague his presidency, from the much-loathed drone program to ominous privacy/surveillance laws, his odd generosity with oil drilling permits to the fact that, under his administration, we expanded our role as the biggest arms dealer in the world. I fully expect him to write as powerfully, if not more so, about his mistakes and regrets as his accomplishments and successes.

They simply don't come much more thoughtful, reflective or conscious of his place in the arc of history

They simply don’t come much more thoughtful, reflective or conscious of his place in the arc of history

But there is no such thing as a perfect president, or flawless agenda. It’s disingenuous to cherry pick a pet issue and then claim that no one deserves to be called “extraordinary” if he or she can’t stop all global horrors, or allows civilian deaths to occur, or corporations to retain too much power, despite how many of these issues are beyond his reach to fix, and/or many of his efforts were blocked outright by the GOP, over and over again. Obama never claimed to a pacifist, though he has done more than most to discourage military action, encourage diplomacy and bring about tremendous good in the country and the world.

This is America he’s leading, after all. We have long been the No. 1 warmonger/aggressor on the planet. Interventionism in service of “protecting our interests” is what we do. To judge Obama independent of this often ugly metric is unfair. He must remain in the often harsh context of the American experiment – violence, peacemaking, at all.

But that largely sidesteps the essential point, which is clear enough: We have never had a president quite like this, of such intellectual acumen, principled grace and genuine warmth. Bill Clinton had a brilliant political mind, but an infamously sloppy moral center. G.W. Bush was a disgrace on multiple levels, and his memoirs are full of crayon drawings and Dick Cheney’s bloody fingerprints.

Obama’s presidency, by contrast, is as close to baggage-free as they come. He’s saddled with an almost unprecedented lack of megalomania, or disquieting scandal, damning personal anxiety or disturbing ethical glitch. Policies and decisions you disagree with are one thing. An impeccable record of integrity, classiness and moral decency in the face of historic congressional hostility and outright bigotry and racism is quite another. And that goes for his remarkable wife and kids, too.

Here’s the best news of all: Obama is only 55. While his Zen-like skill and steering our leaky ship of state will be deeply missed, we and the world will be gifted with many more years of Obama as an effective, inspiring ex-president. Obama unfettered by the hateful GOP and the constraints of title and public office? Imagine.

But oh, that memoir. I’m far from alone in my eagerness to spend time with the man’s insights on the American experiment, and his experience helping reshape it and move it, however lurchingly, forward. You simply could not ask for a better guide, or finer company.

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Mark Morford

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