Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Barack Obama: Writer in Chief?

Maybe it’s gotten to Sam Jacobs. It’s certainly gotten to me.

I’m talking about the currently trendy habit of analyzing everything in terms of narrative. Link here.

Is Obama flailing and failing because he lost control of the narrative? Is he allowing other people to tell his story, and thus, to cast him in a role for which he seems ill-suited?

And how can this happen to a man who has recently been described, by Harvard Prof. Kloppenberg no less, as the greatest presidential writer since Woodrow Wilson.

Before plunging headlong into the narrative issue, I wish to point out that Woodrow Wilson was hardly a great writer. He is nowhere near as good as Theodore  Roosevelt.

As Jacobs illustrates, the intelligentsia has by now made a fetish out of the notion of storytelling. It seems to have bought the idea that a president must be a teller of tales, like a modern day Aesop or La Fontaine.

The notion was given to the culture by psychoanalysis. A while back, seeing your life as a story was all the rage in psychoanalytic circles. Therapy consisted in discovering the narrative you were living out, and then, with any luck, rewriting the story.

This sounds like a self-evident truth. It is not. Nor is it simply an innocent, charming misrepresentation.

If life is a narrative, your job is to follow the script, to play your role well. And this must circumscribe your freedom to speak and to act.

But who is the author of your life story? And who else is going to have a role in it? It’s cute to imagine that everyone has his own life story, but stories must involve more than one character. If your story is going to make sense, other people will have to follow your script.

Or else, if their stories are going to make sense, you will have to follow their scripts.

The Obama administration does not have a problem crafting narratives. Since the moment Barack Obama came into political focus, he has been doing nothing but. He is himself nothing but a self-created narrative.

Obama has also been trying to recast American politics in narrative terms. At times, the oppression of the poor by the rich; at times, the need to atone for American racism; at times, his own struggle against the big, bad Republican party.

But why have these fictions not worked? Why have the American people refused to buy them?

Perhaps they know that life is not a story. Perhaps they understand that it is better to see life as a game or as a marketplace.

At the least, there is a great deal more freedom in playing a game than there is in acting a role in someone else’s, or even your own, script.

Obama’s problem is that he is too much involved in storytelling, and that he does not know how to play the game of politics or leadership.

And yet, many intellectuals are puzzled, Jacobs tells us, by the simple fact that Obama is a great writer; he has written two great books. Wasn’t that one of his qualifications for the presidency, one of the unimpeachable signs of his all-encompassing brilliance?

And weren’t his books even more important given that we have never seen a grade transcript, a board score, or any other piece of evidence that would suggest that Obama is anything but an intellectual poseur?

Those who are married to the notion that life is a story cannot understand why the great writer Barack Obama does not know how to tell a good story.

They could easily extricate themselves from this dilemma, which really has nothing to do with governance, by acknowledging the obvious point that Barack Obama probably did not write the two books for which he has claimed authorship.

Obama the writer seems like a fiction that large numbers of people mistook for a fact.

That is the subtext of this entire debate. The current occupant of the White House does not resemble the author of Obama’s two books.

Jack Cashill provided the most serious debunking of the notion of Obama the writer in The American Thinker. He even offered it in time for people to weigh it in their deliberations over their vote in the last presidential election. Link here.

To little avail.

Cashill’s analysis strikes me as valid, and not just because the images, metaphors, and sentence structure of Obama’s books resemble the writing of William Ayers. The more important fact is that no one who is not a writer just sits down and writes a well-written book.

I hate to sound simple-minded, but writers write. If they are serious writers, if they spend an enormous amount of time mastering their craft. Didn’t Malcolm Gladwell posit that it takes 10,000 hours of hard work to become really good at anything?

When you are dealing with a writer who does not write, who has never published anything of consequence, and who then produces two polished, well-written, well-constructed books, the odds are astronomically high that he did not write them himself.

If Obama had been a newspaper columnist or a frequent op-ed contributor, if he had published law review articles… if he had every shown any inclination to write… then we might give him the benefit of the doubt. He has not, so we will not.

Those who are torturing their minds over the fact that our writer in chief does not seem to have succeeded in controlling the narrative should only be surprised at their own gullibility.

If you voted for Obama because you thought he was a great writer, or because you thought he was a writer at all, then you have been conned. If it can happen to Harvard professors, it can happen to anyone. It does prove that if you really, really want to believe in a fiction you can easily mistake it for a fact.


The Ghost said...

a great story teller Obama may be but when it comes to the real world so much of what he includes in his stories is just plain false or an outright lie ...

That is why he can't sell anymore ... we already drove off the lot with the first lemon he sold us (his campaign) and we simply don't believe what he says anymore ...

All he had going for him were his words and now that he has proven to be a fabulist his one tool has become dull and useless ...

Just look at his new wonderful tax agreement. Some have claimed that he has shown his moderate side by agreeing to this. But, then he goes to the press conference and announces that he'll fight hard to recind it in 2012. I guess he could be considered a temporary moderate then but thats hardly someone that moderates will then vote for in 2012.

Big hat and big boots, no cattle.

Anonymous said...

I have always found Obama to be disingenuous, or paradoxial (is he punch drunk?).

He is not a writer, and I doubt much of a reader.

David Foster said...

Even if Obama *was* an excellent writer and storyteller, this would not qualify him the be President.

One of the main problems we have today is that so many of the Word People fail to understand that there is such as thing as executive skill, and that this skill is nontrivial. People tend to over-value their own skills, especially when they are lacking in *other* skills, and there are a lot of writers, journalists, professors, lawyers, actors, advertising people, etc who think it's ALL about the narrative.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Good point, David. Clearly, the intellectual elites have no real concept of what it means to exercise executive skills.

Of course, many intellectual and writerly types love Obama because they believe that his presidency increases their status in society.

CatherineM said...

Another point, he was an adjunct professor at U of Chicago Law school and never wrote one piece at a school where professors are expected to be scholars as well. In 12 years, Obama produced not even a single scholarly paper, no research papers authored or co-authored by him. Strange.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

The more I think about the clearer it becomes that he did not write the two books. The great mystery is how so many people could be so willfully blind about the issue. It's in the realm of mass delusion...