GETTING TO KNOW OBAMA….Sally Quinn writes about Barack Obama:

The biggest problem that Obama has is this: We don’t know who he is. Who are his people? Whom does he surround himself with? Whom does he listen to? Who gives him advice? He’s so new to the national political scene that he hasn’t had time to choose the team that would be with him in the White House. The more we see him in action, he’s still just campaigning. He still has the quality of an unknown. And as attractive and likable as Obama is, we still need references.

Here’s a peculiar thing: I agree with this, though in a different kind of way, and the reason I agree is that I’ve read Dreams From My Father, Obama’s autobiographical “story of race and inheritance.”

That is peculiar, isn’t it? You’d think that after reading an autobiography you’d get a better sense of the author. But I didn’t. In fact, there’s a very oddly detached quality to the book, almost as if he’s describing somebody else. This is clearest in the disconnect between emotions and events: Obama routinely describes himself feeling the deepest, most painful emotions imaginable (one event is like a “fist in my stomach,” for example, and he “still burned with the memory” a full year after a minor incident in college), but these feelings seem to be all out of proportion to the actual events of his life, which are generally pretty pedestrian. Is he describing his real feelings? Is he simply making the beginning writer’s mistake of thinking that the way to convey emotion is to use lots of adjectives? Or is something else going on?

Another oddity is that we get very little sense of what motivates him. In 1983, for example, he decided to become a community organizer, but says in the book only that he was “operating mainly on impulse.” Even with the benefit of a decade of hindsight, the only explanation he can offer is that it was “part of that larger narrative, starting with my father and his father before him, my mother and her parents, my memories of Indonesia with its beggars and farmers and the loss of Lolo to power, on through Ray and Frank, Marcus and Regina; my move to New York; my father’s death.” That’s not very helpful.

There’s just something very peculiar about the book. I can’t put my finger entirely on what it is, but for all the overwrought language that Obama employs on page after page, there’s very little insight into what he believes and what really makes him tick. It was almost as if Obama was admitting to his moodiness and angst less as a way of letting us know who he is than as a way of guarding against having to really tell us. By the time I was done, I felt like I knew less about him than before.

Has anyone else who’s read the book felt the same way? I can’t really tell if I just had some weird idiosyncratic reaction or if there’s something to this. If you’ve read it, let me know in comments what you thought.

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