By William Gray
Why a Novelist Should Be Telling the President’s Story
Think of this as a writing exercise. Create a convincing character from the following details: husband, father, basketball player, community organizer, Harvard Law School grad, smoker, first black president of the United States.
His story has all the elements for a great character, even if conservative writers like Dinesh D’Souza insist that we “don’t know him.” I voted for Barack Obama, and I have no use for the propaganda about him spun by either political extreme.
And yet, I must admit that I don’t know my president, either.
Sure, my brain is bursting with facts about him, as if it’s a jumbled suitcase that’s hard to close. I may not be inspired by Barack Obama’s public character in the way some of my twenty-something peers are, but I’m not enraged by his policies and fumbles. I’ve never idealized him. I feel like I should understand, but I still don’t grasp what drives the man, and I’m far from alone.
In October 2008, David Samuels in the New Republic drew a memorable connection between Ralph Ellison’s protagonist in The Invisible Man and the soon-to-be president:
[H]e has decided that he can’t speak the truth about who he is and what he has seen and what he knows about the world. Obama is the kind of leader we need, which is why it is a shame that he has decided to remain invisible.
For me, he has yet to cohere as a convincing character. And as somebody who works in political television, at a network that’s chronicled more than 1,200 public appearances by Barack Obama—who can’t remember a 48-hour stretch in which I didn’t hear his name, see his face, or read a story about him— I’d call that a problem.
As Samuels quotes Obama from the president’s 2006 book The Audacity of Hope:
I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.
Now he’s not only the “hope and change” president; he’s also the “amateur,” the “great destroyer,” and a “whiny little bitch.” President Obama has become a beckoning page onto which journalists, viewers, readers, and political constituents write all manner of stories—many of them outright fabrications—to convey their own biases.
That’s true of all presidents, especially the iconic ones. (Just think how far we’ve traveled with Bill Murray as FDR in Hyde Park on Hudson, not to mention Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln.) Yet, there’s something about Barack Obama as a protagonist that feels particularly hard to pin down.
Take the 2011 novel O: A Presidential Novel, penned in the style of Primary Colors by “Anonymous” (reported to be Mark Salter, a former John McCain aide). Here, the fictional portrayal is defeated by hack writing. Michiko Kakutani notes in the New York Times:
Anonymous has President O thinking, ‘This is who he had always expected to be, this competent, cool, commanding leader.’
If he were a character in a great novel, though, we’d see how his many facets add up to create a dynamic, if believably flawed, hero. Literary writers know in their bones that all human beings are not just a sum of journalistic tag lines. A good novelist could do something with a protagonist who ordered the operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, bought a home brewing kit for a White House beer, and has a dog named Bo.
But, to date, none of the hundreds of mainstream authors, talk show hosts, and television pundits I’ve heard dissect him—from Ann Coulter to Michael Moore to Rush Limbaugh to Bob Woodward—has conjured the equivalent of Ralph Ellison’s nameless protagonist.
Ironically, the thoughts of that invisible black man in a white society, scribbled while he’s hiding in a basement, seem far more visible than President Obama’s public utterances.
The only commentators who have recently come close to defining him are four literary fiction writers interviewed on MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes: George Saunders, Michael Chabon, Victor LaValle, and Ayana Mathis. It’s worth looking at some of their comments in detail, because these “genuine experts on storytelling,” as Hayes dubbed them, had refreshingly complicated ideas to offer about the “Obama Narrative.”
Chabon, who has a penchant for fictionalizing real people (including Obama) and having them walk through his novels, pointed out that this president’s public story is not based solely on his own careful crafting. Chabon likened Obama’s evolving narrative to “a kind of fan fiction—a collective storytelling enterprise.”
To Hayes’s question of who’s more responsible for creating a believable story, the author or the reader, veteran writer Saunders said, without hesitation, “It’s the author’s problem.”
That would put the onus on Obama the author for generating so much confusion about who he is. But Saunders emphasized why it’s so difficult for a highly exposed public figure to create a consistent narrative. Saunders contrasted incredibly short news cycles with the “infinite time” of novel writing:
The whole writing thing is about revision…. In my experience, you go closer and closer to the difficult truths that you couldn’t just blurt out…[and it takes] 15 drafts to get to…‘Oh, God, there’s another side to this character.’
Saunders’s point is that the novelist’s goal in getting readers to respond to a character is very different from that of a political operative or reporter. In literary fiction, he said, the “fundamental emotion is increased empathy by way of detail.”
This raises more key questions, however, both about the collective crafting of Obama’s story and the way he tells it himself: Can you reduce the president—any president—to sound bites or headlines and still view him as a human being? Is that even possible or desirable for the Leader of the Free World? On the flip side, what if a public figure is always revising his narrative, especially one who has a gift for storytelling?
For her part, Ayana Mathis argued that “Barack Obama’s narrative about himself is so much more believable” than George W. Bush’s. Saunders added that it’s during memorable moments, such as Obama’s 2008 speech on race, that he is most believable—when “the gap between the creation and the man vanishes—that’s truth.”
But beyond nodding to Obama’s narrative skill, these literary writers were perceptive about what makes him tick. My favorite comment came from Victor LaValle: “The story that Barack Obama has probably been telling, since he was a kid, [is] I’m like you.”
That’s when I glimpse the real Barack, for an instant, trying so hard to gain my trust, needing it—as this unusual boy probably needed it by the time he could walk.
Because the fact is, the president is not like me. I smile when he fist-bumps the janitor, and I laugh when he plays with children in the White House. I watch when he digests Newtown, Hurricane Sandy, the murders in Benghazi, the failures of Operation Fast and Furious. He’s creating a narrative meant to touch me, from beginning to end. He gets me to feel—but then I stand back, a little too aware of the story he’s building.
He was an author long before he was president. In the 2004 introduction to his first memoir Dreams From My Father, he writes:
[S]ome people have a hard time taking me at face value. When people who don’t know me well, black or white, discover my background…, I see the split-second adjustments they have to make, the searching of my eyes for some telltale sign. They no longer know who I am.
What I wonder, after listening to those fiction writers talk about him as if he were a character in a novel, is whether Barack Obama is still deliberately in hiding.
Like so many Washington observers, I have my own take on his story: He came into office asking more from this country than Bush and Clinton did. Clinton fed us economics in a teaspoon so we could digest it. Bush radiated “We Are Americans” patriotism. The issues haven’t changed—but the messages issuing from the man in the Oval Office have.
Obama wants us to realize that great things can be accomplished if we listen, engage, and step above. You can tell from his first year in office that he expected the American people to follow him, from campaign trail to doorstep, and to fight with him for his agenda.
Unfortunately, history’s a harsh mistress. Despite my sense that he wants us “readers” to do the work—to grasp the full cast of characters, to look beyond the book-jacket blurb—he still fails to connect with me.
In the end, great protagonists move us and change us. They’re complex, and we allow them their flaws. So, I’m waiting for the novel that turns this renowned public figure into a man who’s more than the sum of his parts. I’m waiting to suspend my own disbelief.
- Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream by Dinesh D’Souza (Regnery, 2012).
- 2016: Obama’s America, directed by Dinesh D’Souza, released August 2012.
- “Invisible Man: How Ralph Ellison Explains Barack Obama” by David Samuels, New Republic, October 22, 2008.
- The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House by Edward Klein (Regnery, 2012).
- The Great Destroyer: Barack Obama’s War on the Republic by David Limbaugh (Regnery, 2012).
- Whiny Little Bitch: The Excuse-Filled Presidency of Barack Obama by Mike Cullen (Quite Right Books, 2012).
- “A Dishy Take on the 2012 Race, by…Somebody” by Michiko Kakutani, New York Times, January 20, 2011.
- “The Political Stories We Tell,” Up With Chris Hayes, MSNBC, broadcast January 13, 2013.
- Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama, originally published 1995 (Three Rivers, 2004).
- “More than 1,200 public appearances”: See “Barack Obama” in the C-SPAN Video Library. Note, especially, this candid moment last year, when he said, “I’m sort of a prop in the campaign”: Virginia, November 3, 2012.
- President Barack Obama; official White House portrait; public domain
- President Barack Obama runs down the East Colonnade with family dog, Bo; official White House photo by Pete Souza
- President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton tour the Wat Pho Royal Monastery; Official White House photo by Pete Souza
- President Barack Obama hugs Donna Vanzant as he tours damage from Hurricane Sandy; Official White House photo by Pete Souza
William Gray is an assistant editor at Talking Writing and a television producer and journalist in Washington, D.C. His career in broadcast media with C-SPAN pays his bills, and dabbling in print media is his hobby. His opinions are not reflective of those of C-SPAN, but he is eternally thankful for the daily history lesson and political discussion his job entails.
He spends his free time catching up on sleep, scouting museums, toting around books, and collecting charts for his blog Floor Charts.
You can also follow him on Twitter @CSPANBILL.