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Obama: From Promise to Powerby David Mendell
Synopses & Reviews
The biography of America's hottest political superstar — Barack Obama — from a journalist who has been covering Obama and his career since his successful run for U.S. Senate.
Barack Obama's meteoric rise from Hawaii high schooler to exemplary Harvard Law School student to well-groomed politico is the stuff of legend, a political story that has captured the attention of virtually every American. Since his headline-grabbing speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004, Obama has come to represent the promise of unity among groups of all types — blacks and whites; Democrats, Republicans, and moderates; the young and the old; the upper, middle, and lower classes. In this first-of-a-kind, groundbreaking biography, veteran journalist and Obama chronicler David Mendell gives an in-depth, comprehensive portrait of the boy named Barry who took inspiration from his hardworking parents and became the eloquent, suave Obama — a man whose last name has become a catchphrase for hope in a politically jaded society desperate for a new star.
Mendell has covered Obama since the beginning of Obama's campaign for the Senate and as a result enjoys far-reaching access to the new senator. His research includes exclusive interviews with Obama's closest aides, mentors, political adversaries, and family — most notably his extremely charismatic wife, Michelle. Mendell reveals the surprising, cutthroat campaign tactics sanctioned by Obama — who has steeped his image and reputation with the ideals of clean politics and good government — to win his Senate seat by employing some of the most ruthless operatives in the business.
Eye-opening, well researched, and compulsively readable, Obama: From Promise to Power is a necessary look at the evolution of a politician from public servant to candidate-savior — a politician who has experienced fame, adulation, and criticism in equal parts and on a greater scale than the public eye has seen in quite some time.
"It must have seemed like a great idea at the time: A reporter from the top daily newspaper in Chicago writes a biography of a top Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois. But David Mendell of the Chicago Tribune is in the unfortunate position of writing a life of someone who has written not one but two bestselling memoirs. In 'Obama,' Mendell seeks early on to address the... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) key question that hangs like fog around this biography: Hasn't enough been written already about Barack Obama — much of it by the senator himself? Mendell assures us that the book is necessary, that he has tried to 'add another perspective ... to what Obama has filtered through his personal lens.' If you're still not convinced, Mendell adds that he sought to 'provide a straightforward, honest account of how a talented, exceedingly driven man ascended so quickly from relative anonymity to political superstardom.' Fair enough. But Mendell fails to deliver much that is new or insightful. Moreover, he fails to keep his promise (in his acknowledgments) that he would not 'muck up the narrative' with his own 'deep thoughts.' By the third chapter, in passages describing 'Barry' Obama's high school years at a private academy in Honolulu, Mendell the political reporter turns amateur child psychologist. 'The teen years are difficult enough for any male. It is the time when boys begin to establish their adult persona — how they fit into social groups and settings, how they interact with women, how they register their masculinity with other males,' he writes, setting up passages covering Obama's brief period of dabbling in street drugs and engaging in lax study habits. 'In this regard, Obama had something in common with many African-American males — he lacked a father in his life to counsel him through these confusing times.' That wince-making bit of armchair psychoanalysis is an early hint that the racial discussion — which admittedly is unavoidable in any lengthy description of the candidate's life — will be a challenge for the writer. It is also Mendell's misfortune to have chosen a subject who is at the red-hot center of the national discussion over racial identity. Mendell does not overemphasize this aspect — a blessing, since he apparently lacks the experiential or academic grounding needed to contextualize the issues. Mendell does a good job of outlining the most bothersome race-specific aspect of the candidate's political career, the question of whether Obama is 'black enough.' But Mendell doesn't grapple with the hall-of-mirrors effect, the elusive point at which group identity, internalized racism and questions of loyalty combine to generate thoughts about the 'black enough' issue. Rather, he relies on boilerplate explorations of black folks' expectations and the purported power of that great, omniscient, mythical figure known as the Black Leader: 'Any black leader with the imprimatur of the editorially conservative Tribune had to be viewed with wary eyes on the South Side,' Mendell writes, describing how he thinks blacks in Chicago's blue-collar neighborhoods viewed Obama. Here, some astute cultural and historic analysis — 'deep thoughts' of another kind — would be useful, as would interviews with ordinary African Americans who have a stake in the candidate's quest for the presidency. But, in 'Obama,' we get the usual suspects — friends and family members who walk us through the politician's life: Obama's dear, naive Kansan mother; his troubled, determined Kenyan father; and the half-siblings, grandparents, schoolmates, college chums and long list of political opponents and advisers we've seen quoted elsewhere ad infinitum since at least 2004, when Obama gave his historic keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Mendell falls short of the historic racial awareness that might give valuable context for why this 'black enough' question persists — and why it is inherently absurd. Instead, he relies on African American pundits and columnists to frame the contentious issue and shoehorns its large, destructive implications into a single chapter called 'The Race Factor.' It is an insufficient choice, given Obama's long history of addressing the topic with direct comment and, more importantly, with his actions, including championing improvements in low-income communities while in the state legislature. In Mendell's treatment, Obama's family background is not fleshed out or refreshed with historic, sociopolitical or new intimate detail. Of course, in his own books, Obama has sometimes shortchanged readers on that front, too: 'I can't help but view the American experience through the lens of a black man of mixed heritage, forever mindful of how generations of people who looked like me were subjugated and stigmatized, and the subtle and not so subtle ways that race and class continue to shape our lives,' Obama wrote in the prologue to the 2006 bestseller 'The Audacity of Hope.' That kind of stiff, preachy language appeared infrequently in Obama's memoirs and was offset by the abundance of vivid, descriptive writing that demonstrated, rather than announced, the life experiences that have shaped him. Mendell's biography lacks a similar degree of descriptive potency. The book also suffers from the curse of the moving target. Like the insta-biographies and nonfiction books that pop up following big news events, a biography of any high-profile individual who is constantly in the news must struggle for long shelf life. While a finely tuned portrait of a newsmaker at a particular point in time is possible, rendering that kind of sophisticated snapshot requires elegant writing as well as forward-projecting and historic detailing not evident here. And these days, even the 'black enough' quandary — the singular aspect of Obama's life and persona with potential for historic shelf life — may be playing out. Some black journalists at a recent convention in Las Vegas vowed to stop asking the candidate the question. And Obama, too, sounds as if he is nearing the point of exasperation on the subject: Speaking with NPR's 'News & Notes' host Farai Chideya last month, he indicated that the topic appears to be more an obsession of the chattering classes than of regular Americans and potential voters: 'Ordinary people that I meet and talk to each and every day, they are absolutely clear on who I am and where I'm coming from.' Mendell can't be faulted for not writing as compellingly about Obama as the man himself has done. But he has neither coaxed fresh perspective from his sources nor provided trenchant analysis of his own. " Reviewed by Amy Alexander, whose reviews appear monthly in The Washington Post Style section, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[T]he best thing one might say about this campaign biography is that it is one brick that might...help form the foundation of understanding the 44th U.S. president....If the senator is elected to the White House, every presidential biography of the man will cite Mendell. Not so bad for a first book." Chicago Tribune
Mendell, a journalist who has covered Obama since the beginning of the latters Senate campaign, paints an intimate portrait of the Senators life, from behind-the-scenes political tactics to his chances of winning the presidency in 2008.
David Mendell has covered Obama since the beginning of his campaign for the Senate and as a result enjoys farandndash;reaching access to the new Senatorandndash;andndash;both his professional and personal life. He uses this access to paint a very intimate portrait of Obama and his life pre and post Senate, including Obama's new status as a sex symbol now that going into a crowd to shake hands with constituents carries the added concern of being groped by women, and the toll this has had on his marriage. Mendell also describes the dirty tactics sanctioned by Obamaandndash;andndash;who has steeped his image and reputation on the ideals of clean politics and good government andndash;andndash; to win his Senate seat by employing David Axelrod, a Chicagoandndash;based political consultant (consultant to the John Edwards's campaign) with what the author describes as "an appetite for the Big Kill."
Mendell also positions Barack Obama as in fact the Savior of a fumbling Democratic party, who is potentially orchestrating a career in Senate to guarantee him at the very least a vice presidential nod, if not a nod for the top job in 2008. The dream ticket would be Hilary Clintonandndash;Barack Obama given his reception at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Because he enjoys popularity among Whites (particularly suburban White women) and Blacks, it might not be such a farandndash;fetched idea.
About the Author
David Mendell, author of Obama: From Promise to Power, has been writing about politics and urban issues for the Chicago Tribune since 1998. Mr. Mendell lives in Oak Park, Illinois.
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