The year was 1985 and Gerald Kellman, a community organizer, was interviewing an applicant named Barack Obama to work in the demoralized landscape of poor neighborhoods on this city’s South Side...The article calls attention to a deficiency in Obama's memoir:
It is clear that the benefit of those years to Mr. Obama dwarfs what he accomplished. Mr. Kellman said that Mr. Obama had built the organization’s following among needy residents and black ministers, but “on issues, we made very little progress, nothing that would change poverty on the South Side of Chicago.”
Mr. Obama recounted that he helped arrange a bus trip to the housing authority headquarters where residents [of the Altgeld Gardens housing project] had demanded a meeting with the executive director and a pledge that residential units would be tested for asbestos. As television cameras rolled, the residents were promised testing and a meeting.You can read the description of the debacle in the article.
“I changed as a result of that bus trip, in a fundamental way,” Mr. Obama wrote. It was the kind of action that “hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.”
What Mr. Obama does not mention in his book is that residents of the nearby Ida B. Wells housing project, and some at Altgeld itself, had already been challenging the housing authority on asbestos. A local newspaper had also taken up the issue....
Hazel Johnson, an environmental activist at Altgeld, said that she started to raise the asbestos issue with the housing authority in 1979, but that it had failed to act. Ms. Johnson and [Linda] Randle pointed out that only some of the asbestos was removed from pipes at Altgeld, but not until 1989, a year after Mr. Obama left for Harvard. (An Obama campaign spokesman, Ben LaBolt, said, “The book is meant to be an autobiography about Obama’s experiences, not a history of social and environmental activism in Chicago.”)
Meanwhile, the residents’ meeting with the housing authority’s executive director was a debacle, an illustration of the setbacks faced by Mr. Obama and other organizers.
Mr. Obama had risen to executive director of the Developing Communities group, but the demanding hours, small victories and low pay took a toll on him, and he decided to leave.A preacher, a journalist, or a fiction writer? All of those things — along with politics — have to do with crafted and evocative language. It sounds as though Obama learned what he core skill was and — I'm guessing now — realized he operated better at some distance from the raucous, demanding people.
“ ‘We are not making large-scale change, and I want to be involved in doing that,’ ” Mr. Kellman said Mr. Obama had told him....
Mr. Obama had mused to friends in Chicago about one day working for unions or becoming a preacher, a journalist or even a fiction writer. While there, he wrote short stories based on people he had encountered. “The stories were beautifully crafted and evocative,” said Mr. Kruglik.
I'd love to see the transcript of Kovaleski's whole interview with Kellman. What details underlie the phrase "took a toll on him"?
Here's an article covering much of the same ground that ran in The Nation in April 2007:
After a transient youth and an earnest search for identity, Obama also found a home--a community with which he continued relationships, a church and a political identity. He honed his talent for listening, learned pragmatic strategy, practiced bringing varied people together and developed a faith in ordinary citizens that still influences his campaign message. He discovered the importance of personal storytelling in politics (and wrote short stories that refined his style).Please, can we read the stories?
Often by confronting officials with insistent citizens--rather than exploiting personal connections, as traditional black Democrats proposed--Obama and DCP protected community interests regarding landfills and helped win employment training services, playgrounds, after-school programs, school reforms and other public amenities....ADDED: And here, literary critic Andrew Delbanco opines on Obama's writing style. (It was worth writing this article if only to use the great title: "Deconstructing Barry.") Quoting a passage from "Dreams From My Father," he says:
But Obama grew restless and eventually went to Harvard Law School. "He said you can only go so far in organizing. You help people get some solutions, but it's never as big as wiping away problems," says Michael Evans, a DCP organizer after Obama left. "It wasn't end-all. He wanted to be part of the end-all, to get things done."....
Obama's politics of transcendent unity, which has appealed to many voters, has its roots in his work as a "bridge builder," in the words of the Rev. Anthony Van Zanten, overcoming the gulf within DCP between Catholic and Protestant churches. But this vision of harmony also reflects Obama's distaste for conflict.
"Personality-wise, Barack did not like direct confrontation," Kellman says. "He was a very nice young man, very polite. It was a stretch for him to do Alinsky techniques. He was more comfortable in dialogue with people. But challenging power was not an issue for him. Lack of civility was."
Obama's organizing history may give few clues about what policies he would pursue as President, but Obama the presidential candidate still shows his roots--a faith in ordinary citizens, a quest for common ground and a pragmatic inclination toward defining issues in winnable ways.
This is a young writer (he was around 30 when he wrote Dreams) strutting his stuff. Sometimes he overwrites, as when he describes police cars cruising past groups of sullen black teens in "barracuda silence" or compares a row of scrappy trees to "hair swept across a bald man's head." He has a habit--almost a tic--of throwing in a cinematic flourish when none is needed: "a spotted, mangy cat" runs among weeds with a crumbling housing project in the background; a torn poster-photo of the recently dead Chicago mayor, Harold Washington, tumbles down a windswept street.Yes, reading the book, I was often distracted by the thought that it was "creative writing." But Delbanco likes the book, in which he detects "a theme... the fall from paradise." There is the race-blind childhood in Hawaii and the gradual detection of the role played by race.
Delbanco moves on to "The Audacity of Hope":
[T]he voice of the writer is fundamentally the same as the one we hear in Dreams. There is the same internal counterpoise in the sentences: "Most evangelicals are more tolerant than the media would have us believe, most secularists more spiritual" ... "most rich people want the poor to succeed, and most of the poor are more self-critical and hold higher aspirations than the popular culture allows." When he scans the human landscape, Obama tends to notice contradictory individuals more than coherent interest groups....
This is the writing of someone trying to map a route through a world where choices are less often between good and bad than between competing goods. Though it lacks the sensual immediacy of the earlier book, the language is open and unresolved, the sentences organized around pairs of sentiments or arguments that exert equal force against each other--a reflection of ongoing thinking rather than a statement of settled thoughts.