It was publication day in July 1995, and a debut author sent flowers to his publisher to mark the occasion. According to Author in Chief: The Untold Story of Our Presidents and the Books They Wrote by Craig Fehrman, a few weeks earlier, the same author had gone to his local bookstore in Chicago, 57th Street Books, and asked if they would host a reading for his new work. It was called Dreams From My Father. The author was, of course, Barack Obama.
Twenty-five years later, and it’s publication day for A Promised Land, a phenomenal book written by an internationally bestselling author, who has more followers on Twitter than anyone on the planet – and who has also won a Nobel Peace Prize and two Grammy awards. It’s so brilliantly written that as well as describing Barack Obama's inspirational journey to the presidency, his first years in office, and the world today, it has elements of the literary classic, the thriller, the rock star autobiography, the comic novel and the uplifting family memoir. Above all, Obama fully gives a sense of what it was like to be president, with the book’s honesty, vividness and perspective making this a new sort of presidential memoir.
So you might know about some of the events, or have a sense of him as a person, or an idea of what he might think, but in A Promised Land, you’ll be surprised throughout by what you find out from Obama himself. Here are just five lines to get started.
1. “No problem that landed on my desk, foreign or domestic, had a clean, 100 percent solution. If it had, someone else down the chain of command would have solved it already.”
Obama is refreshingly frank in A Promised Land about how it feels to sit behind the desk where the buck stops. He brings you into his decision-making: the listening, the analysis, the final call, and the nature of uncertainty. And when it came to big decisions, he knew that whether on the financial crisis, healthcare or a hijacking by Somali pirates, “I could not have come up with a better process to evaluate those odds or surrounded myself with a better mix of people to help me weigh them”.
We’re also invited inside his head to see what it’s like once the decision is made. He describes hearing about a US fighter jet crashing over Libya and the wait while he found out about a soldier he had sent into war: “When someone asks me what it feels like to be President of the United States, I often think about that stretch of time spent sitting helplessly at the state dinner in Chile, contemplating the knife’s edge between perceived success and potential catastrophe – in this case, the drift of a soldier’s parachute over a faraway desert in the middle of the night”. For all that we read from anyone else, this is what it feels like to be President.
2. “For most of my first two years in office, Trump was apparently complimentary of my presidency.”
Former presidents are rarely critical of their predecessors, but in A Promised Land, as recent media coverage has shown, Obama is open in his views about the current president – who in the preface, he doesn’t name but merely alludes to as “someone diametrically opposed to everything we stood for”.
He notes that Trump said that a former radical activist was the author of Dreams From My Father, “since the book was too good to have been written by someone of my intellectual caliber”; and he reveals that “my closest contact with Trump had come midway through 2010, during the Deepwater Horizon crisis, when he’d called Axe [Senior Advisor David Axelrod] out of the blue to suggest that I put him in charge of plugging the well”. (When told that the well was almost sealed, Trump said he’d be willing to build a ballroom at the White House, “an offer that was politely declined”.)
Obama is also highly critical of Fox News, and points out that in terms of the breakdown of political traditions, there wasn’t much difference between Trump and other Republican leaders. But he has kinder words about John McCain, whose phone call at the end of the 2008 election “was as gracious as his concession speech”, and George W Bush, who did “all he could to make the eleven weeks between my election and his departure go smoothly”.
3. “It turns out that there’s a standard design to every international summit...”
A Promised Land often takes an unusual step back to recap not only elements of American and international history, but also the history of traditions that are taken for granted; and in doing so, Obama has surprising takes about many of the rituals of being President.
He refers to the State of the Union address having become “this absurd bit of theatre”. He writes about the down-to-earth nature of the Situation Room that he’d always imagined “as a cavernous, futuristic space”, finding that “the reality was less dazzling...its walls were bare except for digital clocks showing the time in various world capitals and a few flat-screens not much bigger than those found in a neighbourhood sports bar”.
And of international summits, he confesses: “You sit there, fighting off jet lag and doing your best to look interested, as everyone around the table, including yourself, takes turns reading a set of carefully scripted, anodyne, and invariably much-longer-than-the-time-allotted remarks about whatever topic happens to be on the agenda. Later... I would adopt the survival tactics of more experienced attendees...”
4. “‘I think you need an alias’, Malia [aged seven] declared...‘like Johnny McJohn John.’”
Presidential memoirs vary in how much and in what ways they refer to family, but usually it’s just a cameo role. By contrast, for Obama this is an integral part of the story, and we are treated to intimate details of life in The First Family – in many ways a normal family.
We find out about Malia suggesting from the back seat that to avoid crowds, Obama should give himself a new name; when Michelle hears about this, she says that “the only way for Daddy to disguise himself is if he has an operation to pin back his ears”.
When he wins the Nobel Peace Prize and tells Michelle, who’s in bed, she says “That’s wonderful, honey”, then rolls over to go back to sleep. He roots for Sasha's basketball team (Joe Biden’s grand-daughter was “the star of the team”) and eventually, along with Personal Aide Reggie Love, gives them some practice sessions. “When the Vipers won the league championship in an 18-16 nail-biter, Reggie and I celebrated like it was the NCAA League Finals,” he writes. “Every parent savors such moments, I suppose, when the world slows down, your strivings get pushed to the back of your mind, and all that matters is that you are present, fully, to witness the miracle of your child growing up.”
5. “Maybe the best White House perk involved music.”
You might think that the best perk was Air Force One, but not so. Household names like Stevie Wonder and Jennifer Lopez would conduct music workshops for young people at The White House before performing themselves, and when they practised, usually the day before, if Obama was upstairs, he says, “I could hear the sounds of drum and bass and electric guitar reverberating through the Treaty Room floor. Sometimes I’d sneak down the back stairs of the residence and slip into the East Room, standing in the rear so as not to attract attention...I’d marvel at everyone’s mastery of their instruments, the generosity they showed toward one another...and I’d feel a pang of envy at the pure, unambiguous joy of their endeavors, such a contrast to the political path I had chosen.”
Music is in fact a recurring theme in A Promised Land: before his presidential debates, Obama would listen to Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Frank Sinatra, but ultimately the songs that “got my head in the right place” were Jay-Z’s ‘My 1st Song’ and Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself’. “Both were about defying the odds and putting it all on the line...It was a way to cut through the artifice and remember who I was.”