May 5, 2017

"In the absence of thoughtful analysis or a powerful narrative through line, Garrow’s book settles for barraging the reader with a cascade of details — seemingly in hopes of creating a kind of pointillist picture."

"The problem is that all these data points never connect to form an illuminating portrait; the book does not open out to become the sort of resonant narrative that Robert A. Caro and Ron Chernow have pioneered, in which momentous historical events are deftly recreated, and a subject’s life is situated in a time and a place. Instead, Garrow has expended a huge amount of energy... on giving us minutely detailed accounts of early chapters of Obama’s life.... While the Chicago chapter sheds valuable light on Obama’s connection with black residents and his developing sense of vocation, many of the other sections that try to chronicle his day-to-day life feel extraneous and absurdly long-winded, as if Garrow wanted to include every last scrap of information he’d unearthed. Are we really interested in what numerous Obama classmates, colleagues and passing acquaintances remember about his personality — that he struck them as cool or friendly, arrogant or voluble, cheerful or detached? Do we really want to read repetitious discussions about his cigarette consumption and poker-playing habits?"

That's Michiku Kakutani saying something about David J. Garrow's new book about Obama that's really close to what I thought of that book "Shattered," about the Hillary Clinton campaign. I'd said:
[It's] as though they'd edited it more intensively [in the first third] but then didn't bother and just left us with dumped notes from their interviews with Clinton insiders. There was a lot of semi-digested material about the mechanics of getting speeches written and where to expend funds and how nervous and uncomfortable various people felt at various times. I got pretty bored.
In the Obama book, it's the end, the epilogue, that's different from the rest, different in a way that outrages Kakutani:
Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue — which almost reads like a Republican attack ad — devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian.... [It's] a crude screed against Obama the president and Obama the man, filled with bald assertions and coy half-truths.
And Kakutani hates Garrow's use of the ex-girlfriend as his central witness:
It’s odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover’s anger and hurt, and try to turn them into a Rosebud-like key to the former president’s life, referring to her repeatedly in his epilogue. He even tries to turn her perception — about Obama’s having willed himself into being — into a pejorative....
I see that I blogged about Kakutani's review of "Shattered"here. I said:

There's something bland about this review. It doesn't get at what I want to know which is why the book is taken seriously as something special, something other than a rehash of a lot of stuff we already know. The review seems to offer up exactly the language the authors can use to promote the book. What I want to know is: Why give this book a big lofting?

If I had to sketch out a theory, it would be that the Russians-stole-the-election meme is flagging and something else is needed to support the theory that Trump is not a legitimate President. But what is this collection of details from the story of the Clinton campaign? It strikes me as me as pretty normal — typical of campaigns (even winning ones) — and not the "Titanic-like disaster... epic fail" Kakutani says the book depicts.

I certainly think Clinton was bad, but Trump was also pretty bad in a lot of ways. Personally, I've digested the results. Trump won. I'm not buying the theory that Clinton was epically bad anymore than I think Trump is a monster.

69 comments:

TosaGuy said...

One way to ensure your book always remains in the historiography is to have a ton of facts so it always gets consulted and cited by later authors. It doesn't have to have good prose to do that.

buwaya said...

Absorbing a mass of details adds up to an improved ability to judge.

You have acquired a database from which to construct your own model.
Or rather, a mass of material to add to your own database.
It should not be necessary to be told a story with an explicit or implied moral.

I have seen a lot of management, good or bad, from the inside.
So I have my own database into which to add "Shattered".
My starting database will not be the same as yours, and neither is my model.
"Shattered" is full of "what not to do's", as far as management practices.

buwaya said...

"One way to ensure your book always remains in the historiography is to have a ton of facts so it always gets consulted and cited by later authors"

True. It is a primary source.

Psota said...

One thing about Obama...you never really heard much about his life before he became a public person. You never heard from ex-friends, spurned lovers, disgruntled classmates, etc. A lot of this unflattering information simply has not been widely available with the exception of carefully curated disclosures about drug use, etc.

robinintn said...

I wonder whether the subjects of both books render it difficult or impossible to weave the barrage of details into a larger picture. I may have mixed a couple of metaphors there.

gspencer said...

"and his developing sense of vocation"

Lemme fix that,

"and his developing sense of vacation"

At the expense of someone else. And Moochelle quickly developed her sense too.

Nonapod said...

buwaya said...Absorbing a mass of details adds up to an improved ability to judge.

You have acquired a database from which to construct your own model.
Or rather, a mass of material to add to your own database.
It should not be necessary to be told a story with an explicit or implied moral.


It shouldn't be, but of course many modern commentators expect that the target audience are too simple to form their own impressions and opinions and therefore need these opinions spoon fed to them. It's why we're constantly inundated with heavy handed messaging in most modern forms of entertainment.

Sebastian said...

"his developing sense of vocation" Now that's funny right there. I guess you could it a "narrative."

"Are we really interested in what numerous Obama classmates, colleagues and passing acquaintances remember about his personality — that he struck them as cool or friendly, arrogant or voluble, cheerful or detached? Do we really want to read repetitious discussions about his cigarette consumption and poker-playing habits?" Actually, we are and we do -- we are even more interested in his cocaine snorting habits, and his college grades, and how he got into Harvard, and how he collaborated with Bill A. on his "autobiography," and what he actually did with the Annenberg money, and the details of his conversations with Jeremiah Wright, and what he ever did for his Kenyan relatives, and --. Well, from Kikutani's pissed-offedness I infer that Garrow's book must be better than I thought.

Oh, and I take AA's point about "rehash." But 10 or 50 years from now, no one will remember, except insofar as it is recorded, in forms like this.

Matthew Sablan said...

A lot of the reason for that repetition is because things get dismissed frequently with "Oh, that's just one disgruntled person."

And, hey. If news papers dug up everyone they could find about The Great Mormon Hate Cut of Mitt Romney, then... yeah. Someone's going to dig up everyone with something bad to say about Obama.

I don't like the rules; I wish we had better rules. But, alas. People have seen what the rules are, and they will now play by those rules.

rcocean said...

The truth is the truth. The fact that it turns out to sound like "a Republican attack ad" is irrelevant.

Giving a lots of detail without comment can be a good thing or a bad thing. If its a controversial figure, sometimes a "just the facts Ma'am" came be a good approach. Its certainly better than the usual agenda driven narrative we get in most biographies.

As for Obama, I've never been able to give a damn about him - on a personal level. The same is true of Bush-II. They both strike me as boring mediocrities who never did anything of note before being plucked from obscurity and elected POTUS. Obama got elected and nominated because he was Black, Bush-II because he was the son of President and the Governor of Texas. Compare either man to Reagan, JFK, or even Carter or Nixon and you can see how far we've fallen.

Achilles said...

Obama was an empty suit propped up from the start. Every time we heard or saw the real person people were underwhelmed. He was a mediocre talent with record amounts of cash behind him. His presidency was a massive failure from start to finish.

It is disheartening to watch his defenders become as empty as he is. The Obamacare repeal debate is a perfect example. They are completely unwilling to recognize how destructive the ACA was and is. All they think about is how to undermine the current effort to fix the mess and how to gain power.

rcocean said...

"His presidency was a massive failure from start to finish."

I don't think it was a failure, any more or less than Bush-II's presidency. Obama seems the ultimate "do-nothing" president, but at least he didn't give a completely unnecessary Banking/housing crisis or a disastrous Iraq war.

Of course, external events and a Republican House prevented Obama from doing much damage.

gadfly said...

I have ignored Barack Obama from year two of his presidency and if I had to give an opinion, based upon my deliberately limited perception, so have most other Conservatives.

Since we buy the books, whats-his-name, the author, wont get rich real soon.

rcocean said...

If we're finding out about all the dirt on Obama - well thank goodness. Usually, with Democrat Presidents we usually have to wait 10,20, 30 years before we learn about all their flaws.

We didn't learn about FDR's adultery, lies about his health, or pro-communist attitudes until the 1960s. JFK's health problems and sex romps with Gangster Molls didn't become known until the 1980s. Caro uncovered a lot of LBJ's corruption and lies.

God knows what we'll learn about Hil and Bill when they die.

tcrosse said...

Obamacare may bear his name, but Obama had little to do with drafting it. He just added the Branding and Moral Imperative, plus a lot of professionally curated artisanal Bullshit.

Bay Area Guy said...

Meh. The "Shattered" book is excellent at covering a small slice of political history (and has a happy ending!).

This Obama book is boring, because Obama was boring. His life before the Presidency, was basically an introspective exercise in racial navel gazing. How can I become so slick to toggle back and forth between the white world and black world to maximize my political ascent?

But, he did win in 2008, so good for him. After the ridiculous Obama-care passage, he lost the House in 2010 (getting shellacked), and never signed any important legislation thereafter, but just continued the persistent left-wing march at a slower pace (bigger government, less Western values).

Again, I say meh.

Earnest Prole said...

My hunch is that the problem is wrong details and not that there's a mass of them. Let's not forget that when Caro's most revealing LBJ book came out, the Times hired a Democratic Party hack to review the book and say it was in essence a fraud.

Birches said...

One thing about Obama...you never really heard much about his life before he became a public person.

Because our Coastal Media Elite took his autobiographies as the Standard of Truth. No curiosity.

southcentralpa said...

"Republican attack ad"? Oddly enough, Garrow is attacking from the LEFT. As Jack Cashill pointed out just the other day, Garrow interviewed essentially nobody from the Right who has been pointing out the problems with BHO's story since 2007/8, and in fact some of the critiques actually sort of dovetail. Boy, if you could get, say, Garrow, Corsi, and Cashill to put all of their notes together, that would make for one whale of a good book...

(As it becomes more and more clear how many liberties BHO took in writing "Dreams From My Father", James Frey must bang his head on the wall or pull out his hair(I don't know the man personally, so I don't know what he does when he's frustrated). "Why couldn't/can't I get cut that kind of slack? What did I do wrong??")

Left Bank of the Charles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Left Bank of the Charles said...

"Odd that Garrow should seize on one former lover’s anger and hurt" - would this would be the girlfriend who twice rejected Barack Obama's marriage proposals? It's a nice trick getting the woman who said no to feel angry and hurt about it. That could also be how Republican voters feel - they said no but now they feel angry and hurt that Barack was able to make a Presidential life for himself without them. Without realizing it, Garrow may be on to something after all.

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...

Let me clear this up for y'all:

Dude gets to the end and he gots a nuttin burg re the facts.

So, ya spike the end w/ some artistic license = con book buyer fodder.



Where's the mystery?

Bad Lieutenant said...

3G, the nice thing about your word salad is, having finally accepted that no reasonable person can understand what you attempt to say, I no longer feel the need to try. You're going full hick. Never go full hick.

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...

I'm a lead farmer...

Yancey Ward said...

Put in other words, Garrow didn't craft a narrative using the facts he collected that make Obama look really, really good. What a sin!

Yancey Ward said...

Left Bank,

I have not read the book, but is Kakutani's framing correct- was the ex-lover really "angry and hurt"? I have lots of unflattering information about the people I have known in my life, most especially those I have been intimately involved with over the years, and I know they have the same on me- but I feel pretty sure none of us are angry and hurt about those defects we found in each other. One gets the impression from the review that Kakutani is projecting in this case because it makes the testimony seem like it is all coming from someone bearing a grudge.

M Jordan said...

Where was this book in 2008? Where are Obama's academic records, writings, etc.? The only reason we learned of Obama's Rev. Wright connection is some reporter from Fox News actually watched some church videos.

When Sarah Palin wrote her autobiography, post-candidacy, AP put 11 people on it to "fact-check." On Obamas two autohagiographies they assigned zero.

The media is the enemy of the people. They must be dethroned.

The Godfather said...

I recently read Ron Chernow's biography of Hamilton. It's a VERY detailed 800-page tome. And it is worth every hour and every day and every week it takes to read it. In part that's because its subject was a man of consequence, and in part it's because Chernow is a very good writer. Obama is not a man of consequence, and Hillary is not a woman of consequence. Chester A. Arthur and Harold Stassen will cast longer shadows on the stage of history than these two.

rightguy2 said...

"His presidency was a massive failure from start to finish."

I don't think it was a failure...
rcocean

When Obama left office the Middle East was dumpster fire of biblical proportions, Jihadi attacks had become a regular occurence in the US and the free world (the attacks in San Bernadino & Orlando were barely acknowledged with POTUS giving the impression he barely cared at all), the economy was in the tank for 8 years, lawlessness and anarchy were actually promoted from the WH (BLM & OccupyWhatever}, the borders have been wide open for 8 years... There's plenty more.

BHO was truly terrible president and easily the worst we have ever had. Not even close.
God I'm glad he's gone!

Clyde said...

I saw earlier today that the Clinton campaign book, Shattered has been optioned as a television series, although no word about what channel might develop it. If it's going to be a Game of Thrones type of thing, with Hillary in the Cersei Lannister role, then HBO would be an obvious choice. However, I'm thinking it might make a better situation comedy, or perhaps tragicomedy. Maybe Trey Parker and Matt Stone could give it the That's My Bush! treatment for Comedy Central?

buwaya said...

"I saw earlier today that the Clinton campaign book, Shattered has been optioned as a television series"

I suggest Mike Judge.
Along the lines of "Office Space" and "Silicon Valley".
That would work very well.

Tyrone Workman said...

I'm not buying the theory that Clinton was epically bad...

Epically bad as a candidate who ran an epically bad campaign, losing a race she should have won? Or epically bad as a human being who in a sane Democrat Party would never have been the nominee? Me, I'm impressed by how close she came considering how horribly flawed and defective she is in myriad ways.

tcrosse said...

I'm not buying the theory that Clinton was epically bad...

It's not a theory. I worry that the TV series of Shattered will be the revisionist version, with Putin getting a major role.

Ken B said...

Caro had detachment. You lose your membership card for that.

urbane legend said...

rcocean said...
God knows what we'll learn about Hil and Bill when they die.

How much more do we want or need to know? Hil lives for money and power and thinks any path to that is acceptable. Bill lives for money and sex and thinks any path to that is acceptable. Their lives make this plain. Everything else is simply details. The details should put Hil in jail for the rest of her life but I won't buy a book about them.

Paul Bird said...

My guess is that Kakutani doesn't like the notion that almost all of Obama's adult life was politically calculated.

David Baker said...

If you need a postmortem book to understand Obama, stick to knitting.

But if you still insist, look up the meaning of jive turkey in your urban dictionary.

William said...

If an ex lover has an unflattering story to tell about Trump, she can look forward to a big advance and good reviews. Probably a movie deal, too. If an ex lover of Obama or either of the Clintons wants to come forward, she can pick up a few bucks from the Enquirer and lots of vilification elsewhere. The game's not worth the candle. We won't know the full deal about Obama and the Clintons for another fifty years.

AReasonableMan said...

To paraphrase:

To lose one Secretary of the Army may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

3rdGradePB_GoodPerson said...

Right William,

no money in books that attack the Clintons and BHO.

traditionalguy said...

These authors have to find a way to defeat confirmation bias that always started with Obama seen a dark skinned George Washington.

So disjointed( off narrative )factoids serially thrown out there are the best he could do. Who wants to face how badly Obama fooled us while he destroyed the USA.

Michael K said...

The same is true of Bush-II. They both strike me as boring mediocrities who never did anything of note before being plucked from obscurity and elected POTUS.

Bush was elected to be a domestic president and we will never know if he would have been any good at it.

9/11 changed his focus to an area that was not a strong point for him as it was for his father.

Obama was an empty suit. The best summary of Obama is here where I posted it in 2008.

Earnest Prole said...

The best summary of Obama is here where I posted it in 2008.

There's nothing more Obamesque than quoting yourself.

robother said...

I seem to recall a notion that History is properly written only when all the participants are dead.n The reviewer seems unaware that, from that point of view, this is more journalism, capturing the facts (including highly biased personal observations of friends and enemies) about the historical figure. This sounds like the perfect companion piece for future historians to O's Memoir and all the fawning academic histories to come over the next decade. In the name of Clio's cruel neutrality, play on!

Comanche Voter said...

Another doorstop where I won't bother to enrich the author; but if one came in the mail, I'd enrich the local land fill.

MikeD said...

It's post's like this that keep me reading AA. If our hostess merely links to something, ICCFL, however, when she comments it's a must read. That said, here's Friday nite Kismet like palate cleanser.
Idiot instantly regrets trying to kick a dog
https://gfycat.com/gifs/detail/poorevilhapuka

n.n said...

So, he provides the yarn, but doesn't wind it. This must seem peculiar to JournoLists.

wildswan said...

When history is written the big story on Obama and Hillary will be that in their time American workers became aware that the Democratic party had turned its back on the American worker. Trump is one consequence of that realization but there will be others. Plus historians will be able to explain why it happened, why the leftys turned on the workers. This isn't something I understand at all. I know it happened but ... why?

Earnest Prole said...

The leftys turned on the workers . . . I know it happened but . . . why?

This one of the great political mysteries of our time, along with the left's abandonment of secularism to form an alliance with unreformed Islam. I sense the two are related but can't say why.

Kansas City said...

This seems like the first honest and serious attempt to report on Obama's life prior to his rise to national politics. The reviewer is obviously an Obama fan. I like the idea of the book (I have not read it) because I have found Obama a very difficult person to assess and understand, even after 8 year as president. I think he is quite smart - good evidence that he was in the low 90's profile in his LSAT. I think the most likely explanation of him is intense ambition combined with traditional lefty views, but with political skills mostly in the campaign side of things and not in the government side of things. Obama is, and always has been, mostly about himself. In that regard, his achievements are remarkable.

Qwinn said...

Lefties were never for workers. That and everything else were always a fig leaf to cover raw power and money hungry nihilism. When you understand that as their motivating force, everything they do makes sense.

wendybar said...

Thank the author for America. NOW at least, we have heard that our most beloved Messiah actually had a life before he was President. For a long time, I thought he was just transported down to earth as an angel to help America see the damage they have done to the world, and to make the oceans rise, and the earth begin to heal. Now, I see he was just a regular joe, who tossed away his white fiancé, because..HOW could he become the MLK of his time, if he is with whitey?? I don't mind that I was called a racist for over 8 years...just so long as this man, who brought us all together has a wonderful, rich life....

Susan Petrik said...


"This one of the great political mysteries of our time, along with the left's abandonment of secularism to form an alliance with unreformed Islam. I sense the two are related but can't say why."

Simple. The alliance is grounded in a common enemy: America.

Arthur James said...

No matter how hard others try, I just don't think you can make an uninteresting person interesting.

Michael K said...

"There's nothing more Obamesque than quoting yourself."

Oh, commenting and not reading the link is pretty Obamaesque. I was not "quoting myself." I was pointing out that some people, not you obviously, knew he was an empty suit in early 2008.

John said...

I think Obama was a disaster of a President. I do, not, however, see how the opinion of his college ex girlfriend about his character is of any historical importance or does anything to explain or help us understand his actions decades later as President. To say that it does is to engage in the worst sort of armchair pop psychology that is really no better than the most vile sort of conspiracy mongering.

Like everyone, Obama deserves to have his actions judged on their own merit. Absent very compelling evidence to the contrary, Obama also deserves the benefit of the doubt. Judging actions as President by the light of actions he took in his personal life as a young man is no better than saying George Bush invaded Iraq because he had daddy issues. Obama was a bad President. But he was a bad President because of the decisions he made not because he meant harm to the country or didn't try to do what he felt was the right thing. There are lots of interesting books to be written investigating why Obama was a bad President and trying to explain why he made the decisions he made. That process, however, should not involve pop psychoanalysis and what amount to conspiracy theories explaining that Obama did what he did not because he was mistaken but because he was working through whatever personal issues he may have had.

St. George said...

Imagine spending years researching and writing a book about a world leader and after writing one thousand and four hundred pages, your conclusion is the your subject had "a hollow core."

Imagine how woeful the author must feel, and imagine the moment when he was during the research when he came to that conclusion.

I'll always remember how Obama was sold to the nation as an orator for the ages--a new Churchill, a Lincoln, a man of wit and verbal panache. Remember that? Zero evidence during his presidency of any skill with words--on paper or orally.

But he had a lot of favorite TV shows. Someone should interview him about that.

Zach said...

the book does not open out to become the sort of resonant narrative that Robert A. Caro and Ron Chernow have pioneered, in which momentous historical events are deftly recreated, and a subject’s life is situated in a time and a place

I for one hated Caro's writing style. Purple prose, beating you over the head with the message you're supposed to be taking away from the book. It was an interesting subject, but I couldn't stand the prose.

John said...

Imagine spending years researching and writing a book about a world leader and after writing one thousand and four hundred pages, your conclusion is the your subject had "a hollow core."

I can't imagine how anyone could have lived through the Obama Presidency and been surprised to find out Obama had a "hollow core". I don't think Obama was a secret Muslim or had some deep dark plan to destroy American influence in the world. But, it takes a pretty deep drink of the Obama Kool Aide to think that Obama wasn't completely out of his depth as President. Obama was a Chicago machine politician who had mastered the art of allowing stupid white people project their hopes and dreams onto him. I don't think he ever really wanted to be President or thought much about what he would do once he was President. Obama enjoyed adulation more than anything else. He loved running for President and the idea of being President. The actual day to day job of being President and making decisions and working with the Congress and convincing the country to support his policies never interested him.

I don't think Obama is necessarily a bad person. But, it is obvious that he doesn't have any depth and never had any real convictions beyond how great it is to be Obama. It is pretty amazing to think that the author of this book was so naive and so out of touch with reality that he actually thought he was going to find some deep core, dark or good, to Obama. Obama was in many ways everything that the left now accuses Trump of being; a lazy accidental President with no intellectual core or real interest in the job.

Ann Althouse said...

Anyone can be accused of having a hollow core.

It's a hollowcore-ish thing to say.

rightguy2 said...

In politics, as in Hollywood, the guy with the biggest ego usually wins.

I think you can apply this to Obama, Trump, and (BJ) Clinton.

John said...

Anyone can be accused of having a hollow core.

I disagree. I wouldn't say someone like Bernie Sanders has a hollow core. He might be a bit of a hypocrite and his ideas are utterly wrong. But, I don't think you can say he doesn't have an ideological core and a set of deeply held beliefs. Anyone who did would be making an absurd charge that even Bernie's worst critics would have a hard time supporting.

Saying someone has a "hollow core" is not necessarily saying they are a bad person or even a cynical person. It is saying they are someone who doesn't have a set of deeply held beliefs or guiding principles. That is not something that can be said about anyone.

walter said...

"They even had a cat together named Max"
Wow. It really WAS serious.
Who got catstody?

walter said...

Right. Berno is no "hollow core"..he's full of shit.

mockturtle said...

I wonder which is worse? Hollow core or rotten core [like Hillary].

walter said...

That was a part of the Decision 2016 calculus.

Kansas City said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kansas City said...

Rotten core.

St. George's comment about no famous words spoken by Obama is interesting. He is a good public speaker, sometimes great or near great, and he has a distinctive voice. He is smart. He had smart people writing speeches for him. Yet, no one memorable speech or even a line or phrase from a speech over 8 years of president (not counting unfavorable lines, "if you like your plan . . . " and "jayvee team"). His one memorable line was from the 2004 convention, when he talked about not a red or blue America. How did that happen over 8 years as president? He had nothing important to say that caught the attention of the public. Very odd.

I also don't understand Ann's criticism of the hollow core description. It describes Obama basically as smart, intensely ambitious and calculating, but that he really did not care that much about America, the people or even his left wing political beliefs. Sounds about right to me.

As, as to the girlfriend, is there anyone else close to Obama who would tell the truth about him? Who? I think she is a great source.

John said...

I also don't understand Ann's criticism of the hollow core description. It describes Obama basically as smart, intensely ambitious and calculating, but that he really did not care that much about America, the people or even his left wing political beliefs. Sounds about right to me.

Sounds about right to me. Ann is just being defensive about Obama because of her now embarrassing support and vote for him. Her ego will never allow her to admit that she was taken in and voted for an empty suit for the most shallow of reasons. I doubt she will ever admit that to herself much less her readership. At some level she knows the truth and that is why she takes offense to anyone who speaks it.