Monday, July 30, 2018

Obamamandius - Blackness' Permanent Epitaph...,

LRB |  Despite his hankering for historical significance, Rhodes understands the anomalousness of his own situation. To travel the world with the American president – and not just any president, but this one – was to get access to some of the most famous people in the world, who nevertheless continued to regard Obama with a kind of awe. Even as his popularity waned back home, Obama remained the biggest draw on the world stage. Stars were starstruck by him, and some of the fairy dust inevitably got sprinkled on whoever was standing nearby. Only on very rare occasions did someone manage to break the spell. In early 2011 Rhodes gets an invitation with the rest of Team Obama to a state banquet at Buckingham Palace. He rents a white-tie tuxedo – ‘You guys clean up pretty well,’ the impeccably turned-out Obama tells his normally scruffy speechwriters – and goes to see the British aristocracy put on a show. ‘The women wore diamond tiaras; some of the men, military uniforms. One of these ladies, after telling me about her various hobbies, looked at me quizzically – “You do know who I am, don’t you?” she said. Of course, I assured her … I didn’t have the slightest idea.’ Then the real centre of attention arrives:
Obama stood next to the queen, a stoic yet kindly-looking woman adorned in jewels. Standing there, you got the sense of the impermanence of your own importance – this woman had met everyone there was to know over the last fifty years … When the dinner was over, we were moved to another room, where they served after-dinner drinks. I found myself in a conversation with David Cameron about the HBO show Entourage, which we both apparently enjoyed – in a room full of royals, the prime minister is oddly diminished, just another staffer.
‘The Impermanence of Importance’ would have made a good alternative title for this book.

That said, the title Rhodes chose is better, because it has a deeper meaning. At one level, it refers to the ongoing contest between Obama’s realism and the hopes of people like Rhodes that he would deliver lasting change. The tension between what is and what ought to be forms the essence of most political coming-of-age memoirs and this one is no different from other classics of the genre, such as The Education of Henry Adams: the dilemmas it describes could come from any time in the history of modern politics, not just our own. But the other reference point for the title is more about now. We are witnessing the increasingly fraught contest between the world as it is – the world of facts – and the world as it is described by people with little or no regard for the facts. Obama and Rhodes may sometimes have found themselves on different sides of the struggle between what is and what ought to be, but they were always on the same side of the struggle between the world as it is and the world as they say it is. Both men were victims of character assassinations by their opponents, who showed increasing disregard for anything that might be called common ground. During Obama’s presidency, the world as it is started to disappear, buried beneath the accusations and counter-accusations of those who said it was another way entirely, simply because they could.

This story is best told backwards, because it is a tale that culminates in the election of Trump. If that represented the ultimate catastrophe for Team Obama – ‘after all the work you guys did,’ as Rhodes’s wife says to him the morning after Trump’s victory – what precedes it has to be sifted for clues that it might be coming. They are easy to miss and Obama’s people missed plenty of them at the time. Sometimes this was down to political incompetence, but there was also some arrogance. In April 2016 Obama travelled to London on a hastily arranged trip to help Cameron fight off the threat of defeat in the Brexit referendum. Obama is greeted by an op-ed from Boris Johnson in the Telegraph attacking him for removing a bust of Churchill from the Oval Office. ‘Some said,’ Johnson wrote, ‘that it was a symbol of the part-Kenyan president’s ancestral dislike of the British Empire.’