Obama’s Promised Land: Obama Wept (Two Episodes from Campaign 2008)

“Half of the people lie with their lips; the other half with their tears.” ―Nassim Nicholas Taleb

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Continuing on with our circuitous slog through volume one of Obama’s third autobiography, I want to take a look at two incidents on the 2008 campaign trail: The first, where Obama throws his pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, under the bus; the second, which follows hard upon, where Obama explains how and why flyover “clings” to guns and religion. (Because I only have a hard cover copy of the book, and not a PDF, I can’t copy and paste the passages I am about to quote; I photograph them with my iPad, and then highlighted the images. So please forgive the awkward angles and uneven text color.)

The trajectory of the relation between Reverend Jeremiah Wright (pastor) and Barack Obama (parishioner) is neatly set forth in the Index; the final index entry is “denunciation.”

Reverend Wright was pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, and Obama says he come to know write during his “organizing days.” He doesn’t say when, exactly, he and Michelle became Wright’s parishioners; he does say their attendance was “spotty.” He was also dubious about Wright’s sermons:

Obama had, however, asked Wright to lead the crowd in prayer when he announced his candidacy in Springfield. Until a reporter from Rolling Stone spoiled the mood by going to Trinity to hear one of Wright’s sermons:

(“Axe” is David Axelrod, chief strategist for Obama’s campaign and later Senior Advisor to the President. These little touches of authenticity really make the book worth reading.) The fastidious Obama is naturally aghast at Wright’s “incendiary language” — though it’s certainly odd that he and “Axe” had never considered Wright oppo material, given how much he had already benefited from it — and immediately throws Wright under the bus:

A moment’s pause for Obama to muse:

(“I myself was too complicated.”) Fire extinguished, at least until later in the campaign when ABC’s Good Morning America puts together a video of Wright clips, and the flamage bursts forth with renewed fury:

(“Living color”). “9/11 might in part be explained by our record of military interventions.” MR SUBLIMINAL Axe, the man will say anything.. Obama, once again, denounces Wright, but it does no good:

So Obama decides — this is the supreme West Wing moment, although to be fair, everything up to this point has been pretty West Wing, too — that he needs to make a speech:

Oddly, Obama here muses on what he would “argue,” without at any point chronicling what he actually said:

And having not said what he said, Obama does say that he said what he “believes”:

The speech goes over boffo. “Marty” (Martin Nesbit, now in private equity, then Obama’s campaign treasurer), in a neat bit of foreshadowing, sheds a tear:

(“Toots” is Obama’s grandmother, a Vice President at the Bank of Hawaii.) And then Obama himself cries (over a speech, remember, whose content he does not actually describe).

But why? Why is Obama crying? With joy, for having salvaged his Presidential campaign? With relief, for having patched the “blown through” “hull” of his campaign? For the sadness of throwing his pastor under the bus, and then driving over the body? For the tragedy of it all, having sacrificed the man he once was on the altar of the office he hoped to hold? With happiness, for having lived up to his banker grandmother’s expectations? We’ll never know, because Obama doesn’t say. (We don’t know why he was holding back tears, either, or for how long.)

So, Obama wept[1], for unknown reasons. Let’s turn now to our second incident, which takes place in the Pennsylvania primary. Again, the index is telling:

The index entry is: “Pennsylvania primary, 143, 145-46.” That is, nothing relevant to the Pennsylvania primary happened on page 144, because if it had, the entry would read “143-146.” Oddly, the incident I am about the extract is not only described on page 144, it’s the only reason to read about the Pennsylvania primary in the first place. (Of course, I’m not saying Obama is to prone to erasure that he actually goes in and fiddles with index entries; I’m just saying this is odd.) The incident begins with a question:

(The “voting against their interests” is, of course, a well-known liberal trope, unpacked by Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) And Obama muffs the answer:

Now, to be fair to Obama, this is the first of a bipartisan series of stumbles on the issue of working class representation in political life: Obama’s “bitter”/”cling to” is Romney’s 47% is Clinton’s “basket of deplorables“; this isn’t a problem for Obama alone, but for the entire political class (with very rare exceptions).

That said, my reaction to Obama’s remarks was and is incandescent fury. We had just gone through the Reverend Wright saga, where Obama was allowed to perform a highly visible, deeply personal reflection on religion, race, politics and his own agency within those cross-currents. Leaving aside Obama’s reframing of the effects of deindustrialization as “anti-trade sentiment,” he denies these working class people their agency. Obama is allowed space and time for personal reflection on religion, almost as if he were a public intellectual; “bitter” working class people “cling to” religion, presumably because they know nothing better, and have no ability to self-reflect. Obama says: “I myself was too complicated”. Can anybody imagine Obama, or indeed any member of the Obama Alumni Association, thinking or saying that working class people have complex internal lives?

Finally, Obama broods on how misundertood he is:

Dude. No:

And that’s before we get the promise to pass card check (broken) and the promise to put on “comfortable shoes” and walk the picket line (broken).

Oh, Obama’s instinct is to censor the press:

Of course, Obama’s 2008 view of the press has become, in the main, the truth in 2020. The press probably would check with Obama now — as if the tape didn’t speak for itself — and the press and the politicicians are both wear the same jerseys, with reporting taking a back seat to team spirit.

* * *

Hopefully in the near future I can move on to Obama’s various policy debacles — ObamaCare doesn’t really get rolling until 2013, so we have to wait on Volume Two for that — but these two incidents, coming so close together in 2008, really shaped my picture of Obama the man, and this book, and its careful omissions and erasures, repaints that picture in brighter colors. Weeping for reasons he cannot or will not explain; denying working class people the agency he arrogates to himself, and luxuriates in. I guess I’m not sure that Taleb’s categories are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.


[1] “It was only after I hung up that I allowed myself to cry” is not the shortest sentence in Promised Land.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. flora

    Was throwing Rev. Wright under the bus O’s Sister Souljah moment?

    Obama wept… just like Elmer Gantry. /;)

    Wonder what percentage of the sentences in the book include the words “I”, “me”, or “my.” /heh

  2. Mark Gisleson

    I tweeted something nice about Charles Booker and his pastor started following me so I followed back and was rewarded today with a remarkably appropriate sermon from a South African theologian weighing in on Barack Obama and the Rev. Wright:


    Almost thirty minutes long, but the fire and brimstone is all directed at Obama and worth your time.

    1. JohnnyGL

      Dr. Cosby is president of Simmons College in Ky, a big HBCU. He’s also playing a big role in the ADOS movement which seems to be gaining steam.

      As Stoller says, Democrats (this includes the so-called left) still aren’t ready to face up to the fact that Obama was a bad president. I wonder if it’s going to be ADOS activists that force them to face up to that fact.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        How many of the ADOS descendant activists themselves believe Obama was a harmful President?
        And how many of the mainstream ADOS population believe Obama was a harmful President?

        I have finally settled on a valid reply for if/when an ADOS activist asks me if I support Reparations for Slavery. And that valid reply is that I will support Reparations for Slavery when the ADOS movement supports Reparations for Strip Mining. Not before, and not until.

    2. lyman alpha blob

      Great talk – thanks for posting.

      Glad he pointed out how Obama intervened to squash the NBA strike before it could get off the ground. I was actually pretty excited about it at the time and thought it might be the one thing that got people to pay real attention to the BLM movement and get some real changes and progress. Instead Obama intervenes, the stike gets called off, the billionaires keep their cash flow, and the BLM movement gets coopted and becomes a useless corporate logo.

      Too bad it’s a South African minister pointing it out, because Obama’s role in squashing that strike has been largely ignored in the US.

    3. berit

      Excellent sermon! Thank you. A gift to be shared in the country where besotted politicians awarded this warlord, dronekilling Obama a Nobel Peace Prize.

  3. ChrisPacific

    That passage about race relations was very odd. Even Obama, with his ability to “move seamlessly between Black and White circles,” to “serve as a translator and bridge among family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues,” to “make connections across an ever-expanding orbit,” is not equal to the task of tackling the problem of race relations in America. It’s just too hard. People would say mean things about him on Fox. It would require him to give air time to conspiracy theories, like the idea that America’s actions in the Middle East might not always have been entirely admirable.

    I would ask: if the would-be first black President of the United States doesn’t have the standing to tackle this question, who does?

    1. Synoia

      if the would-be first black President of the United States doesn’t have the standing…

      Standing on whom?

      Obama did not get the benefit of the “Black Experience ” when growing up.

      1. Janie

        He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia, so his formative years were very different. Yes, Hawaii is a state, but it’s unlike the mainland.

          1. Mark Gisleson

            I wish we could make every school teach about ADOS.

            It’s the one area of politics and culture in which the USA is truly exceptional. And not in a good way.

    2. cocomaan

      If Obama is a translator between races, he’s committing the error a commenter mentioned on here a few days ago, in the context of Coleman Barkes and Rumi: traduttore, traditore. Translator, traitor.

      Translation is more of a confidence game than a meaning game.

      I actually like Coleman Barks, I saw him live once. I do not like Obama.

    3. DSB

      Would this be the first Black POTUS that helped translate between Henry Louis Gates and Sergeant James Crowley? That was certainly seamless.

      I find Obama’s communication skills are more class based than race based.

    4. drumlin woodchuckles

      Barack Obama was never Black in any American sense. He attended Wright’s church to burnish his fake Black Credentials. Mayor Harold Washington could maybe have made that bridging, but he died too soon.

  4. Donald

    There is a reflexive defense liberals make for Obama— I have heard this numerous times. The defense is that as a black man he had to be moderate or he would not have been elected, because a radical black man ( like Jesse Jackson in the 80’s) would not make it into office.

    True or false, it’s completely irrelevant, because Obama was a corporate centrist deep in his bones. It annoys me when people bring this up, because it is nothing but a distraction from any serious analysis of Obama’s Presidency.

    1. NotTimothyGeithner

      It’s also infantilizing as President. They killed Caesar after all. Until we tear down the Senate and those faux Roman monoliths in DC, this is the standard. Whining about what Republicans will say at the level of President is just so…childish.

  5. The Rev Kev

    It’s kinda funny listening how Obama takes offense at Wright’s sermons. The congregation was made up of police commanders, celebrities and wealthy business people for crying out loud. They knew the deal. You have a firebrand minister that you can point to to show your race credentials but then you could go along and do what you normally do during the week. Sort of like going to listen to your priest rail against sin and the pleasures of the flesh in a Sunday sermon while the parishioners pretended that they were not at the gambling dens and brothels the previous night.

    I think that for Obama, people are basically disposable assets. Didn’t he dump his girlfriend when he saw that Michelle LaVaughn Robinson had better connections for him personally? Same with Reverend Wright. He used going to that church, even though he felt uncomfortable there as a way to connect with all the other parishioners. When Wright had proven to be a liability, he was dumped and for Obama, it was a matter of managing the perception of how he dumped Wright to ensure people knew that he did not share Wright’s beliefs.

    When he railed against “bitter” working class people, that was when he let the mask slip for a bit. That is what he was really thinking and it cost him dearly. It was a time when he let perception management get out of control. And when he did not need you at all, that was when he would go out of his way to mock and humiliate you like he did with those glasses of water in front of the people of Flint, Michigan. He did not even have to go to Flint but he did so anyway to show people there what he really thought of them.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      What Obama is really saying is that working class people don’t have complex inner lives*. It’s disgusting and unconscionable. It’s utterly inhumane. And I would bet if somebody put forward a resolution to that effect at the next meeting of the Obama Alumni Association, it would pass overwhelmingly.

      * That’s reserved for the PMC on up.

      “I myself was too complicated.” That reflexive pronoun really owns; I missed it the first time. The arrogance and pretension.

      1. LowellHighlander

        And I think Obama further showed his belief (viz., that working class people don’t have complex inner lives) when he treated them as disposable: he did little or nothing to rein in the wars started [illegally] by Dick Cheney & George W. Bush. Why should he; soldiers and Marines haven’t graduated from Columbia or Harvard. Nor do they work on Wall Street.

  6. Pat

    Thank you, Lambert, for wading through this. Wading is not adequate, it is really forcing your way forward while chest deep in sewage and trying to avoid the flotsam including meaningless trophies (oops just missed the “world’s greatest dad” mug while swerving to avoid the attendance trophy from the Illinois State Senate).

    Every time I decide that Obama could not possibly make me despise him more, he proves me wrong. So many people will read this and miss this is Trump level narcissism. Oh sure it is disguised as reflective. But it is still, triumph over minor missteps based not in philosophy or attitude or action, but in presentation and phrasing. “I wasn’t really wrong, the people watching ARE, but I will adjust because I am so nimble even if I shouldn’t have to adjust.”

  7. Alex morfesis

    Wish she had checked with me first…ah…the real problem being professional politicians in the you ess of hay hay hay are mostly lawyers…and unlike in the Hollywood version of how the law is practiced, one of the secret bernaze sauce magic tricks in the law is what you say may not exactly be what you said…as in…you can change your deposition answers…

    that’s right kiddies…the players with the big boy pants do it all the time….thus…

    Lawyers of some capacity are trained one can “correct” mi$-$tatement$….

    Thus the modern concept of “expecting” to be able to “correct” your “te$timony/$tatement”…

  8. DJG

    Lambert Strether: The sampling from the book that you post includes several verbal tics: The one I note is the faux folksy endless use of contractions. “I’d” for I would or I had (who knows? who cares?). This is a mark of fausse authenticity, although I often recall an article in the New Yorker by David Remnick (I suspect) that referred to Obama as a Javanese prince (evoking skin tone, noting his supposed reserve), and I’m not sure if Remnick was referring to Obama as someone mainly ceremonial, too. Maybe the contractions are ceremonial.

    Up top, you give the main datum: Three autobiographies. And not much else. As many people have remarked, Obama, the supposed scholar and teacher of the U.S. Constitution, has no book on the Constitution. Nary even an article. Evidently, he is the Javanese prince of legal scholars, mainly ceremonial.

    Three autobiographies: Obama exists for his own words. Autobiographies and the two particularly famous autobiographical speeches, the one that launched him at the Dem Convention, and the one in Philadelphia that saved from from Rev. Wright’s legitimate assessment of race relations in the U S of A.

    There are some remarkable writers who have produced three autobiographies. I can think of J.R. Ackerley. Colette, the excellent Colette: Who knows how much autobiography instills her work?

    But three autobiographies from a politician, and not much else? A sign of the logorrheic times.

    1. Cocomaan

      This is a great point. You’re absolutely right that his most lasting policy speech was the race speech that was also autobiographical.

      He’s essentially taken the stereotypical navel gazing of late empire and made it stylish.

  9. William Hunter Duncan

    It’s that “a scathing critique of America’s drug war, American militarism, Capitalist Greed and Intractability of racism usually grounded in fact but bereft of context,” that reminds me why I despise Obama so.

    What does than even mean, grounded in fact but bereft of context? That sounds like saying you can find examples of these things, but they are rare, and not really a problem. It makes me realize, Obama is actually FOR all these things, because in the context of such he is still worth $100 million (on his way to a BILLION!), because he is such a meritocrat, and America is the Shining City on the Hill, a burgeoning Promised Land.

    Is it just me, or is Obama oblivious to the fact that Congress is sitting on their hands while tens of millions of Americans face homelessness in the middle of winter? That seems like his logic about foreclosures, foaming the runway as it were to get the masters of capital to land safely, they are flying so high in the Market he seems to take as the be all end all? Too busy hocking his tome to himself? Narcissist.

  10. Pavel

    I suspect Obama’s tears were about as real as William Hurt’s character Tom in “Broadcast News”, in which he is caught faking tears during an interview.

    Which reminds me…:

    Aaron Altman:
    I know you care about him. I’ve never seen you like this about anyone, so please don’t take it wrong when I tell you that I believe that Tom, while a very nice guy, is the Devil.

    Jane Craig:
    This isn’t friendship.

    Aaron Altman:
    What do you think the Devil is going to look like if he’s around? Nobody is going to be taken in if he has a long, red, pointy tail. No. I’m semi-serious here. He will look attractive and he will be nice and helpful and he will get a job where he influences a great God-fearing nation and he will never do an evil thing… he will just bit by little bit lower standards where they are important. Just coax along flash over substance… Just a tiny bit. And he will talk about all of us really being salesmen. And he’ll get all the great women.

    –James L. Brooks, “Broadcast News” (1987)

  11. HH

    How many times must we receive proof that political acumen and ethical character are totally uncorrelated. Obama was the perfect instrument for protecting the American plutocracy from populist reforms. He snuffed out the anti-war movement, protected Wall Street, and perpetuated the rapacious sick-care system. Obama was America’s black Tony Blair: witty, charismatic, articulate, poised, and consistently mistaken in his leadership decisions.

    The Democrats continue to use minority identity issues as a shiny object to distract voters from the real mechanisms of economic inequality: government policies that further enrich the wealthy at the expense of the poor. This will lead to such egregious inequality that the next Trump may permanently destroy the Republic.

    1. flora

      The Dem estab excels in pitting idpol “class” against economic class and saying “you can choose only one, they are mutually exclusive, and idpol is more important (for you 99% non-PMC voters) than class economics.” They use ipol social justice to suppress economic class justice. e.g. A black president is a great win, so pay no attention to the economic destruction of millions of minority home owners during the fraudulent foreclosures crisis. That’s economic and that doesn’t count. “Will breaking up the banks end rac*sm”? etc. That’s quite a scam. (Letting financial predators prey primarily on poor minority communities sure doens’t end rac*sm. It cements the pernicious effects.)

      And, as we know, the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike was about AA workers being called bad names, and not about the workers fighting to be paid a fair wage, right? right? /s

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Well, that’s what any Critical Race Wokenist will tell you. Along with demanding that you confess to White Privilege.

  12. km

    I particularly dig how Obama helpfully furnishes an index to his autobiography, to make it easier for us schlubs to be able to reference his utterances about a specific subject.

    It’s like the man expects his autobio to be a scholarly reference, with fools arguing about the significance of his very word. Score another for self-importance.

  13. ckimball

    I wish to describe this as an intuitive anecdote.
    I have a store next to a book shop. Way back when Obama’s first biographical book arrived (something about his father) I saw people eagerly buying the book. I like to read but I was repulsed by its popularity…it seemed to me it was an advertisement for a politician. I still haven’t read it. I knew nothing about him. I wasn’t yet reading Naked Capitalism and hadn’t been introduced to its commentators. I was pretty much committed to ignorance of the details of the political world and finance as a subject was very far away from me. But the enthusiasm for Obama was in the air and the primary was happening and since I don’t watch television my daughter and I walked down to the local pizza parlor where Obama was televised on a big screen. Right away I said to her “I’m not feeling it.” She said to me “Is he a shill?” This mysterious reaction pleases me to this day and likely beyond.
    The next time I thought about him was because he showed up in a dream. It was in an old brownstone apartment and I was sitting on an over stuffed sofa. The upholstery felt like a rose colored wool frise. There was a man next to me who kissed me. I was surprised because he was black and I was of a certain age and was not in the habit of hanging out on a sofa kissing. As he was turning to his right I recognized it was Obama kissing a black woman on the other side of him. This dream was not erotic it was descriptive like a diagram. He was two faces like a Janus. That was/is my interpretation. People found it shocking that I could dream such a dream about such an elevated personage. Seems he is transparent after all.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      It seems you and your daughter have a rare gift and ability, perhaps a kind of X-ray metavision. If you have any such feelings or insights or dreams about other political figures, they might be quite valuable and one hopes you bring them here.

      And since the Internet is a bad place for satire or sarcasm, and I do NOT do sarcasm or satire on the Internet because it is such a bad place for it; rest assured this comment is NOT sarcasm or satire.

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