Obama’s last sermon
The memoir is, probably, the thing that makes the prospect of giving it up at all palatable. President Obama is by nature an intellectual, and eight years of hard labor as a man of action can only have strengthened his appetite for the luxuries of a literary life.
Yet the book itself will almost certainly disappoint: Presidential memoirs are by definition incredible, are implicitly not to be believed. The story of most presidencies is one of pride chastened, of egotism rebuked. But it is not a story presidents find easy to tell. “All the dogmatic stations in life,” Henry Adams said, “have the effect of fixing a certain stiffness of attitude forever.” Having been, successively, schoolteacher, senator, and president, Obama has been too long a professional dogmatist to be a supple and candid memoirist.
The saints themselves, when, as with Augustine, they have tried their hand at autobiography, have succeeded only by confessing themselves sinners. You can’t write a persuasive confession without an element of self-loathing. But two terms in the bully pulpit have only reinforced President Obama’s penchant for righteous preaching. The book will be a sermon, and its moral will be predictable: Plot the coordinates of the arc of justice, and you will find (mirabile dictu) that they roughly correspond to those of the president’s own legacy.
Ever since Theodore Sorensen published The Kennedy Legacy in 1969, it has been incumbent on presidents to exaggerate the gifts they are bequeathing to posterity. Kennedy, however, had not been long enough in office to amass a substantial estate, and Sorensen was forced to an expedient. “Not by accident is ‘hope’ a recurring word” in his book, the historian Ronald Steel observed, “for if ever there was a politics of hope, it was that practiced by the Kennedys. . . . The legacy they left is the enduring hope that somehow things would have been better were they still here.”
Two years after The Kennedy Legacy appeared, Lyndon Johnson brought out his riposte, The Vantage Point: Perspectives of the Presidency. If, in Johnson’s view, the Kennedys left a mass of insubstantial dreams, he himself handed down a king’s ransom of legislative treasure. Shrewdly appraising the literary value of his volume, he made the case for his legacy in the endpapers, a catalogue of the Acts of Congress enacted during his presidency — a gesture for which the reader, spared the task of making his way through several hundred pages of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s prose, can only be grateful.
Obama, for his part, is already hard at work on the principal labor of his post-presidential years, his last sermon, the articulation of his legacy. He has spoken to Doris Kearns Goodwin about it. His wife has spoken to Oprah Winfrey. Since the greater part of the Obama res gestae has taken the form of administrative fiats likely to be repudiated by his successor, the president has little choice but to fall back on the Kennedy mantra of hope. It is a gospel with which he is familiar, having cribbed from it, via Jeremiah Wright, in his 2008 campaign (“hope and change”) in much the way Bill Clinton (“the man from Hope”) had in his 1992 run. Michelle Obama is already testing its rhetorical value as a legacy trope. “See, now we are feeling what not having hope feels like,” she told Oprah after the election of Donald Trump. “Hope is necessary. It’s a necessary concept, and Barack didn’t just talk about hope because he thought it was just a nice slogan to get votes.”
But the ghost of LBJ, too, will haunt the Obama legacy sermon. Jack Kennedy and Bill Clinton might have given America hope, but the current occupant of the White House has given us something more — the Affordable Care Act.
Even so, the descent has been hard. Eight years ago Obama was practically a vegetation god, hailed by delirious crowds at home and abroad as the redeemer of a barren time; he could speak, quite un-self-consciously, of the moment when “the perfection begins,” one that he equated with his own ascent to power.
Yet within a year of his inauguration, the forces of equilibrium had begun to reassert themselves, and the redemptive prophet became a figure of ordinary time. He was still the biggest guy on the planet, with the grandest pulpit and most sought-after airplane. But in relying on the institutional bulwarks of the presidency to insulate himself from the reality of unfulfilled hopes, he tacitly admitted that he was not the charismatic man of destiny he had seemed to be. A charismatic leader is by Weberian definition not a creature of institutions and protocols. He rises above them.
Obama came to depend on the very bureaucratic and procedural machinery a genuinely charismatic leader transcends. Ronald Reagan, reaching out to the nation in 1981, compelled a House dominated by Democrats to pass his reforms; and in implementing his program he brought the bulk of the country along with him, an achievement signalized by his carrying 49 of 50 states in 1984. Obama, on the contrary, was unable to move the nation, and after losing his congressional majorities descended to the humiliating expedient of issuing executive ukases, a confession of both political ineptitude and charismatic impotence. The would-be transformer became a prisoner of the institutional cage of the modern presidency, a conventional pol who relied on the trappings of his office to disguise the hollowness of his leadership.
A prisoner of his presidency, Obama is still more poignantly a victim of the Calvinist hangover that has long colored American politics. Secularize redemption, and you can build the New Jerusalem in the mortal here-and-now. The vision is not exclusively progressive or Democratic; both Lincoln and Reagan invoked it, the one with his “new birth of freedom” (a paraphrase of John 3:3), the other with his “shining city on a hill” (a reworked conceit of the Puritans). But where Lincoln and Reagan invoked the vision to remove existing evils (slavery in the one case, intrusive government in the other), progressives interpret it as a mandate to use the state to create new goods.
“It is in the power of government to prevent much evil,” Edmund Burke said; “it can do very little positive good.” The attempt to do such good typically ends in disappointment. The canny FDR recognized this and by 1940 was deploring the naïveté of progressive “utopians.” Bill Clinton made a comparable shift after the 1994 midterm elections. Both knew when to break with the sermon.
Obama is different. The sermon has dominated his presidency in a way not seen since LBJ or Woodrow Wilson. This is ironic, for more than most presidents, Obama, who, according to the New York Times, prefers “conversation touching on art, architecture, and literature” to political talk, might be expected to understand the shortcomings of the sermon as an instrument of moral art. Its weakness lies in its verbosity. The Calvinist prized the art of the word above all others, and despised as idolatrous and pagan those rival arts that had long played a part in the creation of civilized order. The soft compulsion of traditions and customary usages, of rituals, of art brought into the midst of life to promote a harmonious manner of living — it was as essential to the infrastructure of Western life, its manners and mores, as laws and regulations. More so, perhaps, or so Plato suggested in the Laws.
Yet in America the Calvinist sermon was for a long time practically the country’s only moral art. Our earliest prophets — John Winthrop, the Mathers, Jonathan Edwards — were all predisposed to it; Emerson and Thoreau merely secularized it. And although in our literature we have transcended it, the sermon remains the characteristic expression of our politics, and goes far to explain our blindness to those constituents of humane order that are not purely verbal. The sermon is a thing of words: When we sermonize a problem, we throw words at it. The words are printed in books and enacted as laws — Draco’s “black artillery,” in Melville’s image. But you cannot rear a really healthy civilization on a foundation of words alone, though they be those of the Constitution itself.
Words, however, have been Obama’s life, and the sermon his raison d’être. Don’t look for him to depart from it as he leaves the White House.
– Mr. Beran, a contributing editor of City Journal, is the author of Forge of Empires: Three Revolutionary Statesmen and the World They Made, 1861–1871, among other books.