Back in 2004 I was living in Southwest Missouri and suddenly had the opportunity to move to California. My brother was in the Bay Area, still single, and we decided that when I did move we would be roommates. I packed most of my Missouri life in a storage unit and the rest into my car: clothes, cat, notebooks, and books (but just a few because this was a 1998 Chevy Lumina, not a bookmobile). The books were the following:
- AAA state guides for Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and California (this was before smartphones as we know them now, after all);
- Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris (he had just died that May);
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac;
- Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama.
I had no clue how to pronounce the last author’s name at that time, but that’s the book I read first at each hotel on the way west. I would turn the cat out of her carrier, set up her self-care station, go fetch ice and maybe dinner, review the next night’s plan for a hotel from a guidebook, and then crack open Dreams From My Father while I ate in the hotel room. I have had the gift all of my life of finding books that needed to be present for a reason, just when I picked them, and for some reason the narrative of a guy with such a jacked-up name running for Senate in a midwestern state like Illinois spoke to me. The premise only got me started, however, because what kept me reading was that a) the book told a compelling story that didn’t sound like a political resume. It was well-written. I hoped this guy would write again.
Flash forward to later in that month, Sunnyvale, California. My brother and I have a few weeks left in his old apartment before we move into a bigger place across the pool with two bedrooms. I’m sleeping in the living room on my futon for the time being, still looking for a job, and one late afternoon, waiting for my brother to come home to see what he wants to do about dinner, I’m bored and I turn on the Democratic National Convention. I’m not crazy about John Kerry, but I certainly didn’t want Bush the first time, so I’m just kind of listening, kind of not, when a speaker is introduced with a name that sounds familiar, and which I finally know how to pronounce, now. He strides to the mic, and he starts speaking, and it turns out he can speak as well as he could write. The voice is the same on paper and on camera. I’d been watching political stuff for years (history minor in college), but this guy was political to everyone else but me. To me, superficial woman with a preference for poets first, I fell in love with Barack Obama because he could write. That sealed it.
And then some pundit chimed in as Obama left the podium, mentioning something about someday that guy should run for President. I thought that might be too good to be true (with a name like THAT? And he’s a WRITER…), but it was nice to chew on that for a minute, dream on that for a minute.
I’ve never read Barack Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope. I was afraid (and still am) that Audacity would read like a stump speech, like a campaign publication. Don’t tell me if you’ve read it and it does read like that, even though it probably won’t change my mind. My sister-in-law and I always wondered what kind of job his speechwriters had while he was in the Senate and then President; I liked to muse that they probably played solitaire and, at the end of his term, maybe spent their days watching Netflix, but something tells me he was either keeping them busy with mentoring them, pushing them to develop themselves as political operatives, or making their lives hell by debating their own writing. Even if it was the last option, I would have killed to be on that writing team.
When Obama left office I forced myself to accept two probabilities: that the next Democratic Presidential candidate or series of candidates would also write or have written books, and that they would be written in such a way that I wouldn’t want to read them…unless I was suffering from insomnia.
In addition to being a writer I loved to read and listen to, Obama also had this nifty trick of being a passionate lover of literature. Every so often the press would report on his visits to independent booksellers in the DC area and what he bought from them; most of the list was literary fiction. I occasionally would pick something from the list to read just to get a feel for his preferences, and I enjoyed his selections even more that I enjoyed his writing. He was the Writer/Reader Leader, always looking for ways to broaden his mind with fiction, and I loved that he got that.
Here is just a starter list of 2020 Democratic Presidential candidates who have written books. I am probably missing some; this list is from Rolling Stone, a January issue this year:
- Kamala Harris
- Joe Biden (although undeclared, for the moment)
- Elizabeth Warren
- Julian Castro
- Beto O’Rourke
- Bernie Sanders
- Amy Klobuchar
- Cory Booker
- John Hickenlooper
- Sherrod Brown
- Kirsten Gillibrand
- Howard Schultz
- Pete Buttigieg
About that last guy…with the unpronounceable name…
Other people, a great deal of other people, had reasons for why Barack Obama wasn’t supposed to be elected President. The biggest reason was he was black, and there was general talk that the country was not ready for a black president, especially a black President with an Islamic-sounding last name.
Again, about the country being ready for things, and that last guy…
When all of the Democratic Party started firing up their list of candidates back in December and January, I watched with interest. I picked favorites, even on a ranking. I liked the idea of Kamala Harris because she was from the Bay Area, she was a minority in more ways than one, and she was a treat to watch in Senate hearings. I liked what she said on Twitter about the Dreamsicle in Chief, too, so, if you asked me in January who I’d pick, I would have picked her. I also liked Cory Booker (although I’m not fond of his interviewer interruptions) and was a big fan of Beto O’Rourke in the 2018 congressional race. To be honest, I would have been fine with any of them. I was happy with all of them, but not…excited.
I didn’t read any of their books. I knew them all except the last guy, and he was a mayor, so THAT’S not likely, right? I stuck with my list.
And then toward the end of February and beginning of March that last guy, the guy with the funny name who was “just a mayor” started showing up on my book publication news feeds. He was in my literature stuff. Something about how he could speak Norwegian and read Norwegian. Something about how he taught himself to read and speak Norwegian because of a novel.
So there are others, I thought. There are others like Barack Obama and they are running for President, too. I tried not to hope too hard; surely this Norwegian stuff was a stunt? But no, Pete Buttigieg, who already was fluent in SIX languages, wanted to learn Norwegian because he couldn’t get any more novels of one of his favorite Norwegian novelists in English, so he taught himself Norwegian to read the rest of the books.
As if that weren’t enough…Pete Buttigieg did his college thesis on the foundation of another novel, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
And…God help me…
Amazon’s Kindle has this neat option where you can sample a book (sometimes the first chapter, sometimes less, depending on the publisher), and I loaded the sample of Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home. I was raised about two and a half hours east of South Bend.
That goddamn book is like going home. In the opening chapter Buttigieg talks about his first winter in South Bend as mayor, for about a paragraph, and then he flashes back, to winters and the city in his childhood. I am old enough to remember the Blizzard of ’78, and even though Buttigieg is a decade younger than I am, he relates the narratives of people who remember it, too. THE BOOK STARTS OUT WITHOUT HIM. He is a storyteller, he is telling someone else’s story, and he truly conveys that story is important, even before it is his.
Okay, okay, so the guy can write. I pulled up some YouTube interviews, and watched them with a collection of other interviews of Harris, Booker, Klobuchar, Warren, Sanders. The best, most entertaining, and easiest comparison is The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Same interviewer, different candidates. With everyone but Buttigieg you get the feeling there’s a canned answer for the question asked (in the case of Booker he gets so eager to answer that he often interrupts the end of the question), and the canned answer is sort of close…
Buttigieg just answers the question. Even better, he gets lots of practice, because he gets the same questions from everyone (with a little straying from Bill Maher, but I expected that). And even though he gets the same answer, he never sounds rehearsed. You get a feeling of patience, and maybe an underlying hope of expansion (maybe THIS person will be edgy and ask me something else, fingers crossed), but he never rolls his eyes in disgust. Even better, when he’s in a panel setting he does not jump in like everyone else on the panel; he waits to be called on. (If nothing else it should be interesting debate behavior.)
Here’s what I can’t bring myself to do, yet, because I’m afraid to pop the bubble of adoration I have this Writer/Reader; I have not watched any speeches of his. Lots of interviews, no speeches. Will he be able to do it again? Can my superficial love of all things literature bail me (and Buttigieg) out one more time?
Oh, I hope so, she writes, knowing empathy follows fiction. And empathy is sorely missing right now.