A writer in the White House—how mind-blowingly wonderful that would be! An NPR listener, a Denis Johnson and Marilynne Robinson reader, frequenter of quality independent bookstores, occupant of the highest office in the land. How many glorious possibilities will be opened wide before the bleary-eyed populace? How many amber waves of grain might be nourished by the wisdom of a delicate turn of phrase or a sobering insight into the human situation? Samuels wondered, as he climbed the steps, emerging from a darkened hole in the ground into the touristic bustle of the refurbished Times Square.
The President whom Barack Obama most admired, he had said more than once, was Abraham Lincoln, who wrote his great poem in the blood of hundreds of thousands of his fellow citizens, and in the freeing of men and women from bondage, and in the determined fight to keep the Union whole. Where the Founding Fathers’ genius was revealed in the wisdom and balance of their clockwork design, the sense that the work was still unfinished, and would always be unfinished, lay at the heart of Lincoln’s greatness, which is the true animating force of the American spirit. It was a note that Obama often struck himself. Again in mid-middle age, as in his youth, Samuels was stirred by the grand sweep of literary-historical ideas, whether second- or third-hand or original to himself. He and Obama were twinned characters, sharing a moment in time on the stage.
Aware as he was of the ridiculous vanity of his pose, Samuels could not shake his optimistic, self-flattering sense of being, in some way, a fellow traveler, strolling side by side with Obama through the world-historical galleries while sharing little off-beat details and anecdotes about favorite authors, sports heroes, and rappers, like a modern-day Calvin and Hobbes.
Joining the line of everyday Democratic Party donors in front of the Richard Rodgers Theatre, Samuels congratulated himself again on the privileged access he enjoyed to the mind of the most powerful man on the planet, which was available to him not through the conjurer’s tricks of social media, or the size of his checkbook, but through the sacred keyhole of literature, which is open to anyone who can read, regardless of race, sex, national origin, or unhealthy diseases, or whether their status might be deserving of an upgrade—which would surely be true in his own case, if upgrades were available and awarded on the basis of sheer talent alone and not on any of the dozens of other factors that made one man a king and another a scrub.
Feeling like he knew the President, who he really was, and what he was actually thinking, was a form of imaginative imposture that amused Samuels at odd moments during his day, gave him a feeling of connection to large events, and nourished his ego, a perpetual child who was always wanting more. The sense of fellow-feeling he derived from his communions with his imaginary pal the President was more important to this journalistic Herzog than the spritely op-ed arguments that enlivened the days of his bien pensant friends. Is Europe finished? Is the Internet broken? Is China really the future, or was that country’s economy a 1.4 billion-person Ponzi scheme? Samuels had plausible opinions on all these subjects, but the truth was that he couldn’t care less.
Who was this Obama? He was an important figure, a mirror in which Samuels could look at himself from flattering angles and crack jokes. He, meaning the President, or Samuels, it was never actually clear which was which, was hopelessly fixated on his own brilliance, and prone to what an old psychiatrist—focused on Samuels’s often-problematic relationships with editors and fact-checkers and agents in the days before he took his psychiatrist’s advice and fled the collapsing world of glossy magazines for the greener pastures of Hollywood, where even the writers on Family Guy all had swimming pools—had called “the assignment of bad faith.” As the mind-doctor had intended, the word “assignment,” a term of art from the magazine world, stuck in Samuels’s head. He had lived through his fair share of bad-faith assignments. Yet, even as he admitted that the fault was often, if not always, his own, he wished to give equal weight to the truth that a few shots of highly concentrated self-absorption are a necessary spur and tonic for the lonely leap into the unknown, which, more often than not these days, Samuels thought of as an abyss. His misfortune was to be an actor who didn’t care much for crowds, which in the present hot-house climate gave him the appearance of a recluse, the J.D. Salinger of the old-time glossies, a weird figure who stayed off of Facebook, eschewed Twitter, and, no doubt someday soon, saved his urine in Mason jars.
Samuels had always distrusted writers who presented themselves as nurses or social workers or as humble foot-soldiers in any kind of cause, in the same way that he was annoyed by quarterbacks and wide receivers who pointed toward the heavens after a score. He believed that the only recompense for the aloneness that writing demands is the pleasure of the view from above, and if some special someone didn’t like it, they were welcome to write their own book or long article in yesterday’s New Yorker, or to join a havurah of like-minded persons, or a support group, or what have you. Samuels had long thought himself to be on firm ground here, having paid his own tab, and because all the big-name writers he had ever known well, including some who had won National Book Awards and even Nobel Prizes, enjoyed the view in more or less the same way that he did, with all the little people scrambling around like sun-dazed ants. People who didn’t find pleasure in attaining the most radical distance on their own perceptions of the possible, who couldn’t identify with the struggles of the ants, and at the same time with the shapeless chaos of the universe, the tohu va-vohu, he reasoned, weren’t actually writers at all.
Barack Obama was definitely a writer. The U.S. President could just as easily have wound up as a writer for The New Yorker or Rector of the University of Jakarta, or, if the ball had bounced a different way, Minister of Health and Agriculture under Uhuru Kenyatta, the dictatorial son of his father’s great rival. It was in the full awareness of these multiple possible lives, each one as potentially authentic as the next, that Obama became an American and, in time, President. Remarkably, though, his books had made him President, or more exactly, the literary persona that he had invented in his first book, an impassioned argument with Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man titled Dreams From My Father, had helped to make him President—that, Samuels reasoned, along with the contingency of the city to which his parents had immigrated right before he was born being the target of a major terrorist attack, which advertised itself as a response to some of the outlying crimes of the Cold War years, when the country attempted to face its long, tortured history of slavery and racial apartheid, America’s original sin, which in many ways paled next to the genocide of the Indians, the original sin for which no form of redemption is possible.
Like other writers, did Obama lie awake at night in the White House and regret the books he wanted to write but hadn’t yet written, each one of them a skewed alternate version of the contingencies of his actual mind-bending life? Did Obama tell himself stories as a way of proving that his imagined other might be real someday, even on paper? After a long day of debating the ins and outs of Syria policy, as he drifted off to sleep, did he wake himself with a start to scribble down notes for his future autobiographies, which he someday hoped to write? Obama probably had contracts for those books already. Still, Samuels believed in a physics of brotherhood that unites bright first-generation immigrants and hybrids who have to mime acquaintance with television shows and sports teams in a determined effort to translate themselves into a foreign “I,” for foreign eyes. We are brothers from another planet, he thought. We know what America means to people who must put on the unfamiliar clothing of Americanness, the backward baseball hats and college sweatshirts, and who find that there is both meaning and profit in what is a more or less permanent mode of disguise, which goes along with a corresponding urge to firmly root oneself in American soil by marrying an American woman and having children who will be Americans in precisely the ways that you are not. That was something that Obama had done, and that Samuels had also done. Obama’s own hybrid estrangement was further complicated by his skin color, which both separated him from and brought him closer to the everyday experiences of native-born African Americans. Yet the paradox at the heart of his efforts just as surely gnawed at him: The more successful you are in translation, the less likely it is that your fellow Americans, including your own children, will ever see you plain.
This sense of being a privileged outsider, a post-American hybrid blessed with the freedom to choose his origins and his fate, was part of the sensibility that Samuels felt he shared with Obama. Samuels felt free of any responsibility for America’s history of slavery and mass extermination, the crimes that shaped the often all-too-brief lives of his own ancestors having been committed by Stalin, a poet, and Hitler, a painter. No matter how far he tried to stretch his historical imagination, he could not envision any version of his gentle Yiddish-speaking grandfather whipping African slaves in the fields. He had little use for the burdens of the white man, who in turn had little use for his grandfather or for his parents, or for the tribe from which they sprang. By the same token, he saw little percentage in taking off his hooded sweatshirts and putting on the rags of his grandfather’s suffering, as the single one of his sixty-three brothers, sisters, first cousins, nephews, uncles, and aunts to make it out of wartime Russia alive.
Their suffering was real enough, for sure. But it wasn’t his. As a result, he had never aimed to use his Golden Ticket to remedy any great injustice. Instead, he aimed to satisfy his inner Augie March, his immigrant curiosity about the thingness of the thing itself, the Golden Land of Mini-Moo’s, where no child need ever go to bed hungry or wake up to find that their village had been occupied by soldiers. What he found was that American lives, just like all other lives, were precarious and short and indelibly strange to the people who live them. He always remembered the words of Sammy the Seal, which he had read in the waiting room of the public health clinic in Brooklyn where his mother worked long hours tending to the poor: “I’m a stranger here myself.”
Being un-beholden to anything or anyone outside himself was a virtue in Samuels’s self-assigned line of work. In his more optimistic moments, he even argued that his willful detachment might help him serve as a kind of mirror, which might also contribute to some more enlightened idea of the public interest.
And yet, something had gone wrong at the joints of the project to which he had so enthusiastically committed himself, but which existed now mainly inside his own head and inside the heads of a few thousand like-minded writers and editors. The language that mattered now wasn’t theirs. What mattered was the language of the tweeters and re-tweeters, the validators and the consensus-thinkers, who policed every conceivable offense and also invented new ones. The followers tweezered and scissored, while those that they followed asserted their authority by measuring out the strips of black tape that were placed over words that had been freshly deemed to be unspeakable. The citizen-readers, let loose on the new playing field by the social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter, which took zero responsibility for the results of their enterprise while collecting all the profits. They had truly made a mess of things, Samuels thought. They had trampled the gardens, and turned all the fine mansions into rooming houses for the unwashed masses, like in Doctor Zhivago, which made it even harder to find a language in which it might be possible to think Important Thoughts. In this mood, Samuels often felt like an immigrant again, a stranger in a country that had lost interest in the larger enterprise whose blessings he had once believed might be enough to make him an American.
And with the strains of America The No Longer Quite So Beautiful and Welcoming ringing forth, where was the Writer-In-Chief? Instead of clarifying the resonant silences for the broader public, he droned on and on, dropping science and subjecting his fatigued auditors to what had begun to seem like an endless seminar by a college dorm room stoner know-it-all. Let me break it down for you like this, man. War never works. It never pays off. History has proven that. So the only alternative we have is peace, while keeping in mind all of the unique social and historical-material conditions hardened by centuries of capitalist-colonialist racism and exploitation. If we recognize the legitimacy of these feelings on the part of the Turd World, we, the collective oppressor of Western Civ., can break the cycle of violence, and together we can enter the Hyper-Zone, dig? He snuck cigarettes when his wife wasn’t looking and stayed up late to watch the highlights on ESPN long after everyone else had fallen asleep, like another writer Samuels knew.
Whatever America might have imagined it had been blessed with, it surely wasn’t this, he thought. It was probably something more like Hamilton, the hit Broadway hip-hop musical based on Ron Chernow’s biography of the Founding Father, who also grew up on an island before coming to the mainland. The chance to attend a benefit performance of Hamilton in the company of Obama was clearly too good to pass up. Obama would be seated in the wings, and Samuels would sit up in the rafters, but the dynamics would still be fruitful. His story was Obama’s story, which was also Hamilton’s story, right? Sitting in the cheapest seat in the house, which cost a mere $500, Samuels would see the show and then listen to Obama muse, while favored plutocrats rubbed shoulders below, in the $10k seats, with the likes of Chris Rock and Harvey Weinstein. On the verge of realizing this pleasant and maybe even highly educational fantasy, Samuels hummed quietly to himself, a tune from Brecht’s Mother Courage,
Many folk I know plan to scale the highest peak
Off they go, the starry sky overhead
Stone by stone you climb but your efforts leave you worn and weak
Broken down, you barely make it back to bed.
All good New Yorkers on line, all familiar, urban faces. Susan! Someone cried out. A mom and her twentysomething daughter, both wearing Howard University sweatshirts, good for them! Upper West Side ladies wearing trading beads around their necks, or flowery scarves. A fiftysomething man, elegantly dressed in a scarf and beret, with a fat paperback copy of The Moor’s Account under his arm. It was perhaps neither here nor there, Samuels thought, that he initially read the title of Laila Lalami’s rejoinder to the sixteenth century’s epics of conquest, told through the voice of a Moroccan slave with a gift for storytelling who accompanies the Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca on his ill-fated expedition to the Gulf Coast, as “The Moor’s Accountant,” the title of an unwritten Joseph Heller novel.
Either way, the point was the same—history can look different, depending on your point of view. Samuels had liked Times Square better when the Soviet edifice of the old New York Times building still issued forth its nightly streams of middle-aged office workers in ugly gray suits and Mostly Mozart tote bags. Now the marquee on the opposite side of the street advertised a play titled Finding Neverland: The Story of How Peter Became Pan. The fact that everything needs a subtitle in America these days was clearly a reflection of the generalized insecurity about meaning that followed the departure of the old Puritan gods, who had always made some intuitive sense to Samuels, ever since he memorized a Jonathan Edwards sermon and recited it to his fifth-grade class. Now those terrifying worthies, their names blacked out, had packed up their starched white shirt-fronts and Hasidic-looking coats and departed the shores of their New Jerusalem for Ecuador or New Zealand, leaving their children bereft of the compass by which they might chart their own course.
At the same time, after two failed Middle Eastern wars, the recasting of America as a sectarian society divided into groups with given identities, which Samuels secretly referred to in shorthand as ASA (“as a lesbian woman of color,” “as a Park Slope mom,” “as a Jew for Justice in Palestine”), seemed like a kind of poetic-historical justice, the same way that the Vietnam War left a generation of Americans addicted to heroin, or CIA-backed coups in Latin America addicted the next generation of Americans to cheap cocaine. Sectarianism as the revenge of the Middle East upon its would-be conquerors had a pleasing symmetry to it, Samuels thought. The only catch was that this neat idea was false. The problem of American sectarianism preceded the Iraq War, just as it preceded the identity politics of the Sixties. It went back to the Puritans at least, if not to the Indian tribes. The American Revolution was great not only because it threw off the yoke of the English, but because it broke with the colonial past and with the sectarian horrors of Europe, land of monsters.
The crowd streams into the theater below a banner featuring the words “Hamilton: An American Musical,” illustrated by a blacked-out silhouette standing on the top point of an American star, wearing a colonial coat, with prominent buttons. “I work at the Studio Museum in Harlem,” a white woman explains to her seat-mate. “This is my husband, Michael.”
The sting of Samuels’s decision to relegate himself and his progeny to the cheap seats in life was lessened somewhat by the fact that his brother made tens of millions of dollars a year moving digital blips across multiple screens in an office that looked out on the southernmost greenery of Central Park. And even if he was poor, in comparison with the big spenders below, he and his seat-mates knew themselves to be horribly privileged, entitled people. So, what exactly was all their awful privilege about? They were privileged to believe in “progress,” and that history is on their side. They were privileged to believe they have what they have because they have earned it. They were privileged to believe that the people at the apex of the meritocratic system that granted their credentials were the best and smartest people in the world. Steve Jobs may have been a jerk, but his sister is Mona Simpson, and Apple makes the coolest computers. They believe that they are broadly “in charge” of things and that their opponents and critics are simply ignorant troglodytes. Some of them remember that William Faulkner was both a great novelist and a backwards-looking agrarian and explain the seeming contradiction as a great man’s flaw, like alcoholism or having seven wives, and they are sad when their kids dismiss Faulkner as a racist without having read any of his books. But overall, it’s still progress.
Samuels sat down and gratefully opened his healthy box lunch, packed in a bio-degradable container, whose perfectly chosen components included a Carolina rice and red bean cake and a chocolate brownie, both gluten-free and vegan. From his seat at the top of the second mezz, three rows from the back wall of the theater, the President’s entrance would feel as distant as the flapping of a butterfly’s wings. And yet, eye-level with the great chandelier, smack in the center of the aisle, it was a weirdly perfect view, like sitting in the upper deck behind home plate in the old Yankee Stadium. Chris Rock was here with his mom. Samuels spotted a guy in a beige leather kippah sitting next to his Korean girlfriend, and for a moment he loved America again, or at least the circa 1970s Upper West Side political machine’s version of America, in which high ideals combined with the eminently practical idea that everyone deserved a slice of the American pie. The lights went down, and Aaron Burr took the stage to ask a question.
How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor,
grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The black actor playing John Laurens jumped in to provide an answer, which Samuels, his ears still tuned to Brecht, or Kurt Cobain’s Americanized version of Brecht, took as mocking. Halfway through, he realized that it was straight outta Broadway:
The ten-dollar founding father without a father
got a lot farther by working a lot harder, by being a lot smarter,
by being a self-starter.
Hamilton was a Broadway show about America, which meant that it must draw a straight line from Horatio Alger’s newsboys to today’s meritocracy, Samuels posited, while Burr declaimed:
Get your education, don’t forget from whence you came, and
the world is gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?
And Alexander Hamilton responded with his plaintive refrain,
And there’s a million things I haven’t done, but just you wait, just you wait ...
So poignant. So true. But, he thought, where Hamilton sought to prove himself in war, Obama had proved himself by being smarter than his fellow meritocrats in opposing two wars, which any idiot knows is the de rigueur move on the left. Yet when it came to George W. Bush’s wars, the entire mainstream American left, from the editors of the New York Times and The New Yorker on down, forgot that very basic move, which gave Obama the high ground that he never relinquished. He was smarter than they were, meaning a more skillful opportunist, and therefore also inherently more moral.
You’re an orphan. Of course! I’m an orphan.
Obama wasn’t literally an orphan, of course—except in all the ways that matter. He was the child of two parents, one black and one white, both of whom abandoned him. He was an orphan in history, who wrote a book in which he unmasked his father as a monster, whose flaws were the tragic legacy, in part, of Western colonialism. Yet his mother, in Obama’s early view, was worthy not of distanced literary-historical understanding but disdain: She was a white fetishist, whose sexual interest in men with dark skin made her son uncomfortable and who sent him back to Hawaii to live with her parents. Being left by Dad is one thing, but being abandoned by Mom is something different altogether. Mom should love you unconditionally. If you don’t have at least one parent, especially Mom, who loves you like that, then the world is a very cold, very harsh place.
In contrast, the world of Hamilton was warm—a world that Samuels could love right off the bat, a world of ebullient, quick-witted characters who embody the starry-eyed rags-to-riches push for glory. Marrying Chernow’s biography of Hamilton with the sound of Biggie Smalls, Mobb Deep, and other larger-than-life characters from the glory days of 1990s New York City hip-hop struck Samuels as a stroke of genius the moment he heard the idea for the show. Seeing the result, he entirely approved of the idea that the two sources reflected back on each other in a way that illuminated a common core of Americanness. He happily tapped his feet and nodded his head to the music, riding the beat of the literal knock-offs of hip-hop classics like the “Ten Crack Commandments” and “Going Back to Cali” all the way back to his early hip-hop-head days in Brooklyn, where he lived on the same block as Adam Yauch. Obama himself was above that easy kind of identification. His jam was Lincoln, the cadaverous depressive.
The Revolution having ended, Aaron Burr appeared again onstage to presciently warn Alexander Hamilton about the dangers of apartness:
Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?
Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?
Why do you assume you’re the smartest in the room?
Soon that attitude
may be your doom!
This was fertile territory for Samuels’s obsession, to be sure. Obama’s personal vanity consisted of the conviction that he was always the smartest person in any room. Samuels often took a similar view of rooms he spent time in. What interested him about Obama was the particularity of his method, his way of being the smartest person in the room.
Samuels had personally encountered the great-eared eminence in the flesh once, after a fundraiser at Daniel, a fancy Manhattan restaurant where stockbrokers took high-class hookers on dates, and where Samuels talked with him about hip-hop for the better part of ten minutes. Even as the great man held forth on the relative virtues of Jay-Z and Kanye West, the writer in Samuels noticed the distinctively un-American, untroubled way that Obama balanced himself in empty space, like a Balinese dancer. He also recognized the Ivy League seminar room champ in Obama, the outsider-as-insider type. (He had himself accosted the President at Daniel by telling him that they had written a book together, and then presenting him with a slim paperback in which an essay written by Samuels on the nature and origins of the President’s literary sensibility had been bound together with Obama’s First Inaugural Address, translated into Italian.) And Samuels clocked the characteristic move, in which the President listened quietly, registering, note-taking, and then dropped some knowledge, some unimpeachable proof of his genius, thereby claiming the maximum amount of territory on the chessboard with one move. “I’ve moved my queen here. Bam! Why? Because I’m smarter than you are.” It was a weird mix—a quintessentially American mix, Samuels thought—of the very savvy and the ruthless and the naive and inexperienced, which assumed, by fiat, that the game stopped there, because everyone could see how great the move was.
This habit was particularly pronounced on the chessboard of foreign policy, where Obama got attached to a few very stupid concepts early on, like the idea that war was bad, and he never let them go, because he had convinced himself that they were signal proofs of his genius. He didn’t understand that withdrawing from Iraq and signing a deal with Iran meant that America would lose leverage over its foes and its friends alike and from that point on would simply be playing the same game but from a weaker position. He forgot that there were others playing the game, too—because they were never in the frame when he looked at himself in the mirror.
Aside from Lincoln, the other President that Obama referenced a lot in his speeches was Ronald Reagan, and again the comparison was an instructive one. When it became known that Reagan had misinformed the public about the Iran-Contra affair, he felt compelled to go on national television and read a public statement in which he said something like, “Dear American people, I told you something that wasn’t true.” Obama deployed his character in a similar way, which made it hard to question his brilliance, his misconceptions and his untruths. Saying no to a President was always difficult and was therefore something that esteemed policymakers mostly did in their imaginations. But imagine sitting in a meeting with Obama in 2010 about Syria or Iran, Samuels thought, which is not a meeting where you’re alone with him—because in fact, things are structured so that that rarely, if ever, happens—and you start getting heated about your opinions. All of a sudden, you are finding yourself lecturing the President, America’s first black President, in a way that he finds demeaning, because he is the smartest person in the room, and your failure to recognize that fact may therefore be a sign of a further defect in your character. There’s a whole other circle of armor around him: You are not only stupid, you are also some kind of pseudo-liberal group-think crypto-racist, mumbling to yourself in Afrikaans. And so, you censor yourself, in a way that Hamilton and Jefferson and Burr never did, at least on stage:
How does Hamilton,
Thomas Jefferson, his enemy,
a man he’s despised since the beginning, just to keep me from winning?
After the astounding first act, the second act was mostly in cruise control, downhill, except for the delightful Jefferson, who is very André 3000. Even the deliciously sordid story of A-dot-Ham’s affair with Mrs. Reynolds was handled in a sappy, redemptive way that put Samuels in mind of Schoolhouse Rock and 1776 set in the offices of a corporate law firm. Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner’s affairs would have made for a better hip-hop musical. And it was all very un-Obama, who would clearly prefer watching the Warriors game or Game of Thrones to getting under Mrs. Reynolds’s skirts. As the Adams Administration, the Election of 1800, and other seventh-grade American history textbook chapter headings sped by onstage, Samuels’s mind drifted forward, imagining Obama in Hamilton’s place. “A political solution is the only way to end the war in Syria,” he raps. Those who counsel a different course are “folks [who] want to pop off.” He was always Mr. Wonderful, putting critics in their place, alone in public as one imagines he is in private moments, wondering to himself, before the entire world, “And how do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”
Check check 1-2
The stagehands of the presidency were bringing out the flag for a different kind of theater now, laying down strips of tape to mark the place where the podium would rest as the good people around me took out their cell phones and held them high like cigarette lighters to mark the moment. The clapping began in the cheap seats and then spread toward the front of the theater in a modest wave.
Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States.
And suddenly, there he was, in fulfillment of the promise.
“What I miss?” Obama asked, speaking a bit more blackish than usual. Michelle and I loved this show.
As President, he has learned to mime the delivery of a third-generation late-night talk show host. He is Lettermanesque, with the same North-Midwestern diction and distance but without the weirdness that gave that special frisson to early and even middle-period Letterman. The bottom of his voice sounds a bit strained, as if to suggest that his imitation of bonhomie is neither natural or pleasant. He thanks Margo Lion for bringing him to Broadway, and DNC Treasurer Andy Tobias, who used to write a great money column for New York magazine, and who once advised Samuels early on in his career to never take cabs and always take the subway.
I love you.
—We love you too, Barack! The crowd shouts back. Samuels is on his feet. He loves Mr. President, too.
I know there may be some Mets fans here tonight.
The crowd boos what they take to be a diss.
You should still be proud of a great season.
Two minutes and forty-three seconds of chit-chat having been dispensed with, he gratefully moves on to the classic-rock-FM portion of the proceedings, although the slight but continuing strain in his voice suggests that something about the entire business of public speechifying gives him the willies, lowering himself to the level of the ants.
Part of what’s so powerful about this performance is it reminds us of the vital, crazy, kinetic energy that’s at the heart of America.
Vital, crazy, kinetic.
That people who have a vision and a set of ideas can transform the world. And that’s always been true. That was true at the founding. That was true for women winning the right to vote. That was true for the abolition movement and the civil rights movement, and every single step of progress that we’ve made has been based on this notion that people will come together and ideas can move like electricity through them and our world can change.
Which isn’t bad, Samuels thinks. He cites facts and figures to prove the success of Act I of his Presidency.
When I took office, more than fifteen percent of Americans didn’t have health insurance. We changed that and for the first time on record, more than ninety percent of Americans do have health insurance.
While the math here is admittedly a bit tricky, the larger point, from the personal, psychoanalytic angle, with which Obama both enjoys and resents playing peek-a-boo, is that ObamaCare was never a part of his plan. Rather, it was the result of his need for a guaranteed applause line in a campaign speech he delivered at the beginning of 2007, when Hillary Clinton was riding high on health care, and Obama’s press fixer Robert Gibbs and his chief speechwriter Jon Favreau hit on the idea of the candidate announcing his intention to pass universal health care in his first term in order to steal a bit of Clinton’s thunder. “We needed something to say,” recalled one of the advisers, according to the New York Times. “I can’t tell you how little thought was given to that thought other than it sounded good.”
Today America leads the world in confronting new threats, we made sure Iran doesn’t get a nuclear weapon, we’re making sure that we address climate change globally.
One line, in which the Iran Deal, the policy linchpin of his second term, is tucked away in the second of three clauses, a mere eight words away from disappearing entirely, and then that’s it for the America and the World portion of his address, it’s done.
Perhaps someone thought that New York City was the wrong audience for the Iran Deal. What’s more worrying, Samuels thought, is the tricky sleight-of-hand move, which is a different version of the way he got out of the Syria question by comparing it to the Congo, and suggesting that the people who care about the Syrians might be racists. It’s bad because it’s an argument through the assignment of bad faith, which is a kind of argument that is toxic to democracies and to stories, both.
Samuels thought it was of vital importance to keep those waters pure. Nations are stories that hundreds of millions of people tell themselves about who they are, where they came from, and where they are going. Over time, a propensity for re-description and denial and other forms of bad faith tends to warp an administration’s agreed-upon reality and lead citizens to doubt the narrator, or to wander into fantasy-worlds where nothing connects in any intelligible way to anything else.
The price for fantasy, Samuels had learned to his discomfort, is usually steep, and it’s not like other people don’t notice what’s happening. “Yesterday I talked with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said again that we should make a certain gesture to help launch the talks in Geneva, because the Syrian opposition conference in Riyadh said they wouldn’t attend any other meetings because they are being bombed for no reason at all,” the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters. “When it is claimed that we bomb the wrong targets, we ask what targets should we bomb, but they refuse to tell us. All right, tell us, then, what targets we should not bomb. But they don’t tell us that either. And ultimately they continue to claim that we are bombing the wrong targets. Frankly, I’m at a loss.”
Sergey Lavrov is not a comedian. He is a person who has plenty of better things to do with his time, like negotiating multi-billion dollar arms deals with Iran, selling nuclear reactors to Egypt, squeezing the Israelis into signing gas contracts with Russia, and other moves, which are made possible by Russia’s military backing of Bashar al-Assad’s genocide. The point being that our binding narratives these days are carried not by angels or sailing ships but across multiple digital platforms, which governments use to communicate with their people and with each other, when they are spying on their own people, or bombing city blocks to rubble from high altitudes, or torturing people who belong to rival ethnic or religious groups with pliers hooked up to car batteries, and that none of these stories is actually novel, or parts of a novel. The fact that American foreign policy these days is a story written by one man, who is following a plot that is the unique product of his own personal experience, seems dangerous. Yet for the true believers in the White House, Obama remains the highest embodiment of moral perfection and geopolitical acumen walking the earth. And they are not bad people. Only a few of them were born into real wealth, and none of them appear to be in politics to get rich. They are repelled by the idea that a nation can use violence as a “tool in the toolkit” and that wars can be managed in a bloodless way from a fifth-floor office in Virginia. Because they are young, and the establishment is corrupt, it is literally impossible for many of them to imagine that he is ever wrong.
The focus of the President’s insistence on his own infallibility for the past year or so has been Syria. In September, Obama recalled “a conversation I had with Mr. Putin four or five years ago where I told him that was a mistake that would make things worse. He did not take my warnings, and as a consequence, things have gotten worse. It appears now that Assad is worried enough that he’s inviting Russian advisers and Russian equipment,” he continued, painting Russia’s entry into the war as proof that he had been right all along. “We are going to be engaging Russia to let them know that you can’t continue to double down on a strategy that’s doomed to failure.” Predictably, no one asked the President to explain what he meant. In October 2015, Steve Kroft, an old-school reporter for the television news magazine 60 Minutes, finally pushed Obama harder. “My goal has been to try to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL?” Obama replied, shifting his ground. The enemy was no longer the Assad regime and its allies, it emerged; it was ISIL, even though ISIL and Assad are symbiotic alignments that often work together on the ground. What ISIL meant was that Assad’s enemies were now America’s enemies, and Assad’s friends were America’s friends—to the extent that words like “friends” and “enemies” had any meaning in a region of the world that America’s President clearly wished might be swallowed up by a giant sand-worm, like the ones that roam the desert planet of Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s sci-fi masterpiece, Dune.
When Kroft pushed him further, Obama got mad. “I guarantee you that there are factions inside of the Middle East, and I guess factions inside the Republican party, who think that we should send endless numbers of troops into the Middle East, that the only measure of strength is us sending back several hundred thousand troops, that we are going to impose a peace, police the region, and—that the fact that we might have more deaths of U.S. troops, thousands of troops killed, thousands of troops injured, spend another trillion dollars, they would have no problem with that,” he said. “And if in fact the only measure is for us to send another 100,000 or 200,000 troops into Syria or back into Iraq, or perhaps into Libya, or perhaps into Yemen, and our goal somehow is that we are now going to be, not just the police, but the governors of this region. That would be a bad strategy, Steve. And I think that if we make that mistake again, then shame on us.”
“Do you think the world’s a safer place?” Kroft asked him.
“America is a safer place,” Obama answered. “I think that there are places, obviously, like Syria that are not safer than when I came into office. But, in terms of us protecting ourselves against terrorism, in terms of us making sure that we are strengthening our alliances, in terms of our reputation around the world, absolutely we’re stronger.” On December 18, Obama took the anniversary of his decision not to intervene in Syria by proclaiming “Five years later, I was right.”
And we made sure that every child that’s born in this country, no matter what they look like, where they come from, what their last name is, that they feel like they have a place here.
What was the bright line, the clear thread, connecting Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson to these Americans, if they were in fact Americans, rather than people who had a place in a country? A moment later, Obama explained what he meant: It was Them versus Us.
I don’t know if the Republicans who are running for this office know any of these things! Because they occupy a different reality than us.
The people on the wrong side were also on the wrong side of history, it turned out, which favored the people on the right side. Yet those on the wrong side had plenty of company here on earth. “[T]hose who cling to power through corruption and deceit and silencing of dissent,” he said in his First Inaugural Address, “know that you are on the wrong side of history.” Elsewhere in the Middle East, Qaddafi was “on the wrong side of history,” but “at every juncture in the situation in Egypt ... we were on the right side of history.” Iran was on the right side of history, at least when it came to the nuclear deal. Russia was on the wrong side of history when it seized Crimea and parts of Ukraine. President Bashar al-Assad’s “use of torture, corruption, and terror puts him on the wrong side of history,” the President opined, which surely must have come as a relief to the families of the 470,000 people who have been murdered in Syria.
Structurally, Samuels felt, the right–wrong divide was the same as any other form of bigotry, a Manichean construction that splits the world between foaming bigots and wide-eyed helpless innocents and elevates the speaker to the position of noble protector. It was exactly this kind of government that Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson and all the other rapping, dancing performers on stage had taken such pains to guard against, because they saw the assumption of virtue as corrosive. They knew that power corrupts, and they feared the bodyguards of lies that would be required to protect the initial, well-meaning lie. Then, there are the lies required to prop up the bodyguard of other lies, which in dialectical fashion would eventually deprive citizens of their agency—because otherwise, they would end up with Donald Trump, who is a real, live fascist, a person who gains his oxygen by telling the nastier sort of fed-up, frustrated people that they are being lied to.
So, we oughta look at the evidence and see that every time a Democratic president’s been in office, it kind of seems to me we’re a little better than when the Republicans are in office.
The right was a hothouse of bizarre theories and ideas that defied even the most obvious common-sense logic. If a doctor told you to stop eating bacon and donuts, the President continued, you wouldn’t say that it’s a conspiracy. I’m telling you, folks. These people are nuts.
And by the way, the same thing is true on foreign policy. I don’t want to keep on going back, have you noticed that every one of these candidates say, Obama is weak, he’s you know, Putin’s kicking sand in his face. When I talk to Putin, he’s going to straighten out.
And then, it turns out, they can’t handle a bunch of CNBC moderators
(Laughter and applause)
If you can’t handle those guys—
I don’t think the Chinese or the Russians are going to be too worried.
He accompanied the last line with a little sideways leg-kick at the podium, to emphasize that it was the kicker, and to celebrate the collapse of the world-straddling cop-stance from which the bacon-and-donut-eaters had derived their psychic juice. After all, if you believed that behaviors like building a nuclear bomb while promising to wipe a certain nameless entity off the map or murdering your own people with chlorine gas were the clearly negative but understandable reactions of marginalized communities that wished more than anything else to be part of the mainstream but who were excluded by the hostile reactions of other communities who were motivated in some large part by bigoted suspicion and hate, then it was easy to see that the problems that had bedeviled generations of policymakers were not actually all that difficult to solve. They were easy.
Mr. Brandeis once said, “The most important office in democracy is the office of citizen.” The office of citizen. And that’s how change comes about. That’s always been my message.
Obama had developed his Middle East policy with skill and cunning, but it failed, because the premises on which that policy was based were wrong, even as he hid them from the public. The result was that the global influence of the United States with its enemies and allies alike had markedly diminished, and Americans walked around spouting gibberish, and dividing themselves into new categories of person, who were superior to other categories of person. That was the new America, and it made Samuels feel unmoored.
I can quote Kanye, but I can’t because it’s a family audience. But it’s cray.
The originator of the idea of the dialectic, as Samuels often liked to lecture the young people who occasionally stumbled across his path, was G.W.F. Hegel, whose pathway to contemporary influence came mainly through the Marxist thinkers, who utilized the dialectic as their primary intellectual tool. A huge part of the enormous appeal of the Soviet Union in poor countries was the gift of dialectical thought, which is the AK-47 of the mind; it makes intuitive sense to anyone who grew up in a poor, less powerful country, where skill and cunning are necessary to obtain even the most minor result. American thinking is linear, i.e. rich person’s thinking, which usually produces either a comic or a tragic result.
Obama was clearly at home in the dialectic. But what was his game? Samuels wondered about that, as he pushed his way down from the rafters, following the happy crowd onto the sidewalk with a CD of the cast recording of Hamilton under his arm. The point of the exercise was surely not to diminish American power, or turn America into a sectarian mess, or wreak historical justice upon the white man. He walked to the subway humming the final aria,
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never
get to see.
I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.
America, you great unfinished symphony, you sent for me.
As he walked home from the subway, through the leafy streets of Brooklyn, which was no longer exactly his Brooklyn anymore, Samuels felt sad. He recalled something Obama said earlier that night:
The idea of America that was represented here, it is more than just numbers, it’s more than just statistics. It’s about who we are. Who’s seen? Who’s recognized? Whose histories are affirmed?
Samuels disliked this new America because he didn’t recognize his own face in the mirror it presented. But it was more than that. In the world he once inhabited, the old media structures didn’t collapse because the freedom-loving people got together on Facebook and Twitter and posted and tweeted until all the old bigots got scared and ran away. Those places collapsed because the people who owned those institutions were dummies and fifth-generation trust-funders getting fat checks from what had become a largely un-competitive and hidebound industry, which made them easy prey for a group of smart libertarian West Coast venture capitalists and technologists. And the most obvious feature of the media these days wasn’t a flood of amazing great writing and thinking and reporting: It is the fact that people who own Google and Apple and Facebook and Amazon and Twitter are the new opinion-and-culture-shaping elite, and the “media” are their serfs. The owners of these new estates are MUCH richer, and MUCH less transparent, and MUCH whiter and MUCH less interested in literary art or history or reporting and MUCH less liberal in their politics than the (yes, admittedly fucked-up) folks who half-assedly (and sometimes also brilliantly) ran the magazines and newspapers of yore. Those collective “gatekeepers,” which were now wildly abhorred, were places where the values of intellectual argument and reading and writing and political and aesthetic criticism and artistic independence could and did exert some real cultural leverage, however relative and flawed and historically time-bound and ugly they were. It wasn’t a good thing that those places were gone, or would soon be gone.
Samuels was sympathetic to the kind of fantasy-weaving that caused many to assert and even believe that the Obama years led to more democratization, more openness, more transparency, more diversity, more peace—though what had become perfectly obvious is that these years ultimately led to a greater transfer of power from the many to the few, in a world where no one who was actually powerful was responsible for anything. The current political atmosphere, he realized, was marked by nothing so much as the absence of large structures that could inspire and by the corresponding absence of plausible happy stories about the future. The world used to be filled with those, Samuels thought. The last time he had felt this same feeling of absence at the center of his American self was in 1979, when he was twelve years old. Then Ronald Reagan came along, and pretty soon it was the Nineties, that halcyon decade of new technology and getting high and blue-sky dreams of a better, safer planet from which all the major threats had vanished, leaving behind only age-old scourges like famines or disease, which science might someday cure. And then he woke up, to find an America where everything feels sodden and nasty, which are feelings that any refugee from a socialist bureaucracy can recognize, and whose prevailing ethos was that of Fuck Your Buddy.
What bugged Samuels the most was the collapse all over the place of external arbiters and hierarchies and codes, replaced by a giant finger on the scales, ostensibly to make up for something that someone else did, but he didn’t do. The effort to rebalance the scales was not a moral choice, but an aesthetic one. Nothing great in American culture ever came from that kind of bean-counting and score-settling stupidity, while everything great in American culture—including jazz, and Robert Lowell’s poetry, and Kanye West—came from the opposite approach, which celebrated the techniques of appropriation and imposture and outright theft. It’s what Lin-Manuel Miranda had done, being neither a black hip-hop star of the 1990s nor a white American, but a Puerto Rican kid whose father was a political consultant for Ed Koch. The playwright’s sly brilliance wasn’t inherent only in the idea for the musical or the score, Samuels saw, but in the way he wrapped the truly subversive idea of the old-fashioned American aesthetics of the self-made self in clothing fashionable enough to win the hearts and minds of the Twits. The genius of Hamilton wasn’t in the singing or dancing, or in the score, but in daring to make the argument for the true American culture, the culture of wild hybridity, and using PC tropes, including his own skin-tone, to pull it off.
It was an argument that Obama clearly understood and whose optics he sought to appropriate, and yet it was the opposite of the way the President argued and governed, and, in the deepest sense, the opposite of what he believed about himself, and more importantly, what he believed about America. What Obama had actually embraced was a mix of rationalism and essentialism, which read at times like a lonely, toxic strain of American narcissism in which he, and he alone, was a superior being—a failure of imagination that connected him more to the Puritans than to the Founding Fathers. Samuels had always found all kinds of essentialism to be corrosive to art, and corrosive to the human spirit, and to the core of the promise that America made to the world, which is that it was possible to live in the future rather than in the past, and that anyone who was willing to take that leap could be an American.
America needed someone to start talking about the future and realizing your dreams and all the things that made us equal and also different from everyone else on the planet. Obama wanted to be that person, perhaps, but he failed, because, in his heart, he didn’t actually believe in that America. He was also vain, as all men are, which is why Alexander Hamilton and his friends had created a government of laws rather than men. But clearly some sort of update was needed. What everyone seemed to agree on now was that the marvelous clockwork they created was broken—and once broken, it was hard to say in what manner it might be repaired, or to what end, or how, or why, or by whom.