Sunday Times Books LIVE Community Sign up

Login to Sunday Times Books LIVE

Forgotten password?

Forgotten your password?

Enter your username or email address and we'll send you reset instructions

Sunday Times Books LIVE

Wordsetc Journal

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Obama: man on a mission

from Promise to PowerObama: From Promise to Power by David Mendell, reviewed by Phakama Mbonambi

At a Democratic Convention in Boston during the 2004 presidential race, a little known senator from Illinois called Barack Obama gave a keynote address that sought to unify the US.

He said there were no red states for Republicans and no blue states for Democrats; that there was no America for whites, blacks and Latinos but one United States of America for all.

Many at the convention shrieked with delight and many more were moved to tears. His powerful speech catapulted Obama to political stardom and helped him launch his current history-making run for the White House with a promise of change.

With Obama-mania in full swing across the world, it is timely to get a book that looks at his rise to political superstardom.

Journalist David Mendell followed Obama for three years, covering his political ascent. So he knows his subject intimately, enabling him to paint a well-rounded portrait of Obama, a man who has become synonymous with clean politics and hope.

Mendell acknowledges the difficulty of writing a book about a subject who has written exhaustively about himself and his political philosophy in two best-selling books – Dreams From My Father in 1995 and The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming The American Dream.

So Mendell opts for giving a lot of background information on Obama.

For Obama’s childhood years Mendell uses Dreams as well as anecdotes with his family – his sister and grandmother and those who knew him as a youngster.

The book starts with his upbringing in laid-back Hawaii in the 1970s, when Obama was mad about basketball and body surfing, and was popular with the girls.

Mendell shows a young man who grapples with issue of race and identity, a young man with no father who regards himself an orphan.

He later goes to university in Los Angeles and New York. Drawn to community work, which feeds into his desire to change the world and connect with his black identity, Obama moves to Chicago as a community worker.

It’s hard work.

He soon realises that being a lawyer would be more effective to influence policy and improve

people’s lives, so he goes to Harvard where he gets active in the anti-apartheid movement on campus and later becomes the first African-American editor of the Havard Law Review.

Mendell shows an Obama who, as a politician, morphs from being a mere idealist who wishes to change society into a consummate politician; he votes strategically in the Illinois Senate, where he builds powerful allies to further his political ambitions.

He shows how Obama fought hard (and still does) to make his name known to the electorate.

Obama’s political career starts with his running for state senate. His ruthless instincts come to the fore when he sees off incumbent Alice Palmer on a technicality and, in the process, alienates many black voters.

With only one term under his belt his political ambition gets the better of Obama when he runs for state congress against an experienced Bobby Rush and loses terribly. But sweet victory lies ahead.

Obama is shown as walking a tightrope of being a black politician who seeks acceptance from white voters, while retaining credibility in the black community.

Years of being a community organiser in poor black areas and of being married to Michelle boost his credentials.

Also covered in the book are his 2006 visit to South Africa, where he criticised the government’s handling HIV-Aids and to Kenya, where his father was born and where he drew large, enthusiastic crowds.

Obama is portrayed as poised and liberal. He charms audiences with his intellect and has a gift of speaking extemporaneously on a range of issues.

Tellingly, From Promise To Power shows a man who is grappling with the results of what he has started – his personal privacy is under threat as his career takes off and his constant travelling often places a strain on his marriage and family.

But he is no doubt a loving husband and doting father. It’s just that he is ambitious.

He is on a mission to change the world.

While laudatory, Mendell does highlight some negative traits in Obama’s personality, such as his elitism and his perceived aloofness.

He also notes that he sometimes has a short fuse and a healthy ego. Regardless of what happens on November 4, From Promise To Power will sure open floodgates to other Obama biographies. The subject is compelling.

  • This review first appeared in the latest edition of Wordsetc, a classy literary journal that promotes South African literature and new writing. Visit
  • This review also appeared in The Sowetan

Please register or log in to comment