Obama, the Protagonist

Join Atlantic editors Jane Yong Kim, Gal Beckerman, and Ellen Cushing in conversation with executive editor Adrienne LaFrance for a discussion of “The Great American Novels,” an ambitious new editorial project from The Atlantic. The conversation will take place at The Strand in New York (828 Broadway) on Wednesday, April 3, at 7 p.m. Tickets are available for purchase here.

Vinson Cunningham’s new novel, Great Expectations, is a thinly veiled fictional account of his own experience as a young man working on Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Obama isn’t mentioned once in the book, but in every way, the fount of charisma described as “the senator” or “the candidate” is him. And through the character of David Hammond, a college dropout who almost by accident finds himself in a fundraising job for the nascent campaign, Cunningham is able to give readers a close-up look at Obama’s stratospheric rise. Mostly, as Danielle Amir Jackson writes in an essay this week, that is the story of how one man was imbued by his supporters with messiah-like qualities, creating an unsustainable cult of personality around him.

The book takes place at a time, Jackson writes, “when many thought Obama had an answer for every American ailment.” Cunningham got a front-row seat to all of the projected hopes, and to the disillusionment in the years that followed. It turned out that Obama’s instincts were actually moderate ones, and that, in any case, America’s political system was not built for radical change—not through the force of one man’s efforts. Cunningham’s book put me in mind of another account of this vertiginous launch and return to Earth: Obama’s own presidential memoir, A Promised Land.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic’s Books section:

Unlike many other former presidents, Obama had the benefit of being a gifted writer (and had already produced two memoirs) before he sat down to work on A Promised Land. The book moves quickly through his early years and slows down in early 2007, when he declares his candidacy for president; it then spends more than 600 pages describing the next four years and ends with the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 (a second volume is planned). The ins and outs of pushing through health-care reform or responding to the Arab Spring aren’t what stayed with me. Instead, what I remember most is Obama’s own perspective on his changed status—exactly what Cunningham witnessed up close.

To Hammond, the character in Great Expectations, the Obamalike candidate seems composed to an otherworldly degree, and in command of his political powers at the start: “The Senator had begun, even then, at the outset of his campaign, to understand his supporters, however small their number at that point, as congregants, as members of a mystical body, their bonds invisible but real.” But to hear the real Obama tell it, he felt like he was going to fail at every step: “From day one, it felt like the middle of Times Square, and under the glare of the spotlight, my inexperience showed.” He is acutely aware of his weaknesses, like his wordiness: “When asked a question, I tended to offer circuitous and ponderous answers, my mind instinctively breaking up every issue into a pile of components and subcomponents.”

No matter how much Obama the skilled politician may have wanted to avoid exposing his vulnerabilities, Obama the writer knows that for A Promised Land to be good, he needs to be as honest as possible about his insecurities and the tensions he experienced—and that’s what I love about his account. During the campaign, he worked hard to avoid alienating white people, even though that meant his Black supporters sometimes felt like their specific concerns were overlooked; he writes candidly about how this left Black people “with a psychic burden, expected as they were to constantly swallow legitimate anger and frustration in the name of some far-off ideal.” As his popularity grew and the rallies multiplied by tens of thousands of people, he also admits to becoming “increasingly lonely.”

Obama writes, too, about intimate moments, such as sitting next to his mother-in-law on a couch, hand in hand, as he was declared the winner of the election. “This is kind of too much,” she said to him. He is aware, in ways Cunningham is as well, of the distance between image and reality, especially for a man who came to represent so much for so many people. That distance even keeps Obama from recognizing his own authentic feelings at certain points. Of his victory speech as president-elect that November evening in Chicago: “I worry that my memories of that night, like so much else these past twelve years, are shaded by the images that I’ve seen, the footage of our family walking across the stage, the photographs of the crowds and lights and magnificent backdrops.”

In Cunningham’s book, Hammond is standing in the crowd that night, looking at the same scene from a very different perspective. His time in the campaign has been the ultimate education in “the language of signs,” how a man can be made into a symbol, a repository of enormous collective emotion. In a way, both Hammond and Obama disdain this usurping of reality—though in Obama’s case, there is nothing to do but embrace it. Hammond sees the new president as a “moving statue,” and makes a very different choice for his own life. “I knew that I wanted to be more than a Rorschach, more legible than a symbol, more vivid and musical,” Hammond says. “I wanted to be real in a way that history wasn’t.”

Silhouette of Barack OBama with a close-up of an eye
Illustration by Adam Maida / The Atlantic

A Clear-Eyed Look at the Early Obama Years

By Danielle Amir Jackson

Vinson Cunningham’s new novel takes the reader back to a time when many thought the nation’s first Black president had an answer for every American ailment.

Read the full article.

What to Read

Postcards From the Edge, by Carrie Fisher

Fisher was royalty in two senses of the word: Her mother was the great Debbie Reynolds, known best for her appearance in Singin’ in the Rain, and Fisher herself was perhaps most recognizable to millions (if not billions) of people for her role as Princess Leia in George Lucas’s original Star Wars trilogy. Beyond her claim to the Hollywood throne, Fisher was known for her acerbic wit and frankness about the rough-and-tumble nature of the industry. Before her unexpected death in 2016, she was a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction, but her debut novel, Postcards From the Edge, remains one of her most meaningful contributions. The semi-autobiographical plot follows an actor struggling with drug addiction and recovery (Fisher’s own public battles are mirrored in those of the protagonist, Suzanne Vale), and the narration provides sharp, funny anecdotes—about how Vale’s manager wants her to do a TV series to manage her manias, for example, and how she copes with being a product of, and within, Tinsel Town (or at least, which drugs she takes to cope). The book is a loving punch-up, dark and biting, about how the film industry makes and breaks its own, but there’s nothing better than a comeback story. Upon finishing, you can enjoy Mike Nichols’s fantastic 1990 adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine.  — Fran Hoepfner

From our list: Seven books that explain how Hollywood actually works

Out Next Week

📚 Choice, by Neel Mukherjee

📚 The Cemetery of Untold Stories, by Julia Alvarez

Your Weekend Read

Someone's initials with a Post-it note covering the middle one
Illustration by Ben Kothe / The Atlantic

Middle Names Reveal More Than You Think

By Michael Waters

Middle names occupy a strange space in American society. We use them most in bureaucratic contexts. They show up on driver’s licenses and passports, but they aren’t required when booking plane tickets. You probably don’t include yours in your signature, and you probably don’t put it in your social-media profiles. For many of us, the name feels like a secret. Only about 22 percent of Americans think they know the middle names of at least half of their friends or acquaintances, according to a poll conducted for The Atlantic by the Harris Poll. Yet you still might be offended if a spouse or a close friend forgets yours. Knowing this seemingly benign piece of information has become emblematic of your connection. “She don’t even know your middle name,” Cardi B laments about an ex-partner’s new fling in her song “Be Careful.” But the intimacy you miss out on when you don’t know someone’s middle name can be more than symbolic. The names can be Trojan horses of meaning about ourselves or our ancestors, couriers of overlooked parts of our identity.

Read the full article.

When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

The Atlantic