Book Review: The Obama Diaries

This is now A Fair Trade Book. I didn’t intend it to be; the first draft of this review was written in 2010.

Title: The Obama Diaries

Author: Laura Ingraham

Date: 2010

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

ISBN: 978-1-439-19751-6

Length: 350 pages plus 19-page index

Quote: “These diaries were my way of pulling back the curtain on Barack Obama’s Theater of the Politically Absurd…informed by actual events and, on many occasions, by the main characters’ own words.”

In other words, they’re satire, in a form that’s traditional in the United States but a little too close to the target for some other cultural traditions. In this book Ingraham intersperses her own commentary on the first two years of the Obama Administration with mock quotations from the diaries of the President and Mrs. Obama and several people who worked with them. No attempt is made to give them individual writing styles, but the mock quotations are set in display fonts. Sections purporting to reflect the thoughts of Rahm Emanuel contain lots of those characters from the top row of the keyboard that are most often used, these days, to slip vulgar words through family-filter software.

Nobody has ever accused Rahm Emanuel of being nice, so I’ll accept the claim that his private thoughts are full of boringly repeated obscenities. I don’t know the other people satirized in this book, so I’ll waive all right to comment on the book’s claim to show us what they’re really like; Ingraham has probably met them. In commenting on this book I’ll have to stick to (1) its success in presenting facts, (2) its assumptions about readers’ memory of facts that may be omitted, and (3) its comedy value.

The Obama Diaries succeeds in presenting the facts most of us remember from the regular news media. This book is a recap containing little fresh journalistic work, although it does cite more sources than any one individual is likely to have read/viewed alone. (There’s a long list of acknowledgments in between the text and the index.)

Most of the facts in this book deserve to be in a book. However, when a writer whose own hair is obviously brightened for the cameras tries to suggest that an older person’s hair concerns show vanity, who exactly is being satirized?

And is it really a fact that no twenty-something has ever lived through experiences that anyone wanted to read about? Considering that Dreams of My Father is not so much about Barack Obama himself (only a few quick, blurry bits of his résumé are thrown in at the end) as about growing up in one of the most far-flung families on Earth, with four ethnic identities, four step-parents, and a half-sibling on every continent, I don’t agree that the President’s first book shows a huge amount of vanity. The President and Mrs. Obama don’t seem to suffer from any deficiency of self-esteem, but why should they?

Facts that are discussed in the book include the Obamas’ unpatriotic sound bites, their non-churchgoing, their daughters’ enrolment in the Sidwell Friends School, the bank bailout, the tax rebate, the health care bill, the President’s nicotine addiction, the question of whether the President’s parents were “really” married, the global extended family, Mrs. Obama’s problems with her vegetable garden, the naming of the First Dog, the unpopularity of Obama-care, the President’s failure to attend the funeral of the President of Poland, the inconvenience a presidential motorcade always presents to the neighborhood (is this really the first time Ingraham’s noticed?), comments reported on the President’s dealings with other heads of state, the First Lady’s breaches of formal diplomatic etiquette, the question of whether the Obamas talk too much about their family life, and the President’s reactions to critics when the media has reported any. And more. (Interestingly, the question of where the President was born had not been made an issue in 2010.)

The Obama Diaries occasionally falls below its own standards by overlooking information readers are likely to have.  The question of why Obama has seemed to pick on Sarah Palin, rather than on older Republicans or Tea Partiers, arises in this book. One reason: Palin really is more outspoken, more rural, and more real than some Republicans like. Another reason: Palin’s anti-Green arguments embarrassed some Republicans, e.g. Michael Savage, whose idea of “being conservative” did embrace conservation of the environment. But there’s also another reason: Palin was, like the Obamas and Ingraham and me, born in the early 1960s. Most active politicians are still “elders” to the Obamas; Palin is actually a bit younger. In that sense, she’s fair game.

Then there’s “the most offensive example of the Obamas’ self-indulgent vacationing…when the White House announced that the First Family would head home to Chicago , on May 27, 2010, for the long Memorial Day weekend. This meant the president would skip the tradi­tional wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington …As this incident unfolded the President was coming under intense criticism for his handling of a catastrophic oil spill…” Where did Ingraham go during the Gulf War? I wrote home (from Pittsburgh): “The President has advised all non-essential personnel to leave Washington, after sending our relatives to war. Taking his own advice, he has gone to Kennebunkport.” If the presidential vacation during a time of criticism was tacky, it was not unprecedented.

Then there’s a quote from Ingraham’s fan mail, “an e-mail I re­cently received from a listener, Kevin,” to the effect that “we [haberdashers?] may totally disagree with your [President Obama’s] agenda, but we could at least respect you a tiny bit if you wore a tie.” Fashions change. I for one am glad to see fashion evolving away from useless, uncomfortable decorations. People our age don’t need to burn the neckties and high-heeled shoes Grandma thought people needed to wear to remind themselves that an occasion was special; we can simply recognize them as fashions from fifty or a hundred years ago that, if worn by us, remind everyone that an occasion is silly, like a Halloween party. But surely, if Kevin is old enough to miss neckties, he’s old enough to remember that proper letters to the President were written or typed on good stationery, addressed privately to The President, The White House, Washington, headed with “Sir,” and closed with “Yours faithfully, Kevin Smith,” or whatever his name is—not e-mailed to third parties, and not signed with a given name only. Without the etiquette that went with them, why would anyone want neckties?

The Obama Diaries scores high on comedy appeal. What the First Family’s “dog and veggie show” needed was good clean jokes about it. Ingraham provides those. Mostly she does it in a gentle, I’m-a-mother-too sort of way; no really nasty stuff about the First Daughters’ adolescence, and only one short, family-filtered riff about the President’s parents. If Ingraham doesn’t seem able to find words like, “Go, girl! Give us something to aim for!” at least the catty jokes say that for her.

More often, there are satirical images of “Rahm [Emanuel uttering a vulgar word] every five minutes to keep [Senator Harry] Reid awake,” Desiree Glapion Rogers pouting that “I am the real First Lady! Only far more alluring,” and foreign politicians not being “motivated by their personal opinions of Barack Obama any more than…by their feelings about blue­grass music.”  And then there’s that Kevin character. If you’re using a daily dose of laughter for pain control, buy this book.

I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and recommend it to readers from all political parties. My reservation about this book is the same reservation I had about Ingraham’s first book, The Hillary Trap.

While The Obama Diaries is at least about the public policies of an individual, The Hillary Trap was to an even greater degree about the ideas that had failed to serve Ingraham’s and my slightly older fore-sisters, the left-wing feminists. Because it used Hillary Rodham Clinton as an example of a woman for whom ten specific left-wing ideas hadn’t worked, The Hillary Trap sold well to one political coalition during one year, was written off as Clinton-bashing by everyone else, and was forgotten next year…and the book deserves more careful reading than that.

The Obama Diaries is more topical, but here too, there’s a fine line between skewering people’s mistakes and skewering people. Plenty of political satirists specialize in skewering people. Ingraham has a more substantial talent for analyzing ideas. My feeling is that publishers encouraged her to use a few jokes that should have been donated to Ann Coulter. Maybe that was what it took to reach the bestseller lists, but I think Ingraham had well and truly “arrived,” even in 2010, and could have afforded to take the high road.

The bad ideas of the administration remain to be bashed. I’ve been in the bashing business since 2011, and I’ll be the first to say that Ingraham does the job better than I do. There is some good solid idea-bashing in The Obama Diaries, enough to make the book more relevant today than much that was written about the news in 2010. There is more satirical comedy about individuals, and although those individuals are still in power, so the jokes about them are still funny, the personal focus of these jokes have given The Obama Diaries a shorter shelf life than Ingraham’s talent really deserves.

Buy this book now…it’ll be a museum piece by 2017. It’s a Fair Trade Book: send $5 per book + $5 per package, for a total of $10, to the address in the lower left-hand corner, and we will send $1 to Ingraham or a charity of her choice. (If you want two books, one of which might be The Hillary Trap, send $15 to the address in the lower left-hand corner, and we will send Ingraham or her charity $2.)

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