Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: The Darker Side of Obama; The Largest Human Being of Our Time

A Brit writing in a British literary journal has put his finger precisely on the pulse of Barack Obama’s rhetoric. “Those who hear only empty optimism in Obama aren’t listening,” Jonathan Raban proclaims in the London Review of Books (www.lrb.co.uk):

“The light in Obama’s rhetoric—the chants of ‘Yes, we can’ or his woo-woo line, lifted from Maria Shriver’s endorsement speech, ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for’—is in direct proportion to the darkness, and he paints a blacker picture of America than any Democratic presidential candidate in living memory has dared to do. He courts his listeners, not as legions of the blissful, but as legions of the alienated, adrift in a country no longer recognizable as their own, and challenges them to emulate slaves in their struggle for emancipation, impoverished European immigrants seeking a new life on a far continent, and soldiers of the ‘greatest generation’ who volunteered to fight Fascism and Nazism. The extravagance of these similes is jarring—especially when they’re spoken by a writer as subtle and careful as Obama is on the printed page—but they serve to make the double point that America is in a desperate predicament and that only a great wave of communitarian action can salvage it.”


MY THOUGHTS TURN to Winston Churchill, who inspired with his rhetoric the sacrifice of so many volunteers in the fight against Nazism. Here’s how Isaiah Berlin, in an essay collected in Personal Impressions (Princeton University Press, $24.95), describes the impact on the besieged British nation of Churchill’s drumbeat appeal to “an indomitable stoutness, an unsurrendering quality” of his fellow citizens:

“So hypnotic was the force of his words … that by the sheer intensity of his eloquence he bound his spell upon them until it seemed to them that he was indeed speaking what was in their hearts and minds. Doubtless it was there; but largely dormant until he had awoken it within them.”

(Or as Mr. Obama likes to say, “Yes, we can.”)

I’m thinking of Churchill in part because his character has been under attack in recent weeks as reviews trickle in of Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke, a radically unconventional history of the first years of World War II that paints the British prime minister as a warmonger. Here, for example, is a paragraph from Colm Toibin’s kindly front-page contribution to The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review:

“Churchill emerges here as a most fascinating figure—impetuous, childish, bloodthirsty, fearless, insomniac, bookish, bullying, determined, to name just some of his characteristics. Baker writes: ‘He wasn’t an alcoholic, someone said later—no alcoholic could drink that much.’ The prime minister of Australia noted of Churchill: ‘In every conversation he ultimately reaches a point where he positively enjoys the war.’ After the bombing of British cities, Baker quotes him: ‘This ordeal by fire has, in a certain sense, even exhilarated the manhood and the womanhood of Britain.’”

Isaiah Berlin, for one, would probably have been willing to concede that Churchill was a warmonger. He writes, “His world is built upon … the supreme value of action, of the battle between simple good and simple evil, between life and death; but, above all, battle. He has always fought. ‘Whatever you may do,’ he declared to the demoralized French ministers in the bleakest hour of 1940, ‘we shall fight on for ever and ever and ever,’ and under this sign his whole life has been lived.”

But unlike Baker, Berlin had no doubt that the ends justified the means, that fighting World War II was necessary and right. He believed that Churchill was not just “the saviour of his country” but also “the largest human being of our time.”

Adam Begley can be reached at books@observer.com.

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: The Darker Side of Obama; The Largest Human Being of Our Time