Sunday, December 09, 2012

Obama, intrextrovert

For a year or two, we've been awash in stories casting Obama as a singularity among politicians: a successful introvert.  He doesn't schmooze congress-folk, we read ad infinitum; he doesn't butter up billionaires, or at least doesn't keep them well buttered.

It's true he's no Bill Clinton, sniffing out crowds to soothe a recurring jones for mass adulation.  But he's no classic introvert, either, as this remembrance from Maraniss's Obama reminds me:
There were certain aspects of organizing at which he excelled. 280 While Loretta Augustine-Herron and Yvonne Lloyd were wary of some streets, even in familiar neighborhoods, and warned Obama away, he had no qualms about walking down any block or entering any house, no matter how threatening or odd. His life’s history was at work here. When you spend several formative years starting at age six immersed in an unfamiliar culture on the other side of the world, walking the exotic alleyways and pathways of the Menteng Dalam neighborhood of Jakarta, and figure out how to survive and thrive there, learning the language, seeming so at home that Indonesians come to think of you as one of them, nothing after that can seem too intimidating. But Lloyd was shocked one day when Obama reported that he had eaten at the house of a woman who was known for being a packrat, with old newspapers and detritus stacked high everywhere. “I said, ‘Did you go over and eat in that house? It’s not exactly the safest place in the world.’… He’d say, ‘Yeah, it was interesting.’ We’d say, ‘You need to stay away. Don’t walk through there.’ He’d laugh. It didn’t bother him. He was on that level with all of those people. I don’t know how he managed it because they were leery [of anyone walking up to their doors]. It was the way he approached them. That has a lot to do with why they would let him in. It’s like he belonged. Now he didn’t, and we know he didn’t, but he gave them kind of that feeling.”

Over time Obama proved to be a first-rate student, and then teacher, of one-on-ones. In this realm again he drew on the adaptability and universal sensibility he had acquired from his life experiences and from his mother, the academic anthropologist who could relate to her subjects on a warmly human level. As a teacher, he was the sympathetic participant observer. David Kindler, who joined the Chicago organizing effort about a year after Obama, observed his teaching methods at the training workshops the Gamaliel Foundation sponsored at the Divine Word Seminary at Techny, near Northfield, about nineteen miles north of the city. In that setting the one-on-ones would be conducted in front of an entire room of forty or so people. The method was for the trainer to share something of his own vulnerability in order to draw similar revelations from the subject. Obama would “get somebody up in front of the room. He’d listen to them. He’d encourage them. He’d share something about himself [usually about the father he never knew], not because he was a manipulator,” Kindler said. “He was great at it because he actually cared about people  (pp. 532-533, Kindle ed.).
In fact Obama is a singular blend of introvert and extrovert. There is an interior distance to him, a tendency to hold his core in reserve, but also a rare confidence in the way he reaches out to other people, and an empathy inherited one way or another (genetically or by example or both) from his mother.

Before he had the chance to put that empathy to professional use, during his more withdrawn period in New York, in November 1982 (at age 21), he had this to say about the energy involved in reaching out to others:
“Yes with every person one meets, one is presented with a weakening of one’s certainty, a shakedown of the habits and grooves of separate existence,” he wrote. “A challenge which most people react to by fear or flight. They misunderstand the nature of the challenge. It lies in forging a unity, mixing it up, constructing the truth to be found between the seams of individual lives. All of which requires breaking some sweat. Like a good basketball game. Or a fine dance” (p. 455).
I don't know whether Bill Clinton would ever view meeting people and "forging a unity" as a "challenge" -- except perhaps in a high-stakes negotiation. I suspect that "meeting" is as natural as breathing to him, or sex.  Obama recognizes, feels, the expense of energy, and if political reporting has some reality behind it, he's often (as president) frugal with that expense  - as he is, he explained to Michael Lewis in an interview, with decision-making (don't waste mental energy choosing suits).  A further complication is the central role in his inner life now occupied by family, a missing piece that the (white) girlfriend in New York with whom he had his most serious relationship prior to marriage -- a young woman (Genevieve Cook) who recognized that she couldn't quite reach that inner core -- forecast with remarkable perspicuity:
She sympathized with and encouraged his search for his identity. If she felt like an outsider, he was a double outsider, racial and cross-cultural. He looked black, but was he? At times he confessed to her that “he felt like an imposter. Because he was so white. There was hardly a black bone in his body.” At some point that summer she realized that “in his own quest to resolve his ambivalence about black and white, it became very, very clear to me that he needed to go black. I told him that. I think he felt very encouraged by my absolute conviction that his future lay down the road with a black woman. He doubted there were any black women he would feel truly comfortable with. I would tell him, ‘No, she is out there’”  (p. 497).

If that sounds like 20/20 hindsight, it's there in her contemporary journal:
Early in Barack’s relationship with Genevieve, he had told her about “his adolescent image of the perfect ideal woman” and how he had searched for her “at the expense of hooking up with available girls.” Who was this ideal woman? In her journals, Genevieve conjured her in her mind, and it was someone other than herself.

First: I can’t help thinking that what he would really want, be powerfully drawn to, was a woman, very strong, very upright, a fighter, a laugher, well-experienced— a black woman I keep seeing her as. 

Then: Thing is, I can imagine the kind of woman Barack could really get involved w/, ‘fall in love’ w/— she looks like that woman I saw running [in] the park— light. skinned black woman, close cut hair, strong small body, very pretty, and she would be challenging and vivacious in company. Possibly artistic (pp. 497-498).

Every character strength has its corresponding weakness. Obama might be marginally more effective if he bonded more with members of Congress.  But he is no introvert in the ordinary sense.

1 comment:

  1. FYI, you appear to have some heavy duplication of the passage in the second graf of the Maraniss book.