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I HAVEN’T READ Barack Obama’s A Promised Land, and considering the number of books already on my “to-read” stack, I’m not likely to attempt this 768-page challenge. On the other hand, this is an added beauty of London Review of Books: Its writers provide provocative and thoughtful commentary, even on books beyond my “to-read” stack.

 And such it is with “Magic Beans, Baby,” London Review of Books, January 7, 2021, by David Runciman. Runciman is a Cambridge professor, a Contributing Editor to LRB, and an occasional source for items here at SimanaitisSays. Here are several Obama tidbits gleaned from Runciman’s review of A Promised Land.

A Promised Land, by Barack Obama, Crown, 2020.

Runciman opens his review with “Who was Barack Obama? The man himself seems troubled by this question and his notably introspective memoir offers up some surprising answers.” Without giving away much, I share Runciman’s concluding sentence as well: “And with Obama we still have another book to go.”

That is, this first volume recounts Barack Obama’s life only to May 2011, when he meets the SEAL team involved with the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Yet there’s fascinating personal reminiscence and plenty of compelling history ranging from Obama’s Hawaii birth, his upbringing there and in Indonesia, his college and university days, and his life with Michelle. 

Barack Hussein Obama II, Honolulu-born 1961, 44th president of the United States, 2009–2017. He had previously served as an Illinois State Senator from 1997 to 2004 and a U.S. Senator from Illinois from 2005 to 2008. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.


Obama’s Undergrad Reading List. Runciman writes that Obama “describes his student days as a time when he was in search of big ideas without much sense of where they would take him. He is funny about the futility of some of this book-learning.”

“ ‘Looking back,’ he [Obama] writes, ‘it’s embarrassing to recognise the degree to which my intellectual curiosity those first two years of college paralleled the interests of various women I was trying to get to know.’ ” 

Runciman observes, “He read Marx and Marcuse to impress a ‘long-legged socialist,’ Fanon and Gwendolyn Brooks for a ‘smooth-skinned sociology major,’ Foucault and Virginia Woolf to keep up with an ‘ethereal bisexual who wore mostly black.’ It didn’t work. ‘As a strategy for picking up girls my pseudo-intellectualism proved mostly worthless. I found myself in a series of affectionate but chaste relationships.’ ”

The Magic Beans. “When he met Michelle,” Runciman recounts, “his life started to take more shape, but even so he conveys just how frustrating she found his combination of dreaminess and predestination. After she asks him how they will pay the rent and raise the kids while he sorts his ideas out, he replies: ‘Magic beans, baby, magic beans.’ ”

And, sure enough, magic beans appear: Runciman describes, “In 2004 he runs for the U.S. Senate, which seems like a huge leap of faith (particularly to Michelle), but the race goes his way almost by default. His Democratic rivals drop out. His Republican opponent is accused by his ex-wife of forcing her to have sex in front of strangers. He wins at a canter.”

Michelle LaVaughn née Robinson Obama, Chicago-born 1964. Married Barack Obama in 1992; their children Malia, b. 1998, and Sasha, b. 2001. First Lady of the United States, 2009-2017. 

 Michelle’s Probing Question, Barack’s Response. In 2008, the Obamas had to contend with his seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Runciman writes, “Later, in front of his campaign team, Michelle asks him why. ‘You’ve told me that the only reason for you to run is if you could provide something the others can’t. Otherwise it’s not worth it … So my question is why you, Barack? Why do you need to be president?’ ” 

“He falls into a brief reverie—why does he want to be president?” Runciman recounts. “Is it vanity? Hubris? The legacy of childhood trauma?—then he responds: ‘Here’s one thing I know for sure. I know that the day I raise my right hand and take the oath to be president of the United States, the world will start looking at America differently. I know that kids all around this country—Black kids, Hispanic kids, kids who don’t fit in—they’ll see themselves differently too, their horizons lifted, their possibilities expanded. And that alone … that would be worth it.’ Michelle considers this for a while and then says: ‘Well, honey … that was a pretty good answer.’ ’’

It was a pretty good answer back in 2008, and even a better one in retrospect. I may not read the second volume of Obama’s memoir (my stack grows no shorter), but I sure hope there’s a similarly cogent review of it. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2021

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