Since leaving office, Barack Obama has channeled his energy into an unexpected pursuit: building an infotainment empire. He’s started a production company, made playlists for his followers, and recently published Renegades, a coffee-table book featuring a series of his conversations with Bruce Springsteen. In it, the two make the case that art can wield political power, but also reveal the tensions in that idea. Rather than advancing an argument that content can save America, the book sheds light on the former president’s almost illogically optimistic faith in the power of art.
Indeed, when politicians make art, the resulting works tend to reveal more about their creators than they do about our government. As the former minority leader of the Georgia State House of Representatives and voting-rights activist Stacey Abrams has said, she writes novels to create a “repository for the parts” of her that she “can’t unleash” as a public figure. (One of the protagonists of her book While Justice Sleeps gets to punch an evil, Trump-like character.) In the thriller The President Is Missing, which Bill Clinton co-wrote with the author James Patterson, Clinton lives out a fantasy in which he was a much cooler and more heroic leader. Newt Gingrich’s 2011 Civil War novel, The Battle of the Crater (released as his failed presidential bid was ramping up), made no clear impact on the election’s results, but it certainly revealed the former speaker of the House’s racist outlook, as he downplayed Confederate violence.
A work is never a perfect reflection of its creator. Pablo Neruda was a Chilean senator, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, and self-admitted rapist—yet his all-consuming, transcendent love poems bear no evidence of such violence.
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“Obama seems almost tragically fixated on the idea that poetry, podcasting, or TV programming can heal our national wounds—even though the tales that he himself keeps telling demonstrate that it is not so simple.”
“The storytelling skills that Abrams uses to write fiction are also essential to her political life; through narrative, she renders difficult, sometimes intimidating, political concepts compelling.”
Kevin Lamarque / Retuers / The Atlantic
“Clinton and Patterson are far from the first people to imagine the president as an action hero, dodging bullets and explosions … But it has always been a sinister trope, and to see it endorsed by an actual ex-president only makes it more so. That is because the qualities of the action hero—decisiveness, combativeness, the ability to solve all problems and defeat all enemies singlehandedly—are much closer to the ideals of fascism than of liberal democracy.”
“[The] narrative … grossly distorts our understanding of the war and the important role of black Union soldiers.”
“Today, any close reader of Neruda will face the irony of an activist for the downtrodden who also wielded his power for harm—and the mystery of how a beautiful poem about love could come from a man capable of such cruelty.”