What makes Barack Obama fun

Hot off the press interview Barack Obama on the power of literature


"All of the world's leaders are storytellers," says Barack Obama. In a hot off the press interview with critic Denis Scheck, he explains the role this insight plays in his new book and why literature helps in making politics.

Status: 02/22/2021 12:44 p.m. | archive

Last November, Barack Obama's book "A Promised Land" was published, a mixture of autobiography and political analysis. Now the book is in German and Denis Scheck from the ARD book magazine Druckfrisch got the chance to speak to the former US president. The current program and the written interview can be found here exclusively in advance.

Denis check:We both have something in common: We both know what real power feels like - the power to influence people in what they read. How did you cope with this cruel responsibility?

Barack Obama: (laughs) I started recommending books during my presidency. Actually for fun - especially during the summer vacation time, people were grateful for tips. I still have some influence, and it is still very important to me to help young, as yet undiscovered authors.

Basically, I am very convinced that literature has the power to create connections between people and to deepen our own understanding of ourselves and our lives.

This is a contemporary book that is about women and about Women of Color. It deals with something that we arguably all deal with in the modern world: exploring our roots and our identity.

Video: Denis Scheck interviews Barack Obama

It's about getting a sense of who we are while at the same time recognizing the human condition and reality of other people, understanding how our identities overlap.

In the 21st century it is more than ever one of the greatest challenges to learn to live together, to recognize and perceive one another, despite the superficial differences. The stories of the women in this book show us in an impressive way how this can be achieved.

At one point in her novel, Evaristo writes about the "Obama Syndrome", by which she means waiting for the Prince of Dreams, for Mr. Right. I still remember how you gave a speech to over 200,000 people at the Victory Column in Berlin during the 2008 election campaign. How did it feel to be received like a Messiah, to be at the center of all this attention, all these hopes and visions? How do you cope with it?

As I describe in A Promised Land, it has been a gradual process to get used to being in the limelight, first nationally and then internationally. At the beginning of my political career, I was still relatively unknown.

That didn't change until I ran for the United States Senate in 2004, when I was 43 years old. That was the first time I spoke to a large audience. And once you've spoken to a television audience, you suddenly attract more people, that's how powerful television is.

Symbol Obama outshines people

As my presidential campaign picked up, it became clear that people are projecting their dreams, hopes, and opportunities onto you. You become a fictional character and you cease to be an individual, you become a symbol while you are just a perfectly normal person. Fortunately, I was old enough and maybe knew myself well enough to be able to assess it correctly.

How do I have to imagine the writing process while working on "A Promised Land"? What did you find out about yourself from this book?

For one thing, it made me realize again how difficult it is to write. I wrote my last book over ten years ago and I am very systematic in writing it.

Do you write on notepads by hand?

First I write by hand, then I type it into a computer. Most of all, I have come to understand how many things happened during my presidency, especially in the early days that I write about in this book.

I didn't have a chance then to consider the consequences while making all these decisions. You understood them, of course, but you couldn't burden yourself with it so much that you were paralyzed.

Writing the book gave me the opportunity to take a step back and think about what could have gone wrong but didn't go wrong, but also about mistakes I had made.

I could better understand that some of the divisions that I had observed early in my presidency that I was surprised at were developments that have become long-term and that we see to this day - not just here in the United States, but also in your country, across Europe and across the world.

Emerging populism is not a new phenomenon

I was amazed that the conflict of ideas was already recognizable in 2007/08: the conflict between the liberal, market-based, democratic basic order - which has prevailed in progressive countries since the Second World War and which we are always trying to export to other parts of the world - and various more traditional, authoritarian, narrow-minded and in some cases populist alternatives promoting the "strong man".

Such ideas can be found in right-wing extremist parties in Europe and here first at the Tea Party, then at Donald Trump. They are reflected in the politics of a Putin, an Erdogan or a Duterte in the Philippines. These two conflicting ideas about where mankind is going and how we will meet the challenges of the future crystallized for me while writing the book. And, I also write that in the book: It is not yet clear how it will turn out who will win the competition of ideas.

When you are confronted with an economic crisis like you are in 2008, with terrorists like Osama bin Laden and with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, how does poetry help you, how does literature help you to cope with such situations?

The best way to explain it is: I had to make a series of very difficult decisions every day. As noted in the book, I had to make these decisions based on probabilities - and analysis, because ultimately nothing was absolutely certain. For example, I said, I think ... or the analyst told me we think it's bin Laden, but we can't be 100 percent sure.

Politics is not a mathematical formula

My economic team said we believe this is the best way to save the financial system, but it could just as easily go wrong. Analyzes and calculations, facts and figures help to a certain extent, but ultimately you have to judge for yourself. This is not a mathematical formula - it is about the area in which you use your judgment, in which the values, the moral concepts, the empathy that you gain from art work.

Because that influences everything that you find important, what you want to put at risk, which principles you adhere to. These are not cold calculations, but have to do with what you have in your heart and also how well you can understand other people's experiences and understand them outside of your own little world. I think the literature, poetry, and art in my life have helped me make better decisions and sharpen my judgment.

I was surprised to learn that you wrote short stories as a young man. How is the President of the United States also a storyteller? In other words, what is the meaning of a narrative for you?

Every leader is a storyteller. Man is an animal that tells stories. The great religious leaders are storytellers: Jesus tells his parables, Moses had a story to tell in order to free his people from captivity, politicians and political leaders are storytellers, for better or for worse.

My story told of my belief in America's best ability to come to terms with past injustices and seek a more perfect covenant - to become more inclusive, more just, equal.

Stories can divide or divide you

Donald Trump also had a story to tell. He was about looking back, going back to a time when certain people were at the top and others were viewed as outsiders or subordinates. Vladimir Putin tells of the return to Russia's old glory, all of the nationalists, and Brexit is also a story.

These are all narratives that bring people together or drive them apart. People make wars over stories, people commit incredible acts of compassion and generosity because of the stories they have heard and believe in.

With Bob Dylan and Philip Roth in the White House

I also wrote this book to help citizens understand how their own stories and voices relate to the supposedly lonely decisions of heads of government. But heads of government are only human and part of a community, they draw from the same experiences, ideas and narratives as we all do.

One of the stories I believe in is democracy, a story of equality and participation. I hope that through this book I will give people the feeling that their stories, their voices are also important and that they should be part of the political process in order to change something.

Let's talk about some of the writers you invited to the White House. For example the Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, who made music for you. How was it?

I love Bob Dylan. I love his music. Bob Dylan has always been famous for his mysteriousness and eccentricity, and he doesn't follow the rules. He was no different in the White House. He didn't talk a lot, played, was masterful, but didn't make a lot of small talk. And that's exactly how you want Bob Dylan to be.

It was one of the great joys of being a president. For example, you could give Philip Roth the recognition he had long deserved, I could take Toni Morrison to dinner and listen to her stories, her descriptions of James Baldwin and other writers who influenced me a lot and whom she knew.

If you ask me what for me personally was one of the greatest assets of being president and what I enjoyed most: when you call people and invite them to the White House, they usually come. I was able to meet all the personalities that I have admired for many years.

You visited the Buchenwald concentration camp with contemporary witness and American writer Elie Wiesel and Angela Merkel. You describe in your book how impressed you were that Elie Wiesel told you that when he was liberated in 1945 he left the concentration camp in an optimistic mood. Where did this optimism come from?

As I also describe in the book, this is one of my most impressive experiences, for many reasons. For one thing, Elie Wiesel and I had already become friends by then. He was an influential contemporary witness and historian of humanity, even in the deepest darkness.

Taking this tour with him, listening to his descriptions of the strategies people used to maintain their humanity in the face of horror, was life-affirming.

And for me at that moment Angela Merkel represented the willingness of the Germans to come to terms with the past in a way that has seldom been seen in human history.

After all, in the United States we are still not entirely through our history of slavery and Native American conquest. Her speech reflected wisdom and hope.

I also have a personal connection: my grandfather's brother, as I describe this in the book, Charles Payne, was involved in the liberation of one of the Buchenwald subcamps as a young soldier at the age of twenty or twenty-one. That was my own personal connection to it.

What I took from there and why Elie's remarks made me so optimistic was his thesis: This is so bad, so dark, we have dehumanized the others so much that humanity has certainly learned something from it, and it will not be happen once.

He gave me something to take along. Since that time he had seen the killing fields in Cambodia and Rwanda and Darfur, and he gave me a warning: Humanity is forgetting. We think we remember these lessons.

But the rise of far-right parties and nationalism in parts of the world, including my own, and the fact that the internet is a platform on which racist, misogynistic or radical fundamentalist ideas can flourish, all of this admonishes us to learn all of these lessons not to be taken for granted and to keep telling these stories.

Every generation must understand what heroic deeds man can be capable of, but also what cruelty.

You end your book with Donald Trump appearing on the political stage and with the killing of Osama bin Laden by the commando company "Geronimo". Why do you say that bin Laden's death was catharsis for the American people?

The irony of the story: I came into office in part because of the chain of events that started 9/11. The Bush administration therefore initiated not only the invasion of Afghanistan, but also the invasion of Iraq afterwards.

I was against this war, which in turn earned me some support from progressive forces within the United States who were also against the war.

That, in turn, helped me defeat Hillary Clinton in the primary and become a Democratic candidate and, ultimately, President. In a sense, the circle came full. September 11th had a profound emotional impact on the United States.

A feeling of vulnerability arose that was seldom seen in America, not even in World War II, apart from Pearl Harbor, for the United States, thanks to its fortunate geographic location, was seldom attacked on its own land.

Bin Laden's death as catharsis

September 11th changed American life fundamentally, it changed the American government, and it also strengthened the military intelligence infrastructure, which poured trillions of dollars and countless resources into keeping people safe.

In some cases it was necessary, but in other cases it also led to excesses, it led to the violation of some of our core values, as we have seen, for example, in some prison camps.

Bin Laden represented a great deal of what America was afraid of - or of which it continued to be afraid. Taking him out of circulation allowed us, or at least me, to re-engage the American people more seriously and not live with a war mentality all the time.

And to think about how to redirect the funds back into schools, into health care, into climate change, and into other great battles that must be fought.

I have to ask you for one last service to humanity, namely that you let us in on a secret: How did you and your wife Michelle manage to turn your daughters into readers?

Well how do you start? I read to them. Very early in their life when they sat on my lap as toddlers. I don't know how much they understood, but they heard the human voice, and that alone has an effect. They then began to read on their own.

It's getting more and more difficult when you bring up children these days; they spend more time in front of the screen and have cell phones. Nevertheless, I am still convinced that reading has an entirely different magic to it than visual art.

But you have to get them to do it at a young age. They have to get used to it early on because there are too many distractions today to focus, to use the patience and imagination necessary to actively read.

"The Promised Land" by Barack Obama is published by Penguin.