Junot Diaz, author of the brilliant short story collection Drown (1996) and winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, has weighed in on the seeming loss of momentum of the Obama administration on the anniversary of the president's first year in office.
From his vantage point as professor of creative writing at MIT and contributing editor to the Boston Review, the Dominican-born New Jersey native had a ringside seat to the Brown versus Coakley special election to replace Ted Kennedy in the United States Senate, with its catastrophic results for health care legislation and Obama's agenda.
In the current issue of The New Yorker, he's written a short piece on the success of the Tea Party Movement, and Obama's faltering conversion from inspirational candidate of "change" to pragmatic, progressive policy wonk, losing the narrative thread of his administration along the way.
In One Year: Storyteller-in-Chief, Diaz writes, "It has always seemed to me that one of a President’s primary responsibilities is to be a storyteller. We all know the importance of narratives, of stories;...Stories are how we shape our universe....Stories rule us, they find us, they bring us together, they bind us, and, yes, they can pull us apart as well. If a President is to have any success, if his policies are going to gain any kind of traction among the electorate, he first has to tell us a story."
Like many writers who admired Obama's Dreams from My Father (1996) as a pre-political memoir written while still a law professor at the University of Chicago, Diaz sees Obama as a writer turned politician and is perplexed by the president's loss of "authority" in the literary sense:
"All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric.
...From where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk health care to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why health care would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing....
Just this past Tuesday we saw the consequences for the President of not having a real story to draw upon. In Massachusetts, the President was faced with an insurgent Republican candidate who was telling a story that should have been familiar to the Commander-in-Chief: the story of an upstart outsider with energy and ideas, who was going to shake things up, etc. The President tried to help Martha Coakley by campaigning, but since his Administration doesn’t seem to do story he couldn’t lend her one. He could only show up as himself, and that clearly was not enough. A man cannot withstand a story, even if the man is remarkable and the story is simple. The story always wins.
What I’ve been aware of is how much better storytellers the members of the opposition are. Tea Parties and death panels—you might hate these bursts of craziness but these are, above all else, stories, narratives. Obama has provided his supporters with what, exactly? Even the Bush administration, for all its criminal shortcomings, knew the value of a good story. Which is why, when 9/11 befell us, they rode that tragedy for all it was worth. Got a good six years out of it, too....It is ironic—no it’s actually tragic—that the man who proved himself to be a fantastic storyteller on the campaign trail, who vaulted into office by fashioning his life, his promise into a great story ...has been unable to locate an equally engaging narrative for his presidency."
Sounding more than a little like a latter-day William Butler Yeats ("The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity"--The Second Coming), Díaz concludes "Obama needs to craft a strong story, and fast, if he expects to be able to accomplish anything in the three years that remain. His opponents are hard at work smithing [sic] their stories, and Obama soon might find himself surrounded on all sides by crude powerful tales that no amount of ratiocination will be able to dispel. The President needs to remember his post’s true vocation: that of the Storyteller-in-Chief...Losing the super majority won’t kill the Obama presidency. It’s his sudden inability to tell a good tale that will be his death-knell. If I were him, I’d have hired fewer Ivy League policy wonks and brought in a couple of storytellers."
Correct as he may be about the need for any successful president to articulate a narrative the nation can understand and relate to, Diaz's analysis assumes that the president's policies are correct, and simply require more eloquence and tighter storyline to win our approval. I suppose if one were working a novel and the proof of the tale were in the telling, then that might be true. But one might just as well argue that the policies themselves are misguided and no amount of storytelling genius (not even Diaz's own extravagant gift for mixing different narrative genres, cultural perspectives and linguistic idioms) would make them seem palatable to a restive and skeptical public.
I'm not a believer in the "great man" theory of history, but like most writers, I have a great deal invested in storytelling and the transformative power of language. They keep writing from dissolving into the entropy of word salad. That most "great men" and "great women" are flawed only adds to the story. That they take up challenging tasks, suffer reversals of fortune and endure bitter ironies is the sine qua non of tragedy.
Along the campaign trail in 2008, Obama outmaneuvered his more experienced rivals, overcame prejudice with eloquence, and proved equally adept at evoking both Abraham Lincoln's "better angels of our nature" and Martin Luther King Jr.'s dictum that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." We came to expect a Gettysburg Address from him on nearly every issue. A majority of Americans voted for him not because he reminded them of what America was or used to be, but rather because he articulated a new path forward.
No president in the history of the Republic -- not Lincoln or FDR, not JFK or Ronald Reagan, even the generation of our Founders: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison -- ever arrived in the office to a higher set of expectations that he could transform the country merely by the power of his words. In retrospect, the stark realism and dampened aspirational rhetoric of Obama's inaugural address signaled more than a change in tone; it reflected a change in tense.
"Politics is the art of the possible," as Bismarck once famously said, but narrative is the art of the conjectural and the grammatically possible. That the latter can serve the former is indisputable; but to conflate the two is to fall into the hubris of the previous administration, a functionary of which once told reporter Ron Suskind, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."
Junot Diaz is right. Obama needs a coherent and sustaining narrative for his presidency. But it can't just be any story, or any story that can get 60 votes in the Senate. If for a moment, he seemed a transcendent figure in American politics, it was because he seemed above partisanship and political horse trading, a man who connected us with our moral and intellectual ideals, even as he presented a new image for the American presidency. The story he needs to reconnect us with now is one we already know, and one in a sense he embodies.
It is a living text and we are all writing it together -- every possible configuration of race, gender, ethnic origin, religion and social class. It is the story of a free people living in a civil society onto whom much has been given and more is expected: a free thinking people who still believe that for themselves and for their country, all dreams are still possible.