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Obama memoir addresses evolution on LGBTQ rights

‘A Promised Land’ packed with wit, insights

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Promised Land, gay news, Washington Blade
President Barack Obama (Photo courtesy Crown)

‘A Promised Land’
By Barack Obama
c.2020, Crown
$45/768 pages

Most memoirs of politicians are pablum — ghost-written snooze-inducers. At best, good door-stops.

“A Promised Land,” former President Barack Obama’s new memoir, breaks that mold. Though it’s over 700 pages, you won’t be tempted to turn away from this, by turns, measured, moving, detailed, witty, and self-aware volume. The memoir, narrated by Obama, is a great listen (29 hours, 10 minutes) on Audible.

Unlike most politicos, Obama can write! Many of us ink-stained wretches would give anything to have his writing chops. Obama’s first book, “Dreams from My Father,” Obama’s critically acclaimed 1995 coming-of-age memoir, came out years before he was a player on the national political stage.

Like many, I knew some of the highlights of Obama’s life before I picked up “A Promised Land”: his spouse and best friend Michelle, his daughters, his dog Bo, his rapid rise from Illinois state senator to U.S. senator to president of the United States.

As a lesbian, I knew of the many things that Obama and his administration did to support LGBTQ rights – from issuing Pride proclamations to the repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.” At his last press conference, Obama called on Blade reporter Chris Johnson to ask a question. (Obama was the first U.S. president to call on a LGBTQ press reporter at a press conference.) No wonder many of us think of Obama as the “first gay president.”

If this memoir had been hacked out by a ghostwriter for a typical politico (even a queer-friendly politico), I’d probably just skim through it. But, because of Obama’s superb writing, the breadth of his thinking and the wide-ranging events of his administration (from his meetings with foreign leaders to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), I was hooked from the get-go on “A Promised Land.” The Republican opposition to his every move (no matter how bipartisan he tries to be) is an underlying theme.

“For a month, Michelle and I slept late, ate leisurely dinners, went for long walks, swam in the ocean, took stock,” Obama writes in the memoir’s preface of what life was like for him and Michelle after he left office in January 2017, “replenished our friendship, rediscovered our love, and planned for a less eventful but hopefully no less satisfying second act.”

No way could I stop reading after that!

“A Promised Land” is the first of two volumes. It begins with a preface in which Obama says he wants to give an “honest rendering” of the events that happened on his watch and ends with the death of Osama bin Laden.

The first third of the memoir is about his life before he becomes president. Here, Obama writes of his family, youth, college years, law school life, how he met Michelle, his time as a community organizer and political campaigns.

Obama writes personally about his evolving attitudes toward LGBTQ rights. He believes that the “American family” includes LGBTQ people and immigrants. “How could I believe otherwise, when some of the same arguments for their exclusion had so often been used to exclude those who looked like me?” Obama writes.

But, he doesn’t, he writes, dismiss those with differing views on queers and immigrants as bigots. He remembers that his own beliefs weren’t always so “enlightened.”

“I grew up in the 1970s, a time when LGBTQ life was far less visible to those outside the community,” Obama writes.

His Aunt Arlene, “felt obliged to introduce her partner of twenty years as ‘my close friend Marge’ whenever she visited us in Hawaii,” he recalls.

When Obama was a teen, he and his peers used anti-gay slurs. “And like many teenage boys in those years, my friends and I sometimes threw around words like ‘fag’ or ‘gay’ at each other as casual put downs,” Obama writes, “callow attempts to fortify our masculinity and hide our insecurities.”

After nearly four years of Donald Trump, it’s a pleasure to read a presidential memoirs written with intelligence, wit and insight. Whether you’re a political junkie, a lover of gossip or a fan of engaging writing, “A Promised Land” will leave you wanting more.

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Two new political memoirs reveal how the sausage of democracy is made

Top Dem, GOP spin-meisters weigh in on Trump, Buttigieg, more

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(Book cover images via Amazon)

‘Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell’
By Tim Miller
c.2022, Harper
$26.99/259 pages

‘Any Given Tuesday: A Political Love Story’
By Lis Smith
c.2022, Harper
$22.39/304 pages

The lilies of the field, the Bible tells us, “neither toil nor spin.” If only, they had met Tim Miller and Lis Smith!

Miller and Smith, two top-tier spinmeisters have written memoirs. Fasten your seatbelts. These aren’t the usual tepid politico’s tales.

As you read, you’ll laugh out loud one minute. Then gulp down your go-to comfort food or libation while (literally) worrying about the fate of our democracy. 

“Next to love, the most sacred thing you can give is your labor,” James Carville says to staff and volunteers in the last days of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign in a real life Aaron Sorkin moment in the 1993 documentary “The War Room.”

Miller and Smith both saw “The War Room” when they were kids. Miller would grow up to be a Republican strategist who left the party over Trump. Smith would become a top Democratic political operative. But “The War Room” instilled in both of them a love of the public service and game of politics. 

Miller, who lives in Oakland, Calif., with his husband Tyler and their daughter Toulouse, is a former Republican political operative. He was communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Miller left the GOP to become a leader of the “Never Trump” movement. After calling it quits with Trump, Miller worked briefly as a consultant for Scott Pruitt, Environmental Protection Agency administrator during the Trump administration. Now, Miller is an MSNBC analyst, a writer at large with “The Bulwark” and the host of “Not My Party” on Snapchat. 

The Republican Party has a history – from Ronald Reagan’s abysmal record on AIDS to Donald Trump’s transphobic policies – of being anti-queer. You’re likely wondering how Miller, as a gay man, could stomach working for the GOP.

In “Why We Did It,” Miller puts himself and some of the people who “enabled” Trump under the microscope. 

“America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends,” Miller writes, “We were the ‘normal’ Republicans.”

When Trump arrived, they didn’t take him seriously. They didn’t, “get off on the tears of immigrant children,” Miller writes. Nor would they have been caught “dead in one of those gaudy red baseball caps,” he adds.

“Why in the fuck,” Miller asks, “did the vast, vast majority of seemingly normal, decent people whom I worked with go along with the most abnormal, indecent of men?”

The first half of the memoir is Miller’s story of how he “compartmentalized” being a gay man with being an operative for the largely homophobic GOP.

Take when he worked for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Though he was gay, Miller told McCain to walk it back after McCain said “gay marriage should be allowed if there’s a ceremony kind of thing.”

In the second half of the book, Miller examines why people such as Elise Stefanik opted to “take the red pill” and work for “the great MAGA future.”

“Why We Did It” is dishy, dark, and soul-churning.

Smith, a top Democratic strategist and veteran of 20 campaigns, has worked for everyone from Claire McCaskill to Barack Obama. She was a senior communications adviser for Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign.

Thankfully, “Any Given Tuesday” isn’t a stuffy political memoir. It’s smart, snarky, and gossipy. Smith is James Carville in high heels.

“Any Given Tuesday” is about Smith’s life in politics intertwined with stories from her personal life.

Due to sexism, her love life was politicized. Smith became a tabloid target when she fell in love with former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, after learning of Smith’s relationship with Spitzer, fired her from her job with his administration. (Though she had worked for de Blasio’s campaign.)

You wonder if this would have happened if Smith had been a man. But Smith gets many digs at de Blasio. After her firing, de Blasio tried to win Spitzer’s political endorsement. “Both of us had tried to get in bed with Eliot,” she writes of de Blasio’s failure to win Spitzer’s backing, “but only one of us had been successful.” (Smith and Spitzer no longer have a relationship.)

Unlike Miller, Smith doesn’t have to twist herself into a compartmentalized pretzel to do her work. Like Miller, she’s hopped up on the “game” of campaigns. Though Smith doesn’t agree with everything everyone she works for believes in, she’s generally in synch with centrist Democrats.

Among the most interesting chapters of “Any Given Tuesday” are those about her work on Buttigieg’s campaign. If you’re queer or queer-friendly, even if you don’t agree with his politics, you get the historic significance of Buttigieg’s campaign.

Smith’s account of being on the road with the “Buttibus” and prepping Buttigieg for the candidates’ debates is entertaining and informative. It’s moving when Smith, a seasoned, snarky hack, comes to believe Buttigieg is “the one” — the candidate who truly would serve this country well.

In “Any Given Tuesday,” Smith reveals how the messy sausage of democracy is made. In “Why We Did It,” Miller makes even die-hard atheists pray that democracy will last.    

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Books

Love of baseball unites father, gay son

‘Magic Season’ explores family life after a tragedy

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(Image courtesy of Hanover Square Press)

‘Magic Season: A Son’s Story’
By Wade Rouse
c.2022, Hanover Square Press
$27.99/ 304 pages

You’ve always looked up to your dad.

Sometimes it happened literally, like when you were a child and “up” was the only way to see his face hovering over yours. You’ve looked up at him in anger, embarrassment, dismissal, and yeah, you’ve looked up to him in the best ways, too – never forgetting, as in the memoir “Magic Season” by Wade Rouse, that sometimes, the hardest thing is seeing eye-to-eye.

Wade Rouse threw like a girl.

He couldn’t catch a baseball, either, and he wasn’t much of a runner as a young boy. He tried, because his father insisted on it but Rouse was better with words and books and thoughts. He was nothing like his elder brother, Todd, who was a natural hunter, a good sportsman, and an athlete, and their father never let Rouse forget it.

And yet, curiously, Rouse and his dad bonded over baseball.

Specifically, their love of Cardinals baseball became the one passion they shared. The stats, the players, the idea that “Anything can happen,” the hope that there’d be a World Series at the end of every season was the glue they needed. It was what saved them when Todd was killed in a motorcycle accident. When Rouse came out to his father, Cards baseball was what brought them back together after two years of estrangement.

In between games, though, and between seasons, there was yelling, cruelty, and all the times when father and son didn’t communicate. Rouse accepted, but didn’t like, his father’s alcoholism or his harsh life-lessons: his father didn’t like Rouse’s plans for his own future. Rouse admits that he cried a lot, and he was surprised at the rare times when his father displayed emotion – especially since an Ozarks man like Ted Rouse didn’t do things like that.

Until the time was right.

Love, Wade Rouse says, is “shaped like a baseball.” You catch it, throw it, or hit it out of the park, but “You don’t know where it’s going.”

Just be sure you never take “your eye off it, from beginning to end.”

Oh, my. “Magic Season” is a 10-hankie book.

First, though, you’re going to laugh because author Wade Rouse is a natural-born humorist and his family is a great launching-pad for him despite the splinters and near-clawing despair of the overall theme of this book. That sense of humor can’t seem to let a good story go, even when it’s obvious that there’s something heartbreaking waiting in the bullpen.

Which brings us to the father-son-baseball triple-play. It may seem to some readers that such a book has been done and done again, but this one feels different. Rouse excels at filling in the blanks on the other, essential teammates in this tale and, like any big skirmish, readers are left breathless, now knowing the final score until the last out.

If you like your memoirs sweet, but with a dash of spice and some tears, here you go. For you, “Magic Season” is a book to look up.

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Books

Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force

New memoir ‘Also a Poet’ will inspire readers

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(Book cover image courtesy of Grove Press)

Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
c.2022, Grove Press
$27/259 pages

Families. Especially if your parents are acclaimed writers and artists, they can get under your skin. They love you, but sometimes withhold praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string imitation of your famous folks.

That was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me.”  

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”

If you’re queer, you know not only how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for riveting reading.

Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint. 

Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started out performing stand-up comedy in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose most well-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”

Her father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and The New Yorker art critic.

Schjeldahl is far from a pompous gasbag. As The New York Times book critic Molly Young said recently, in his book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018,” Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most awesome blurb ever. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is!” Steve Martin said of the volume.

Not surprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.

Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those who Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the most agreeable children imaginable,” Isherwood said of Calhoun when she was a child, “neither sulky nor sly nor pushy nor ugly, with a charming trustful smile for all of us.”

Most of us as kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her wasn’t shocking to the young Calhoun.

While Calhoun’s Mom makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” is focused on Calhoun’s relationship with her father.

Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they’re often more fraught when the dad is a renowned writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.

Then (thankfully, to a lesser extent, now) if you were a male writer, life in your household centered around you. You didn’t help with housework or pay much attention to your spouse and kids.

Though Calhoun was raised in the sophisticated East Village, life with her father fit this pattern. One day, Schjeldahl let her go alone, with no directions, at age eight on a bus to a friend’s birthday party. 

When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the Village literary life. “My typical answer was farmer because that was the most tangible, least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a kid, people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. 

But Calhoun couldn’t evade the clutches of the writing bug. From early on, she wanted to get away from her father’s shadow. So her work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her last name from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.

Despite their difficulties, one thing bonded Calhoun with her dad: their love of Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and Museum of Modern Art curator, who died at 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.

In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers and artists then and now, idolized O’Hara, tried to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor Maureen Granville-Smith derailed his attempt to write the bio.

But all wasn’t lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered the tapes of the people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) who Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of her parents’ building. 

In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a tale of family and of making art. 

The memoir will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems out of the pop culture and sadness of his time (from the “The Day Lady Died” on the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has collapsed!” to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).

“His life force was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland’s poet laureate and the producer/host of the radio show “The Poet and the Poem, said of O’Hara in an email to the Blade.

In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will still be a life force.

The Blade may receive commissions from qualifying purchases made via this post.

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