Linda's Reviews > My Secret Barack: Crowning the King

My Secret Barack by Krista Nelson
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bookshelves: memoir, politics, non-fiction

No one who truly believes in the deep truth of the foundational principles of the US -- the assertion that we, the people, hold the power; the notion that all people are created equal; and the conviction that our rights are determined by no other privilege than citizenship -- could fail to be moved by the campaign and election of President Barack Obama in 2008. No matter how egregiously these principles have been violated in practice over the nation’s history, Obama’s election demonstrated, if only for a wonderful moment, that they were something more than rhetorical ideas. They had substance; they could be flesh and blood.

On that night in 2008, my partner and I, American expats in Hungary, stopped in at an extravagant embassy-sponsored election-night bash at a posh Budapest hotel, then went off to watch the returns at the cozy flat of a Hungarian friend. There, a mixed group of Hungarians and foreigners congregated around the television, flipping between CNN and BBC, waiting for the results, while our host gamely invoked the spirit of the American cookout by serving up hamburgers and potato chips, accompanied by Czech beer and Hungarian wine. The mood in the room was lively and upbeat, but when Obama’s win was finally announced, the tiniest of pauses passed across the room, a fleeting breathlessness, just barely noticeable and never remarked upon, as if the magnitude of what we were witnessing had suddenly struck us all at once. The silence lasted only a moment, broken when one of our group stepped out on the balcony, then stepped back into the room just as quickly with a wide-eyed expression on his face and an open smile, and quipped, “It feels better out here already!”-- sending the room into a burst of self-conscious laughter. Later, as my partner and I contentedly walked home hand in hand in the early morning hours (the time difference putting us 7 hours ahead of the celebrating crowds in Grant Park in Chicago), we didn’t do much talking. What our friend had joked about still felt somehow true -- the air seemed crisper, the dawning sunshine more vivid. We were ready to believe in that new day.

The magic of Barack Obama’s campaign was how it made people feel like they were participants in his success, no matter what role, if any, they may have taken in any actual campaigning. In My Secret Barack: Crowning the King, Philadelphia writer Krista Nelson takes readers inside the world of the multitudes of grassroots volunteers who became such a critical force behind Obama’s victory to show us how potent that magic was for those most actively involved. These volunteers -- most whom had never participated in a political campaign before -- were propelled by many things: their admiration for Obama, the genuine hope he inspired in them, and, perhaps most intensely, the extraordinary personal affinity they each felt with him. Every supporter may have had his or her own “Secret Barack”, but for all of them, he was someone who understood them on the most elemental level, who was driven by the same concerns and dreams as they were, and whose candidacy was merely the most tangible expression of an all-encompassing, ineffable promise that together we can make things better.

Nelson’s account of the emotional connection underlying all her own work for the candidate demonstrates just how powerfully that sense of connection operated for many of his supporters:
“. . . I felt as if he knew that I had worked hard, had meant well, had kept my promise and my place as his genuine supporter. I appreciated him and he appreciated me and this was good. . . .My Secret Barack, a Barack I communed with daily, was the leader of my we-can-do-better movement. This movement was like a wheel. My place in the movement along with so many others was on the outer rim.

We fixed our gaze on the hub and connected with him through more spokes than I could imagine. The strength of the wheel was in the spokes. Each time I communed with Barack, I activated an energy-transmitting spoke. Each time a Barack story was shared, a Barack souvenir was grasped, a Barack photo was taken, a Barack encounter occurred between Barack and a supporter of Barack, a transmission of energy took place that carried him to a place of significance, but not a place of permanence, a remarkable moment, an Inaugural moment: the Crowning of The King.” (p. 5-6)
She also describes how this same energy connected Obama’s supporters to one another as well:
”In our support for the Barack presidency we were all friends because we beheld him with my same adoration. We may have been strangers once, but as we drew closer to him, we were united in our march; each of us with a My Barack Obama web site, a personal Barack experience, a Barack souvenir in a scrapbook; a secret Barack vow.” (p. 7)
Nelson captures the spirit of Obama’s hope and change movement in bright, genial prose, illustrating the momentum of the campaign by describing it at its most human scale. The supporters we meet through her pages lead ordinary lives, but contributed to something remarkable.

Though it always returns to its titular subject, Nelson’s book is also an engaging and thoughtful personal memoir that encompasses a world beyond the Obama campaign. The story loops in and out of present and past, joining a briskly-paced account of her experiences at campaign events and on inauguration day itself with snapshots of her own history, touching on recollections of herself as a young mother, anecdotes from her work at a variety of jobs, and accounts of trying personal times, all placed within an atmosphere of family and city life in Philadelphia that infuses the work with a distinct sense of place and context. The tension of inauguration day, filled with anxiety and anticipation as Nelson and her group of family and friends try to maneuver the ever-shifting logistics of witnessing Obama’s inauguration in person, is counterbalanced by gauzily serene childhood memories and an appealing sense of the adventure of everyday life in the other scenes. The book’s tone is confessional but not self-indulgent, conversational without sacrificing seriousness, and heartfelt without crossing into the realm of the maudlin. Throughout, the narrative conveys a sincerity and authenticity that makes the author as recognizable to the reader as a close friend.

In the years between his inauguration and the publication of Nelson’s book, Obama’s presidency has descended from the dreamy heights of its early days, landing hard and more than once getting mired in the treacherous ground of political reality. While some of his most fervent supporters may remain unfazed, others, myself included, have had to contend with disappointment and frustration over some of the choices and compromises Obama has made in practice. Obama’s greatest fans will find much to love in Nelson’s book; that is clear. But it is also true that her memoir serves as a tonic to the rest of us, bringing us back to those days of expectancy and eagerness. Crowning the King reminds us that in its best moments, the US can live up to its promise, in this case not just in the candidate it chose to elect, but perhaps most importantly, in the energy, optimism, earnestness, and commitment to change among his supporters.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
February 1, 2012 – Finished Reading
June 21, 2012 – Shelved
July 21, 2012 – Shelved as: memoir
July 21, 2012 – Shelved as: politics
July 21, 2012 – Shelved as: non-fiction

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