December 16, 2010


Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters. By Barack Obama. Illustrated by Loren Long. Knopf. $17.99.

Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me. By Condoleezza Rice. Delacorte Press. $16.99.

     Politicians are people, too, but it would scarcely be surprising to find them scoring political points when writing about themselves and their families. After all, everything in a politician’s life comes under scrutiny, certainly including his or her writing and family life; so why not position things in the best possible light? Yet neither Barack Obama nor Condoleezza Rice gives in to that impulse – at least to any great degree – in two new books intended for young readers. Obama’s Of Thee I Sing, officially targeting ages three and up but likely to be too simplistic for children older than eight or so, offers short portrayals of 13 Americans, using their examples as teachable moments for Obama’s daughters, Malia and Sasha – and, through them, for American children in general. The political subtext here comes in the selection of the 13 people, of whom three are black (Jackie Robinson, Billie Holiday, and Martin Luther King, Jr.), one is Hispanic (Cesar Chavez), one is Native American (Sitting Bull), and one has a very strong connection with Obama’s Chicago (Jane Addams). But it can be argued that this is really a civics rather than political subtext, a message of inclusion for everyone living in the United States, and that is certainly how Obama himself presents it: “Have I told you that America is made up of people of every kind?” Furthermore, every author is entitled to make a personal selection of heroes and exemplars: pretty much anyone doing so in the context of American history would include George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, as Obama does, and if not everyone would pick Georgia O’Keeffe, Albert Einstein, Helen Keller, Maya Lin or Neil Armstrong, that is no reason to gainsay Obama’s choices. Loren Long was clearly given the task of making all these people seem as noble as possible, and many of her illustrations tend to look more propagandistic than Obama’s words sound: the impossibly chiseled features of King, Chavez and Washington are the stuff of poster art and hagiography. The two best illustrations are of Sitting Bull, whose face is constructed from foliage, horses and bison, and Maya Lin, who appears in soft focus behind her best-known design, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Families may well quibble with the specific descriptions assigned by Obama to each person who receives a brief profile: Robinson, for example, is “brave,” while Armstrong is “an explorer” and Addams is “kind.” But, again, this is Obama’s book (written before he took office as President, and with his proceeds being donated to a scholarship fund); whatever social or political shaping it has is ultimately less important than its message of uplift and inclusiveness.

     Obama, an unabashed liberal, is the first black President of the United States; Condoleezza Rice, an unabashed conservative, was the first black woman to be Secretary of State and the first to be National Security Advisor. The version for young readers of Rice’s autobiography is aimed at older youths than is Obama’s book – ages 11 and up – and is more overtly personal. But it too largely eschews political posturing and leverage. Rice, an only child, was born in 1954, in the last apparently placid days of the segregated South, and came of age during the turbulent 1960s. A direct descendant of slaves (“my great-grandmother, Julia Head, was a favored household slave who had learned to read as a young girl”), she could easily have become a rabble-rouser and left-wing activist. But she had many interests that transcended politics: music (for a time, she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist), figure skating (although “I was simply not very good”), and history. It was this last field, and the relationship between the past and current affairs, that set Rice on her eventual political course – although her initial work was in academia (she was, among other things, provost of Stanford University from 1993 to 1999, and returned there to teach after leaving office). It would be remarkably easy for Rice to use her book to boast of her accomplishments – they are so many and so varied that merely listing them sounds like bragging – but what is interesting about Condoleezza Rice: A Memoir of My Extraordinary, Ordinary Family and Me is that Rice really does spend much of the book focusing on her family and its meaning for her. Her parents, John and Angelina, come across in this book as unfailingly supportive and strongly focused on educational accomplishment as the way to realize one’s dreams. From the time they “found the money one day to rent a real piano” so Rice could play as she wanted to, right up through her school days and into adulthood, John and Angelina seem to have backed Rice in every possible way – and even if the adult Rice is wearing rose-colored glasses in some of what she writes, her parents’ love and support come through quite clearly. Both have died, but Rice seems absolutely sincere when she says “they remain by my side.” Incidentally, Rice ends her book with a glossary that contains a far broader spectrum of influences than those in Obama’s. Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil-rights leaders are included (Ralph Abernathy, Julian Bond, Stokely Carmichael, Louis Farrakhan, Malcolm X); but so are Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, the Ku Klux Klan and The Mickey Mouse Club. Young readers will find Rice as impressive for the breadth of her knowledge as for her accomplishments.

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