Larissa MacFarquhar’s “The Conciliator” rises above other narratives appearing this primary season, much as its subject later rose to surprise Hillary Clinton, among other seasoned politicos. Amid the breaking-news accounts of state contests and he-said, she-said debates, MacFarquhar’s deeply reported New Yorker profile of Barack Obama offers both psychological insight and historical analysis. And, nearly a year after its publication, the article about this unusual candidate seems as relevant as it was in May 2007.

Ignoring straight chronology, MacFarquhar weaves her story by passing her literary shuttle back and forth between the campaign trail and the candidate’s history. Layered into this approach are other narrative threads, including the Obama family’s westward movement from Kenya and Kansas to Hawaii and Indonesia, then the young man’s movement back, his life running “counter to the American dream, rejecting the American dreams of his parents and grandparents, in search of something older.”

MacFarquhar returns artfully, again and again, to her theme that Obama’s call for unity and his “drive to compromise” come from not only political but also deeply personal motivations. Engaging language pops up throughout, from her observation that “bigotry has always made exceptions” to the threat that Obama “may do to the tie what John Kennedy did to the hat.” MacFarquhar goes beyond mere wordplay, however, breaking down the rhetorical styles used by Obama and other Democrats, with quotes from the candidates to illustrate her point.

Obama’s books (among other sources) provide critical material to show how his personal geography led to his current political compass, but MacFarquhar makes her own compelling argument for an Obama wary of idealism and less inclined to make waves in the name of principle than the reader might think. The candidate believes, she stresses, that “charisma is misleading, that revolutions are illusory, that real change is slow.”

Read “The Conciliator,” by Larissa MacFarquhar

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