Yesterday’s New York Times carried an op-ed from Mary Karr about the way opponents of Barack Obama like to diminish him by calling him a memoirist, just as they make fun of his career as a community organizer.

Karr, who has written several excellent memoirs herself, including


describes why memoir writing is a good test of a leader’s character and intelligence:  “a president, like a memoirist, must be able to hold in his mind highly incendiary paradoxes and communicate those contradictions to a broad and overheated audience. Think of Lincoln during the Civil War.”

If the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald quote is true–“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”–then Barack Obama has the very kind of mind we need most in these troubled times.  His speech on race was the turning point for me in deciding I was with him to the end.  He talked about the incendiary stain on the American Dream–racism– in terms that were clear, courageous, and paradoxical. No other politician since Lincoln himself has held both sides of a such an important debate so gracefully, so lovingly.

Obama writes his own books, drafts his own speeches, and thinks his own thoughts, while respecting those of others. Yes, words do matter.  And this kind of writer and thinker comes along only once a century.

John McCain’s memoirs

were written with (by?) his speech writer and long-time staffer, Mark Salter, profiled earlier this year in the Wall Street Journal.  I have not read them.  Maybe I should.  Or maybe someone out there can tell me how much evidence there is in these memoirs that McCain has the capacity to be Lincolnesque in his ability to hold together “highly incendiary paradoxes.”  What I hear when I listen to McCain speak is not paradox but artificial, incendiary, clarity, such as these final words from his acceptance speech:  “Stand up, stand up, stand up and fight. Nothing is inevitable here. We’re Americans, and we never give up. We never quit. We never hide from history. We make history.”

If memoir writing is poor preparation for the presidency, as Republicans have claimed and Mary Karr denies, wouldn’t it be even more embarrassing to be a pseudo memoir writer?  John McCain’s name is huge on these covers, but he split the royalties 50-50 with the staffer who did the writing.  If someone outsources writing to others, how do we know he won’t outsource thinking and wisdom also?

Shirley Showalter

Leave a Comment