The Call of History
By Peter Baker
Illustrated. 319 pp. New York Times/Callaway. $50.
I cannot look at Peter Baker’s extra-large and lavishly illustrated history of the Obama years without thinking of my mother. She supported Hillary Clinton in 2008, but after the convention she put two Barack Obama stickers on the bumper of her red Prius and they were still there the day she died, in December 2012, six weeks after she voted for him again. She was passionate about politics, and intensely partisan, and if cancer had not killed her, Trump’s candidacy might well have — long before election night.
But if she were here, she would buy a dozen copies of “Obama: The Call of History,” lay them out on her coffee table and all over her house, and then not have the heart to crack the cover.
It isn’t easy. A mere 11 months since Inauguration Day, these photographs evoke not just the previous administration but, seemingly, another age. It does not matter what Obama is doing. He might be editing a speech on health care, sitting stone-faced in the Situation Room as Navy Seals approached Osama bin Laden’s compound, working out with a disabled veteran, consoling the mother of a child killed in the Sandy Hook school shooting after Congress blocked gun control legislation, bending over in the Oval Office so that a curious 5-year-old could touch his hair or hugging a victim of Hurricane Sandy. Integrity like his cannot be photoshopped or feigned. In Obama’s company on the Jersey Shore, even Chris Christie looks like a mensch.
In addition to the many photographs, Baker’s book contains a timeline, a review of the Obama years “by the numbers,” reproductions of New York Times front pages and a series of short chapter-ending vignettes (some serious: Obama and the Roberts court; some less so: Obama on the basketball court). For folks who enjoy sustained narrative with their pictures and sidebars, there are also 12 chapters of recent history.
Baker, The Times’s chief White House correspondent through Obama’s tenure, is neither fanboy nor debunker. A few sentences from his epilogue are characteristic of his determination to be fair: Obama “enjoyed two years of sweeping legislative victories arguably not seen since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then spent six years fighting for inches against an opposition-dominated Congress that he barely bothered to woo and that did not want to work with him in the first place.” “He took great strides toward his goals in health care, financial regulation and climate change, only to fall short in immigration, criminal justice and income inequality.” “Obama put two women on the Supreme Court and helped break down barriers for gay and lesbian Americans, even as racial minorities remained far behind in education and income.” Line by line, issue after issue, Baker balances opportunities and obstacles, promises and results, criticism and praise.
Obama himself takes the long view, likening the course of events to “a long-running story.” Actually, it is the “one damn thing after another” out of which historians construct long-running stories. Baker’s is an early draft. What historians writing decades from now make of Obama will have as much to do with what happens between now and then as it does with what happened during his presidency.