Junot Diaz Wants Obama to Tell Stories


28 January 2010

I watched/listened to last night’s State of the Union with a flinchy face and tensed muscles.  The recent media/pundit turkey-shoot (the President is the turkey, in case you didn’t already know) has been painful to witness.

Junot Diaz thinks it’s about story-telling (lack thereof on the President’s part). I agree; but I also think that maybe we — voters, citizens, members of this democratic polity — need to grow up a little.  At some point, we need to start telling the stories, helping to get them out there, instead of waiting to be tucked into bed.  After all, the President’s schedule is a little, you know, busier than mine.

From Diaz’s New Yorker piece:

All year I’ve been waiting for Obama to flex his narrative muscles, to tell the story of his presidency, of his Administration, to tell the story of where our country is going and why we should help deliver it there. A coherent, accessible, compelling story—one that is narrow enough to be held in our minds and hearts and that nevertheless is roomy enough for us, the audience, to weave our own predilections, dreams, fears, experiences into its fabric. It should necessarily be a story eight years in duration, a story that no matter what our personal politics are will excite us enough to go out and reëlect the teller just so we can be there for the story’s end. But from where I sit our President has not even told a bad story; he, in my opinion, has told no story at all. I heard him talk healthcare to death but while he was elaborating ideas his opponents were telling stories. Sure they were bad ones, full of distortions and outright lies, but at least they were talking to the American people in the correct idiom: that of narrative. The President gave us a raft of information about why healthcare would be a swell idea; the Republicans gave us death panels. Ideas are wonderful things, but unless they’re couched in a good story they can do nothing.

The man has tried, of course; we’ve gotten patches of narrative around all the important issues—the economy, the war in Afghanistan, the war on terror (a.k.a. the Undiebomber)—but I’ve yet to hear anything that excites that part of my brain which loves, which craves the symmetries the pleasures of well-told tale. Just this past Tuesday we saw the consequences for the President of not having a real story to draw upon. In Massachusetts, the President was faced with an insurgent Republican candidate who was telling a story that should have been familiar to the Commander-in-Chief: the story of an upstart outsider with energy and ideas, who was going to shake things up, etc. The President tried to help Martha Coakely by campaigning, but since his Administration doesn’t seem to do story he couldn’t lend her one. He could only show up as himself, and that clearly was not enough. A man cannot withstand a story, even if the man is remarkable and the story is simple. The story always wins.

One Response to “Junot Diaz Wants Obama to Tell Stories”

  1. Jane Says:

    I actually had a somewhat more negative response to Diaz’s piece mainly because Obama told a lot of his story during the campaign. And I wonder if he has consciously moved away from his personal narrative at this point. The story of his Presidency is told over and over from different points of view in media, response to media, in photographs, etc. The man has a lot of work to do! Two wars, failing economy, health care plan falling apart. I understand the need (and Diaz’s desire) for narrative, but I am more persuaded by your point that Obama’s story is not the only one we need to hear. Many voices. Many stories.

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