By Steven Levingston
Sunday, August 8, 2010; B01
THE OBAMA DIARIES
By Laura Ingraham
Threshold. 373 pp. $25
If you believe Laura Ingraham, President Obama could use a few lessons in humility. And she's got the goods to prove it. After her weekly pedicure -- "forty-five minutes of sheer uninterrupted bliss" -- she returned to her car in the Watergate parking garage not long ago to discover a thick manila envelope on the hood. From the shadows came a baritone voice instructing her to read everything inside -- she'd know what to do. The mystery man then "vanished faster than Obama's high approval ratings," Ingraham writes.
The package contained pages and pages of private diaries: the musings of Barack Obama, first lady Michelle, Vice President Biden, first grandmother Marian Robinson and others in the inner circle. Compelled by her duty to the nation, Ingraham divulges their secret ruminations in "The Obama Diaries."
The diaries, of course, are fictitious -- crafted by Ingraham to convey her satiric vision of Obama and his policies. Satire by nature is nasty and crude, its goal to deflate the powerful; Ingraham, a popular talk-radio host and Fox News Channel regular, holds nothing back. She lacerates Obama, his administration and his family for failures in government spending, foreign policy, business, education, immigration, morality and faith. Even the White House dog, Bo, gets a clipping.
The savagery will outrage Obama's admirers, but in the long tradition of American satire, try to name a president who has escaped a literary -- or in today's world, a Jon Stewart -- spanking. The party affiliation of the spanker is irrelevant. The only meaningful measure is this: If the satire amuses or pleases, it succeeds. As these hilarious, self-absorbed reveries demonstrate, Ingraham has a gift for acerbic expression. Her takedown of the 44th president is always entertaining, and at times brilliant. With "The Obama Diaries," Ingraham establishes herself as one of the cleverest thorns in the administration's side.
In the diaries, we hear Obama, full of himself after his nomination, cheer the decision to move his acceptance speech from the 20,000-seat Pepsi Center to Invesco Field, big enough for 80,000 adoring fans. "If John Lennon and George Harrison came back from the dead for a Beatles reunion," he writes, "do you think they'd be playing to a piddly 20,000 people?"
Not long after his election, the Nobel Prize committee sprinkles Miracle-Gro on the young president's megalomania. "Oh, so Mr. Senator from Illinois . . . [is] in over his head, is he?" Obama snorts. "I've got three words for you, Diary: NOBEL PEACE PRIZE." Obama calls up Bill Clinton and asks for advice on how to handle his latest honor. "I could hear him seething over the telephone," Obama gloats. We read Hillary Clinton's diary entry for the same day, full of spleen: "What did Bill and I ever do to deserve this? . . . Bill's been calling me all day, and I know he wants to vent, but I just cannot deal with it right now. Let him grouse to one of his 'friends.' "
Obama's religious commitment gets more than a few darts. At a White House Easter breakfast for Christian leaders, the president begins to read a speech from a teleprompter when a pastor interrupts him: "Excuse me, Mr. President, could you lead us in grace?" First lady Michelle writes, "I had to put my coffee cup in front of my mouth so they wouldn't see me laughing. The only time I've ever heard Barack say grace is when it was preceded by 'Will & . . .' "
We glimpse other White House figures. There's the stud Biden who ogles any babe passing through the West Wing. When Colombian pop star Shakira chats with Obama about immigration, Biden confides to his diary: "Honestly, if they all looked like this hot tamale, I'd tear down the border fence myself." The vain VP worries endlessly about his thinning hair and prepares for a new procedure to thicken his mane, even though his doctor warns that he no longer has enough hair on the back of his head to replant on the crown. "Doc," Biden confides, "you can always graft some off my tookis."
There's also Grandma Robinson, who brings a dash of reality to Michelle's Stalinist dietary rules for her children. The babysitter in chief writes: "Miche caught me in the hallway bringing a stack of cookies to Sasha's room. You'd swear she had busted me with a crack pipe." Robinson knows Michelle herself isn't a paragon of dietary virtue. "Since she dug that vegetable garden, you'd think Miche never touched a dessert in her life," she writes on another occasion. "I know better! I've seen the panels they added to the back of that state-dinner dress."
All of this is great fun. And the book might have been a little masterpiece, if it weren't for a fatal flaw. Ingraham can't decide whether she wants to be a satirist or a polemicist. The satirist would have given us the diaries, kept herself out of the story and let us make what we wanted of them. That's the power of satire: to awaken its audience by shock and exaggeration, without commentary. But the diaries, unfortunately, make up only part of the book. Half, if not more, of "The Obama Diaries" is Ingraham's critique of the Obama family and administration -- smartly written, to be sure, with effective rhetorical flourishes. For instance, Ingraham blames Obama's mother for failing to instill strong religious faith in her son. As the author puts it: "Stanley Ann Dunham exposed her son Barack to religion the way one would expose a child to poisonous snakes -- as a distant curiosity."
But Ingraham's interposition essentially kills the satire. No reader of the genre wants to know that the author gets "choked up at ball games" every time she hears the national anthem. A laudable sentiment, but not one for a snarling, thick-skinned satirist to acknowledge. You either maintain the literary conceit or you abandon it -- flip-flopping, as any political pundit knows, only leaves a ruinous imbalance. In Ingraham's case, it causes her to squander her literary deadeye on vapid hyperbole -- the kind of political belching commonly found in the pages of inferior conservative stylists such as Glenn Beck, Newt Gingrich and Sean Hannity.
"So we have a lot of work ahead of us," she stoops to conclude. "This is 'freedom's last stand.' " And she was so close to a seat at Swift's table!
Steven Levingston is nonfiction books editor of The Washington Postand edits the blog Political Bookworm.