President Barack Obama is many things to many people. Depending upon your ideological outlook, he's either a whip-smart leader and unifier or a conniving dissembler. He's either ruined America or made the country stronger and more prosperous. In short, he's either the best or worst president ever.
“The Best 'Worst President'” happens to be the title of a new book written by a former Cape Codder and illustrated by a current Chatham resident. Subtitled “What the Right Gets Wrong About Barack Obama,” the book takes criticisms, arguments and accusations made about the actions, policies and personal agenda of the 44th president of the United States and contrasts them with the facts.
Author Mark Hannah is a political analyst who has appeared on MSNBC, CNBC and Fox News, written for the Huffington Post and many other publications, and teachers at New York University and the New School.
Illustrator Bob Staake lives in Chatham and has written and/or illustrated more than 60 books, most of them for children. He's also known for his New Yorker covers, including several featuring Obama.
Both are life-long Democrats, so there's never any doubt about where they're coming from.
The idea for the book came from Dey Street editor Carrie Thornton. Gilliam MacKenzie, agent for both Staake and Hannah, said she and Thornton were having lunch when the editor said she was eager to find an author/illustrator team to do a book comparing the claims about Obama's record vs. the president's actual record. MacKenzie said she immediate thought of Staake and his New Yorker covers that featured Obama, and of Hannah and his in-depth knowledge of policy.
“That they were both from Cape Cod was icing on the cake,” she said in an email. “It's always great to have the opportunity to have work meetings at The Squire!” Both were receptive of the idea, as was the Dey Street editorial board.
In each of the book's 10 chapters, Hannah takes a well-known conservative trope about the president – that he's a socialist, a destroyer of the economy, an appeaser – systematically lays out the accusation and presents the facts that in most cases put the lie to the spin, all carefully annotated with sources the reader can check for him or herself. It's all set down in a very readable and often funny style. Each chapter is broken down even further with specific “charges,” such as “Obamacare Shoved Down Our Throats” or “Abandoning Eastern Europe,” and the chapters are grouped into three sections: The Man, The Country and The World.
A Staake illustration serves as frontpiece for each chapter. “Economic Destroyer,” for instance, shows Obama as a vampire with dollar signs for eyes. In “The Appeaser of Enemies,” he's shown as the demonic twins from “The Shining.”
Putting the case for the president down on paper was a satisfying process, Hannah said in a phone interview last week. For the past few years he's “enjoyed beating it back on cable news,” especially in the “lion's den” of Fox News, which made him very familiar with the assertions conservatives use to bring the president down. The book provides a forum for countering those claims in long form rather than “90-second sound bites,” he said.
The timing is also fortuitious, with the book released just six months before Obama leaves office and right in the middle of the presidential campaign in which the current office holder is a polarizing figure. Hannah, who worked for the Kerry campaign and also for the Obama for America campaign, Presidential Inaugural Committee and The White House, said Obama's legacy is also coming under scrutiny.
“In the weeks and months ahead, once we kind of get a measure of the two candidates, there will be lots of nostalgia for this president,” he predicted. “it's the kind of thing you don't appreciate until it's gone.”
While he currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Jennifer Pastore, and two-week-old son William, Hannah, who recently completed a doctorate program at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication, said he still identifies as a Cape Codder. A graduate of Sandwich High School, he grew up in East Sandwich, near Sandy Neck, and his mother still teachers music at Barnstable Middle School. His late father was a builder with a more conservative philosophy, and Hannah recalls in the book's prologue spirited debates at the dinner table. His family had a long-simmering political grudge over land taken by eminent domain.
“I ended up hearing diffferent family lore; mine was competing visions of the Kennedys,” he said. For some reason, he ended up on the progressive side, partly as devil's advocate and partly because “I always felt it in my bones,” he said.
Obama is a familiar subject for Staake, who not only drew the president for New Yorker covers but wrote and illustrated “The First Pup: The Real Story of How Bo Got to the White House” in 2010. The challenge with the 10 illustrations for “The Best 'Worst President'” wasn't just capturing the right caricature of Obama.
“I really had to find some visual way to encapsulate the accusations,” he said. He wanted the illustrations to show just how ridiculous many of the claims are. He found inspiration in propaganda posters from both World War II and the Cold War, which he said he “kind of amped up.” That's especially evidence in illustrations for the sections about Obama as socialist and dictator. The latter is a black and white portrait of the president with a Hitler mustache, which he was prepared for some push-back on, though it never came.
The book also needed a “really strong cover,” he said. Staake recalled a Rolling Stone ad campaign from the 1970s about the perception and reality of the magazine's readers. The former showed a pot-smoking hippie, the latter a 30-something Yuppie.
“That really helped me get my head around what I was doing with the imagry,” he said. The resulting angel/devil portrait of Obama was, he felt, the best way to encapsulate both the tone and the content of the book.
The two meet for the first time shortly after the book deal was signed. They indeed met at The Squire and hashed out how the text and illustrations would work together.
Staake' illustrations “work on several different levels,” Hannah said. They're rife with symbolism and politically cogent. “He captures the essence of the conservative idea of President Obama in a way that other illustrators who aren't as steeped in current affairs are able to do.”
The book was fun to write, Hannah said, and while it is likely to appeal to liberals and Democrats, he said he hopes those who feel ambivalent toward Obama or even those who don't like him will pick it up and perhaps reconsider.
“That might be a bit of a nieve aspiration, but I've heard back from people, gotten emails and messages saying they hadn't considered all the information and were happy to encounter new information that they didn't see in their own kind of media echo chamber,” he said.
And he hopes fellow Democrats will use “The Best 'Worst President” as a handbook to counter the accusations and claims that will no doubt crop up over the next few months. Or, as Staake said, “It's a good way to dispell what your crazy uncle says on the beach.”