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Who Is Barack Obama?

Barack Obama; drawing by John Springs

Nobody should have been under the illusion—certainly I wasn’t, and I was very explicit about this when I campaigned—that by virtue of my election, suddenly race problems would be solved or conversely that the American people would want to spend all their time talking about race. I think it signifies progress, but the progress preceded the election. The progress facilitated the election. The progress has to do with the day-to-day interaction of people….

Having structured his book around the race story—he’s offering not the story of the 2008 campaign, Remnick explains when he reaches that point, “but rather the story of race in the campaign”—he finally backs away from sweeping conclusions himself. “The day of post-racial America had yet to come,” he remarks when he gets to the Inauguration. “Nothing has ended, of course,” he finds it necessary to say again, in an afterword nine pages later, “and questions of race—cultural, legal, penal, educational, social—remain despite all the evident promise and progress since the civil-rights movement.”

Obviously, there’s a tension between these postscripts and the bridge metaphor of the title, which shapes the book. It’s one thing to read Obama’s election as a culmination of an era of racial progress, another to believe it can be a reason to downplay race as an issue that needs to be addressed. Obama’s presidency, like his campaign, shows how painstaking an African-American has to be—more so, possibly, than a white liberal—in coming on before a national audience as a special pleader on minority interests and needs.

When Obama dropped his political inhibitions and allowed himself to say what many persons of color (and some whites) would have said about the handcuffing of Professor Henry Louis Gates in front of his Cambridge home by a white cop, he instantly stepped into a zone that was radioactive for him as leader of the country. A white politician who’d said he could imagine how he’d feel if he were black and then proceeded to make the same points wouldn’t have provoked the same firestorm. But as Professor Glenn Loury of Brown University commented at the time, discrimination against tenured Harvard professors was not the discussion on race the country needed. It needed, Loury said, to engage “problems of poor education and intermittent employment and limited full human development [in] fractured and fragile communities”—not least, the problem of more than a million black men and women cycling in and out of an often brutal prison system.

On the evidence, so far, an African-American president has to think twice before plunging into any such discussion. Better to talk in color-blind terms about education reform, health care reform, reform of the criminal justice system.

Remnick is at pains not to be misunderstood, not to be starry-eyed. What he really seems to be saying is that the election of the first African-American president was a great, amazing story, Barack Obama himself was a great story, and as a reporter he had to have a piece of this story, whatever it may ultimately come to signify. It’s a sentiment with which any sentient reporter will instantly identify himself or herself.

It’s also a reminder that David Remnick occupies a not undemanding desk job as editor of The New Yorker. He didn’t come to this story the way he came to the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union, as a reporter steeped in it most hours of every day over a period of years. He could seldom have been on the road with Obama. In fact, the one interview he seems to have had with Obama in the time he was working on the book took place in the Oval Office on January 10 this year when most of it must already have been completed. Possibly there were informal or off-the-record encounters that enabled him to get comfortable with his subject along the way. Even so, the book represents a considerable commitment of will and stamina on the part of an overworked editor with limited access to a figure who, as he says, is inclined to be “restrained in self-revelation” (a figure who, as a sometime writer himself, is more than likely to have a keen sense of propriety rights to his own story).

So this is in no sense a book from the inside of a campaign or of a presidency. While it’s notable that Michelle Obama isn’t included on the long list of those he was able to interview, Remnick makes effective use of interviews he did have with members of the President’s oft-interviewed inner circle. He offers shrewd insights—theirs and, sometimes, his own. You feel you’re getting close to understanding something important when you hear Valerie Jarrett, the President’s confidante and adviser, say of him: “He knows exactly how smart he is…. He’s been bored to death his whole life. He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.” Abner Mikva, an early supporter, then a Court of Appeals judge, delivers a similar jolt when he describes his first impression of Obama as a would-be candidate for practically anything: “I thought, this guy has more chutzpah than Dick Tracy.”

Such grace notes and pleasures deepen the story and move it along, but Remnick’s diligent efforts harvest little news of a kind that might cause a political beat reporter to leap from his seat. What he sometimes seems to be presenting instead is historical tapestry, embedding Obama, his parents, and his parents’ parents in a series of well-conceived period tableaux and vignettes. When a person who will prove to be significant in Obama’s life first crosses his path, we’re likely to be told where that person was raised and went to school. Thus we learn that Laurence Tribe, the Harvard legal scholar, was born in Shanghai and that David Axelrod, Obama’s political wizard, grew up in Stuyvesant Town. If Obama goes to a new place, the history of that place is deftly sketched. Probably you didn’t know that before Obama there was only one Harvard Law School grad to make it to the White House, Rutherford B. Hayes, or that the law school came into being with bequests from the family of Isaac Royall Jr., Southern plantation owners who brought their slaves to Medford, Massachusetts, in the eighteenth century.

It’s a risky strategy—the central character not infrequently gets lost in this bundling of contextual detail—but there’s usually a payoff. Before Remnick is done filling in his picture of Harvard Law School, for instance, Obama’s relation to the legal and racial issues of his time there has been clearly portrayed. Already he aspires to play a mediating role, between blacks and whites, conservatives and liberals; already he is admired for his balance and calmness, traits that can be traced to his growing up as a biracial “Barry” in Hawaii (“operating,” as Harvard Law’s Randall Kennedy observes in these pages, “outside the precincts of black America”). Obama the law student stands with Derrick Bell, a black professor who goes on a leave of absence and hunger strike over the school’s hiring practices, but he also stands out by standing apart. “He always used the language of reconciliation rather than of insistence,” Remnick says, finding a recognizable Obama in the person of the first black president of the law review.

There is a payoff too in a six-page excursion into the history of the Black Panther Party and the cold-blooded murder by the Chicago police of its local spokesman Fred Hampton in 1969. Not every journalist delving into the life of Barack Obama, who was eight years old at the time of the Hampton killing and living in Jakarta, would have found it necessary to interview Bobby Seale, the former Panther chairman, who here gets a walk-on to say what he said at the time, that the FBI was committed to wiping out the Panthers.

But Remnick perseveres in order to show the scale of Obama’s chutzpah in launching an eventually disastrous primary challenge to Bobby Rush, Hampton’s successor, who’d been reborn as a congressman (and Baptist preacher) in a safe South Side district. That debacle was in 2000, four years before he captured a US Senate seat, barely six before he declared for the presidency. Rush, still able to drape himself in the glory of his bygone Panther days when challenged, found it easy to characterize his opponent as an overeducated carpetbagger, a tool of wealthy Hyde Park whites.

Remnick appends a list of 233 persons he says he interviewed in the course of his pursuit, thanking his research assistants for tracking down those whose identity or whereabouts were not obvious. He locates three Pakistani roommates from Obama’s years in New York as a Columbia student and financial researcher who apparently lay low during the campaign so as not to provide fodder for conspiracy theorists already going crazy over the candidate’s middle name, Hussein. He finds a furniture salesman from Ponca City, Oklahoma, who briefly worked alongside the President’s maternal grandfather. He speaks to Bill Ayres, the former Weatherman and Hyde Park acquaintance who surfaces after the campaign to confirm that he once threw a fund-raising party for Obama but never knew him all that well. And to Susan Mboya, daughter of the Kenyan leader Tom Mboya, whose slaying in 1969 doomed the career hopes of Barack Obama Sr., whose life the son would later seek to unravel on his own journey of self-discovery. He speaks too to the scholar Caroline Elkins, whose revisionist history of British repression of the Mau Mau movement in Kenya opens vistas on the world in which the senior Obama came of age.

No one can doubt, therefore, the size of the net Remnick cast to haul in fresh material for his saga. Despite this assiduousness, he inevitably faced gaps when he started to write. These he patched with the reporting of others. Remnick gratefully appends another list, this one of reporters, seventy of them, the product of whose labors on the Obama trail he found helpful and sometimes borrowed. At key junctures, it turns out, pregnant passages depend on such recycled journalism. Obama explains his decision to root himself in Chicago by reflecting on the sequential uprootings of his grandparents and mother. “There’s a glamour, there’s a romance to that kind of life,” he says (in an interview with The Daily Telegraph), “and there’s a part of that still in me. But there’s a curse to it as well. You need a frame for the canvas, because too much freedom’s not freedom.” Obama’s Kenyan half-brother, son of the senior Obama’s second American wife, explains (to The Washington Post) why he dropped his father’s surname: “I made a decision not to think of who my real father was. He was dead to me even when he was still alive. I knew that he was a drunk and showed no concern for his wife and children.”

Such borrowings are legitimate and fully credited in endnotes. Their volume may seem a little unusual in a book by a serious writer but they’re invariably well chosen. Still, Remnick pays a price. His editor’s passion for the good quote and salient detail conflicts with his desire to be original. Often he tends to stitch the bits he retrieves from his apparently mountainous files of clippings and print-outs into his account at appropriate places without pausing to reflect on them in his own voice. Can the first of the passages quoted here about “too much freedom” be read as a judgment on his twice-married, twice-divorced, then single-parent mother who left her eldest son for three years with her parents in Hawaii while pursuing her anthropological field work in Java? Does the second cast any light on the portrait Obama drew in Dreams of My Father? The answers, it must be acknowledged, could only be ambiguous. The author, with a lot of ground to cover, moves on faster than he might have.

When he does take a time-out from the business of tapestry weaving to give his critical intelligence full play, he delivers handsomely. Some of the best pages in the book are his sustained reappraisal of Obama’s memoir, used by him and all other writers on Obama as a primary source. He sets it in a rich tradition of African-American memoir writing from Frederick Douglass to Malcolm X and beyond, arguing that the young writer, despite his middle-class background, is alive to the conventions of the genre:

Narratives of ascent, by their nature, must begin with deprivation, oppression, and existential dread. Obama seems to sense this problem and, at the very start of his book, darkens his canvas as well as he can.

He does this, Remnick suggests, by overplaying the squalor of the Manhattan block on East 94th Street, off Second Avenue, into which he has just moved. Here and later on, Remnick writes, he “heightens the facts of his spare and lonely life.” He also “heightens whatever opportunity arises to get at his main theme,” which is race.

Finding Obama’s rendering of an encounter with an African immigrant in Spain in the summer of 1988 unconvincing, Remnick goes on: “Even the highly sympathetic reader senses a young man wanting to dramatize his loneliness with maximal symbolic freight and artificial political meaning.” Wrapping up his story, Obama reconciled his complex past with his future by furnishing a happy ending turning on his marriage and his simultaneous discoveries of a community, his identity, and a cause “as befits the form of so many narratives of ascent,” says Remnick, who then offers his own judicious conclusion: “It is enough to say that Dreams from My Father is a good book that became, through political circumstances, an important one.”

It would be wrong to suggest that this thoughtful critical voice comes into play only when Remnick is dealing with a text. It’s heard, mainly in asides, throughout the book. He can write of the “gall” of Obama’s launching a presidential campaign just a year after entering the Senate, his “self-appointment” as a savior figure, his “serious, yet unexceptional” policy positions, of “speeches…occasionally salted with platitudes,” of his coming across as “aloof to the point of arrogance” in the early phases of his career, of his uncanny ability “to shift his tone and language” to suit the race and social background of his audience, of his “thin-skinned self-regard,” which led Axelrod to warn him that he needed to armor himself for a national campaign. He can quote a former campaign aide saying, “He wasn’t the happy warrior.”

Remnick is no hagiographer. But by choosing to view the candidate who becomes his subject mainly through the prism of race, he sidesteps the burdens of seeing him whole and assessing him as a political leader. It’s fascinating that Obama once made a conscious decision to embrace the black side of his heritage. But it may be, finally, that Obama’s complex Kansas-Indonesia-Kenya background, and all the discussions of race it has inspired (including his own impressive contributions), will not prove to be the most interesting, memorable thing about his presidency. It may even be that while the Tea Party fumes about taking the country back, the country is already looking past race, viewing him the way it’s accustomed to viewing presidents, for the difference they’ve made.

This may or may not be good news for Obama. Not only did he become the first African-American president, he became that president at the height of the worst economic crisis in a lifetime. In viewing his victory and any setbacks that may lie ahead, it will never be easy to disentangle those two facts. Yet bailouts, bonuses, unemployment, foreclosures, and deficits are next to invisible in the story as it’s presented here. Names like Robert Rubin, Lawrence Summers, Timothy Geithner, AIG, and Lehman Brothers are wholly absent. In that sense, the book concept to which Remnick committed himself early on—a concept that seemed so tempting, so gripping back in Selma, Alabama, three years ago—may have impeded his consideration of choices and issues that are likely to be decisive, for better or worse, in the outcome of the Obama adventure.

Toward the end of The Bridge, Remnick plays catch-up in an epilogue on Obama’s first year in the White House, weaving in references to episodes that dominated the blogosphere for whole days at a stretch: the Gates incident with its ensuing “beer summit,” the loss of Ted Kennedy’s seat to a pseudo-populist Republican, Scott Brown, at what was supposed to be the turning point on health reform. These are already yesterday’s news but, like the magazine editor he is, he wants to ensure that his book, when it appears, will be as current as possible. It’s also possible to read these updates as bows to the conventional wisdom of a particular moment, hedges against the chance that things may go wrong. He fusses with his manuscript until it goes into print (if citations to the book Game Change, which appeared this year, and to a January article in The New York Times Magazine are any clue). Yet printing schedules being what they are, he misses the real health reform turning point and so never gets to address the question of what it may say (or not say) about Obama’s political stamina.

On the day his book was published, David Remnick appeared before a packed audience at the New York Public Library, where he made a point that he must have wished he could have made in his book: that the passage of health care reform was not an event of incidental interest to black Americans, that they figured disproportionately among the uninsured and would gain disproportionately from the new Medicaid subsidies.

His epilogue concludes with a passage from his Oval Office interview. Coaxed to look back to Selma and to the civil rights movement, the President responds with a calm rumination. It’s an American story, an optimistic story, he says, citing Dr. King. “We didn’t quite get there,” he says, giving Remnick his last line, “but that journey continues.” It’s the final tying of the ribbon, what newshounds call a “kicker.” The author’s own summing up, we may hope, will come later.

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