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Who Is Barack Obama?

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

by David Remnick
Knopf, 656 pp., $29.95
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Alex Wong/Getty Images
Barack Obama at a march to commemorate the 1965 Voting Rights March in Selma, Alabama, March 4, 2007

In the weeks before he signed landmark health reform into law in March, our forty-fourth president was subjected to a process of relentless shrinkage. That’s to say he was being cut down to size, not only by cable TV and radio talk show screamers of the apoplectic right but by many in the twittering classes who’d hailed his victory just a year earlier as “transformative.” His signature initiatives seemed to have stalled and blame was being assigned less to the determined naysaying of congressional Republicans than to his own cool, deliberative nature. The dour Mitch McConnell, stubbornness personified, seemed to be playing him for a patsy. The Chinese, Iranians, and Israelis were showing that they too considered him soft, and bankers once again were salting away obscene bonuses while foreclosures continued to spread. Anyone could see that Guantánamo was still in business as a prison, that the public option had fallen out of the health care reform plan, which all too obviously seemed headed for oblivion. And if anyone thought the election of an African-American president would ease the way for African-Americans subsisting outside the labor market in a period of soaring unemploy- ment, a year’s experience provided a bleak corrective. What, then, had been transformed?

If Barack Obama had been a stock instead of a president with three years to go in the first of what could be two terms, the market indices on cable news and in the blogosphere seemed to suggest that it was time to sell him short. He’d wasted a year, didn’t grasp that governing was different from campaigning, had no fight in him, was on his way to reprising Jimmy Carter. That was the conventional wisdom forming around him early this year.

What the country really needed was someone like Lyndon Johnson, we were regularly instructed by writers too young to have any memory of LBJ, someone who knew how to “twist arms.” The theme had gone viral on the Internet by the time it reached the letters column of The New York Times print edition. We need a leader who “does whatever it takes to get the public and Congress to follow him,” a reader in Portland, Oregon, wrote. Barack Obama, the letter writer grumbled, was “temperamentally incapable of such behavior.”

One of the big complaints was that Obama had “lost control of the narrative.” In the digital era, could a worse fate befall a president? No matter who said this first, it soon seemed that everyone and his brother was saying it. In a demonstration of how swiftly a “narrative” can form and proliferate, a recent Google search turned up tens of thousands of entries for blogs and “repurposed” articles in the cyberspace void echoing this specimen of instantaneous groupthink, tagged by the words “lost control of the narrative.” Perhaps a few of them paused to question what the so-called “narrative” of the moment, any moment, actually amounts to (or even how the academic concept “narrative” had crept into the reporting of stories), or how any president could be expected to “control” it for even a few hours. Lyndon Johnson and his pre-digital, pre-cable, pre-Fox successors could always command an audience by scheduling an Oval Office speech. The three networks would grumble but give him the time and a huge chunk of the national audience would be captured on their Barcaloungers and sofas. Ah, those were the days.

With the vast changes in the way news and commentary are now circulated and consumed, that format is seldom effective, seldom tried. Barring a real or imagined national emergency—for instance, when LBJ announced that there had been a second attack on US warships in the Gulf of Tonkin or, more recently, George W. Bush claimed that there was proof of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—the hungry “narrative” beast can seldom be commanded; inherently unstable, on the lookout for prey, it’s always foraging. Put another way, both technology and shameful presidential precedents have undermined a president’s ability to write his own narrative.

In this setting, David Remnick’s energetic entry into the Obama biography sweepstakes is a welcome reminder that the current occupant of the White House may have a broader, more durable sense of narrative than the pack of bloggers who considered him a slow learner (until, with the health reform victory, they flipped and momentarily allowed themselves to wonder whether he’d finally turned a corner and might now be ready to wield power at home and abroad). Not only had Obama actually supplied the urtext of his campaign by writing Dreams from My Father, the story of his antecedents and life, he also managed to turn his biracial origins into an advantage, offering himself, in Remnick’s words, as “an embodiment of multi-ethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority.” He was his own best metaphor and in that sense, he mostly controlled the story of the campaign. This was despite the furor over his chosen preacher, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and the media chorus suggesting that race would be the undoing of his candidacy, first because he was not black enough, then because he was too black.

No one can pin down exactly when the young Obama first thought seriously of running for president. Remnick shows that the ambition—he writes aptly of Obama’s “serene ambition”—had probably lodged itself in his soul before he first threw himself into a race for a seat in Illinois’s less than august State Senate in September 1995. The question became insistent almost as soon as he entered the US Senate in 2005, though he was then only ninety-ninth in seniority. “Obama,” Remnick writes, “had many qualities; he would have to work at modesty.”

In politics, it now seems, narrative can lose value faster than a new car. So one is grateful to be brought back to the gleaming 2008 Obama model in the second year of the Obama presidency, if only because it’s a reminder that the candidate’s ambition wasn’t just for himself but for the healing he thought he could bring to the country; and because it’s in such stark contrast with the narratives not of his own design that have since thickened around him—those of well-wishers who would turn him into LBJ and those of enemies who continue to suggest that there’s something insidiously un-American about him. What could that exotic ingredient be? For at least some members of the aroused Tea Party vanguard, it has to be race. However the Obama presidency turns out, it’s all too obvious already that it’s unlikely to be remembered as an era of good feelings in which the partisan divide was healed as the candidate optimistically promised.

What Remnick’s portrayal of Obama’s political evolution makes clear is that the promise was more than a calculated choice, a campaign pose. It was intrinsic to his character and recognized as such early on. As far back as Harvard Law School, he stood out for “his way of absorbing and synthesizing the arguments of others,” for his “earnest, consensus-seeking style,” for an “open-mindedness [that] seemed strange even to his friends.” Later on, when as an obscure state legislator he sat in on a seminar at the Kennedy School, the seminar’s leader, Robert Putnam, was struck by Obama’s ability “to listen for a whole day and see common themes in the midst of an arguing bunch.”

It’s a refrain to which Remnick regularly returns. “Conciliation [is Obama’s] default mode,” he writes, “the dominant strain of his political personality.” The 43 percent of whites who voted for the first African-American president presumably recognized this quality. Its effect on an irreconcilable portion of the 55 percent of whites who voted against him is suggested by the fury of the Tea Party activists. That’s a paradox yet to be resolved. The very qualities of thoughtfulness and patience that made Obama’s election seem such a hopeful harbinger now make him vulnerable to charges of weakness from both flanks of the political divide. It’s who he is. It has something to do with why he is where he is. And in the short term at least, it doesn’t play conspicuously well in the media echo chamber, which is always spoiling for a fight, doesn’t reward prudence, and has no time for ambiguity.

History is very much what Remnick is about, what he seeks to wrestle with here. A voracious reporter of ready wit, he has always shown an uncommon sensitivity to larger historical events. That was one of the distinguishing strengths of Lenin’s Tomb, his Pulitzer-winning account of the collapse of Soviet communism, and one of the reasons it still reads well after seventeen years. Here he seeks to distill the deeper meanings of the improbable 2008 election by setting it in the context of the American civil rights movement.

The “bridge” of his title, in its first iteration, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, on March 7, 1965—a date henceforth remembered as “Bloody Sunday”—Governor George Wallace’s state troopers set upon a column of peaceful civil rights marchers intent on going all the way to Montgomery, the capital. The troopers, backed by a deputized white mob, used tear gas and nightsticks as they tore into the nonresisting marchers. Forty-two years later Barack Obama spoke in Selma to commemorate that event, in what became his first face-off with the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton. The occasion was freighted with layers of meaning, past and future. What it signifies as an opening set piece for Remnick’s book is Obama’s emergence as a candidate who “just might be [the] culmination” of “a narrative of moral and political progress.”

Here Remnick seems to be referring to the candidate’s self-presentation. The “just might be” can be read as authorial distancing. By election night, when a vast crowd gathers in Chicago’s Grant Park for a victory celebration, Remnick is ready to call a time-out from distancing. “A historical bridge had been crossed,” he writes exultantly. He celebrates as a writer as well as a citizen. That bridge can now carry the full weight of the story he means to tell. “I could think of only a few comparable days or nights in my life as a reporter,” Remnick tells us, jumping from the wings and onto the stage to draw comparisons to East Berlin and Prague in 1989, Moscow in 1991. Change had come to America, he concludes that chapter, adding, “It was about damned time.” (The line is carried over from Remnick’s perfectly timed article “The Joshua Generation”—a relatively svelte prototype for this fat book—which appeared in The New Yorker days after the election.)

Any Obama voter swept up in the emotions of that night will recognize the sentiment. But more than a year later, it’s fair to ask: What was the change exactly and when did it occur? The most arresting answer to that question in this book somewhat undercuts the bridge metaphor of the title. It comes in the last chapter from the book’s subject:

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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