New Yorker editor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Remnick tries to answer these questions in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (which hits shelves in your local Barnes & Noble today). The name is important, as is a quote from Lewis at the beginning of the book: "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."
Remnick uses the bridge both literally and thematically. From a literal standpoint, the 1965 attack on civil rights marchers opens and closes his book. Thematically, the bridge represents the symbolic crossing that Obama made when elected and also his journey beyond what we consider the iconic civil rights community. In an observation he returns to again and again, Remnick calls Obama a leader of the "Joshua generation." Just as Dr. King, like Moses, could see the promised land, he also could not reach it himself. It's up to leaders like Joshua—like Obama—to achieve the vision.
The book's subtitle is much more literal: this is a personal and political biography, not a campaign postmortem or a fawning profile of a first year in office. Remnick sees Obama's mind and personality, rather than any slick campaign or media narrative, as central to the question of how he came to be in position to cross that bridge. As such, he takes us all the way back to the beginning.
Remnick provides colorful and moving profiles of Obama's grandparents and parents, essentially explaining the "making" of Barack Obama by detailing how his family came to converge on the same place at the same time. From there, we follow Obama through his childhood in Hawaii, Indonesia and then Hawaii again, a journey Remnick sees as critical to the development of Obama's outlook.
In Hawaii, Obama feels free to discover himself, unfettered by the civil rights struggles occurring on the mainland. It's this absence of social tensions that enables him to explore being a person, a young individual, before having to worry about exploring himself as a black person within a "movement" demographic. Moreover, in Indonesia, he sees immense poverty firsthand, which later impresses upon him the realization that there are profoundly divisive and harmful issues that effect people irrespective of skin color.
Remnick sees these origins and observations as vital later down the road as Obama steps from the Moses generation of black leaders and becomes a member of the Joshua generation. Those steeped in the anger and struggle of the movement defined themselves as agitators in a way that left them incapable of representing a political reconciliation. For instance, for all his talents, whites would always see Jesse Jackson as a movement leader, an agitator, a voice from a specific interest group rather than a voice that shared interests with that group and many others. Remnick argues that Obama benefited from the gains made by civil rights leaders without having them define him. (Note, this is a theme echoed in Gwen Ifill's The Breakthrough, reviewed here.)
As one would expect, the book follows Obama to college at Occidental College, then Columbia, to community organizing on Chicago's South Side, to Harvard Law, then back to Chicago and public office. Some details of all of these things should be familiar to readers if only due to the 24-hour campaign news cycle, but Remnick examines them all in detail, often to set the record straight about people and issues that became distorted talking points from 2007-present.
Here we meet Saul Alinsky (a man Obama never met), a young Hillary Clinton, both Chicago Mayors Daley, former Black Panthers, young men and women about to be famous jurists, etc. Remnick rounds many of them out with short profiles that both contextualize their comments while also contextualizing Obama. It's important to bear this in mind when considering the page count (a hefty 585 pages, before the end notes): what might seem like a daunting book is better thought of as happy melange of New Yorker profiles. Instead of reading one smart ten-page article, you're reading 50, arranged around a central narrative.
Those looking for a definitive, "This is what Obama means," will be similarly let down, but that reaction perhaps misunderstands the text. At one point, Remnick quotes someone who remarks that Obama's treatment of arguments in Audacity of Hope has an almost "pathological" need to look at things on one hand, then on the other hand. Because his subject is so open to multiple sides of an issue, Remnick must be as well. Further, as a journalist himself, he feels obliged to turn most of the editorializing over to sources. Thus those who comment on the Obama campaigns include Obama himself and his staff but also the strategists and candidates who ran opposite him.
The most significant editorializing targets the Bush administration. And, while Remnick is clearly sympathetic to Obama and to liberal issues, this doesn't come off as needless bashing. To be sure, he condemns the Bush Administration's response to Katrina, its profligate tax cutting in preparation for two wars, its imperial secrecy and the want of display of intellectual curiosity from the former president. But these factors cannot be omitted because they too are responsible for Obama's election. As much as he made the country hopeful, Remnick argues that such strong dissatisfaction with the GOP, with gut-oriented politics and political strong-arming created the thirst for change that enabled a black candidate—and a woman candidate—to seem so possible to the electorate. Remnick's criticisms stem from the fact that Obama probably wouldn't have "happened" in a vacuum.
Ultimately, Remnick suggests that Obama succeeded because he crossed a bridge in multiple ways in the American consciousness. He moved past the politics of special interest that defined many black leaders for the rest of America by speaking of his biracial heritage and a diverse background that left him free to grow outside the southern civil rights struggles. He enjoyed the privilege of learning at our most elite institutions and also on some of our most dangerous and impoverished streets, and he learned that lessons from each could improve the learning at both. Finally, he learned to speak in a way that united the economic and social interests of Americans irrespective of color.
Despite its length, The Bridge offers readers a multitude of concise profiles of countless politicians, teachers and workers who influenced Barack Obama, the city of Chicago, the nation and American social and political thought. It synthesizes numerous extant articles on Obama, re-explains well-known incidents and talking points and relies on countless new interviews with primary players in the Obama story. Along the way, it's deftly written, humorous, poignant, sad and celebratory.
It is by no means the definitive story on the rise of Barack Obama. History and the contentious back-and-forth of historiography will eventually and agonizingly get us far closer to that. But for now it takes its place amongst classic journalistic efforts to lay the reportorial groundwork of an American story. The rest of Obama's tale is not yet written, but expect the sources and interviews Remnick provides to be cited again and again as historians and policy experts hammer out the dents in the record for decades to come.
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