Sunday, April 4, 2010
The Life and Rise of Barack ObamaBy David Remnick
Knopf. 656 pp. $29.95
In his exhaustive biography, "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama," David Remnick seeks to illuminate Obama's role as racial hero and lightning rod, and to discern the president's own mixed feelings about it.
Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, examines how race made Obama, how it almost unmade him and how he has managed to straddle as well as exploit one of America's great tender spots. Remnick moves across a wide canvas, writing about slave narratives and Chicago ward bosses; about the white women Obama dated and Frederick Douglass's difficult relationship with Abraham Lincoln.
After writing my own book about politics and race, I've spent the past 14 months listening to audiences anxiously overinterpret Obama's presidential victory in 2008 as a sign that we are past racial friction. So it was refreshing to see Remnick discover new ways to neatly skewer the notion of a post-racial America without ever having to climb on a soapbox.
In the hands of other writers, Obama has proved to be a murky character study: a self-made man in the grand American political tradition, but one who has largely been allowed to romanticize his own story.
Remnick efficiently strips some of the gloss off the version Obama offered in his best-selling 1995 memoir "Dreams From My Father," charitably and accurately describing that effort as "a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, recreation, invention and artful shaping." Obama, Remnick points out, ended each section with climactic, somewhat overwrought descriptions of himself in tears -- as he sees his father in a dream, discovers his spiritual roots in church, visits his father's grave. I totally bought all of this the first time I read "Dreams." I don't know that I would today -- in part because I am a professional skeptic when it comes to the people I cover, and in part because it's difficult to conceive of cool cucumber Obama being that overcome by emotion.
A less admiring author -- one who did not invest the considerable time Remnick did in interviewing Obama's family members, childhood and college friends, Chicago allies, and the president himself -- might have spun this tale more harshly. Instead of Obama the heroic change agent, we might have seen more of Obama the cagey political animal. Those qualities are certainly present in "The Bridge." Remnick writes that as a political neophyte in Chicago, Obama had no problem becoming "multilingual" -- learning to speak in different ways to different groups. He "subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience," Remnick writes: "a more straight-up delivery for a luncheon of businesspeople in the Loop; a folksier approach at a downstate VFW; echoes of the pastors of the black church when he is in one."
Obama cops to this. "The fact that I conjugate my verbs and speak in a typical Midwestern newscaster's voice -- there's no doubt that this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences," he tells Remnick. "And there's no doubt that when I'm with a black audience I slip into a slightly different dialect. But the point is, I don't feel the need to speak a certain way in front of a black audience. There's a level of self-consciousness about these issues the previous generation had to negotiate that I don't feel I have to."
When he reads this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was excoriated after being quoted in another campaign book saying essentially the same thing, will no doubt regret his tortured apology.
Obama -- the offspring of a white mother and an African father -- learned what Remnick calls "shape-shifting" when he arrived in Chicago. Reared in Hawaii and Indonesia, he "had never encountered a place where race was so determinative," one old Chicago friend observes.
Obama is also revealed to be, of all things, a politician. Remnick finds evidence of this hard-nosed streak in everything Obama has done, from his time in the Illinois Senate to his surprisingly efficient dispatch (and later embrace) of Hillary Rodham Clinton to his choice of a church in Chicago. And of course, the world saw how happy he was ultimately to pick up the brass knuckles to get his health-care bill enacted.
"You can't interpret what Obama does without thinking of the power factor," one old Obama acquaintance, Mike Kruglik, tells Remnick. He may be doing things not only for the right reasons, Kruglik suggests, but also because he wants to make sure his hands are on the levers.
Obama confesses to this as well. When Democrats took control of the Illinois Senate, he remembers, he went from back-bencher in his sixth year to passing 26 bills in a row in his seventh.
"In one year, we reformed the death penalty in Illinois, expanded health care for kids, set up a state earned income tax credit," he says. "It wasn't that I was smarter in year seven than I was in year six, or more experienced; it was that we had power. . . . You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don't control the gavel you cannot move an agenda forward."
Lacking power, Obama is shown to be the ultimate pragmatist. If he can't be in control, he is ready to move on. Remnick mentions frequently how easily Obama can get bored. He was bored at Occidental, the first college he attended; bored at the University of Chicago, where as a teacher he focused on writing his first book; bored in the Illinois Senate; and even bored in the U.S. Senate, where he was more interested in writing his second book.
Remnick obviously admires the president, so he does not interpret such lofty boredom as peevish or self-absorbed, as critics might. Perhaps it is that generosity to Obama -- gushy praise, Nobel Peace Prizes -- that drives his political competitors nuts.
Bobby Rush, the congressman and former Black Panther, is apparently still disdainful of the young Harvard Law School transplant who had the nerve to challenge him in 2000 (Obama lost, badly, in part because black voters were suspicious of his racial bona fides). In one of the book's most remarkable passages, Rush mocks the president during an interview in his congressional office, getting out of his chair to make fun of Obama's distinctive, rolling stride. The smooth strut, Rush suggests, was something Obama appropriated from the street to appear more at home around black people. "Lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then!"
Those who lost to Obama also complain that the newcomer got an easy ride from the news media. "We didn't understand why his politically calculating chameleon nature was never discussed," an aide to Clinton says. "We were said to be the chameleons, but he changed his life depending on who he was talking to."
Mark Salter, John McCain's campaign adviser, co-author and alter ego, is more blunt: Obama won because his race played into reporters' romantic notions about the arc of civil rights history. "The truth is, all that will be remembered of the campaign is that America's original sin was finally expunged," he says. The McCain forces, Remnick concludes, saw Obama as absurdly fortunate.
There may be something to that. Obama was elected to the Senate only after not one but two credible contenders had contentious divorce papers unsealed. He was elected president because Clinton's campaign was chaotic, but also because Americans were anxious to change course from a deeply unpopular Republican president.
And he has cut deals (think health care). This has made him periodically unpopular with those on the hard right as well as the hard left.
"He is a man who can be accommodated by America, but he is not my hero," one liberal New Orleans activist and Obama supporter tells Remnick. "Because a politician, by nature, has to surrender."
It takes an arms-length biographer to really fill in Obama's gaps, and Remnick is not quite that. He still appears mildly baffled at the backlash his magazine endured in 2008 when it published a satirical cartoon on its cover portraying an Afro'ed, gun-toting Michelle Obama bumping fists with her husband, who was dressed in Muslim garb.
This is a rare blind spot in an author who otherwise seems to get the politics of race. Remnick deserves credit for telling Obama's story more completely than others, for lending a reporter's zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama.
Gwen Ifill is the moderator of "Washington Week," senior correspondent for "NewsHour" and the author of "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama."