on 2 June 2010
David Remnick's "The Bridge" is an excellent "ascent narrative" of the most powerful and perhaps most enigmatic man in the world.
Remnick recounts President Obama's life and career in three stages. The first covers his highly unconventional upbringing in Indonesia and Hawaii and his extraordinary re-casting of himself in late adolescence as an African American (at school "I never thought of Barry as black" remarked a Punahou classmate), as well as the emergence of the professorial and - in the words of Jonathan Alter, author of the virtually companion book "The Promise" - Zen-like persona that is the 44th President's signature. The second describes his relatively brief political apprenticeship as first a community organizer and then a state politician in Chicago, followed by a two-year stint in the US Senate before his entry into the White House race in 2006. The third addresses the campaign itself, though with a deliberately narrow focus on the role played in it by "race."
Luck and good fortune played their parts in Obama's rise: luck, for example, in the scandal fuelled implosions of the campaigns of both his Democratic primary and Republican election opponents in the Senate race; good fortune as in his adoption by movers and shakers such as Newt Minnow, Jerry Kellman or Valerie Jarrett which helped the future president navigate his way through the Chicago power structure where he was educated in reality without being overly corrupted or tainted by its quintessential "old Politics," or as in his propulsion to national fame through being selected to address the 2004 Democratic Convention.
But, as Remnick makes clear, will, skill and sheer effort on the part of the candidate were equally instrumental. Obama - described as one friend as "endearingly ambitious" - worked hard on his political career -"very focused and disciplined, monkish," observed Kellman - pumping the donors, working the grass-roots, travelling the circuits day after day even when it looked likely to be unrewarded, pushing his undoubted commitment to his family towards but just short of its finely judged elastic limit. He also made numerous bold and ultimately canny judgments which ran contrary to his advisors' counsel - as in the decision to run against Carole Mosely Braun for the Senate seat or to deliver his masterly speech on race in the aftermath of the Rev'd Jeremiah Wright crisis (Remnick, incidentally, helps put Obama's complex relationship with Wright - the author of a sermon on the "Audacity To Hope" - into context).
Oliver Wendell Holmes famously described the young FDR as possessing "a second class mind but a first class temperament." Obama, we see is top rank in both departments. Beyond this, though, Remnick conveys a sense of destiny, of Obama, as unusual and as improbable as his rise might have been, picking his way coolly, assuredly and unfalteringly through the obstacle course of chance and choices towards inevitable success. Here the most natural comparison is to Abraham Lincoln.
Remnick chooses to anchor Obama's story in the history of American race relations. The bridge of the title refers not only to a physical symbol - the Edmund Pettus bridge in Selma, Alabama, one of the most iconic stations of the civil rights movement (Pettus himself was a Confederate general) - but also to the candidate's metaphorical role as a link between the black and white races and between the old, bitterly divided United States and a new, post-racial society. This is fair enough; it is after all consistent with the narrative constructed by Obama himself, but Remnick brings home to us the depth of the divisions, the gratuitous offence given by the one side and the possibly disportionate offence taken by the other. Ironically, the racism most encountered by Obama in his rise emanated from his own chosen side: many blacks did not consider him to be "black enough" and showered him with contempt, which he only overcame in victory. With Obama's election, mused McCain aide Mark Salter, only slightly ironically, "America's original sin was finally expunged."
Remnick's day job (one wonders how he found time to balance both tasks) is Editor-in-Chief of "The New Yorker," and this book strikes one as being a well-ordered chain of "New Yorker" essays - long, well-researched, deep into their milieu, atmospheric more than analytic - on topics such as the Kenya of Obama's father, the prestigious Punahou prep school in Honolulu, Chicago's South-side politics, the Civil Rights movement and so on. Remnick's worldview is unsurprisingly also that of the magazine, predisposed to favor Obama and his agenda, and the book is written in the mildly condescending voice of the East Coast liberal establishment. So, bottom line: if you like the "New Yorker" you will love "The Bridge." On these terms, it is a tour de force.
If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President - and let's face it, how can we ever reduce anyone's life to having 'a point' - it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). It is also, in a nutshell, the point of this remarkable, beautifully crafted and historically informed biography by New Yorker editor David Remnick, The Bridge. From my limited perspective and knowledge, I would have to say that this book is essential reading for any seeking to understand recent American political history, and, I dare say, will remain so for many years to come. I'm deliberately not going to post about Obama's politics - for as an outsider with limited insight, that would be to venture where angels fear to tread. But then, Remnick's book is not particularly about his politics either, so as in intro review, this is perfectly legitimate.
Of course, it is far too early to give a rounded sense of Obama's achievements and life in a biography when his first term (and who knows whether or not it will be followed up by a second?) is only 2/3rds through. He is going to be only 50 this August, after all! Which is why Remnick is wise to leave further analysis to others by concluding his book with the moment that Obama is unlikely ever to eclipse: his 2009 inauguration as 44th President.
THE BRIDGE AT SELMA
But the location of the book's opening is telling: Brown Chapel in Selma, in which Obama gave a speech in 2007 in the early days of his primary campaign. As a young and relatively inexperienced junior US senator, it was definitely a bold move. As Remnick says,
"There, in large measure, was the wellspring of his candidacy, its historical dimension and conceit, and there was no escaping its gall. Obama himself used words like 'presumptuous' and 'audacious'." (p4)
For quite apart from his youth, he was making a deliberate statement by speaking in Selma. He was staking his claim to be a true inheritor of the civil rights campaigns of a previous generation (a fact which certainly raised eyebrows in the African-American community because of his descent from Kenyans not American slaves). The events of 1965 at the Bridge at Selma had been a watershed in the Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. Known as Bloody Sunday, peaceful protestors seeking voting rights were savagely set upon by law enforcement. And now, 4 decades later, Obama was at the very same place, not now campaigning for voting rights, but for White House tenancy.
At 600 pages, Remnick's narrative is certainly comprehensive - but it is far from turgid. He has a journalist's ease and fluency, as well as frequent and open access to scores of the key players and opponents (including Obama himself). This gives the reader a real sense of being in the company of insiders. But what lifts the book out of 'mere' journalism, is that it is combined this with an acute historian's eye for resonances and ironies. The narrative is often interspersed with extended insights into the civil rights movement, the history Chicago politics, or the disturbing relationship between slavery and the White House. The story of former slave Elizabeth Keckley and her deep friendship with first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was especially moving.
But above all, I found myself in awe of and powerfully moved by this story of a man that I might not always agree with (though perhaps more than some of my American friends) but cannot fail to respect. The book rightly debunks many of the conspiracy theories (such as the fact that he is a Muslim or wasn't born in the USA) and enables one to gain genuine insights into a modern political phenomenon.
THE LIVING BRIDGE
But the book's name is elegant - because not only does it evoke the culmination of so much that the Selma to Montgomery marchers fought and prayed for, but it also points to the fact of Obama's own identity. And what is the battle for racial equality if not a story of identity? For it was perhaps precisely Obama's unique cultural mix that made him electable:
- a white mother (with English and Irish ancestry) from Kansas and then Hawaii;
- a black father from Kenya (whose own father had been a servant to British colonials);
- an Indonesian (cultural but not practising Muslim, as the book makes clear, despite what the right-wing fear-mongerers insist) stepfather and half-sister;
- an intellectual powerhouse that led to his election as President of the Harvard Law Journal and later a law professor (giving him respectability amongst the elite);
- a community organiser and member of an African-American church in Chicago (giving a degree of credibility amongst the poor and radical);
- And then last but not least, an African-American wife who was descended from American slaves. In fact, a number of people have suggested that he would never have had credibility amongst African Americans if he'd married a white woman.
So I suppose you could call him a one-man global village. And in a post-ideological age such as ours, identity is arguably much more influential than policy and politics. So it is no surprise that Obama attracted accusations of being both 'too black' and 'not black enough'. As his father was largely absent, he was brought up in a white household, and so had to discover his African-Americanness. But this too helped. Here is one of his Harvard mentors, Martha Minow:
"Obama is black, but without the torment. He clearly identifies himself as African-American, he clearly identifies with African-American history and the civil-rights movement, but his life came largely - not completely, but largely - without the terrible oppression." (p195)
Then he was also honed by his experiences of politics in Chicago. As Remnick points out:
"There is no telling how Obama might have developed had he answered an ad to work in some other city, but it is clear that the history of African-Americans in Chicago - and the unique political history of Chicago, culminating in [Harold] Washington's attempt to form a multiracial coalition - provided Obama with a rich legacy to learn from and be part of. `The first African-American president could only have come from Chicago', Timuel Black, one of the elders of the South Side and a historian of the black migration from the South, says." (p143)
Of course, it was not without its risks. And by that I don't mean political. This conversation happened before he threw his hat into the Primary ring.
"[Obama & an African-American donor friend] talked some more - about the Clintons, about the Republicans, and, most of all, about the barriers that Obama would face. Finally, the fundraiser said, `It's funny you call. I've taken my own plebiscite and there is an interesting divide.'
Obama cut him off and said, `Yeah, yeah, I know. The white folks want me to run. And the black folks think I'm going to get killed.'
That was it exactly. The donor, who was older than Obama, had keen memories of the assassination of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King." (p462)
SPINNING THE BRIDGE
There is no doubting that Obama's campaign tactic of spinning his capacity to bridge different ethnicities, classes and even religions was shrewdly exploited. A number of instances of this are recorded - in particular, his speech to left-wing Evangelicals after an invitation by Jim Wallis was especially telling.
Of course, there are doubters on all sides - but that isn't really my point here. I'm merely pointing out the overarching leitmotif of Remnick's book, namely the Bridge metaphor, as something the Obama campaign has deliberately exploited. That was clearly part of the purpose in having Rick Warren lead the prayers at the inauguration (despite controversy over the choice).
Well something clearly worked and he got elected.
But the most moving moment for me came when he was preparing his speech accepting the Democratic Party's nomination and is worth quoting in full:
"On the afternoon of August 28th Obama was rehearsing his acceptance speech in a modest meeting room on the nineteenth floor of the Westin Tabor Center, the hotel where he was staying in Denver. In a few hours, he was to appear under the lights at Mile High Stadium. Obama has always preferred to work in the nest of a very small circle of aides and now his audience was three: his political strategist, David Axelrod; the speechwriter, Jon Favreau; and a teleprompter operator. The rehearsal was mainly an exercise in comfort, in making sure that there were no syntactical hurdles left in the text, no barriers to clarity. Obama was never spirited in rehearsal, but he wanted to make sure he had a firm grasp of the rhythm of the sentences, so that when he looked at the teleprompter he would be like a well-rehearsed musician glancing at the score.
As a piece of rhetoric, the Convention speech was more of a ramble and a litany than what Obama usually favored; the text carried the burden of presenting a bill of particulars, a case, as Favreau put it, `of why yes to Obama and no to John McCain.' Obama could not just inspire; he had to answer detailed questions of policy and difference. Late in the speech, however, the rhetoric shifted to the historical uplift and significance of the campaign. In the rehearsal session, Obama came to a passage paying homage to the March on Washington, forty-five years earlier to the day, when tens of thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial `to hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.' Obama chose not to mention Martin Luther King, Jr., by name in the text, and, later, some black intellectuals would say that he had done so for fear of appearing `too black', of emphasizing race in front of a national audience. And yet even as he reheated the passage, there was a catch in Obama's voice and he stopped. He couldn't get past the phrase `forty-five years ago.'
`I gotta take a minute,' Obama told his aides.
He excused himself and took a short, calming walk around the room.
`This is really hitting me,' he said. `I haven't really thought about this before really deeply. It just hit me. I guess this is a pretty big deal.' His eyes filling with tears, Obama went to the bathroom to blow his nose. Favreau thought that the only time he had ever seen or heard of Obama being this emotional was back in Iowa when he addressed a group of young volunteers who were caucusing for the first time. Axelrod agreed. "Usually, he is so composed,' he said, `but he needed the time.'
`It's funny; I think all of us go through this,' Favreau recalled. `We've gone through this whole campaign and, contrary to what anyone might think, we don't think of the history much, because it's a crazy environment and you're going twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And so there are very few moments - and I think it's the same with Barack - when he stops and thinks, `I could be the first African-American elected President.''
Obama returned to the room and practiced the paragraph a couple more times to make sure he could get through it without interruption. Although the passage did not mention King by name, the references were unmistakable.
...Sometime after five, Obama left the hotel in a motorcade. The drive lasted about fifteen minutes and all he could see through the window was faces, crowds, signs, people ten deep cheering and yelling, and the roar grew louder as he pulled into the stadium to deliver his acceptance speech to eighty thousand people and a television audience of more than thirty-eight million Americans. (p537-8)
All in all, this is a gripping, informative and beautifully written introduction to a man whose election will be remembered for generations.