'Bridge' Tells Obama's Story, Just As We Remember It

The Bridge
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
By David Remnick
Hardcover, 672 pages
Knopf
List price: $29.95
Read An Excerpt

In many ways, David Remnick's new book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, is very much like its subject: Even-handed, eloquent, beautifully packaged.

Certainly, it's promising.

As a journalist, Remnick is a heavyweight. In 1994, he won the Pulitzer for his book on the Soviet Union. Now, he's at the helm of The New Yorker.

And so, we have a top editor-in-chief writing about the commander in chief. How could this not be extraordinary?

The problem is, Remnick has set himself a nearly impossible task. The Bridge attempts "the most complete account yet" of the most famous man on the planet — a man scrutinized daily by the media, whose life is still a work in progress, and whose biography is known to most of us already.

Thanks to Obama's own words, the public has been familiarized with much of the territory covered in The Bridge. His Kansan-Kenyon background. His Hawaiian-Indonesian childhood. His personal struggles with racial identity. His absent father. We've known about his drug use, his career missteps, his naivete. And we know, too, that Obama has "stood on the shoulders of giants" — that his election is the historic culmination of a legacy that began with slave ships, marched in Selma, and preached on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

For all his skill, Remnick is largely stuck. His biography is well-researched and articulated, but contains nothing earth-shattering. How can it?

Without resorting to tabloid journalism, the best Remnick can do is elaborate on the facts, delve into the footnotes, expand upon the broader historical contexts. And here's where The Bridge is strongest. You learn about the Kenyan airlift that brought Obama's father to study in the U.S. You hear Jimi Hendrix blasting in Obama's freshman dorm. You see his restlessness, confidence and ambition laid bare. You go door to door with him as he learns to finesse Chicago's South Side. You meet his roommates, patrons, mentors.

In a particularly sobering section, Remnick notes that 12 American presidents owned slaves, eight while in office; he resurrects the era viscerally with slaves' own accounts. At its best, The Bridge enriches Obama's life story with historical gravitas and fine detailing.

But there's another problem. Obama's rise has been so recent that it's hardly history yet. Most of the people reading The Bridge will have witnessed it in real time. The section of the book that recounts the 2008 election seems to restate the obvious. And his life and presidency are still unfolding. In trying to bring the book up to the minute, Remnick risks obsolescence. His epilogue, written in January, is already out of date.

Yet oddly, The Bridge may actually be ahead of its time. The events in it are so well-known right now that its scholarship may resonate better in 20 years, after Obama's presidency has truly become history. Future generations who haven't just lived through what it documents may find this book riveting. The Bridge, in short, may be like young wine — requiring time for its value and quality to emerge in full force. Or, it may be like Obama's Nobel Peace Prize — a massive achievement that has been issued, perhaps, prematurely.

Excerpt: 'The Bridge'

The Bridge
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
By David Remnick
Hardcover, 672 pages
Knopf
List price: $29.95

In January, 2007, a month before Obama formally declared his candidacy for President, the polls indicated that Hillary Clinton had a firm hold on the African-American vote. At that time, not all African- Americans knew who Obama was; among those who did, many were either wary of another symbolic black candidacy, another Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson, or loyal to the Clintons.

African-Americans know that their votes are especially crucial in the nominating process. "The Negro potential for political power is now substantial," Dr. King wrote in 1963, in Why We Can't Wait. "In South Carolina, for example, the 10,000-vote margin that gave President Kennedy his victory in 1960 was the Negro vote. . . . Consider the political power that would be generated if the million Americans who marched in 1963 also put their energy directly into the electoral process." King's prediction, which preceded passage of the Voting Rights Act and the registration of many hundreds of thousands more black voters, became an axiom of Democratic Party politics. No one knew this calculus better than Bill Clinton. A white Southerner, Clinton had read black writers and had black friends — a sharp difference from nearly all of his predecessors. The syndicated black radio host Tom Joyner recalled how Clinton awarded Rosa Parks the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 1996, and, at the ceremony, Jessye Norman led the audience in "Lift Every Voice and Sing," the James Weldon Johnson hymn commonly known as the Negro national anthem. "Every living black dignitary was in the audience that great day and everyone stood and sang the first verse loudly and proudly," Joyner recalled. "As we got to the second verse, the singing got faint. Most of us left it up to Miss Norman, who had the words in front of her. The only person in the room who sang every word of every verse by heart was Bill Clinton. By the third verse, he and Jessye Norman were doing a duet."

Writing in The New Yorker in 1998, in the midst of the Monica Lewinsky scandal and the sanctimony parade that followed, Toni Morrison remarked that Bill Clinton, "white skin notwithstanding," had been the "first black president," a Southerner born poor, a "saxophone- playing, McDonald's- and-junk food-loving boy," the first national leader to have a real affinity for and ease with African- American friends, churches, and communities.

In January, according to a Washington Post/ABC poll, Hillary Clinton was ahead among African- Americans three to one. Obama had failed so far to win support from civil-rights leaders. There was a constant stream of negative talk in public forums and on the Internet, trash talk about his patriotism, his left-wing associations, how he'd been schooled and indoctrinated at an Indonesian madrassa. Some civil-rights leaders of the older generation, like Jackson and the Reverend Al Sharpton, who were worried about being surpassed by a new generation, betrayed their anxieties by trying to instruct Barack Obama on the question of genuine blackness. "Just because you are our color doesn't make you our kind," Sharpton said.

Obama and his closest aides recalled that he had been in a similar position at the start of the Illinois Senate race in 2004, with many urban blacks more comfortable, at first, with machine politicians and many whites more comfortable with just about anyone but a black man with a foreign sounding name that rhymed with the first name of the most notorious terrorist in the world. "We'd been in the same place before," David Axelrod, Obama's chief strategist, recalled. "But one of the most important things you face in a Presidential campaign is the fact that there is almost a year between the announcement and the first real contest, in the Iowa caucuses, and so you have a whole series of surrogate contests in the interim." Selma was the first of those surrogate contests. One week before the event, the Clinton campaign learned that Obama was speaking at Brown Chapel. They hurriedly made arrangements for Hillary Clinton to speak three blocks down the street, at First Baptist Church. Artur Davis, an African- American congressman from Alabama and a friend of Obama's, said that Hillary Clinton knew she had to come to Selma: "There was no better place than this stage to make a statement about her seriousness in contesting the black vote." The former President would come, too, and be inducted into the National Voting Rights Museum's "hall of fame."

Bill Clinton was wise enough to know that in Selma Hillary could emerge from the day's news cycle with, at best, an undramatic, gaffe-less draw. He had been counseled to keep his remarks to a minimum in Selma lest he draw attention from his wife. When he and Hillary spoke side by side at the funeral of Coretta Scott King, in February, 2006, he had been masterly, heartfelt, as good, many felt, as any of the best black preachers in the pulpit that day. By comparison, Hillary, speaking just after him, was stiff, awkward, routine. When Bill Clinton read the comparative accounts of their speeches, he told me that he said to Hillary, "If we both spoke at the Wellesley reunion, you'd probably get a better reception. You can't pay any attention to this. This is my life. I grew up in these churches. I knew more people by their first name in that church than at the end of my freshman year. This is my life. You don't have to be better at this than me. You got to be better than whoever."

At First Baptist, Hillary Clinton spoke earnestly and well. (Her husband did not attend the speech.) Her goal was to project the movement forward and to place herself within its mainstream. "After all the hard work getting rid of literacy tests and poll taxes, we've got to stay awake because we've got a march to continue," she said in her speech. "How can we rest while poverty and inequality continue to rise?"

Clinton tied the history of Selma and civil rights to a narrative of American emancipation, generalizing its lessons and implications to include herself. The Voting Rights Act, she insisted, was a triumph for all men and women. "Today it is giving Senator Obama the chance to run for President," she said. "And, by its logic and spirit, it is giving the same chance to Governor Bill Richardson to run as a Hispanic. And, yes, it is giving me that chance, too." The writing was, at times, more convincing than the delivery, especially when Clinton, a daughter of northern Illinois, began dropping her "g"s and channeling her inner Blanche DuBois. Where had that accent come from? Some of Obama's black critics, especially those steeped in the church and the lineage of civil-rights- era speakers, said that he did not have a natural gift for the pulpit, either, that his attempts at combining the rhetoric of the sacred and the street — a traditional language of liberation and exhortation — sometimes sounded forced. But it took no expert to hear the extra effort in Clinton's voice. She was sincere, she was trying, but she did not win the day in Selma.

Excerpted from The Bridge by David Remnick Copyright 2010 by David Remnick. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

The Bridge
The Bridge

The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

by David Remnick

Hardcover, 656 pages | purchase

Purchase Featured Book

Title
The Bridge
Subtitle
The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
Author
David Remnick

Your purchase helps support NPR Programming. How?

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.