Remnick: In Obama's Only Loss, A Political Lesson

President Barack Obama in the Oval Office

hide captionPresident Obama, on a phone call with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on March 26. David Remnick's book follows Obama's life from his childhood to the Oval Office.

Pete Souza/AP

From his roots as a community organizer on Chicago's South Side to the Oval Office, President Obama's political career is now as familiar as it has been charmed. But according to New Yorker editor David Remnick, the key moment in Obama's political education might have been a setback.

Remnick has written a new book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, about Obama's journey to the White House and how that story intersects with the history of race in America.

When Obama first ran for national office, in a 2000 primary against incumbent Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush, he wasn't so well-known, and the mostly African-American voters of Illinois' 1st Congressional district greeted him with skepticism.

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

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"They saw Obama as a newcomer," Remnick tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "They saw Obama as a kind of do-gooder from Harvard — and, quite frankly, somebody who was biracial, someone who was not them. He was not one of them."

The voters weren't alone in responding badly to Obama the candidate, Remnick says.

"Everybody around Barack Obama thought this was a mistake. His wife, Michelle, his advisers, his friends — [they] all thought that running for Congress in 2000, against Bobby Rush — a former Black Panther, a big favorite on the South Side; not the greatest congressman in the world, but a big favorite nevertheless — was a gigantic mistake," Remnick says. "They were right. By a margin of two-to-one, he had his head handed to him."

Obama couldn't make any headway with the voters against Rush, "the original authentic," as Remnick puts it. Obama's problem? He was an outsider, and he never located a viable political reason to be in the race.

"In most congressional districts, in order to challenge the incumbent, you have to have a reason to essentially fire the incumbent — whether it's scandal or neglect — or some reason that he should be thrown out of office," Remnick says. "Obama had a small circle of followers from Hyde Park, some supporters from his state Senate district, but he was never able to convince the district that they should fire Bobby."

To this day, Rush takes pleasure in the win. Remnick interviewed him while doing research for The Bridge.

"I've gotta say, I've never met anybody who felt better about the election of Barack Obama for president, because on the one hand, the first African-American president is a source of enormous pride, despite Rush's complicated background with Obama," Remnick says. "On the other hand, Bobby Rush knew that he was the only person in the universe who had really defeated and really kicked the behind of Barack Obama."

It was a difficult loss for Obama to take, because in addition to the drubbing, the election played out as a test of his racial credibility. Some of the 1st District's older African-American voters called Obama a carpetbagger. Even Rush, remembering the campaign, couldn't resist getting in a jab at Obama.

"At one point in our interview," Remnick says, "Rush slowly ambled out of his chair and kind of did a very sinuous walk across his office and said, 'You know Barack Obama, you see him walk now like this, he didn't walk like that back then.' Which I thought was a pretty suspect way to challenge — yet again, years later — Obama's racial bona fides, his authenticity.

Barack Obama gives a concession speech on March 21, 2000. i i

hide captionBarack Obama delivers a concession speech to his supporters in 2000 after losing the Democratic nomination for Illinois' 1st Congressional district to Bobby Rush.

Frank Polich/AP
Barack Obama gives a concession speech on March 21, 2000.

Barack Obama delivers a concession speech to his supporters in 2000 after losing the Democratic nomination for Illinois' 1st Congressional district to Bobby Rush.

Frank Polich/AP

"It was an ugly race; Obama was deeply hurt by it. A community that he thought that he was part of, that he had aspired to, had rejected him and rejected him soundly. And it was quite possible that his political career was over."

Perhaps the decision to run had been a miscalculation. But Remnick says Obama, a state senator at the time, ran because he was out of options.

"He discovered that being a state senator was dull, that his ability to make any impact was extraordinarily limited," Remnick says. "To be a state senator in Illinois is not exactly what he dreamed of at Harvard law school."

But at the time, he had little choice.

"What could he run for? To be able to run for Senate right out of the state Senate was not going to be available to him. He had to take a leap of faith and he had to risk failure. And he failed," Remnick says. "And in any great career, failure is an instructive moment. That was his. That was his crucible. And he failed spectacularly."

But it may also have been the moment that pointed Obama in the direction of his political assets.

After the loss, Remnick says, Obama "started to travel around Illinois, he started to learn the state. ... He starts discovering himself as a politician, that he has appeal much broader than somebody like Bobby Rush could ever have," Remnick says. "And he learns a great deal in those travels, and then he decides to run for Senate in a very, very crowded field in 2004."

David Remnick

hide captionDavid Remnick has been the editor of The New Yorker magazine since 1998. His 1994 book Lenin's Tomb won a Pulitzer Prize.

Alex Remnick

Since that point, Obama hasn't lost a race he's entered. After one-sided wins in the Senate primary and general elections in 2004, he didn't even get a taste of competition, Remnick says, until the 2008 Iowa caucuses.

Like the occasions where he would be on the winning side, the loss to Rush in 2000 was one-sided, and Obama quickly learned that he didn't like losing. He even flirted — briefly — with getting out of politics, Remnick says.

"He had a job interview for a foundation. This foundation would have set him up rather nicely. He would have gotten a huge salary, and he would have had all kinds of money to give away to good works. And he went into the interview and his hands were shaking and he came out of it, and basically the guy who was interviewing him said, 'Of course you can have this job, but you don't want this job.' "

It was a reality the future president couldn't deny.

"He had the addiction," Remnick says. "He had the desire to be a politician. Even though he had been very suspicious of big-time politics when he had been an organizer, he left organizing convinced, in fact, that the had to go into politics because that's where the real stuff happens."

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.

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