Obama's Debt To The 'Moses Generation' David Remnick, editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, discusses Obama's debt to the "Moses generation" of American civil rights leaders — activists who made it possible for Obama to lead his own "Joshua generation."
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Obama's Debt To The 'Moses Generation'

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Obama's Debt To The 'Moses Generation'

Obama's Debt To The 'Moses Generation'

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Alison Stewart in Washington. Here are headlines from some of the stories we're following today at NPR News. Citigroup announced today it plans to cut its payroll worldwide by 15 percent. That works out to about 53,000 jobs. About half of those positions are in units the company plans to sell. A New York governor says the legislature's failure to in act spending cuts in the midst of the state's deepening financial crisis is embarrassing and irresponsible. David Patterson, a Democrat, blames the crisis on years of overspending by state government. You can hear details on those stories and much more coming up later today on All Things Considered.

And tomorrow on Talk of the Nation, you've heard the description before. A boy with ADHD is likely to be the noisiest kid in the room, but a girl with ADHD is less likely to act out. We'll talk about helping girls with ADHD. That's tomorrow on Talk of the Nation.

Now, thousands of words, hours of video tape, millions of page views have been spent touting something that is historic, but well, it's a little bit obvious. Barack Obama will be the first African-American President of the United States. What is less obvious is the role of race and racial identity played as a quiet theme of his campaign. At least so says The New Yorker editor David Remnick in his essay in the current issue of the magazine. We'll speak with David Remnick in just a moment, but we also do want to hear from you. Is Obama's race meaningful to you? Is it a simple symbol for something larger. Think about it. Give us a call. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. You can also send us an email at talk@npr.org. David Remnick joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Hello, David.

Mr. DAVID REMNICK (Editor-in-Chief, The New Yorker): Hi, how are you?

STEWART: I'm doing just great. So, loved your piece. Read it a couple times through. There's one quote that is interesting. You wrote, "Obama made his racial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support to rally Americans behind the narrative of moral and political progress." So how did he turn who he is into a winning strategy?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, I think unusual for presidential candidates, Barack Obama - despite having many accomplishments in his life, had to rely more on who he is than what he had done as a politician. After all, no matter how you feel about him - and our magazine endorsed him end. This is somebody who was in the Illinois State Senate and who was in the U.S. Senate for a little more than a year before deciding to run for president.

And so it really - to my mind, can't be denied that he's - we say who he is and what we mean here is largely about identity and race or the fact that he's biracial, was a very, very important element of his candidacy. It's something sometimes he did talk about, sometimes he didn't want to talk about, and sometimes, it's something that he mastered absolutely to make people feel that the United States is gone a long way. And. it was very important element in his creation of a voting coalition. But that's really the start of the discussion.

STEWART: Well, let's talk about a sort of an overt way when his race became part of the conversation during his campaign and maybe a more subtle example.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, it was there from the very start. Remember he announces his candidacy on the steps of the old State Capitol Building in Springfield, Illinois where Lincoln had announced his candidacy for Senate. And this already has implications. It's not just a about the state of Illinois, after all. It's drawing - you know, we must say that Barack Obama has enormous ambition and audacity is one of his favorite words. He very often makes speeches where he is proposing the advancement of the country and implicit in what he's saying is that advancement will be best represented and embodied by his election as president.

And after all, somebody who is African-American doesn't have to talk about it all the time. He's self-evidently African-American. What changed the game - after all African-Americans been running for president for a very long time either symbolically or in a very real way as with Jesse Jackson. He had to run for president if he was going to win in an entirely new way. He had to push race to the background for most days of the year of his campaign, and when he did have to talk about race in the most central moment of his campaign, he was forced to do it.

It came from the Jeremiah Wright incident. When the the video tapes of Jeremiah Wright saying, "God damn America" and "Chickens have come home to roost" started circulating on network television and cable television. Then, he had to make a speech about race. He had told his people and his campaign for months and months that he had wanted to make a speech on race and they all talked him out of it. They said it was irrelevant - it was beside the point. First, he had to convince white voters that he was serious. So, it's a very, very complex subject, but it is inextricably bound up with his appeal to many people, and I think it's also bound up with some people's disinclination to vote for him certainly.

STEWART: It's interesting that you talked about his people - the people he surrounded himself with and their suggestion that you know, let's not talk about race at this - David Axelrod, his chief campaign strategist but he also...

Mr. REMNICK: But David Axelrod was somebody who had been instrumental in electing four black mayors in the United States.

STEWART: You got me to my point, yes.

Mr. REMNICK: Right and had been behind Deval Patrick becoming the governor of Massachusetts, the first black governor of Massachusetts. So this was somebody very experienced in the tactics and language and thinking about electoral politics where race is concerned.

STEWART: So I'm wondering what it would have been like if David Axelrod had been helping strategize - say a Joe Biden.

Mr. REMNICK: I think Joe - I think David Axelrod is an excellent - as he proved, extremely disciplined, organized in a very smart way, phlegmatic campaign head. I think he could certainly be important in a race with - where a white person is running for any candidacy. I don't think that - I think that goes without saying.

STEWART: The title of the piece is "The Joshua Generation." I'm assuming and I don't - I should ask that you're making a reference to Joshua and Moses. And, Joshua taking over as a leader.

Mr. REMNICK: Exactly. But the language is Obama's himself. Not long after he announced for the presidency, he went to Selma, Alabama and there was a commemoration there of the civil rights marches in Alabama of the '60s. And, at a church service, Obama gave the main address. And, in the audience were many people who you would call in the Moses generation - what Obama called the Moses generation. John Lewis will be a perfect example, somebody who was beaten nearly to death during those marches, and he paid tribute to them, and he paid tribute their protests and to their suffering and sometimes to their martyrdom, in some of instances of course like Martin Luther King and (unintelligible) and the rest.

And then he said I stand on the shoulder of giants meaning the people who are in this Moses generation. And, I am a member however of the Joshua generation. The Moses generation did not reach the Promised Land, what is the Promised Land of equality, of electing someone president. And in that speech, in describing the Joshua generation, he said, look, we've made great advances, we've moved many thousands, many millions into the middle class, certain concept of discrimination are not practices as they used to be or not as overtly, not the - certainly not in the same scale. We've come a long way, but we've forgotten a lot of history. We talk a lot about making money, the Oprah money as he called it...

STEWART: Mm hmm.

Mr. REMNICK: To great laughs, but what are we going to do? How are we going to reach the Promised Land? It's not all about us as individuals and making money and individual advancement. What are we going to do in terms of public service? And, what are we going to do for humanity and for the race? And he proposed himself essentially as the leader of a Joshua generation and it's to be - to head that generation and be president.

STEWART: I want to bring in Tim from Irish Hills, Michigan. He echoes something that's in your article. Tim?

TIM (Caller): Yes. I'm here.

STEWART: Why don't you explain to me and to David what you think about Obama's ancestry that is a positive - that could bring positive change?

TIM: Well, it's a - he's straddles more than one culture. I mean, he comes from a place, you know, Hawaii which is kind of unusual for American politics. He's been around in different places in the world. He's obviously part you know, Nigerian. And, he's part white. His mother was a white. And, I think he kind of, you know, emblemizes the fact that people are multidimensional. And, I think that's really important now, because we tended to see things as one dimensional and been really polarized, and he kind of brings things together that way. Plus, he is extremely intelligent, and he does it in a way that - he does things in a way that's non-polarizing.

Mr. REMNICK: Well, Tim, you make an excellent point. I just should say by the way...

STEWART: He's Kenyan, right?

Mr. REMNICK: Kenyan not Nigerian, but...

TIM: Kenyan, I'm sorry.

Mr. REMNICK: But everything you say is true and I think it's part of his appeal and it adds to his ability to pose himself as an embracing - as a figure both real and metaphorical who embraces the diversity of the American people. And, it also means that he is able to sit in a room and understand intimately what people are saying to him. Al Sharpton said you know - he said this to me in the piece - he said, Obama can understand a white Kansan, every bit is intimately and with the same nuance immediately as he can someone from Harvard, from the Harlem political structure and that's a unique talent.

I should also say though that you know, race is a very complex thing and the majority - I don't know what the numbers are, but a huge number of people that we consider African-American in this country have at one point or another had - whether Caucasian blood or Asian - in their genetic background. And these distinctions of course go back to the old slave distinction of one drop of black blood equals a black man. I mean, it has - these distinctions have their root in terrible racism which for the most part have have receded.

STEWART: We've got a Email from someone who - Larry in Houston who doesn't really care for the fact that we're talking about race in terms of why Obama perhaps has appealed to so many. He says he won in spite of his race, his name, and the rumors. Ask your guest about the ideas he has talked about. Doesn't that count for something - change the ground up?

Mr. REMNICK: Of course, it counts for everything. There's no doubt also that Obama would not have emerged as a major candidate had enough in an anti-Iraq war candidate. One of the reasons he had a leg up early on against Hillary Clinton was that he was the most distinctly anti-war voice on the debating platform, at least among the major candidates. I'm not - of course his ideas are important. There are many ways to look at this campaign. I'm only suggesting - and please, I want to be very clear about it that race is only one element of it.

In fact, that's very much the point in earlier presidential campaigns when there was a black man or woman on the ticket. Race was very, very much in the forefront. It was very much in the forefront of what they had to say in those stump speeches. In fact, in Obama's stump speech, very, very rarely was race mentioned. But I would argue, and I think everybody in the Obama campaign realizes and says so that race had a certain kind of appeal for many voters.

STEWART: And, we're going to talk to one of those voters in just a moment. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. We're speaking with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and I do want to go to Tom from Jacksonville, Florida. Now Tom, you voted for whom?

TOM (Caller): I voted for Barack Obama.

STEWART: And Tom, you're not a Democrat, are you?

TOM: I'm Republican. But, I've been around the world many times. I'm a military man. And, one of the things that I saw in him was hope. And I - every time he opens his mouth, I feel inspired. And I think that that's what we need as an American people. And I think the biggest problem that we have is that everybody picks a side and instead of coming together after we all make a choice. Only - and it's really the outer fringes of hardcore people. But if you look at the - if you look at the African American community throughout our history, African-Americans have contributed in so many ways that if we were just a white society, we would never have a lot of the comforts and we would not have had a lot of the accomplishments that we have as an American people.

STEWART: Tom, thanks a lot. David, as we go forward, as we start to think about President Obama, he's president-elect right now, do you think these themes that you wrote about during the campaign will translate into his administration in any way?

Mr. REMNICK: Well, I think in some ways, but I think they may recede in terms of the problems that he's got to face most immediately. A half-wrecked economic system, a recession, an entire auto industry in the brink of bankruptcy, two wars abroad, and you know the litany. I'm not sure that race is absolutely on the forefront of what he's got to deal with in the first hundred days of his presidency.

On the other hand, I think there will be a lot of disappointed people around, and not only African-Americans. They'll be quite disappointed if at some point that he doesn't address race and some of the problems that have gone - traditionally gone along with it sooner or later. I think that - for example if racial profiling is never addressed by a black president, it seems to me that that would be an omission, that would be quite glaring and certainly not - that's just one example of many.

STEWART: David Remnick is editor of The New Yorker magazine. He joined us from our New York bureau. You can read his essay at our website, npr.org/blogofthenation. Very nice to speak with you, David.

Mr. REMNICK: Great talking to you.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: And before we sign off today, a sad update on a story that we talked about last week. Motl Brody, the 12-year-old boy in the middle of a court fight over the legal definition of life has died. Doctors declared the boy legally brain dead on November 4th but his parents sued the hospital. He was on life support and based on their religious views, their son was still alive. After a fight with brain cancer, Motl Brody's heart stopped beating early Saturday morning. He was buried near his home in Brooklyn.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Alison Stewart.

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