Some have seen Barack Obama as shape-shifter, world-class networker, memoirist, savior or putz.
In The Bridge, David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker magazine and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Lenin’s Tomb, examines Obama’s life before the presidency “and some of the currents that helped to form him.”
For Obama, born on Aug. 4, 1961, to a black exchange student from Kenya and a white Kansas woman living in Hawaii, the currents are many. Remnick traces the political rise and fall of Obama’s father in Kenya after he abandoned his wife and child, the few years Obama lived in Indonesia with his mother and her second husband, and the boy’s return to Hawaii to live with his Kansas grandparents after fourth grade.
His education came at elite schools, including Columbia University and Harvard Law School, where he was the first black president of the Law Review.
Yet Obama avoided the enriching legal and financial stewardships popular in the late 1980s. He went to Chicago’s gritty South Side after Columbia and began honing his networking skills as a street-level community organizer. After Harvard he began the memoir Dreams From My Father, and married Michelle.
In the spring of 1992, he led a highly successful voter-registration drive in Chicago that brought him connections with wealthy Lakefront Liberals, important fund-raising sources.
He won a seat in the state senate and lost badly in a congressional race. He was a lousy speaker: “stentorian, professorial, self-serious — a cake with no leavening,” Remnick writes.
He got better. His dazzling oratorical performance at the Democratic convention in 2004, along with imploding rivals, eased Obama’s way into a Senate seat. There he was bored.
“The job was too small for him,” explains a helpful aide quoted by Remnick.
The book’s title refers to a 1965 confrontation on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, between civil-rights demonstrators and state troopers that turned violent and became known as “Bloody Sunday.” It also alludes to Obama’s role as a link between the generation of Martin Luther King Jr that fought the race wars in the 1960s and the present, when the president stands as perhaps the greatest beneficiary of the struggle.
The book makes the point visually with front endpapers showing a photo of the 1965 face-off and those in the back offering a panoramic shot of the crowds on the Capitol steps for Obama’s inauguration.
Remnick avoids hagiography. He’s keenly familiar with the cult of personality and its perils. His Obama benefits as much from uncommon gifts, hard work and lucky breaks as he does from the missteps and misfortunes of adversaries.
Obama gained most, perhaps, from the extent to which the country had grown desperate for a glimpse of eloquence, intelligence and clarity after years of former US president George W. Bush — whom Remnick delights in denigrating as “a national and personal embarrassment — an incurious, rash, flippant, pampered, dishonest leader.”
Remnick’s epilogue acknowledges that after a year of the Obama presidency, “the sense of dissatisfaction ran deep” for many Americans. For some, so did the sense of absurdity, stirred not only by the national amnesia about how much of a mess Bush bequeathed his successor, but by such moments as Obama being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize not long after committing 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan.
What Remnick brings to a complex story are the tools of an exceptional reporter: persistence, curiosity, insight. He weaves in hours of on-the-record interviews with schoolmates, teachers, mentors, advisers and scholars.
In one, Obama’s University of Chicago Law School colleague Geoffrey Stone, out of frustration, calls Obama a “putz” for choosing politics over a career as a law professor. “‘What a waste,’” Remnick quotes him saying.
The Bridge is rich in such reflections and refractions, as well as lighter moments.
“At times, Obama’s celebrity definitely had an erotic edge to it: The character Grace on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace dreamed that she was in the shower with the new senator from Illinois — and he was ‘Baracking my world!’”
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