By David Remnick
672 pages | Buy this book
Remnick weaves together the story of Barack Obama’s rootless youth, increasingly rigorous studies, eventual grounding in Chicago, and rapid-fire series of four long-shot elections (five, if you count Harvard Law Review). Remnick’s deep digressions into the history of the civil-rights movement and of political corruption in Chicago elevate Obama’s story to one of fate. If it hadn’t been for Obama’s particular mixed-race background; his choice to make Chicago his home; and his cool approach to racial politics, made possible by the fiery anger of his civil-rights predecessors, Remnick implies, the White House would not today be home to a black man.
What's The Big Deal?
A powerhouse of publishing profiles the nation’s ultimate powerhouse: For news junkies, the Remnick-Obama combination is pure catnip. With its voluminous excerpting of speeches, op-eds, interviews, and Obama’s own books and bolstered by exclusive Oval Office interviews and analysis from aides to rival candidates Hillary Clinton and John McCain, The Bridge will surely go down as the definitive account of the making of the 44th president. And if you think you can get away with just reading the much shorter Dreams From My Father, Remnick reminds you that Obama’s memoir is “a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, recreating, invention, and artful shaping” (page 231). Better to stick with the less murky genre of biography, which, among other advantages, won’t drive you mad trying to decode the pseudonyms.
Buzz Rating: Roar
Despite Remnick being “a journalist other journalists would like to hate,” as Jon Meacham put it in his editor’s note this week, the media response has been beyond fawning. The Bridge has already inspired a Frank Rich column and been praised as “flawless” by the L.A. Times. Drew Bratcher at The Washingtonian says it’s “the most indispensable text on Obama’s personal odyssey since his own Dreams From My Father.”
One-Breath Author Bio
Remnick took over from Tina Brown as editor of The New Yorker 12 years ago, and yes, he kept that up while writing his Obama tome, because apparently he is superhuman.
The Book, In His Words
“Ever since the assassination of King, in April, 1968, and of Robert Kennedy, two months later, the liberal constituencies of America had been waiting for a savior figure. Barack Obama proposed himself … he possessed a worldliness at a time when Americans could sense so many rejecting, even hating, them; he was an embodiment of multiethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority. This was the promise of his campaign, its reality or vain romance, depending on your view” (page 24).
Don't Miss These Bits
1. The great orator wasn’t always so great. Before announcing his candidacy for the Illinois state senate seat that had been occupied by Alice Palmer, Obama spoke to his supporters in 1995 at an informal reception thrown by Bill “palling around with terrorists” Ayers and his wife. It didn’t go well. “ ‘I remember him saying very generic things,’ ” recalled blogger Maria Warren, one of the guests. “ ‘He didn’t generate that much excitement, and a few people were saying, “It’s too bad Alice isn’t going to run for her seat again.” I remember Barack getting kind of defensive and shaking his head’ ” (page 281).
2. In a weekly dollar-ante poker game with fellow state senators, the young Obama “was a cautious player, folding hand after hand, waiting for his moment to bluff or go big on a good hand … Obama’s caution, hidden behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, could be maddening. One Republican, Bill Brady, of Bloomington, told Obama, ‘You’re a socialist with everybody’s money but your own' (page 301). As in the rest of the book, Remnick avoids explicitly drawing a parallel to Obama’s style in the White House, but it seems fair to say that with health care, the president went big.
3. Remnick got through to some of Obama’s associates who kept silent during the election, such as Robert Unger, a Brazilian social theorist with whom Obama took two classes at Harvard Law. Unger says he steered clear of the press earlier because he worried his own “revolutionary” leftist ideas and temperament could hurt the candidate. Now he offers an interesting outsider’s take on what makes Obama such a typically American success. “He is enigmatic,” says Unger, and excels “at the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class … how to cooperate with your peers by casting on them a spell of charismatic seduction, which you nevertheless disguise under a veneer of self-deprecation and informality” (page 186).
4. About that fist bump, Remnick addresses the controversial New Yorker cover on page 543, slightly defensively: “For years, [the illustrator Barry] Blitt had been drawing covers mocking the Bush administration—he and the magazine itself were clearly unsympathetic to the conservative right—but the Obama campaign declared that the cover was in ‘bad taste’ and thousands of people wrote to the magazine, and to me, its editor, in protest” (page 543). But Blitt and Remnick scored one with this cover, which Obama apparently found hilarious.
Remnick slipped in early with the first of many upcoming Obama books. In his column last week, Howard Kurtz ran through the list of political journalists wielding book deals and scrambling for White House access: NEWSWEEK’s Jonathan Alter, NBC’s Chuck Todd, MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and David Maraniss, the New York Times’ Jodi Kantor and Rachel Swarns, and New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza. Wonkette calls it selling out, among other, lewder, accusations.
Swipe This Critique
Remnick’s assiduous attention to context can be a slog. In a manner more befitting a Russian novel, he introduces even the most fringe commentators with their entire family trees. For ardent Obama followers, it’s that depth that makes The Bridge a necessary part of the developing Obama canon. But more casual readers may want to skip over the lesson in Indonesian colonialism (given by way of introducing Obama’s stepfather) or the weirdly long section (pages 125–130) on Hillary Clinton’s college thesis. It’s worth sticking with the lengthy descriptions of the civil-rights era, though, and how its survivors view Obama. Having absorbed that history, you might get a bit weepy at the climactic quote on page 575 from John Lewis the day before Obama’s inauguration, on what would have been Martin Luther King’s 80th birthday: “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” (See how you’re not crying? That’s because you didn’t read through all the historical parts yet.)
Prose: Tight, vivid, and unobtrusive. Clearly Remnick’s an editor who can apply his trade to himself.
Construction: The deftly composed narrative suffers slightly from the awkward inclusion of what’s essentially a 15-page book report on Dreams (pages 235–250).
Miscellaneous: Remnick attributes most quotes using endnotes that aren’t marked as you go. Although that makes for more streamlined copy, it also means it’s harder to know which statements are recent and exclusive to this book, and which are recycled from old articles or TV appearances.