The New Yorker editor returns to his roots as a reporter with a new biography of Barack Obama. Read the full transcript of his conversation with Tina Brown about what Obama left out of his memoirs.
Tina Brown: So David, all the millions, thousands, hundreds of words that have been written about Obama—at what point did you say to yourself 'I'm going to add to my labors as the editor of The New Yorker,' and go out and write a book about Obama?
David Remnick: I think I had to…
Tina Brown: What did you, what was there that you didn't think had been…
David Remnick: Well, I had to convince myself that we didn't know everything from a memoir. And we don't. And it's a terrific memoir, maybe a little at this point overrated and valorized for political reasons rather than literary reasons, but you do some reporting after awhile and you realize that this is a highly shaped, not a false, but a highly shaped notion of reality.
Tina Brown: You do a whole chapter where you compare and contrast Obama's memoir with what you are finding as a reporter. What were the major discrepancies, areas of, shall we say self-mythologizing you might have come across?
David Remnick: He's telling a story about himself. I don't think he's a liar. What he's doing, he's shaping his story. There are three parts to the memoir, each one ends with him weeping. Which—it may be difficult to imagine Barack Obama crying, not to be cynical about it at all because he's such a cool public figure. He ends with it crying in a church where he finds his faith, when he comes to his reconciliation with his father. It's a dramatized, literary work, with real characters in it, but dialogue that's helped along, characters that are conflated, names that are changed. That's not journalism. That's not scholarship, it’s a different thing.
Tina Brown: Well, no, to be honest you could say that, were he to be exposed, as it were, as in James Frey...
David Remnick: But he exposed himself, Tina. I mean, he says in his preface 'I've done this, this and this.' And so I'm OK with it. Both as an editor and as a reader, as long as the writer indicates what he or she is up to.
Tina Brown: Would you have been OK with it if it had appeared in The New Yorker, though, would you have said 'this is OK?' Because I don't think that you would have done.
David Remnick: Well, I think if you indicate to the reader what you're up to? Then you can begin to imagine publishing it. I'd hate to think that we couldn't publish some section of Obama's memoir, but the reader would have to know what he or she was getting.
Tina Brown: I mean, nonetheless your portrait of Obama in Hawaii, for instance, he was a pretty happy kid, it seems, in Hawaii. I mean it seems that he…
David Remnick: In some sense.
Tina Brown: No one can really remember the angst-ridden Obama of the memoir in a sense. He does seem to have ramped up the kind of racial tension angst.
David Remnick: I don't know, I think a lot of the angst is internal. And a lot of adolescents aren't quick to give away what they are internally. The pain, or the fact that he's growing up in a essentially a white household, white grandparents with an absent mother, a completely mythological, absent father about whom he knows nothing about, very little about. And, you know he's an OK student, he's smokin’ some weed, he's drinking, he's getting Bs in his courses, he's not Barack Obama, the super meritocrat that hits Harvard Law School.
Tina Brown: Actually I was surprised at how irritating I found his mother. In the book. In fact, if I were writing a biography of Obama, I might have called it 'Dreams Of My Mother' because, I think, oddly enough, we've all focused on the missing father but to me the mother, who when he's in his adolescence decides to up and go back to Indonesia to study, you know, the craftsmanship of blacksmiths in Indonesia.
David Remnick: But he's irritated with her, too.
Tina Brown: It's pretty darn irritating.
David Remnick: He adores her. He does not paint her fully. And I think that she, you may be irritated with her as a character and as a mother up-and-going and another audience may call her highly independent. She was who she was.
Tina Brown: Well, I mean, here's a kid who didn't have a father, and suddenly the mother's gone, too. That must have been very wounding for Obama.
David Remnick: Clearly.
Tina Brown: And I wonder whether we've under-heard really about the scar that the mother, absconding frankly at that time for her higher issues, as it were.
David Remnick: He's a little chippy about her in the memoir. You know, he makes fun of her attempts to give her-give him some racial identity for example, via slipping to him of Mahalia Jackson records or certain books. He's kind of makes her out to look like a kind of a pie-eyed idealist. She's more complex than that, and you know I see her a little bit differently than you might, I saw her as very attractive in many ways, but she is absolutely not present for key years of his life.
Tina Brown: And clearly it's one factor in the Michelle attraction, here is this powerful, stable, grounded woman who's not going to run off with blacksmiths in Indonesia.
David Remnick: No, absolutely not. She is—I think she's the key to a lot of things. Without getting into, you know, psychobabble, she is—she comes from a stable, African-American, South Side of Chicago family, she is the epitome of what he seemed to be looking for. He dated lots of women, although I have to say, you know it's not like it was my first goal to find girlfriends and have them fess up, but what I do know about it, and what I did print, you know—that was not his primary interest in every moment.
Tina Brown: Well, I was fascinated with that, but here's a super-cool guy, very attractive, very much you know a sort of hipster in a funny way—where are the girls?
David Remnick: A super-lothario he was not.
Tina Brown: I mean have they just cleaned up the girls so much and shut them down from talking because it seems weird to me that there's not one girlfriend, I mean you do refer to the white anthropology student that he dated. Did you find her? Did you talk to her?
David Remnick: No, no. I think and to be fair, you know, as energetic as a reporter as I try to be, they did not make themselves known.
Tina Brown: Was it hard to get him to cooperate with this book?
David Remnick: Very. I think their interest in history writing—well look what can go wrong, all the things that can go wrong. The things that can be dug up.
Tina Brown: Well many of the things that can go wrong is called Bob Woodward, right?
David Remnick: Yeah, and I think Bob is concentrating on Afghanistan and decision-making there. I don't think they're thrilled, even in a book that's on-on overall positive, I think in most people's eyes, namely mine, that they're thrilled to see Jeremiah Wright interviewed at tremendous length, and have nasty things to say and even suggest that people from the Obama circle offered him money, I don't know whether to believe Jeremiah Wright on this.
Tina Brown: Did you give him the equivalent of a White House screening and hand-deliver the first proof of the book to him.
David Remnick: Absolutely not. Absolutely not.
Tina Brown: Do you know if he's read it?
David Remnick: I don't. And I sent copies to David Axelrod's assistant a day before publication, two days before publication. I don't like that cozy stuff. It can only lead to bad impression and bad realities.
Tina Brown: So, why did you say that the audiobook of Dreams of My Father might be of greater interest than the printed version?
David Remnick: Cause he's a great mimic. He's fantastic, he's able to do the church voices, the South of Chicago voices, white voices, African accents, he's pretty good at this. I mean, for somebody who didn't start out without a Ronald Reagan career as an actor, he's pretty brilliant in that audiobook.
Tina Brown: Without that great speech, the landmark speech of the 2004 convention where he made his extraordinary debut, would he be president today, without that moment?
David Remnick: Not so soon. I can't imagine that he'd be president. Not so soon. I mean he certainly would have run for the Senate, he would have gotten to the U.S. Senate. And he made—might have made a name for himself in the much more conventional way that Hillary Clinton and people who had been for a great deal longer, I mean, it is amazing. The guy was a state senator from Illinois, not exactly a high-flown position. He's elected to the Senate in 2004, the next morning, people are asking—with all seriousness—about running for president. He promises he won't do it. The first year he goes on a kind of Hillary-like, concerted effort to be a good colleague. And a year later, he's off to the races. And it all happened to do with a failed Republican Party and the perception that he could do it because of Hillary's vulnerabilities. And it was an incredibly tight race, so...
Tina Brown: Well, also though, I feel, that without that star-power of that moment.
David Remnick: I agree
Tina Brown: I mean we are now a culture that requires media star power. I mean, it's hard to imagine anybody now winning the presidency without enormous charisma and ability to master the telegenic appeal. Because he appeared as a star and he immediately got the sort of media...
David Remnick: Absolutely, but you can have it and then be perceived as empty. I mean, in conventional terms Mitt Romney is somebody that looks great on TV and maybe in an old-fashioned way he has it. But he's—
Tina Brown: David. No, no no no no no no. But he's Bob Forehead. I mean, he really is. I mean, Sarah Palin made that kind of debut.
David Remnick: Yeah.
Tina Brown: I mean her, her arrival with that speech.
David Remnick: Yeah, but I don't think that she can be president. I just don’t.
Tina Brown: Nor do I. But I mean, she had the same, it was a similar kind of, burst out of the box debut.
David Remnick: Right. But she didn't have what went with it. In other words, Obama has 'it'—starpower. But he's got a lot else. Sarah Palin has it, if you like that form of 'it,' and not a hell of a lot else and I think that's perceived even by people who are inclined to agree with her.
Tina Brown: Now you, you really think that, his ability to switch styles is not in any sense him being inauthentic, because he does speak somewhat differently to white audiences, to black audiences, is that you giving him a free pass? Because, after all, when Hillary Clinton goes to Texas and drops her G's, you know, we make fun.
David Remnick: No I was tougher on Hillary about that because she wasn't as good at it. Not because I think that Hillary is a fake. I don't, I admire her a lot, in many, many ways and I think, you know, Obama has many faults. But, Obama is very good at that.
Tina Brown: It really was a lousy break for Hillary though.
David Remnick: Terrible!
Tina Brown: That, you know, his exceptionalism trumped her exceptionalism. I mean, one can only imagine the misery for her.
David Remnick: We're not going argue on that.
Tina Brown: This was just the worst break and somehow I think a lot of women felt it sort of exemplified something that happens to women a lot, particularly, sort of middle-aged women, which is, they're toiling away, and then some guy in the corner office who walks the walk and talks the talk and he's great at the present, comes in and like gets the top job. There was something about that that really pissed women off.
David Remnick: Yeah, it was harder for her to make that argument, this particular woman. It was harder for Hillary to make that argument because she also had to deal with the spouse problem.
Tina Brown: Right. It was considerable.
David Remnick: You know, how did she become a senator from the state of New York? I mean, it's so tied up in craziness that neither one could talk about this stuff. I mean, how is Hillary going talk about this when the main opponent is African American, are we going to start comparing suffering? Comparing, being shut out of the processes of American life?
Tina Brown: How do you think that their relationship is really working, now? I mean, I know that there is great respect, obviously from Obama, because I think he does really respect hard work, actually and I think he does respect, I'm sure you know this, that her discipline, her willingness to just, work. But—how do you think this dynamic is playing out? Was it a good move for her to become secretary of State?
David Remnick: It was a brilliant move for him.
Tina Brown: Well, we know that, he boxed her out.
David Remnick: Politically, he now has somebody inside the tent, and there's never going be any question of a Kennedy vs. Carter-type run. I think it worked for her, too.
Tina Brown: She’s been very much, kind of, kept in her box. I mean, it's been a brilliant containment in a sense, of both Clintons, because…
David Remnick: The Secretary of State is a very important thing. It's not that she's in a box somewhere. She's the Secretary of State. But clearly, foreign policy is being made in the West Wing. That's not always the case in a presidency.
Tina Brown: Precisely.
David Remnick: But it's not unique to her.
Tina Brown: It's not unique to her, but it is, must be, I think, it is for her a pretty frustrating in a sense.
David Remnick: Well, newsflash, Barack Obama is a politician. He thinks about these things, too. He was a politician from the first day he ran. There's a language of idealism and there's probably real idealism, but he's a pol.
Tina Brown: I wonder that, how disappointed you might feel right now about Obama as president.
David Remnick: He won, he won.
Tina Brown: He won after a year and a half where so much was given away that…
David Remnick: He won after, he won after an entire post-war period when this couldn't come through, I gave credit a whole bunch of people historically for pushing health-care, including the Clintons, but he won. He won barely. He won on something that was, you know, it might not be a bill that would impress somebody from Western Europe because it's just not complete, it's not single-payer, but he won what was possible to win in the political environment that he's operating in. My disappointments or concerns are in other issues.
Tina Brown: Which are?
David Remnick: Well, for example, right now, many policies having to do with the war on terror are unchanged. Unchanged, from the Bush administration, whether it's wiretapping or the getting rid of Greg Craig from the counsel's office really worrying. I'm concerned about Iran becoming a nation of irrational leaders, with nuclear weapons. And I don't see that we're able to—we're not doing much about it. I am not pro-bombing Iran, I am certainly not pro-Israel bombing Iran, but the capacity to get anywhere near serious sanctions to dissuade Iran from doing this is nowhere.
Tina Brown: Do you think The New Yorker was too soft on him during the race?
David Remnick: I think the media in general was caught up in—understandably—with the drama of having the first African-American president. And I think, you know, nobody had mistakes, Comment at The New Yorker for being objective, Comment, we're talking about the lead editorial. Do I think we were too soft? No. I don't. I don't see a piece that was riddled with inaccuracy or gooeyness. In fact, the piece that told me the most when I was doing my research about Obama as a politician—there were a few, actually, and happily some of them were in The New Yorker. And Ryan Lizza's long piece about him as a politician in Chicago, which was not completely fawning at all, in fact just the opposite, they hated it, showed him as a Chicago pol.
Tina Brown: Did you talk to Obama about the controversial New Yorker cover? That caused so much Sturm und Drang?
David Remnick: We're talking about the cover from last July? No, but look. I think they were prepared to be upset about Ryan's piece which was in that issue. They got the thing, and they freaked out. They thought that was going to be part of the…
Tina Brown: Because in the end as we all know you can run 25,000 words and get no comment at all, and you run a cover everyone goes insane.
David Remnick: And we both know that. And, I thought some of their umbrage was disingenuous. First of all, I know him to be a New Yorker reader, for a long time, in both our times, and before that, and I also know that when other covers have come out, that they kind of liked, the next I thing I know that they want signed copies of it. I take both with a grain of salt.
Tina Brown: Would you do it again?
David Remnick: Yeah.
Tina Brown: Thanks David.
David Remnick: Thanks for having me.