The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

by David Rem­nick, Al­fred A. Knopf/Ran­dom House, 656 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Wil­liam W. Wa­ters

If it weren’t for his phe­nom­e­nal sub­ject, a reader could be equally awed by the author: How did David Rem­nick, who as edi­tor of The New Yorker has turned it into our nation’s finest — per­haps, by de­fault, only — news­magazine, find time to put the pres­i­dent’s story into such com­pelling prose?

Rem­nick is a guy whose weekly-dead­line writ­ing is un­fail­ingly de­light­ful; whose lead­er­ship of his mag­a­zine amounts to an im­prove­ment on what many of its read­ers have long con­sid­ered per­fec­tion. Po­lit­i­cal re­port­ing, and ed­i­to­ri­al­iz­ing — in­clud­ing the pub­li­ca­tion’s first for­mal pres­i­den­tial en­dorse­ment, John Kerry in 2004 — have be­come can’t-put-down read­ing.

Just last month, the mag­a­zine pro­filed Supreme Court Jus­tice John Paul Stevens as the cur­tain­raiser on his re­tire­ment; since then, for­eign cor­re­spon­dence has given the mag­a­zine’s read­ers up-close-and-per­sonal in­sight on African and Balkan in­trigue. Week in and week out, it rarely fails to en­ter­tain and ed­ify. And what­ever rep­u­ta­tion

The New Yorker may have as pet pub­li­ca­tion of the hoity-toity, it’s be­come must read­ing for hoi pol­loi. Its cov­er­age of the 2008 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign was su­perb, es­pe­cially in terms of per­sonal and po­lit­i­cal in­sights and, above all, per­spec­tive. So who would be sur­prised to see so much of the same in Rem­nick’s book of “bi­o­graph­i­cal jour­nal­ism”?

Framed by Obama’s glob­ally al­loyed fam­ily of Kenyan and Kansan back­ground, this is the pres­i­den­tial por­trait in prose many of us have been dy­ing for and didn’t know it. With­out so much as a nod to the right-wing howlers about Obama’s cit­i­zen­ship, the Hawai­ian birth cer­tifi­cate comes up with no more fan­fare than any other pub­lic record; it’s only the start of the child’s to­tally log­i­cal, if ex­otic, back­ground, and it slides across the con­scious­ness with the author’s hall­mark un­der­state­ment. Where Rem­nick cues in the trum­pets is with the build­ing of a case that Hawaii was the ideal place for his sub­ject’s up­bring­ing: Obama went to the pres­ti­gious pri­vate Pu­na­hou School, its cam­pus walled off from lo­cal louts, and he was com­fort­able with the laid­back, tol­er­ant, and di­verse is­land cul­ture.

It would be the per­fect early train­ing ground — and Oc­ci­den­tal Col­lege in Los An­ge­les the ideal tran­si­tion point for the poised young man on his way up. Rem­nick re­cap­tures Obama’s stu­dent days in re­mark­ably low-key terms, and he doesn’t flinch from men­tion­ing, and even quot­ing him on, his youth­ful flir­ta­tions with drugs, soft and less so.

Columbia Uni­ver­sity fol­lowed, and Har­vard Law was next, with a par­al­lel ma­tur­ing process in some­thing called “com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ing.” The grass-roots and door-to-door ex­po­sure to the dif­fi­cul­ties of life faced by mil­lions here and in the Third World was the an­neal­ing oven for early Peace Corps vol­un­teers and those in the do­mes­tic VISTA pro­gram, grist for a gen­er­a­tion and more of ide­al­ists.

Obama found a call­ing, and a home, on Chicago’s no­to­ri­ously rough, in­dus­tri­ally tainted South Side. A cam­paign to clean up as­bestos even­tu­ally got re­sults — and led the baby-faced kid, who joined the law fac­ulty of the nearby Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, to­ward greater chal­lenges. They in­cluded elec­tion to Illi­nois’ Se­nate — fol­lowed by a dis­as­trous and po­ten­tially ca­reer-end­ing cam­paign for Congress against for­mer Black Pan­ther Bobby Rush, who trounced him two to one. He re­sumed his ca­reer a sad­der, wiser man — but he soon be­came a supremely lucky one, win­ning a U.S. Se­nate cam­paign in 2004 when his Repub­li­can ri­val, rid­den by a sex scan­dal, dropped out af­ter the pri­mary.

His Se­nate term only half­way com­plete, Obama, if not his nation, was once again for­tu­nate: the Bush-Cheney White House, with two wars, tax cuts for the rich, and en­cour­age­ment of cap­i­tal­ist piracy, had pushed our coun­try to the brink of de­pres­sion. A Demo­cratic can­di­date would look good — and who bet­ter than Barack Obama?

Obama, af­ter all, was a Demo­cratic dar­ling af­ter his speech at the party’s 2004 con­ven­tion — the one chaired by New Mex­ico’s Gov. Bill Richardson. The high-achiev­ing Obama’s tra­jec­tory was a sharp one — and be­fore the nation could catch its col­lec­tive breath, he was in the White House.

Rem­nick makes much of his sub­ject as ben­e­fi­ciary of the civil-rights move­ment. He ends his tale, as he be­gan it, with John Lewis — yes, that John Lewis, a key fig­ure in the 1965 protest at the bridge in Selma, Alabama, and lately in the news as one of the Con­gres­sional Black Cau­cus mem­bers who, dur­ing the health­care fra­cas, got treated as he had in the Deep South 45 years ago. Lewis asks the new pres­i­dent for his au­to­graph on In­au­gu­ra­tion Day. Done: “Be­cause of you, John. Barack Obama.” A pin­point pirou­ette by a jour­nal­is­tic dance mas­ter.

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