The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
by David Remnick, Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 656 pages
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.