Early on in his massive new biography of Barack Obama, cryptically titled The Bridge, David Remnick quotes Bob Dylan on the president: “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real” (41). This comes, of course, from a man who clearly knows a thing or two about (self-) mythologizing, and he’s right. There is something unearthly and unbelievable about our president, something that makes his allies and admirers want to lavish praises (and major prizes, apparently) upon him but makes his opponents distrust him. The story may, in fact, be too good to be true.
Remnick’s task in writing The Bridge seems to be twofold: (a) he wants to deflate the myth by giving Obama to use through the eyes of his friends, family, and classmates; and (b) he wants to increase the power of the myth by presenting Obama as the spiritual heir of the Civil Rights movement—born, as it were, to be the proof of the freedom Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought and died for. This Civil Rights connection explains the book’s title, which references the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma Alabama, location of the famous “Bloody Sunday” protest.
Remnick seeks to accomplish these two contradictory purposes by a single technique: Tell the whole story in all its magnificent, sweeping grandeur, and in all its minute, personal detail. The technique is, I suppose, not too far off from that of the Gospels (we get Matthew’s genealogies and Mark’s details, like the pillow the disciples put under Christ’s head as He sleeps in the boat). But I don’t want to accuse Obama of Messianic pretensions—beyond the standard presidential egotism—or Remnick of putting him in Elijah’s chair at Passover, so let’s say that The Bridge comes from the same mindset that produces those twenty-page articles at the center of Remnick’s New Yorker. The difference is that Remnick is a more engaging writer than many people in his employ, and so you probably won’t give up abruptly after three paragraphs, skipping ahead to James Wood or David Denby.
This is also the technique of at least one other journalistic biography written by Remnick—his excellent book on Muhammed Ali, King of the World. That book begins with the very long stories of Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson and goes several chapters without more than a cursory mention of Cassius Clay. Likewise, in The Bridge, we receive education-in-miniature on the Civil Rights movement, Kenyan activist Tom Mboya, Chicago politics, race in the White House, and the American slave narrative—among many other topics.
The effect, of course, is to present Obama’s presidency as the logical conclusion of all of these movements. It is safe to say, then, that Remnick accomplishes purpose (b) far more successfully than he does purpose (a). If we feel we know Barack Obama at the end of The Bridge, it is in the way we feel we know Odysseus or Huck Finn or Rabbit Angstrom—the personal relationship we are able to have with purely fictional characters. The quotes from people who know Obama that are sprinkled liberally through this book can’t quite shatter our sense that he is beyond knowing; they are less likely to change the reader’s mind about Obama and more likely to prop up whatever his or her preconceptions were—good or bad.
Which is not to say that Remnick is non-partisan. At times, The Bridge seems calculated to respond to specific claims and criticisms from its subject’s political adversaries on the Right, mostly without mentioning them by name. Thus, Remnick takes much of a chapter to explain what, exactly, a community organizer does (turns out it’s much more hands-on and street-level than being the mayor of Wasilla, Alaska); he quotes colleague John Owens as saying, contra Glenn Beck, that Obama “was concerned about being fair about whites as well as about blacks” (140); and a supervisor, Eileen Hershenov, remarks that “what [Obama] was pushing was not something tied to identity politics or some sort of ‘cool’ Marxist, Gramsci, theory-oriented thing” (121). Remnick also mentions, quite casually, that “Barack Hussein Obama was born at 7:24 p.m. on August 4, 1961, at Kapi’olani Medical Center, in Honolulu” (55). Conservatives should receive these corrections gracefully—though I fear that Beck, Palin, and the so-called “Birthers” will not—if only because genuine critique involves speaking the whole truth.
On the other hand, this implicitly defensive tone can make The Bridge sound like an apology—or worse, a political hagiography. One gets bogged down, after nearly 600 pages, by the sheer number of times Remnick tells us—or quotes somebody else telling us—some variation of the following:
Obama was never remotely a radical; as a student, lawyer, professor, and politician he had always been a gradualist—liberal in spirit, cautious in nature. Obama was disingenuous when he described [Bill] Ayers merely as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” but the idea that they were ever close friends or shared political ideas was preposterous. (547)
To counteract the tide of praise and defense, then, Remnick gives us the occasional critique of Obama. One of the more entertaining of these comes from the insufferable, radical Havard Law professor Roberto Unger, whose style, a combination of stiltedness and haughtiness, will be familiar to anyone who has wandered into graduate school in the humanities:
Obama’s manner in dealing with other people and acting in the world fully exemplifies the cheerful impersonal friendliness—the middle distance—that marks American sociability. (Now allow me to speak as a critic. Remember Madame de Staël’s meetings that deprive us of solitude without affording us company? Or Schopenhauer’s porcupines, who shift restlessly from getting cold at a distance to prickling one another at close quarters, until they settle into some acceptable compromise position?) The cheerful impersonal friendliness serves to mask recesses of loneliness and secretiveness in the American character, and no less with Obama than with anyone else. He is enigmatic—and seemed so as much then as now—in a characteristically American way.
Moreover, he excelled at the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class and serves as the supreme object of education in the top prep schools: how to cooperate with your peers by casting on them a spell of charismatic seduction, which you nevertheless disguise under a veneer of self-depreciation and informality. (186)
Unger comes off as so unlikeable, however, that his criticism rolls right off of Obama’s back; if this guy doesn’t like him, the reader thinks, then he must be all right. (Indeed, Unger seems to have foreseen this, and tells Remnick that he refused to talk to the press during the campaign because “I am a leftist and, by conviction as well as by temperament, a revolutionary. . . . Any association of mine with Barack Obama in the course of the campaign could do only harm” ).
Other critiques come from two leaders of the African-American intelligentsia, namely the Princeton professor Cornel West and the television- and radio-talk-show host Tavis Smiley, both of whom were slow to endorse Obama during the democratic primaries because they perceived him as less than fully interested in the African-American community. As West put it at the time, “Obama is a very decent, brilliant charismatic brother . . . The problem is, is that he’s got folk who are talking to him who warrant our distrust. . . . I want to know, how deep is your love for the people?” (473). West and Smiley both eventually come around to Team Obama, though, signifying either that their concerns are unimportant or that Obama eventually began fulfilling any obligation he had to his race.
Remnick himself is remarkably slow to criticize Obama—a fact that I don’t think points to journalistic objectivity, as I will demonstrate in a moment. He points out several half-truths that came from Obama’s podium. For example, in a speech in Selma during the primaries, Obama claimed that “I’m here because somebody marched” on Bloody Sunday, to which Remnick notes that “Obama was born four years before Bloody Sunday” (21). But these corrections seem meant to point to a higher truth: It doesn’t matter that Obama wasn’t telling the truth, strictly speaking; he was telling a higher truth because who he is is the product of the Civil Rights movement. Obama’s critics will likely roll their eyes at this implied defense on Remnick’s part.
In fact, the first genuine criticism of Obama in Remnick’s voice came, at my count, 226 pages into the book, when the author refers to his subject’s “considerable ego [that] often clashed with Michelle’s desire for stability and a sense of partnership.” On the other hand, just two pages later, Remnick has editor Henry Ferris praising Obama’s “sturdy ego” (228)—so again, the criticism is quickly defused.
Remnick is less ready to pardon Obama’s political opponents, and the sections where he speaks from their points of view feel far less magnanimous; it is at these spots that he sounds most partisan. After Obama’s well-publicized falling-out with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for example, we’re told a heartbreaking story from Wright’s perspective of death threats and a ruined family vacation. On the other hand, we leave Wright at the end of the chapter (“The Book of Jeremiah,” naturally) feeling glad to have left him behind; Remnick paints him as one step above a deranged street prophet, screaming about past racial injustice in stark contrast to the conciliatory Obama. I couldn’t help but feel that Wright was “thrown under the bus” by Remnick, too.
Hillary Clinton gets a good deal of praise and sympathy for her and her husband’s years of service to and popularity in the African-American community, and yet she and her campaign are portrayed as crafty and scheming, constantly trying to find a way to undermine Obama’s obvious otherness without obviously calling him an outsider. Obviously, Remnick had access to the interior of the Clinton campaign that the rest of us couldn’t possibly hope to duplicate, so we may have to take his word for it here—and yet I found myself wondering how Clinton viewed the section on her campaign.
John McCain, it turns out, is not a bad guy; Remnick praises him for his campaign against George W. Bush in 2000 but portrays him as a sad and helpless man caught in the ugly wheels of political machinery. “It seemed obvious,” he says, referring to the McCain campaign’s use of negative ads, “that McCain felt distaste, or worse, for what he . . . was doing in the name of electoral advantage” (542). There is a hint of condescension in Remnick’s portrayal of McCain—here’s a man who stood in the way of Fate.
Remnick mostly avoids talking about Sarah Palin, but when he finally gets around to it, he offers none of the commiseration that he gave—patronizing or otherwise—to Obama’s other political adversaries. Palin was, in fact, McCain’s final humiliation in a campaign destined to destroy his credibility not just as a politician but as a human being:
Privately, McCain’s aides knew that they had done themselves enormous injury by nominating Sarah Palin. She had proved herself so wildly undereducated in the affairs of the country and the world, so willing to say or do anything as long as she attracted attention, that it made McCain look weak and, worse, cynical. . . . It is unclear that another Vice-Presidential nominee would have helped McCain avoid losing—not in the midst of an economic free-fall with a weak, unpopular Republican President in the White House—but she did help him lose ingloriously. She behaved erratically, heedlessly, and McCain did nothing to stop her. By giving himself over to her rhetoric, by failing to put an end to the sort of smears she reveled in, McCain had forfeited some part of what he valued most in himself—his sense of honor. (555)
I am no great fan of Sarah Palin, but considering that the section on the actual 2008 election is so short, Remnick’s time might have been better spent talking about Obama’s method and successes than kicking dirt into the face of the losers.
The most interesting part of the book for me was the description of Obama’s long formal education, first at Occidental, then at Columbia and Harvard. He was no great student at Occidental, but got serious when he went to Columbia and lived, we’re told, like a monk. He also took a class with noted Postcolonial Theorist Edward Said. It didn’t stick. Obama’s college buddy Phil Boerner tells us that Obama “would rather read Shakespeare’s plays than the criticism.” Obama himself refers to Said—whose Orientalism, once a standard of Theory syllabuses, has come under enormous fire in the last few years—“as a ‘flake’” (113). Skeptics of critical theory, rejoice.
Anecdotes like these make The Bridge worth reading for anyone with more than a passing interest—pro or con—in its subject matter, but it has two main problems, as I see them. First, the reader grows weary of hearing that Obama is, as Remnick puts it in one of his many variations on the theme, “multilingual, a shapeshifter” (18). We hear this over and over again, both from Remnick’s narrative voice and from the people he interviews. “Barack is the interpreter,” says a friend from Harvard. “To be a good interpreter means you need fluency in two languages, as well as cultural fluency on both sides” (190).
This is most definitely what liberals would like Obama to be, and we heard about it nearly ad nauseum during the campaign. That it has certainly not proven true on the national stage may point more to obstinacy in certain Republican circles than to delusion among Obama’s friends and acquaintances—but it certainly makes The Bridge’s repeated insistence on this facet of his personality ring less than true.
The second problem is related to the first and is more serious. The vision of Obama Remnick puts forward is remarkably similar to the one put forward by Obama and his handlers—not hagiographic, mind you, but perhaps a little too eager to accept the official facts at face value.
Of course, Remnick is not an investigative reporter and has not, to the best of my knowledge, ever claimed to be one. But his unwillingness to dig a little deeper makes The Bridge, for all its thoroughness, a little toothless. It reveals a hole in the political publishing world, a need for another sort of book: a critical biography by a writer who is nevertheless sympathetic to Obama’s person and politics.
It is unfair, however, to condemn an author for what he hasn’t sought to do, and given Remnick’s clear purpose, he has written a worthwhile book that inhabits the uneasy space between biography and puff piece—but learning more toward the former.