News & Politics

Obama Must-Read

David Remnick's book is one of the most indispensable texts on Obama’s personal odyssey.

>>David Remnick is in town this week to discuss his book. For more information, click here

In 2005, when Barack Obama arrived in Washington as a freshman senator from Illinois, reporters wasted no time asking if he would consider a run for President. It was by any measure a preposterous notion at the time. Despite his inspired performance at the 2004 Democratic National Convention and the soaring sales of his memoir, Obama’s legislative bona fides consisted of seven disillusioning years in the Illinois Senate. After a fitful ignition, his US Senate campaign against right-wing demagogue Alan Keyes had been a cakewalk, hardly a crucible for a future shot at the White House.

And then there was the issue of race, our national shame and obsession. As David Remnick asserts in The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, the question of whether white Americans would back a black community organizer with a dubious name was only one of a myriad surrounding Obama’s candidacy. Equally at stake was whether working-class voters would flock to an Ivy League–educated ex-professor raised in Honolulu or if elder African-American figures such as Andrew Young and Al Sharpton would back a restive youngster who was a generation removed from Jim Crow.

How Obama managed to unite and embody those disparate voices to win the presidency forms the spine of Remnick’s narrative, the most indispensable text on Obama’s personal odyssey since his own Dreams From My Father.

The title of Remnick’s book is a double-entendre. The bridges in view are the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama—site of a harrowing 1965 civil-rights march—and Obama himself, who on a campaign stop there positioned himself as the living fruit of his predecessors’ toil.

Remnick writes: “In Selma, Obama prepared to nominate himself as the inheritor of the most painful of all American struggles, the struggle of race: not race as invoked by his predecessors in electoral politics or in the civil-rights movement, not race as an insistence on ethnicity or redress; rather, Obama would make his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress.”

In these pages, Obama emerges as a cool-headed drifter swept along by competing winds of self-actualization, altruism, and ambition. His genius is his life story. His best weapon is his language. His good fortune is the political perfect storm stirred by George W. Bush’s failures.

Since becoming editor of the New Yorker in 1998, Remnick—who covered the fall of the Soviet Union for the Washington Post—has beefed up the magazine’s political reporting, luring young talent like Ryan Lizza and unleashing such vets as Jane Mayer and Steve Coll on consequential beats. Here Remnick makes like a ship captain showing the crew how the heavy shoveling is done. Among his crowded cast of characters: colleagues of Obama’s Kenyan father, the President’s grade-school classmates and college rivals, controversial figures Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, White House colleagues David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, civil-rights legends Joseph Lowery and John Lewis—the latter the Georgia representative who plays Moses to Obama’s Joshua.

These days many have begun to bemoan Obama’s presidency as a party that ended on Election Day. With this book, Remnick proves that the election—and the long American journey leading up to it—is a legacy worth celebrating, no matter your age, color, or cable-news channel of choice.

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