Commentary Magazine

The Bridge, by David Remnick

The Bridge: The Life and
Rise of Barack Obama

By David Remnick
Knopf, 672 pages

Right from the start, there is something odd about David Remnick’s The Bridge. It’s hardly a surprise that a first-out-of-the-gate account of Barack Obama’s ascent to the presidency would be a glowing, broadly hagiographical effort. No, the peculiarity is evident in its awkward subtitle. It’s not about the life and times, we’re told, but the “life and rise.”

Meaning what? What does it mean to write a biography, particularly one of a prominent politician, that considers his “life” as something distinct from his “rise”? Does that mean that he first completed his “life”—and after all, this is a man who wrote two autobiographical books by the age of 45—and then began his “rise”? Might that be taking the messianic bit a little too far?

Or does it imply that Obama’s chief work has already been accomplished symbolically, by his election to the presidency, and that his actual performance in the office of president is of less interest or importance? Remnick very nearly says just that, at the end of his long and often frustratingly nebulous book: “One year after the 2008 election it was fair to wonder whether the most profound moment of the Obama era would be its first,” meaning the Inauguration.

Remnick has produced a composite entity that is part mythological epic, part self-creation agon, and part Teddy White–lite political narrative of the presidential campaign. The last is the least valuable of these, a rehash of familiar tales—the Iowa caucuses, the South Carolina primary, the Reverend Wright controversy—with little new material or fresh insight provided. But the other two parts are more interesting and worth looking at more closely.

Remnick presents Obama not only as the “bridge” between past and present of the civil-rights movement of the post–World War II era and the embodiment of a “Joshua generation” of new black leaders who have inherited the mantle of the older ones, but also as the redeemer of the American project and overcomer of the long history of Western colonialism. Remnick’s rhetoric in such passages often resembles an earnest voice-over in an inspirational documentary for middle schoolers. “This is how it began,” he intones, “the telling of a story that changed America. … He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness.”

But The Bridge is not all mythology. In our therapeutic age, some inner conflict and vulnerability are required to fill out the mythic picture and make it believably human. So another of the book’s paths follows the process by which Obama created a coherent identity for himself out of the bits and pieces of a notably fractured life, including his experiences of displacement and fatherlessness and mixed-race uncertainty that formed such pervasive and powerful themes in Obama’s first book, Dreams from My Father. Remnick’s retelling of this story adds new material but basically underscores the point that Obama’s black identity was far more chosen than ascriptive.

Obama was in many respects a child of privilege whose maternal grandparents provided him with the secure and comfortable home that his parents were incapable of providing and who, as a student at the exclusive Punahou School in Hawaii, could take his pick of elite colleges to attend. Remnick even strongly suggests, though never quite asserts—a technique he employs constantly—that Obama found it useful in later years to exaggerate the racial struggles of his Hawaii years. In fact, his classmates and teachers at the Punahou School remember him as an easygoing, affable, equable, and popular fellow, mainly interested in sports. His portrayal in Dreams of Punahou as a place of intense struggle and existential angst over questions of racial identity was a surprise and a shock to them.

What happened in the intervening years is that Obama came to understand that he could fashion his somewhat unusual and disordered background into something useful, “an emblematic story,” an exemplum of America writ small. “Obama proposed,” writes Remnick, “to be the first president who represented the variousness of American life,” a virtuoso of mutability who embodied all things to all people and who could “change styles without relinquishing his genuineness.”

For example, Remnick claims, he “subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience.” Running for the U.S. Senate from his adoptive state of Illinois, he could speak with equal effectiveness to businessmen in the Chicago Loop and to the members of a downstate VFW chapter and to a black congregation on the South Side. “Obama,” Remnick observes, “is multi-lingual, a shape-shifter” who reflects back to voters what they wish to see in him. Or, as the Chicago Tribune’s Don Terry observed more bluntly, writing during Obama’s 2004 Senate campaign, “he’s a Rorschach test,” a characterization that Obama himself liked enough that he took to repeating it. Remnick leaves us in no doubt of the colossal scope of Obama’s personal ambition from his earliest years. But “the urge to see something large in Obama,” the widespread excitement about his candidacy, was also something generated in the eyes of the beholders.

Left unanswered, though, in Remnick’s highly sympathetic analysis is the identity of the man behind this kaleidoscope of varied self-presentations. Even the multilingual have a first language. What’s his? What does his primary shape look like? What comes across in Remnick’s account is a remarkably self-contained and self-consciously constructed man, cool to the point of coldness, who almost never acts without calculation, who moves gracefully through a multitude of situations without revealing himself, and whose artifice is so skillful that it extends even to the flawless simulation of easy naturalness. Even high compliments paid to him may bear an unintended critical edge. One of his great admirers, Robert Putnam of Harvard, put it this way after getting to know him over three years of seminars at the Kennedy School: “Obama is the same person all the time. When we see him in public, it is not a face he is putting on—it’s him. There is no mask, or at least the mask is so well integrated in his life that it’s disappeared” [emphasis added]. How revealing, that an intelligent and sympathetic observer could not tell whether Obama was a completely natural man or a completely artificial one.

However one answers that question about Obama’s “first language,” it seems that the culture of American elite higher education has to be ranked very high among his formative influences. Most of our recent presidents have had elite educational credentials, but none has been so fully an intellectual and moral product of that world. Punahou, Occidental College, Columbia, Harvard, the University of Chicago—these are the places where he spent the bulk of his formative and adult years. These are places from which he draws all his ideas. He is the candidate from Hyde Park in almost every way imaginable, with attitudes faithfully reflecting those of the post-1968 academy on the Middle East, environmental policy, education, health care, abortion, capitalism, disarmament, affirmative action, multiculturalism, and so on. And given not only his race but also his irenic manner, his resonant baritone voice, and his gift for the production of a steady flow of thoughtful speech, Obama was sure to find favor in elite academia, if not a home sufficient unto his ambitions. Still, if one is looking for first languages and bedrock premises in Obama, the elite academy seems like the place to start. Remnick does not do so.

Remnick simply glosses over many, many of the most contentious elements in Obama’s biography, so that readers who are looking either for refutations or confirmations of their more controversial doubts about Obama will not find the book very satisfying. One hardly blames him for refusing to engage the “birther” question, but there are other lingering issues that he might have addressed fruitfully in the context of a biography. Remnick doesn’t engage the issue of Obama’s own possible Muslim influences or links, derived from his grandfather (and possibly his father) or from his attendance at a Muslim school in Indonesia. He is unhelpful in explaining why we know almost nothing about Obama’s grades and academic transcripts. He is uninterested in knowing how Obama could have sat in Reverend Wright’s church for 20 years, been married by Wright, seen Wright baptize his daughters, borrowed his rhetorical tropes endlessly, and testified to his profound and enduring influence, and yet been unaware of the radical and nasty things that Wright sometimes preached from the pulpit. He is uninterested in the reasons why Obama voted “present” more than a hundred times in the Illinois state Senate, and downplays to the vanishing point Obama’s relationship with the former Weatherman Bill Ayers.

The last of these raises the question of his very partial treatment of the history of Obama’s first book. “There is no underestimating,” Remnick claims on page 420, “the importance of Dreams from My Father in the political rise of Barack Obama.” (I think he meant “overestimating.”) And yet questions about its provenance linger in the air. The bare outlines of the story are well known. When Obama was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, an enterprising literary agent approached him with the idea of his writing a memoir. She arranged for a contract and a $125,000 advance. But Obama was unable to pull together a publishable manuscript, despite a month-long sojourn in Bali, and the contract was canceled.

The same agent persisted and procured another contract with a smaller advance, from a publisher run by the journalist Peter Osnos. With heavy editorial assistance, Obama’s “bloated, yet incomplete drafts” were transformed into a publishable book that enjoyed a minor success. But after Obama’s 2004 Democratic Convention keynote address, sales of the book went through the roof. Eager to cash in on his suddenly improved prospects, Obama summarily dumped his agent and hired attorney Robert Barnett to negotiate a $2 million book deal with Crown. To his credit, Remnick reports this as well as Peter Osnos’s words of lamentation: “I just wish that this virtuous symbol of America’s aspirational class did not move quite so smoothly into a system of riches as a reward for service, especially before it has actually been rendered.” (Shades of the Nobel Peace Prize!)

While Remnick dutifully publishes Osnos’s remark, he nevertheless refuses to assimilate it into his account of his subject—a strange thing to do with an item whose importance “there is no underestimating.” Such behavior by Obama was not illegal, merely shabby and ungrateful, particularly coming from a man who now lectures those of his countrymen he believes have “made enough money.” And, to stress the very point Remnick makes, it involves a series of transactions that are, ultimately, at the heart of his political rise. Taking fuller account of this action does not have to be the whole story on Obama. But it is surely part of the story, and for a man who “rose” through the swamps of Chicago politics, a far bigger part than Remnick’s idealized account allows.

What we look for in a truly distinguished biography is the shape of a human life, and presumably of a life as it was lived, rather than a life viewed in prospect. We look to see whether it gives us a plausible picture of a person, an account in which the parts fit together in a way that makes sense, and the sequence of events have a structural and psychological logic to them. Do we feel, after having read the biography, that we know the subject better, better understand the forces that formed him, and better understand how he played the cards he had been dealt by life, and why he played them one way rather than another? Can we see the ways in which the achievements and disappointments of maturity are prefigured in the experiences of youth?

In all these respects, The Bridge falls woefully short of the mark. Just as there has proved to be shockingly little continuity between the careful, moderate, and pragmatic centrism on which Obama campaigned and the radical, feckless changes in domestic and foreign policy that his administration has unceremoniously rammed down the throats of the American people, so there is little connection between the thoughtful, open-minded, conciliatory, unifying, and inspiring figure in Remnick’s mythic construction of Obama and the arrogant, peremptory, and polarizing leader that Obama has proved to be. In short, one could not have imagined the presidency that we now have emerging from anything that Remnick’s book tells us about Obama.

What he has written is best described as a campaign biography. Unfortunately, as Obama informed John McCain during the health-care debate in 2010, the campaign is over.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Bank Chair of Excellence in Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He reviewed Robert Wistrich’s A Lethal Obsession in our March issue.

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