In David Remnick’s epic, exhaustively researched biography of Barack Obama, an insignificant moment reveals his subject in more ways than one. Obama is attending an anti-Iraq war demonstration and the John Lennon staple Give peace a chance is blaring away. He leans over an aide and says, “Can’t they play something else?”
Clearly, the man who went on to become the first black president of the US—a result of sheer hope, talent and charisma—does not believe in the claptrap, rote liberalism of many of his peers. He is a liberal, but suspicious of cant, ideology and polemics.
Rites of passage: Remnick speaks to many critics of Obama (left). Photo: Charles Dharapak/AP; Obama swinging a baseball bat as a child. Photo: Reuters
No wonder Obama has a keen sense of the zeitgeist. In 2005, he wrote a letter to friends and supporters saying that Americans were “suspicious of labels and jargon”. He went on: “They don’t think George Bush is mean-spirited or prejudiced, but have become aware that his administration is irresponsible and often incompetent. They don’t think corporations are inherently evil (a lot of them work for corporations), but they recognize that big business, unchecked, can fix the game to the detriment of working people and small entrepreneurs. They don’t think America is an imperialist brute, but are angry that the case to invade Iraq was best exaggerated.” This is a tone of “insistent reasonableness” which eventually makes Obama one of the least divisive presidents in recent history. At the same time, Obama realized that the mood of the country was changing.
That was not all. Time was on Obama’s side and he seized it, as Remnick’s recounting of his journey shows. America was going through a generational change. The country was growing more diverse, the whites were ageing—among people over 65, the population is around 85% white; the population under 25 is about half white. The whites were changing—a Gallup poll found that 95% of Americans were willing to vote for an African-American for president, up from 37% in the 1930s.
There were significant demographic changes underway too— a dramatic decline in the traditional white working class and rise of the upper middle classes; by 2007 more than half the population had some college education. And then there were the obvious triggers for change—the insurgency in Iraq, the sputtering economy, mismanagement of rescue efforts on the Gulf Coast.
Obama, the outsider, was early to sense the changes. Coming from a multiracial and multi-continental family with a legacy of wanderlust—a Kenyan step-grandmother, a biracial half-brother who speaks Mandarin, a cousin-by-marriage who is an African-American rabbi—Obama grew up with white grandparents and a white mother. His mother was from Kansas, but never really lived there; his father, an African intellectual, was from Kenya. Bob Dylan found Obama a “fictional character, but real”.
A smart, engaging and friendly young man, Obama went to elite schools and received a liberal education. He may have been too young for the 1960s, but he soaked in the narratives of that tumultuous decade—the anti-war movement, civil rights, gay and women’s liberation. “There were not the struggles of Obama’s youth,” writes Remnick, “they were the givens, the environment”. Growing up in Honolulu, thousands of miles away from black America, negotiating his identity was not easy. But Obama immersed himself in African-American culture, listening to Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Miles Davis, reading James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Malcolm X. Along the way he took some “pot, booze and a little blow”. On his first date with Michelle many years later in Chicago, he took her to watch Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing.
The Pulitzer prize-winning Remnick’s interviews with his friends, aides, teachers and mentors reveal Obama as quintessentially cosmopolitan—he’s black without the torment, a mentor tells Remnick. Another friend says, “He’s as white as he is black.” Political pundits find him a world-class networker— negotiating his way up from murky Chicago politics to the presidency networking through lawyers, pastors, mentors, funders. Remnick says he always used the language of reconciliation, rather than of insistence. “He has that charisma—just like Bill Clinton, but without the seediness of Clinton,” says a teacher in Chicago.
His critics, Remnick discovers, find him contrived and calculated—an effete outsider, a product of a rich Jewish “cabal” in Chicago, a “tool of white liberals”. Others find him an “orthodox Democrat”. Joe Klein of Time magazine once wrote that Obama had an “obsessive-compulsive” tendency to serve up “excruciatingly judicious” on-the-one hand, on-the-other, clear-all-decks arguments. Many find his equanimity a form of vanity, a lack of real conviction. When he stood for president, his opponents tried to cast him as a candidate of the elite, a phoney, a neophyte, an outsider.
It didn’t work and Obama crossed the historical bridge. He won the election with 53% of the popular vote to McCain’s 46%. Nationally Obama did not win the white vote—McCain won it 55% to Obama’s 43%. But Obama’s victory was a moment of powerful symbolism and hinted at the distance America had covered on race.
Remnick has done justice to Obama’s journey to the White House. In a market crowded with Obama spin, The Bridge is a standout piece of “biographical journalism”. Remnick is an outstanding journalist, and it shows in the way he marshals material from scores of interviews to throw light on the subject. On the other hand, he offers a historian’s context of the defining moments that shaped Obama’s life and rise—the civil rights movement, the African-Americans’ quest for political power, the significance of the slave narratives, the cesspool of Chicago politics. The tone is understudied, and Remnick largely stays away from an independent critique of the man. That is possibly the only thing missing.
It has been a baptism by fire— Obama took on record joblessness and deficit, and political rancour. Some of his bailouts were criticized, and his ratings fell. But he also appointed the first Hispanic justice on the supreme court, moved against discriminatory policies towards gays in the military, and pushed through the health reforms Bill. The jury is still out on whether Obama will turn out to be a truly transformative figure.
IN SIX WORDS:
The most comprehensive of Obama biographies
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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