The Bridge, David Remnick's new book about President Barack Obama, has built-in limitations because it's a biography of a life in progress. As even the author acknowledges, it's too early to assess the legacy of a man who is only 48 and has been president a little over a year. • So Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, set out simply to write a piece of "biographical journalism" that would examine Obama's early life and the events that shaped him. In this he has more than succeeded. The Bridge is a compelling portrayal of Obama as a gifted and pragmatic center-left politician and a living metaphor for an increasingly diverse America. • The book's persistent theme is race and how it has played out in Obama's personal development, in his presidential campaign and in American life. "The bridge" of the title refers both to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., scene of the 1965 voting rights march, and to Obama himself, who was born during the civil rights movement and whose election was the ultimate realization of its goals. • Obama didn't fight the fight, Remnick seems to say; he's the prize.
Growing up in multicultural Honolulu, Obama called himself Barry and blended in easily with the other kids at Punahou private school. That his mother was a white Kansan and his father a mostly absent Kenyan was not seen as remarkable. He had little reason to don the armor of the oppressed.
"The notion that you are socialized in an environment that insisted you were inferior, that you spend much of your energy proving that you aren't inferior, that kind of double consciousness — he didn't have to deal with that," Chicago writer Salim Muwakkil tells Remnick.
"He has Malcolm's capacity for self-creation. . . . He made himself, like an existential hero. He picked this out and that out, and he created himself."
The self Obama created was calm, analytical, chameleonic. He thought a lot about how race influenced his identity but did not seem to be out to collect a debt. At Occidental College in Los Angeles, he participated in the anti-apartheid movement mostly as an observer. His Harvard law school professors noticed how he shifted his tone to communicate with people of different races and backgrounds.
Remnick's Obama is liberal but not radical, driven by ideals rather than ideology. Lawrence Tribe, Obama's professor and mentor, tells the author, "It's hard to describe what his presuppositions are, other than that the country stands for . . . fairness, decency (and) mutual concern."
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One of the ironies of Obama's story is that he wouldn't be where he is today without help from conservatives.
When he ran for president of the Harvard Law Review, he was pushed over the top by conservative students who saw him as more reasonable than his liberal opponent. "There was a sense that he didn't think we were evil people, only misguided people, and he would credit us for good faith and intelligence," a conservative student remembers.
Conservatives helped again — unwittingly — when Obama ran for U.S. Senate in 2004. He was hardly the favorite: He had gotten crushed in his bid for a congressional seat four years earlier, he had little name recognition outside Chicago, and many of his best friends were advising him not to run.
After the collapse of Democratic primary rival Blair Hull, whose wife said in court filings that he'd threatened to kill her, Obama had only to contend with a couple of hapless Republicans. The first was Jack Ryan, whose candidacy went poof when his wife reported that he had dragged her to sex clubs. The second was Alan Keyes, an antiabortion conservative who had never even lived in Illinois.
According to Remnick, Obama reacted to Keyes' entry into the race by asking an aide, "Can you believe this s---?"
"No, dude," the aide replied. "You are the luckiest bastard in the world."
The 2008 presidential campaign was the first in which Obama had both a formidable opponent and a chance of victory, however slight. He was still in his first term as a senator and he was up against Hillary Clinton, who had deep pockets, the support of major black leaders and her own fierce determination to make history. Remnick shows how the Obama campaign overcame all that, steering clear of race when they had to and using it to their advantage when they needed to.
Having vanquished Clinton, Obama's luck resumed when John McCain, weighed down by an unpopular Republican president, ran a curiously unfocused campaign.
Today, conservatives often say they want to take back the country from Obama. The implication is that they gave it to him, and that's at least partly true, as The Bridge shows.
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Readers of the left-leaning New Yorker will not be surprised that The Bridge is sympathetic to Obama. Here, for example, is how Remnick handles the "controversy" over Obama's birth:
"Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., was born at 7:24 p.m. on August 4, 1961, at Kapi'olani Medical Center, in Honolulu, not far from Waikiki." The so-called birther movement barely gets mentioned.
But The Bridge is no polemic. Remnick, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Lenin's Tomb, is one of the finest journalists in America, and he has delivered a thorough, well crafted early entry in what is sure to be a long list of Obama biographies.
Mike Wilson is the St. Petersburg Times' managing editor/enterprise. He can be reached at [email protected]