Book Review

Book Review: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

By George Abbott White
Published: June 2010

This is a remarkable account of a remarkable individual’s life.

When he was signing my copy of The Bridge recently, David Remnick abruptly asked me about my Spitfire lapel pin.

The point was not that he noticed it but that’€in Remnick’s mind’€he immediately was translating and then connecting that seemingly discrete detail to a greater significance and perhaps larger pattern.

So, too, Remnick’s very big book about “the life and rise of Barack Obama.

Its five hundred sixty-odd pages contain seventeen mostly familiar images, good bibliography and index, and no maps. There is richness on every page, a new face explained, an old story reframed.

A reader never has the sense it contains a word too many, a word unconnected to that bigger scheme: Obama’s story is the archetypal American story not just of this century but any, his “improbable rise to the nation’s highest office at once the apogee of the American Dream, moreover, Obama’s life the hoped-for “bridge.

To what, from what? Answering those questions makes Remnick’s chronicle, with its outspoken and also understated racial theme’€easily the most interesting, deft and thoughtful of the dozens already in print. The burden of these many pages is a fleshing out of the many levels of that richly ambiguous over-arching bridge metaphor, the “lands on either side, and the Herculean and shape-sifting efforts necessary for Obama to make the passage from one to the other.

* * *

The initial bridge is a physical one, a small, structure in Alabama which rapidly becomes an example of the skills which have made Remnick the premier political journalist of his generation.

It’s March 4th 2007, Obama is barely a month into his “audacious presidential campaign and to speak at Brown Chapel, in Selma. Three decades earlier Civil Rights leaders and their followers began a now-celebrated march from Selma to Montgomery.

On the bridge six hundred marchers were confronted by imposing lines of heavily armed state troopers and deputized volunteers. Marchers praying were suddenly attacked, tear gassed, beaten, dozens carried off to nearby (black) Good Samaritan Hospital the rest retreating back into Selma and the chapel.

The march survived “Bloody Sunday, it did get to Montgomery, and each year its survivors and the Civil Rights movement are memorialized at the chapel by speakers local and national. Obama has been invited by no less than John Lewis, a hero above heroes and Obama’s lodestar, who suffered a fractured skull that horrific day in 1965 and dozens more beatings and jailings over a decade of fearless protest.

Obama’s part is anamnesis, to remember and to praise. Too young to have done more than read about heroic events and heroic personages he nevertheless feels heir to their sacrifice, his biracial identification with their unfinished mission his motivation to bridge the gap between demands and fulfillment, and as a conciliator, bridge other gaps as well.

As Remnick frames it, at Selma Obama will “tell the story that changed America.

The story sits uneasily between our two sacred texts, the Declaration and the Constitution, the gap between “all men are equal and some men are “3/5ths of a man. The gap is the line Gunnar Myrdal called the decisive question for American society, the color line; the question of race and equality.

Now it just so happens that alongside the aging Civil Rights greats and a small army of press the Democratic Party frontrunner Hillary Clinton will also be present at Brown Chapel. She has her negative baggage but has also criss-crossed the globe, met world leaders, been privy to the highest state secrets, and has held the confidences of a past President. Place and time are therefore loaded for opportunity but also booby-trapped for failure as this young “skinny kid with a funny-sounding name, as Obama puts it, explains himself, for

He planned to discuss in public what so many believed would ultimately be his undoing’€his race, his youth, his ‘Ëœexotic’ background. ‘ËœWho is Barack Obama?’ Barack Hussein Obama?

And Remnick makes explicit Obama’s (and his) agenda,

From now until Election Day, his opponents, Democratic and Republican, would ask the question on public platforms, in television and radio commercials, often insinuating a disqualifying otherness about the man: his childhood in Hawaii, and Indonesia; his Kenyan father; his Kansas-born, yet cosmopolitan mother.

They will ask about a good deal more of course, including a Chicago preacherman named Jeremiah Wright and a former SDS “Weatherman Bill Ayers, though a flip through the chapter titles doesn’t begin to unlock the personal and political depths Remnick explores.

Everyone more or less “like Obama has parents, a childhood, attends schools, colleges/universities, takes jobs and then, Ho hum, settles down. Not this guy, not so simple and not without often riveting understandings of this hitherto unexplored life.

Obama in multicultural Hawaii, we will learn, attended (on scholarship) one of the earliest established and most influential prep schools in America; Obama’s Indonesia was emerging from a Colonial past and clouds of civil war swarmed around his Third-World doorstep, a youngster’s world not unlike Kipling’s Jungle Book.

Before inquiring about my pin Remnick in his talk described an earlier visit to Cambridge and a walk from his Harvard Square hotel to the Law School quad; glimpses at the lecture halls, libraries and offices of the fabled Harvard Law Review (where Obama was elected its first black president). All now are developed through names like Bell, Ogletree, Kagen, and Tribe.

Sara Palin thought it a crowd pleaser to mock Obama’s several year stint as a community organizer on Chicago’s abandoned South Side, getting to know and taking the side of the under resourced, battered into apathy by unresponsive or indifferent bureaucracy. (For that I would like to run a herd of moose over her lawn.)

Around Newton South Obama’s Occidental College could as well be compared with Amherst or Haverford, Obama’s junior year cross country transfer to Columbia and his ramping up studies something like Swarthmore-on-the-Hudson.

Obama did a shorter stint in corporate New York City than his friend Deval Patrick in Coco-Cola Atlanta, yet likely to the same knowing educational/experiential end.

After Obama’s trench warfare slog as an organizer, the pressure cooker/snake pit years at Harvard Law could hardly be seen as relief. Like so many others he lived in the Law School library, emerging into the light for a meal or one of those fierce B-ball pickup games alongside Memorial Drive.

So many questions, so many particulars, says Bertolt Brecht. Remnick continues,

Obama’s answer to that question’€’ËœWho is¦”€helped form the language and distinctiveness of his campaign. Two years out of the Illinois State Senate and barely free of his college loans, Obama entered the Presidential race with a serious, yet unexceptional, set of center-left positions¦But who Obama was, where he came from, how he came to understand himself, and, ultimately, how he managed to project his own temperament and personality as a reflection of American ambitions and hopes would be at the center of his rhetoric and appeal.

Language, the word, is key in American political life, written and oral, whether the directness of an Adams, the eloquence of a Jefferson, the Biblical decisiveness of a Lincoln, the ringing confidence of a Roosevelt, the smooth forcefulness of a Kennedy’€words matter and the perceived personality behind those words can make them, given at the right moment, incarnate in luminous action. Obama’s personality, multiracial and multicultural, grounded and in process, was at once like no other and at the same time Everyman. But says Remnick,

In addition to his political views, what Obama proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self’€a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness.

* * * *

Remnick bookends a generally chronological account’€punctuated by impressive set pieces on individuals and issues’€with the layered Selma episode described earlier and a similar but even more layered, more deeply moving series of three episodes about “other blacks in the White House. It’s worth noting qualities of Remnick’s chronicle that set it apart.

Range, context, contacts, language, empathy.

Range. Remnick was the Washington Post’s man in Moscow for years, his fluent accounts of the dissolution of the USSR demonstrate how he tuned his antennae to an extraordinary range of political, economic and cultural change. He just knows more than most good journalists and writes with more literary skill and focused passion than most good scholars.

Little wonder when writing of the Kansas, Texas, Seattle and Hawaii worlds of Obama’s “white family we learn more from Remnick than others. We are also informed with keener analysis about Obama’s “black Kenya father and the stultifying cronyism and corruption of post-British colonialism that father returned to and sunk into after Harvard graduate studies. Additionally, if Obama’s father was absent almost from his birth, his mother Ann Dunham was absent more than we thought.

Context. For New York resident and New Yorker editor-in-chief, Remnick surely knows his American South’€and with his Ali book Black America and sport’€as few others, in or out of the Academy. Given an intellectual President who gets his solitude and clear thinking by shooting hoops, and non-trivial database.

Still fewer have “read the Clintons with as much subtlety, tact and directness. If old “Bubba could straight-arm for Hillary in the South Carolina primaries, the details of his long-standing contacts with the Black community throughout America are deftly suggested a dozen different ways, including such widely varying examples as Bill’s canvassing for Chicago Congressman Bobby (Black Panther) Rush, knowing the last stanza to “Lift Every Voice and Sing, and his Mandela inauguration “moonwalk on the soul train [dance].

Remnick tells us more about Obama’s Chicago’€Michelle’s as well as Barack’s'€and Harvard Law School before and after Barrack, and the contact sport arena also known as the Illinois state Senate, than others who appear to do it on the web rather than on the ground.

Contacts. Who has translated to significance the complexities or importance of Obama’s elite Punahou School, historically underwritten by pineapple/sugar barons, the punishing class and racial tensions just beneath its “comfortable surface?

Hawaiian Frank Marshall Davis, ‘Ëœaging poet and journalist friend of Obama’s grandfather who knew Richard Wright and Paul Robeson, was a kind of alternative island school, his influence not registered elsewhere.

And Remnick alone notices that Obama’s mother’s PhD advisor for her fascinating’€not arcane’€anthropology dissertation the post-industrial corrosion of Indonesian crafts (blacksmithing) is Ann Dewey, granddaughter of the grandfather of American progressive education and arguably America’s greatest philosopher, John Dewey.

Language. Just as Obama plays the changes on his name, and is reflexively characterized as a “power listener, Remnick’s interview material is satisfyingly apt. He himself attends to Obama’s editing skills on the Law Review, the audacity of imagination and word smithing in writing Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, “a good book, in Remnick’s judgment, “that became an important one.

Empathy. Politicians get a bad rap when they speak about others in language and details that betray ignorance, and thereby self-serving motivations. As Obama becomes a more engaged state legislator, a more exacting and modulated orator he began, Remnick notes,

To develop his signature appeal, the use of details of his own life as a reflection of a kind of multicultural ideal, a conceit both sentimental and effective.


He was no longer straining to be someone he was not. Instead, he was among those politicians who were forging a new identity for the next generation of black leaders¦

An astute and (apparently) tireless practitioner of the old school of worn shoe leather, Remnick appears to have an endless stock of characters in his newzy, whose lives drive the power of stories.

From Venice, Florida, Ashley Baia, a poor white volunteer who brings an older black retired man to support Obama, to those in his astute closing episodes, the black slaves who built the White House, Frederick Douglass’ simply amazing encounters with Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, Mrs. Lincoln’s “dressmaker (who dressed the bodies of both Lincoln’s son and assassinated Lincoln).

And, finally Election Eve, speaking in Grant Park, Chicago, of the life of Ann Nixon Cooper, “who, at the age of a hundred and six, had just voted for [Obama] in Atlanta,

She was born just a generation past slavery [said Obama]; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons’€because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin. And tonight I think about all that she’s seen throughout her century in America’€the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can’t, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.
At a time when women’s voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.
When there was despair in the Dust Bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs, and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.
When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can.
She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that ‘ËœWe Shall Overcome. Yes, we can.
A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after a hundred and six years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.
Yes, we can.

“On a night of triumph, Obama’s tone was not triumphal, wrote Remnick. “it was not ringing; his tone was grave¦He had simultaneously celebrated identity and eased it into the background. Ann Nixon Cooper was an emblem not only of her race, but of her nation.

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