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The Bridge to Somewhere

Remnick's political biography of Barack Obama is masterful and revealing.

Book Cover Given the subject—Barack Obama—and the author—Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and New Yorker editor David Remnick—it makes sense that Remnick’s new tome, The Bridge (Knopf), would receive widespread attention and review coverage.

And it probably would, at some point, make more sense or be (at the least) more interesting to render a careful exegesis of the more serious analytical efforts. One point Remnick draws out in his sensible and extensive profile of Barack Obama during his rise to presidential candidacy is that he was something of a political/cultural Rorschach test. That seems to be the case with Remnick’s opus.

Reading Remnick’s book—at a reader’s pace, not as a journalist—I was struck that most public commentary and discussion would for various reasons ignore an important aspect of Remnick’s effort: his (subtle) style and the readability of a 600-page political biography. Consider how less-nuance-sensitive journalists (I’m thinking Bob Woodward) would have handled this gem:
Surely, the most absurd moment of Obama’s first year in office came not long after he committed more than thirty-thousand new troops to Afghanistan. On October 9, 2009, Robert Gibbs woke the President with a call at around six in the morning to tell him that there had been an announcement in Oslo: Obama, after less than nine months in office, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The President’s reaction was a more elongated and colorful version of “Shut up.”
Given the worn-out old saw about journalism being the “first draft of history” (given the extensive research, I think this book accounts for a few drafts), I assume responsible political journalists and a broad swath of (a narrow landscape?) America’s intelligentsia will pick this book up and even read it cover to cover. Luckily for the rest of us, Remnick has written something more lively than the plodding narratives cooked up by the usual political journalists qua historians, and included some interesting digressions. E.g., we are treated to the amazing story of Mary Lincoln Todd’s black seamstress Elizabeth Keckley and vivid asides such as this:
One night I went for a beer with Wendell Pierce [who currently plays Antoine Baptiste in Treme], a New Orleanian who made his name as an actor playing the homicide cop Bunk Moreland on The Wire, Obama’s favorite television show. Pierce is in his mid-forties. His parent’s neighborhood Pontchartrain Park was destroyed by Katrina, and he had spent months trying to redevelop the area. Pierce picked me up on Canal Street: he is built like a fire plug and had a double bass voice. We drove to Bullets’, a working class bar on A.P. Turead St., in the seventh Ward. There we met Mike Dauphin, a Vietnam veteran who sat at our table a long time talking about his childhood in Jim Crow New Orleans, riding in the back of the bus and going to segregated schools and working at American Can and U.S. Steel. When Katrina came, he was sheltered first at a hospice and then with thousands of others, at the Convention Center downtown, “where we had almost no food or water for five days.” He could hardly wait to vote and he was talking in the same terms as many older people around town: “I never dreamed in my lifetime that I would see a black man as President of the United states. I was a kid growing up under Jim Crow. We couldn’t drink out of the same water faucet—but now it seems a America has changed.”
My only vexation regarding this otherwise first-rate piece of reporting and analysis is Remnick’s twice glossing over Barack Obama’s reneging on his promise to use public funds for his campaign, which would have placed spending limits. The fact that the President spent more than a half billion dollars more than his opponent is no small matter.
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