by Reading on Walden Bookstore, Sat Apr 10, 2010 at 11:40:12 AM EDT
Reprinted from the New York Journal of Books.
“Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.” —Congressman John Lewis
David Remnick, Editor-in-Chief of the New Yorker magazine, has stitched together a great book, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.
Remnick is also the author of several earlier books, most notably Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire and The King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. The former deservedly won Remnick the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and the latter book is the story of boxing legend Muhammad Ali.
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama was particularly resonant for this reviewer, as I am the author of another book concerning Obama’s path to the presidency.
In The Bridge, Remnick constructs sentences that are gripping and compelling. His research of his subject is also top notch, in part because he secured interviews that eluded others. Ben Smith of Politico complained he tried to get Bill Ayers and others who attended an event when Obama was running for Illinois State Senate, to discuss the event at Ayers’s home. The 2008 Republican Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin attempted and failed to make an issue of Obama’s relationship of Ayers and futilely referred to Obama “palling around with terrorists.” But it took Remnick to actually get the interviews necessary for a clear narrative.
“When I first wrote about that gathering at Ayers’s and Bernadine Dohrn’s house that helped launch his political career, it took days to get two people who had been there to confirm the event happened. But the same people—including Ayers —are far more comfortable talking to the editor of the New Yorker after the election has passed and, ironically, telling a story that helps confirm Obama’s centrist past and give the lie to some of the more strident depictions of him today.”
A strength of Remnick’s book is that he interviewed many to whom others lacked access, in large part due to his tenacity, and dare I say, audacity. While not on the scene for many of the events described, Remnick’s access and analysis enabled him to masterfully recreate them. And like other great historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin in the Team of Rivals, David McCullough in Truman, and Stephen Ambrose in Undaunted Courage, Remnick puts you there.
The Bridge is a must read for anyone fascinated by American History, or by Barack Obama. At this point in time, there there are a growing number of Obama books, but precious few that cover Obama’s rise from early childhood to his emergence into manhood. Indeed, The Bridge is the most comprehensive work to date. Most know and have read about Obama’s controversial relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and many may have seen interviews with two of Obama's close friends and aides, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett. But Remnick also details the roles of lesser-known Obama associates such as Jerry Kellman, Bettylu Saltzman, Ron Davis, Al Kindle, Toni Preckwinkle, Will Burns, and many with an important role at seminal moments in Obama’s life.
Remnick interviewed all of these people and reveals much that has never before been public; this intelligence will no doubt be often cited as primary source for historians writing about this Presidency hundreds of years from now. Obama has a chance to achieve that same greatness as Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt because achieving greatness is not possible without the nation being in crisis. As Lincoln and FDR before him, Obama was elected at a time of crisis. With the banking system on the verge of collapse and an increasingly unpopular war being fought in Iraq, Obama immediately took control and inspired confidence. Remnick tells the story in an engaging way.
The Bridge makes clear that Obama has no intention of becoming just another ordinary President, but wants and needs to be remembered as somebody who made a difference.
As evidence of this and Obama’s striving to excel, this boundless energy is taking shape in the early days of the Obama Presidency. The stock market, as an economic barometer of the future, is telling us that things are getting better and it may one day be referred to as the “Obama rally.” And the evidence is clear that the bleeding in employment has subsided with the March 2010 labor report showing an additional 136,000 jobs added to the economy with many economists predicting a sea change in this direction. The passage of an economic stimulus package is reaping many of these employment benefits, as will the historic passage of the most significant legislation since the passage of Medicare: the health care reform bill.
The Obama Presidency is on its way. Barack Obama is the ultimate student. When he came into the United States Senate, he was reading Master of the Senate by Robert Caro to gain insight into the workings of the Senate. Obama then devoured books about Franklin Roosevelt when it became obvious to him he would be elected in late 2008 and applied what he had learned about how Roosevelt dealt with the Depression in his decision-making as President.
And during the health care debate in Congress, Obama found his inner LBJ, who had a way of dealing with Congress that Obama studied and absorbed through books about President Johnson.
Don Hewitt, the producer of 60 Minutes, often admonished his reporters in four words, “Tell me a story.” This book, The Bridge, indeed tells us all a story. Some of the content perhaps we had heard before. But there are surprises, and the book will fascinate those eager to know more. In short, Remnick answers the most basic question, but one not answered until now: Where did Barack Obama come from and what makes him tick?
The story of Barack Obama begins with his childhood in Hawaii, and later his move to Indonesia and then back to Hawaii. Then to his college days, including a short stint in the Eagle Rock community of Los Angeles at Occidental College, and onto New York City to attend Columbia College and graduate. He then found his way to Chicago through Jerry Kellman. In Chicago he worked several different jobs, all low-paying, but for the young Obama, gratifying. Then to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to Harvard Law school, where he not only attended but also excelled and made an impact. And then back to Chicago for a bigger impact. Met Michelle Robinson. Married. Wrote a book that he thought sure would be a bestseller. It was, but not until much later than planned or expected.
Through this all, David Remnick places us there with Barack Obama and the people he met and interacted with on this journey. The book is a great mixture of personal detail of Obama’s life from a large variety of sources, including dozens of books. We meet friends, relatives, allies, acquaintances, and others that either had a direct or indirect influence on his life. The Bridge tells the tale of how Obama lost the 2000 Congressional race to Bobby Rush. And is if that were not humiliating enough, Obama could not gain entrance into the 2000 Democratic convention, and could barely pay for the trip because he had maxed out his credit card as a result of his ill-fated Congressional race. And then in the 2004 Democratic convention, Obama started on this road rock-stardom in giving a memorable speech that launched him onto the national stage. By 2008, when Barack Obama was the Democratic nominee for President, he owned the 2008 Democratic convention.
The book also relates many other interesting and never before revealed details, such as the admonishment of Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley about Obama’s running against Bobby Rush. “Why did you do that?” Daley asked. I could just imagine Daley telling Obama that it was “Silly, silly, silly.” But not so silly in the larger context of Obama's life and history. Because had Obama won, it would have changed history. Had Obama not run, it would have changed history.
The Bridge, while groundbreaking, does not delve deeply enough into the grassroots efforts of the 2004 Senate campaign, which had its seeds planted in the 2000 Congressional campaign. These seeds were firmly planted on March 7, 2000, at a candidates’ forum held in the Beverly community of Chicago at Bethany Union Church. This forum was Obama’s “Coming Out” party—his first venture outside of Hyde Park. He mesmerized 600 voters, many of whom became lifetime supporters and grassroots volunteers. This event was one of the very few bright spots of the 2000 campaign, and was all the more significant because it is here that Obama met and enlisted many of his grassroots supporters and organizers. A newspaper columnist from the then Daily Southtown, Phil Kadner, passed off the event as being dull and ineffective in his March 8, 2000 column, but grudgingly acknowledged Obama’s impact:
“Talking to a handful of residents after the meeting, I would say that Obama was the most effective in pleading his case.
“‘I think Obama would be the most likely to sway opinions in Congress because he’s more eloquent,’” said one woman, pretty much summarizing Obama in his closing remarks.”
Obama confronted Kadner several years later and challenged Kadner’s views about that night. Kadner defended himself, and both men agreed to disagree—a common theme with Obama and his would-be detractors.
Remnick also passes off as “modest” the seeds of the “netroots” that formed in the summer of 2003 when volunteers outside of the inner circle of the campaign got involved with “meetup.com” and “Yahoo Groups for Obama.” It was these seeds that spread and grew throughout the campaign and were instrumental in recruiting volunteers throughout the state of Illinois and beyond. Further exploration of this period would have made for an even richer account of Obama’s rise.
Remnick found the title of his book in a quote by civil rights activist, author, and Congressman John Lewis who, during the most difficult days of the Civil Rights movement, led a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge straight into a blockade set up by Alabama state troopers and the ensuing violent assault of these so-called officers of the law. The day before Obama’s Inauguration, which marked what would have been Martin Luther King’s eightieth birthday, Lewis told a visitor at his office in the Cannon House Office Building, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”
The Bridge is rich in both factual detail and in its prose. Readers will find in this author’s voice both warmth and depth. At the end of “The Prologue: The Joshua Generation,” Remnick tells a touching story of the reenactment of the march across The Bridge in 2007. It reveals the compassionate and empathetic side of Obama that he acknowledges came from his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham.
“Unlike the ritual re-enactments of the Battle of Selma, the reenactments of the crossing of the Pettus Bridge involved no mock violence. The skirmishes were limited to the jostling of photographers trying to get a picture of the Clintons and Obama. Would they stand together and link arms? They would not. But they did share the front row with Lewis and Lowery and younger politicians like Arturo Davis. Along the way, Obama encountered Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth, a civil-rights icon in his mid-eighties, who had battled Bull Connor in Birmingham and survived beatings, bombings, and years of slanderous attack. Shuttlesworth had recently had a brain tumor removed, but he refused to miss the commemoration. On the bridge, he chatted awhile with Obama. And then Obama, who had read so much about the movement, who had dreamed about it, took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeve, popped a piece of Nicorette gum in his mouth, and helped push the wheelchair of Fred Shuttlesworth, across the bridge to the other side.”
As John Lewis said, it was Obama who was on the other side of the bridge, pushing those in need and followed by a large crowd of people of all races, beliefs, and creeds. Why did John Lewis cross the bridge? To get to the other side and find Barack Obama. In a larger sense, John Lewis found hope and change and what they were really fighting for all these many years: freedom.
John Presta is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Grassroots: How Barack Obama, Two Bookstore Owners, and 300 Volunteers Did It. He is also a regular contributor to the political blog, The Daily Kos, and is a columnist at the Chicago Examiner as the Chicago City Hall Examiner and the Chicago Grassoots Examiner.