Race and politics are the double helix of America’s history. Twelve U.S. presidents owned slaves at one point or another in their lives, eight of them while in office. The White House was built with slave labour. The country’s bloody Civil War was sparked by efforts to limit the expansion of slavery, although the eventual emancipation was as much a strategic gambit as a moral choice. Reconstruction. Jim Crow. The civil rights movement. And even after legal equality, the sotto voce appeals to prejudice in campaigns that revolved around law and order, welfare queens, and furloughed rapists.
The importance of Barack Obama’s landslide electoral victory in November 2008, and his installation as the 44th president of the United States, therefore can’t be overstated. The fact that the “leader of the free world”—as Americans still like to term him (the rest of us may differ)—is black is historic. Whether the choice made by U.S. voters was transformative remains to be answered. Or perhaps more accurately, locked down. A few short weeks ago, as pundits took stock of his first year in office, the consensus seemed to be that Obama was a disappointing failure. Now, after pushing health care reform through Congress, and securing a nuclear arms reduction pact with Russia, many of those same voices are painting him a candidate for Mount Rushmore. Fickle times. Maybe even bipolar ones: one Internet opinion poll late last month claimed that 40 per cent of Americans believe Obama is a socialist, and 14 per cent the Antichrist.
What remains constant about this President, however, is his status as publishing gold. The cottage industry launched by his own self-examinations, Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope, shows no signs of flagging. Bestseller lists are peppered with insider tales of his presidential campaign, and the list of titles that hate, parse, or venerate the 49-year-old continues to grow.
David Remnick’s anticipated new biography, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf), falls somewhere between the latter two categories. The New Yorker editor is agnostic about the President’s accomplishments (most of which have come after the book was completed), but he is awfully high on the man’s potential. As a reporter for the Washington Post, Remnick chronicled the collapse of Communism in the Eastern Bloc. To him, the election-night celebrations in Chicago’s Grant Park were as momentous and nation-altering as the fall of the Berlin Wall, or Prague’s Velvet Revolution. “A regime had not fallen. The colour line had not been erased, or even transcended, but a historical bridge had been crossed,” he writes.
There’s little doubt that American attitudes about race have undergone at least a quiet revolution over the past four decades. And Remnick’s book is at its best when it fixes Obama’s rise in the context of America’s shameful past. The brutality of “Bloody Sunday,” when police and a white mob put a violent end to a peaceful civil rights march on a bridge just outside of Selma, Ala., is still shocking, 45 years later. If Martin Luther King Jr. was a sort of Moses, leading his people to the edge of the promised land, it is tempting to see Obama as Joshua, finishing the journey—the “inheritor of the most painful of all American struggles, the struggle of race,” writes Remnick. “He was not necessarily the hero of that narrative, but he just might be its culmination.”
Certainly, the President is steeped in civil rights history, and has made clear in his speeches and writings the debt he feels to the prophets of previous generations. His precocious autobiography, Dreams of My Father, written at the age of 30, tells the story of the product of a white woman from Kansas, and a black man from Kenya, trying to come to grips with his own identity. And the crucible of his campaign was race-related: a sexy media controversy over the intemperate sermons of his African-American pastor Jeremiah Wright, snuffed out by an address in Philadelphia that was as notable for its complexity as its frankness.
But much of what Remnick puts forward in his book suggests that Obama is more of an overpass than a linking span when it comes to the issue that has shaped so much of America’s history. “Obama is black, but without the torment,” summarizes one of the President’s mentors at Harvard Law school. “He clearly identifies himself as African-American, he clearly identifies with African-American history and the civil rights movement, but his life came largely—not completely, but largely—without the terrible oppression.” Obama was born and raised in a progressive enough time and place that his racial identity wasn’t a burden, but rather something to be “pursued and learned,” the way other teens discover themselves in music or sports. Remnick himself uses the term “shape-shifter” to describe a man who moves so effortlessly between the poles of American life.
In fact, some of the insights in The Bridge suggest that race might not even be the best prism through which to view the first black president of the United States. His unique upbringing—early years spent in Indonesia, an always absent father, and sometimes absent mother, an elite private school education in Hawaii despite the family’s modest circumstances—was oddly free of the usual constraints of class. He was a kid who didn’t belong anywhere, so he learned to be comfortable everywhere he went. A new twist on the beloved, bootstrapping, “self-made” man of national myth: Obama is self-created. “He excelled at the style of sociability that is most prized in the American professional and business class and serves as the supreme object of education in the top prep schools: how to co-operate with your peers by casting on them a spell of charismatic seduction, which you nevertheless disguise under a veneer of self-deprecation and informality,” Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the Harvard Law prof and Brazilian politician, tells Remnick. Obama has a social mastery that qualifies him as “the first American elite President—that is, the first who talks and acts as a member of the American élite—since John Kennedy.” (Presumably Unger is invoking JFK-like behaviour in a good way.)
Those seeking Obama’s feet of clay won’t find them in Remnick’s 600-plus pages. It’s a portrait of a clearly ambitious, and perhaps slightly egotistical man, but one who may well have cause to be so. Few people who have ever crossed Obama’s path seem to have come away anything but dazzled. Preternaturally calm, with a deliberate intellect, he is, according to those who know him, a made-to-order President for tumultuous times. “He’s been bored to death his whole life,” Valerie Jarrett, an early Chicago backer who now works as one of his senior advisers, told Remnick. “He’s just too talented to do what ordinary people do.” (Thankfully, Remnick does add one less-than-angelic dimension to the man: the President’s behind-the-scenes potty mouth. For example, when spokesman Robert Gibbs woke him with a 6 a.m. phone call last October to tell him he’d won the Nobel Peace Prize, “the President’s reaction was a more elongated and colourful version of ‘Shut up.’ ”)
Besides, the dirt is surely to come. Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter’s The Promise, which chronicles Obama’s first year in office, is due out in May (Simon and Schuster), and is reportedly rife with tales of White House backbiting and misbehaviour. According to one website that obtained an advance copy, Obama’s grim nickname for Larry Summers, his chief economic adviser, is “Dr. Kevorkian,” although the former Harvard president reportedly behaved more like a teenage girl, complaining until chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel gave him Obama’s private BlackBerry email. Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, is reportedly working on a book. So is his Washington Post colleague David Maraniss, author of the unflinching Bill Clinton biography First in His Class.
And there are always hit jobs like Jason Mattera’s newly released Obama Zombies: How the Liberal Machine Brainwashed My Generation (Threshold), with jacket blurbs by Ann Coulter and Michelle Malkin. Sample quote: “We’ve seen a President who distrusts his country, genuflects to dictators around the world and takes massive dumps on the idea of American exceptionalism.” Sean Hannity of Fox News infamy will release Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama’s Radical Agenda at the end of March. Pre-sales have already propelled it to number five on Amazon’s bestseller list.
But this is a man who has always elicited strong reactions. During the early days of Obama’s campaign for a seat in the U.S. Senate in the 2004 election, his organizers commissioned a focus group of middle-aged white women in the Chicago suburb of Evanston. They showed them photos of his opponents in the Democratic primary in order to get their reaction. “Dan Quayle” was the women’s response to the first. The second was branded “Mr. Potato Head.” When Obama’s picture came up on screen, the debate in the room was over whether he looked more like Denzel Washington or Sidney Poitier. As Remnick relates, that was the campaign’s “eureka moment.” They had lightning in a bottle.
It was a sense of excitement that carried through to November 2008. Whether it has staying power will be seen in this fall’s U.S. mid-terms, and the long slog to 2012 that will begin soon after. Has Obama really changed America? Who knows? But in the short term, at least, he’s made it a lot more interesting.