The Bridge by David Remnick

Because I am all about timely reading, I have just finished The Bridge, whose subtitle is The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, and which was published in 2010. As Remnick explains in the acknowledgments, his “hope was to write a piece of biographical journalism that, through interviews with his contemporaries and certain historical actors, examined Obama’s life before his Presidency and some of the current that helped to form him.” (p. 593) Remnick was editor of the New Yorker at the time he wrote this book (and still is, as of this writing), and it’s an amazing achievement simply to have written the book and to have conducted the 200 or more interviews that comprise the original reporting it contains, along with all of the historical research.

Remnick intends for his title to work on several levels in reference to Obama. He opens the book with a speech that Obama gave in March 2007, early in the presidential campaign that he would eventually win. He spoke at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, a church that was a crucial staging point for the 1965 civil rights march that Alabama state troopers and local police stopped with great violence just after the marchers had crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge over the Alabama River. The confrontation at the Pettus Bridge prompted the federal government to take action to improve the ability of Black American citizens to exercise their right to vote. Without that legislation and its enforcement, Obama’s political career would have been impossible.

The maneuvering around that speech was also, in Remnick’s telling, Obama’s first serious confrontation with the campaign of Hillary Clinton, who was then a US Senator from New York. Both Hillary and Bill Clinton had long been friends to Black voters and Black leaders; they had long-standing relationships with key African-American leaders, relationships that Obama lacked. Competition between Obama and Clinton put those leaders on the spot: support someone who had helped in ways big and small through many years, or support someone who was new but Black? Could Obama bridge the gap in experience?

In his speech, Obama spoke of the “Moses” generation of civil rights leaders, the ones who saw the Promised Land but did not make it there themselves, and of the current, “Joshua” generation, people who reaped the benefits of their forbears’ labor and now had to live up to the promise. As a candidate, he hoped to bridge the generations, to show the elders that their work had not been in vain, and to spur the younger folks to reach their potential.

Finally, and most obviously, Obama is a bridge between Black and white worlds. With a Kansan mother and a Kenyan father, he belongs to both, to which he adds experience growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, giving him crucial distance from the deepest conflicts. This distance is a theme picked up by quite a few of Remnick’s interviewees; they noted that Obama had a deep reservoir of confidence that even the most privileged African-Americans seemed to miss, and they attributed that to his crucial years outside of the continental United States. There’s another bridge for Obama: between America and the world. He experienced the wider world more closely than almost any other prospective president.

As a book, The Bridge lags a bit in its earlier chapters. Obama has told this story himself, and told it better in Dreams from My Father. Remnick fills in some gaps, and brings a measure of perspective that no autobiographer can manage, but it’s just not as good. The best aspect of part one of The Bridge is Remnick’s extended portrait of Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham.

The book picks up a good bit when it begins to cover Obama’s years in Chicago. Remnick sketches Chicago’s role as a “Black Metropolis,” its complex ethnic makeup, the history of Democratic machine politics, and Harold Washington’s transformational election in 1983. That same year, Obama earned his bachelor’s from Columbia and stepped away from the obvious paths for an ambitious graduate of a prestigious university, choosing instead to work as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side. Remnick covers these years in detail, as Obama worked to help people cope with the manifold problems of life in poor communities, from recalcitrant landlords to indifferent city officials, from departing employers to all-too-present gangs. It’s also the beginning of Obama’s education in how things really get done, an education that would convince him that acquiring power would be necessary to make improvements, which led him toward electoral politics. Many people from these years thought that he was aiming to become Mayor.

[I did not know that a mayor of Chicago had been assassinated in Miami. Remnick: “On February 15, 1933, at a public ceremony, in Bayfront Park, in Miami, [Anton] Cermak was shot in the chest while shaking hands with President-elect Roosevelt. The bullet was most likely intended for Roosevelt.” (p. 147) Talk about a turning point in history! Imagine the 1930s with John Nance Garner as President instead of FDR.]

Before he attempted to run in any election, however, Obama decided to gain one of the keys to American politics: a law degree. He went straight to the top, too, Harvard. Remnick covers Obama’s time at Harvard Law in a chapter titled “Ambition.” It’s an interesting chapter, partly for Obama’s first serious encounters with America’s power structure, and partly for how he becomes and reacts to the Law Review’s first African-American president. His first experience as a “first,” so to speak.

The best parts of The Bridge, though, are chapters six through eleven, which recount Obama’s return to Chicago up to his election as US Senator from Illinois in 2004. These chapters are rich in detail about people in the city, about interlocking networks, about how personality and policy intersect to make and break careers, to make things happen or not. Remnick situates Obama’s story within the traditions of African-American autobiography, as a “narrative of ascent.” He also draws historical parallels by titling chapters “The Wilderness Campaign” and “Reconstruction.” Remnick is open about a break that gave Obama his first chance at political office: a death in the Congressional delegation led a state senator to run for that seat, leaving a vacancy in the state capitol for Obama to try to win. He chronicles in greater detail the spectacular self-immolation of Obama’s two main opponents in his 2004 Senate campaign.

Obama himself is clear-eyed about how perceptions shape voting behavior. For example, Remnick writes, “We attained the majority in the seventh year [as a state senator] and I passed twenty-six bills in a row,” Obama told me. “In one year, we reformed the death penalty in Illinois, expanded health care for kids, set up a state earned-income tax credit. It wasn’t that I was smarter in year seven than I was in year six, or more experienced; it was that we had power. … You can have the best agenda in the world, but if you don’t control the gavel you cannot move an agenda forward.” (p. 350) Remnick also chronicles how Obama built a friendship with the Democrat who presided over the state senate when they won the majority. That relationship enabled Obama to be a key sponsor on many of those bills, raising his profile.

There are plenty of funny bits in The Bridge, too:

“We had done a focus group in Evanston with thirty-five-year-old-and-up white women,” Jim Cauley said. “We showed them footage of Blair Hull, Dan Hynes [Obama’s two main opponents in the 2004 Democratic primary for US Senator], and Obama. When we showed them Hynes, one lady said, ‘Dan Quayle.’ When we showed them Hull we heard ‘Mr. Potato Head’ and ’embalmed.’ Then we showed them Obama and we heard ‘Denzel.’ Another woman said ‘No, Sidney Poitier.’ That was my eureka moment when I though, Shit, we’re gonna win this thing. This was five weeks out.” (pp. 374–375)

The defeats were just as important. Obama got shellacked when he tried to run for Congress in 2000, losing to a former Black Panther, Bobby Rush. Obama tried to nudge Rush out by implying that it was time for a new generation, but Rush had no intention of leaving. Rush’s son was murdered during the course of the campaign, adding a martyr’s aura to all of the other advantages of incumbency. Rush won by a two-to-one margin. But on the whole, it is what Remnick called it, a narrative of ascent.

The 2004 campaign also included the moment that brought Obama to the nation’s attention: his keynote address at the Democratic convention. Remnick quotes a skeptic on how the speech was received:

Even Bobby Rush, who wore his disdain of Obama like a gold watch, had to admit that his old rival was now a bona-fide star: ‘Do you know what “Barack” means in Hebrew? It means “one who God favors.” That’s lightning. You don’t fool with that.’ Then he smiled and said, ‘And besides, some people live a charmed life.’ (p. 401)

The speech had an effect in the Illinois campaign. “Now … in towns where [Jeremiah] Posedel [Obama’s downstate director] expected, at most, forty or fifty people at each stop, Obama was drawing hundreds, even thousands. Suddenly, he was working rope lines, shaking countless hands, and speaking in packed auditoriums with parents holding their children up on their shoulders.” (p. 403) Obama won the Senate election by 43 points, 70 per cent to 27 per cent. (Remnick does not mention it, but the race also sparked an immortal blog post and a spookily useful figure in American politics, the Crazification Factor.)

The last 150 pages of The Bridge cover Obama’s run for the presidency in 2008. They are interesting and exciting, even a sort of comfort reading after what happened in 2016. It’s solid work, combining the historically-minded journalism that Remnick said at the outset was his goal with longer-term perspectives, some of them from Obama himself. And there’s an eerily prescient lament from an unnamed aide to Hillary Clinton, reflecting on her loss in the primary. “We never pivoted successfully from ‘strength and experience’ to a sense of the person. … [W]e never got across the sense of her as a devoted public servant. She was badly served by us. We never made her a three-dimensional person, a person with a rich history. We began with the most famous woman in the world and we didn’t do enough with it.” (p. 515)

Remnick closes his book by returning to one of the heroes of the march over the Pettus Bridge, John Lewis. When Obama was in the Senate, one of the pictures he kept on the wall of his office was the cover of Life magazine that showed Lewis leading the demonstrators about to confront the state troopers. Moments after the picture was taken, a trooper swung a truncheon and fractured Lewis’ skull. After Obama was sworn in, Lewis approached him with a paper to sign to mark the occasion. “The forty-fourth President of the United States wrote, ‘Because of you, John. Barack Obama.'”

But I want to give the last words to Jesse Jackson, whose 1984 and 1988 campaigns showed that a Black candidate could win state primaries and compete seriously for the office of president. Jackson was with the Obamas on the stage in Chicago’s Grant Park after the Electoral College results showed victory.

The cameras captured Jesse Jackson standing alone, tears streaming down his face. … When I had the chance later to ask Jackson about the moment, he said that he had been thinking that night of Emmett Till, of Rosa Parks, of Martin Luther King at the Lincoln Memorial, the march in Selma. ‘And in my own I saw the funerals,’ he said. ‘I wish Dr. King and Malcolm could have been there for, like, just thirty second, just to see what they got killed about. That’s when I began to well up and cried. Think about the martyrs: Fannie Lou Hamer, if she could have just been there for just a minute.’ He thought about a trip to Europe where people were telling him Obama could never win. ‘It was all converged in my consciousness, both the journey to get there and the joy of the moment. I was in awe. I could see Dr. King putting on his shoes in Selma, getting ready to march, and Jim Farmer, and John Lewis—all of them. These were the people who made this day happen.’ (p. 558)

Yes, they did.

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  1. […] up, a story he has told better in Dreams from My Father and that David Remnick has told better in The Bridge. A Promised Land ends with the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, as seen from the White House. […]

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