Book by David Remnick; Alfred A. Knopf, 2010, 586 pp.
Shortly after the 2008 election, New Yorker editor David Remnick wrote a long piece on the meaning of Barak Obama's victory. It was primarily about why Obama had become the first African American to win the presidency. The central element was a speech Obama gave in 2007 at the Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopalian Church, in Selma, Alabama.
In that speech, Obama thanked the great Civil Rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s—the "Moses generation," he called them—and then tried to define a role for black leaders of roughly his age, "the Joshua generation." "He described the work that lay ahead for the Joshua generation," Remnick wrote, "and implicitly positioned himself at its head, as its standard-bearer." But Remnick never described that work. He seemed less interested in explaining the Joshua generation of black leaders than in describing its uneasy relationship with the older generation of black politicians.
Remnick has now expanded his New Yorker feature into a full-length biography. The focal point is still the Moses/Joshua metaphor and how Obama, a mixed-race lawyer and legislator born and raised in Hawaii, came to be the first black president. He still hasn't got around to explaining what the "work"of the Joshua generation is or the "new kind of politics" Obama seemed to promise. Writing a biography of a president so soon after entering office is admittedly tricky. What seemed important shortly after the inauguration can recede months later. But Remnick's book glides past much of what's crucial to know about Obama as his administration attempts to start over following the Democratic electoral defeat last November. It doesn't tell us, for instance, anything about the roots of Obama's economic policies, even though he entered office in the midst of the worst economic downturn in more than 70 years. It's a strange book: the biography of a politician that largely avoids nitty-gritty political issues, a study of black politics that ignores almost everything that's happened to the black community since the Civil Rights movement.
Unsatisfying as it is, the nearly 600 pages of The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama tell us a lot about what mainstream white observers think about African Americans. The book also stands as a fine specimen of the hollowness of much mainstream American political journalism. Reluctant to alienate what's thought to be an essentially center-right public by taking an overt stand on any controversial topic, reporters instead tend to focus on the career rather than the person and the process of politics at the highest level rather than its effect on people.
In The Bridge, with its Moses and Joshua theme, the metaphors are overwhelmingly biblical. That's not surprising since Martin Luther King, Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders famously used stories and imagery from the Bible to convey the drama of the struggle. Historians of that era—Taylor Branch (Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire, At Canaan's Edge), David J. Garrow (Bearing the Cross)—have leaned heavily on the biblical to frame their accounts as well. But this approach stops working when the time period extends to today. The issues facing African Americans and their political leaders are different and in some ways more complex than they were 40 years ago. The "promised land" metaphor, with King as Moses and Obama as a Joshua figure, offers a false closure to a struggle for equality and self-determination that's still being fought. Worse, it allows white Americans to participate vicariously in an inspirational story that ends with America redeemed of its sins through the election of a black president.
What The Bridge most glaringly leaves out is the terrible toll that the economic dislocations beginning in the 1970s have taken on blacks, more so than any other population group. This despite the fact that African Americans at the time Remnick was writing were once again suffering disproportionately from the effects of yet another recession. The cutting away of the social safety net for low-income households and its consequences hardly figure. Hip-hop never happened, apparently, unless a single, unrelated quote from Spike Lee suffices.
And speaking of culture, what about the effects of living in a society that pathologizes the social issues the African American community faces, while opening it up as a laboratory for every white would-be reformer with a bright new idea for managing the poor? This, too, Remnick never mentions. How someone of Obama's relatively sheltered upbringing responds to these upheavals is one of the things we most need to know about him. Perhaps hip-hop passed him by. His own writings reveal Malcolm X to have been a cultural influence, but with the more controversial views airbrushed out. Obama has eagerly reached back to the Civil Rights legacy as his inheritance. His speech at the 2004 Democratic convention, which made him a national figure overnight, was introduced by "Keep on Pushing," an anthem from that era. But what does he think about the period that followed, beyond generalities that the dream was unfulfilled?
Remnick does acknowledge the deep suspicion some have for figures like Obama—with professional credentials all in order, but shallow roots in the black community itself. He references a 1996 quote from journalist and academic Adolph Reed, Jr. that stands out for its sharp analysis and understanding of the political pecking order: "[Obama's] fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over problems…. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics here, as in Haiti and wherever the International Monetary Fund has sway."
But that's the only place in this long book where the possible shortcomings of the "Joshua generation" are referred to and Remnick moves on without exploring the point. Which is too bad, since the Obama administration's economic policies haven't deviated much from the orthodox IMF approach: a limited, and temporary, stimulus package; a focus on rescuing the financial sector while reforming it as little as possible; and an outsized concern to shrink the government's economic footprint by reducing deficits and retiring government debt.
Remnick does turn up some interesting new information. Obama's parents come through as individuals more strongly than in his memoir, Dreams from My Father. The effect on Obama of an upbringing and education in Hawaii, the nation's most mixed-race state, is clearer. We learn in more detail how Obama launched his political career in Chicago, for example the significance of his—and his wife Michelle's—joining the elite East Bank Club, a gathering place for the city's rich and powerful. But Remnick always seems to stop inquiring just when things start to get really interesting. Did the Obamas just join the East Bank Club or did they have to be invited and, if so, who proposed them? The Pritzkers, one of America's richest families and a major power center in Chicago, were key supporters from early in Obama's political career. But Remnick doesn't ask whether the favors might flow both ways. Has Obama provided support for the Pritzkers at crucial times? Has he ever acted against their interests? Nowhere does The Bridge address these questions.
Remnick's focus on the process rather than the substance of politics serves him best in his chapters on the presidential campaign, especially the intense dogfight between Obama and Clinton. Curiously, though, Obama himself tends to fade away in these parts of the book, as operatives like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel take center stage. Hillary Clinton actually emerges as the more dramatic figure, her longtime, carefully nurtured ambitions unexpectedly thwarted by a younger upstart.
The upshot is that The Bridge, while promising to give us the first well-rounded portrait of Obama—"his life before his Presidency and some of the currents that helped to form him"—fails to tell us much about why he's an important political phenomenon.
The Obama presidential campaign transformed Democratic politics by developing a large grassroots organization, independent of the party, with branches in virtually every district, including many that were previously deemed unwinnable. Even though Obama attracted backing from many well-heeled sources, his campaign extended Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean's controversial strategy of using the Internet to solicit millions of small contributions and use them to campaign in every state. The Democratic Party has since done its best to domesticate this resource, robbing it of its enthusiasm and effectiveness. But many observers believe that the Obama organization, or something like it, represents the future of progressive Democratic politics—if it has a future.
The Bridge could have been essential reading if it told us more than we knew about how the ground-level Obama organization developed, what role the candidate played in constructing it, and how it reflects his philosophy of politics and government. Remnick reports matter-of-factly that the campaign "drew young volunteers who were willing to uproot and devote themselves to a long-shot candidacy" and that it drew on "the techniques of community organizing." But nothing more. This aspect of "Obamaism"—probably, in the long run, the most important part—seems to hold little interest for Remnick. What we get instead is the clash of personalities with Obama against Clinton, Obama against McCain, Sarah Palin against herself.
Remnick can't be blamed for not anticipating every element of Obama's career that would be vital to understanding his presidency. But the need to devote some attention to his economic thinking and track record should have been obvious. Race was clearly Remnick's focus in writing his book. But to fully understand Obama's impact on racial politics stretches the traditional framework for how Americans—especially white Americans—look at black politicians past the point of usefulness.
The Bridge has a good deal to say, unwittingly, about how whites have assimilated the Civil Rights story and tamed it to make themselves feel better about this country's racist past. What remains to be seen is how they will even start to process the more complex, less insistently dramatic story of racism in the succeeding era—and what kinds of compromises black politicians are making in the face of it. African Americans at least have the advantage of knowing it exists.
Eric Laursen is an independent journalist, activist, and organizer living in western Massachusetts. He is co-author of Understanding the Crash (Soft Skull Press, 2010) and author of the forthcoming The People's Pension: The War Against Social Security Since 1980 (AK Press, Spring 2012).