Gwen Ifill reviews David Remnick's biography of Barack Obama, 'The Bridge'

By Gwen Ifill
Sunday, April 4, 2010


The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

By David Remnick

Knopf. 656 pp. $29.95

In his exhaustive biography, "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama," David Remnick seeks to illuminate Obama's role as racial hero and lightning rod, and to discern the president's own mixed feelings about it.

Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, examines how race made Obama, how it almost unmade him and how he has managed to straddle as well as exploit one of America's great tender spots. Remnick moves across a wide canvas, writing about slave narratives and Chicago ward bosses; about the white women Obama dated and Frederick Douglass's difficult relationship with Abraham Lincoln.

After writing my own book about politics and race, I've spent the past 14 months listening to audiences anxiously overinterpret Obama's presidential victory in 2008 as a sign that we are past racial friction. So it was refreshing to see Remnick discover new ways to neatly skewer the notion of a post-racial America without ever having to climb on a soapbox.

In the hands of other writers, Obama has proved to be a murky character study: a self-made man in the grand American political tradition, but one who has largely been allowed to romanticize his own story.

Remnick efficiently strips some of the gloss off the version Obama offered in his best-selling 1995 memoir "Dreams From My Father," charitably and accurately describing that effort as "a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, recreation, invention and artful shaping." Obama, Remnick points out, ended each section with climactic, somewhat overwrought descriptions of himself in tears -- as he sees his father in a dream, discovers his spiritual roots in church, visits his father's grave. I totally bought all of this the first time I read "Dreams." I don't know that I would today -- in part because I am a professional skeptic when it comes to the people I cover, and in part because it's difficult to conceive of cool cucumber Obama being that overcome by emotion.

A less admiring author -- one who did not invest the considerable time Remnick did in interviewing Obama's family members, childhood and college friends, Chicago allies, and the president himself -- might have spun this tale more harshly. Instead of Obama the heroic change agent, we might have seen more of Obama the cagey political animal. Those qualities are certainly present in "The Bridge." Remnick writes that as a political neophyte in Chicago, Obama had no problem becoming "multilingual" -- learning to speak in different ways to different groups. He "subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience," Remnick writes: "a more straight-up delivery for a luncheon of businesspeople in the Loop; a folksier approach at a downstate VFW; echoes of the pastors of the black church when he is in one."

Obama cops to this. "The fact that I conjugate my verbs and speak in a typical Midwestern newscaster's voice -- there's no doubt that this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences," he tells Remnick. "And there's no doubt that when I'm with a black audience I slip into a slightly different dialect. But the point is, I don't feel the need to speak a certain way in front of a black audience. There's a level of self-consciousness about these issues the previous generation had to negotiate that I don't feel I have to."

When he reads this, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who was excoriated after being quoted in another campaign book saying essentially the same thing, will no doubt regret his tortured apology.

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