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Gwen Ifill reviews David Remnick's biography of Barack Obama, 'The Bridge'
Obama -- the offspring of a white mother and an African father -- learned what Remnick calls "shape-shifting" when he arrived in Chicago. Reared in Hawaii and Indonesia, he "had never encountered a place where race was so determinative," one old Chicago friend observes.
Obama is also revealed to be, of all things, a politician. Remnick finds evidence of this hard-nosed streak in everything Obama has done, from his time in the Illinois Senate to his surprisingly efficient dispatch (and later embrace) of Hillary Rodham Clinton to his choice of a church in Chicago. And of course, the world saw how happy he was ultimately to pick up the brass knuckles to get his health-care bill enacted.
"You can't interpret what Obama does without thinking of the power factor," one old Obama acquaintance, Mike Kruglik, tells Remnick. He may be doing things not only for the right reasons, Kruglik suggests, but also because he wants to make sure his hands are on the levers.
Obama confesses to this as well. When Democrats took control of the Illinois Senate, he remembers, he went from back-bencher in his sixth year to passing 26 bills in a row in his seventh.
"In one year, we reformed the death penalty in Illinois, expanded health care for kids, set up a state earned income tax credit," he says. "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."
Lacking power, Obama is shown to be the ultimate pragmatist. If he can't be in control, he is ready to move on. Remnick mentions frequently how easily Obama can get bored. He was bored at Occidental, the first college he attended; bored at the University of Chicago, where as a teacher he focused on writing his first book; bored in the Illinois Senate; and even bored in the U.S. Senate, where he was more interested in writing his second book.
Remnick obviously admires the president, so he does not interpret such lofty boredom as peevish or self-absorbed, as critics might. Perhaps it is that generosity to Obama -- gushy praise, Nobel Peace Prizes -- that drives his political competitors nuts.
Bobby Rush, the congressman and former Black Panther, is apparently still disdainful of the young Harvard Law School transplant who had the nerve to challenge him in 2000 (Obama lost, badly, in part because black voters were suspicious of his racial bona fides). In one of the book's most remarkable passages, Rush mocks the president during an interview in his congressional office, getting out of his chair to make fun of Obama's distinctive, rolling stride. The smooth strut, Rush suggests, was something Obama appropriated from the street to appear more at home around black people. "Lemme tell you, I never noticed that he walked like that back then!"
Those who lost to Obama also complain that the newcomer got an easy ride from the news media. "We didn't understand why his politically calculating chameleon nature was never discussed," an aide to Clinton says. "We were said to be the chameleons, but he changed his life depending on who he was talking to."
Mark Salter, John McCain's campaign adviser, co-author and alter ego, is more blunt: Obama won because his race played into reporters' romantic notions about the arc of civil rights history. "The truth is, all that will be remembered of the campaign is that America's original sin was finally expunged," he says. The McCain forces, Remnick concludes, saw Obama as absurdly fortunate.
There may be something to that. Obama was elected to the Senate only after not one but two credible contenders had contentious divorce papers unsealed. He was elected president because Clinton's campaign was chaotic, but also because Americans were anxious to change course from a deeply unpopular Republican president.
And he has cut deals (think health care). This has made him periodically unpopular with those on the hard right as well as the hard left.
"He is a man who can be accommodated by America, but he is not my hero," one liberal New Orleans activist and Obama supporter tells Remnick. "Because a politician, by nature, has to surrender."
It takes an arms-length biographer to really fill in Obama's gaps, and Remnick is not quite that. He still appears mildly baffled at the backlash his magazine endured in 2008 when it published a satirical cartoon on its cover portraying an Afro'ed, gun-toting Michelle Obama bumping fists with her husband, who was dressed in Muslim garb.
This is a rare blind spot in an author who otherwise seems to get the politics of race. Remnick deserves credit for telling Obama's story more completely than others, for lending a reporter's zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama.
Gwen Ifill is the moderator of "Washington Week," senior correspondent for "NewsHour" and the author of "The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama."