New Yorker editor and author David Remnick will appear in Seattle on April 19 to discuss his new book, "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama."
I’ve read a lot of political novels in my life, and a few great ones (“All the King’s Men”). But I had this thought over and over while reading “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” David Remnick’s superb new life-thus-far of President Obama: No one, but no one, could have made this story up.
By now, most of the world is familiar with Obama’s amazing trajectory; his upbringing as the son of an absent Kenyan father and a free-spirited Kansan mother; his rise from indifferent student at Occidental College to president of the Harvard Law Review; his meteoric political career, aided by smarts, even-temperedness and an amazing knack for timing. Obama has told the story himself in two autobiographical books.
But Remnick, whose day job is editor of The New Yorker magazine, is a master blender of history, reporting and narrative, and in “The Bridge” (Knopf, 656 pp., $29.95), he drives home the stunning, surprising nature of this saga by interweaving Obama’s rise with the history of the civil-rights movement.
In Remnick’s book, the story begins March 7, 1965, when civil-rights leader John Lewis and a crowd of freedom marchers tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. Lewis got his skull fractured by a state trooper for his trouble. It goes on to tell how Obama, son of a black father and a white mother, discovered his black identity, embraced it and turned it into a launching pad for the election of the first black American president.
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It ends on Inauguration Day 2008, when Obama wrote this note to Congressman Lewis: “Because of you, John — Barack Obama.”
Of the raft of books about Obama coming out this spring, this one will be the one to beat. Remnick discusses “The Bridge” on Monday at a Seattle Arts & Lectures appearance at Town Hall. He answered questions the day before the book’s publication, April 6, from his office at The New Yorker:
Q. Do you remember the first time you heard about Obama?
A. I do. Around the office, somebody mentioned that there was a guy with a funny name, running for the Senate, and we were looking for election stories to do that weren’t presidential elections. The more I heard about him from the writer, Bill Finnegan, the more it became obvious that it would be a great piece [titled “The Candidate,” it ran in The New Yorker in May 2004].
And there was even mention of him running for president [then]. I became completely incredulous. I lost a bet with my editor, Dorothy Wickenden. She said, “I think this guy could be president.” I thought, there was no way in the world. Hillary Clinton was running; a guy named Barack Hussein Obama in a post 9/11 world?
Q. What are the special problems and challenges of writing about a sitting president?
A. Some of them are obvious. To write a history of a president who’s long out of office — people are relieved of the bonds of obligation and discretion and circumstances. You are privy to documents and archives that you wouldn’t necessarily have access to in early circumstances — presidential libraries, witnesses.
I benefited enormously from the previous reporting on Obama [Remnick cited in particular the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post and The New Yorker], but I was surprised to an extent by the amount of on-the-record [interviews] I could get, after the campaign and during the first year of the presidency.
[There’s no doubt] that some Robert Caro [author of a highly praised trilogy of books about Lyndon Johnson] will come along and work on a multi-volume biography of Obama. But the goal was to write about the president during his first year in the president, his history, and the man himself.
Q. How many times did you interview him for the book?
A. I sat down with him twice. I have to say that I was thrilled to meet him, not in a gaga sense, but in a journalistic sense.
Q. In your book, reading excerpts of Obama’s own words from letters and passages from his two books, I was struck with his personal eloquence and way with words. Did that make your job easier?
A. It made it both easier and harder. If you’re thinking about writing a book about Barack Obama, you’re confronted with someone who’s already written his own story…
Obama’s was not a long record of policy innovation or government service; the books [“Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope”] played a larger part in creating this thing called Barack Obama. It shaped his own story. How much is true, how much is myth? That is rich territory for someone like me.
Q. Your book brings home how much Obama has benefited from luck and good timing — the personal scandals that undid his primary opponents in the 2004 Senate race; his serendipitous selection as keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention. Is he just a lucky guy, or does he make his own luck?
A. Now you must [believe in luck]. Here’s a guy who comes to the fore in political terms, not only because of skill and talent, but by certain moments of good fortune. Imagine how he would have fared if he had run for Congress in 2000 and won.[He lost to Bobby Rush.] He would have been stuck on the south side of Chicago for a long time. Imagine if there had not been the sex scandals [in 2004]. Imagine if he had not been selected to make that [keynote] speech.
Q. “The Bridge” is a powerful testament to how much racial progress has been achieved in a generation. After 400 years of struggle for rights for black people, what happened to speed this process up, so that between the civil-rights movement of the ’60s and 2008, Americans moved far enough on race to elect their first black president?
A. With respect, I would say … it’s jaw-dropping how slow progress has been. I don’t think we should be overly proud of ourselves. It took far too long for us to be that proud. It’s immensely important that [Obama’s election] happened. It’s immensely important for kids of color. It’s immensely encouraging to everybody who’s not a White Anglo Saxon Protestant.
The civil-rights era was immensely dramatic, but Chicago [where Obama’s political career was born] is still very segregated, as are many American cities. Institutional racism still exists, terrible economic disparities still exist. The notion that we live in a post-racial country is self-deluding folly.
It’s equally vulgar to deny progress. There absolutely is progress. But it’s self-deluding to suppose that Obama’s election is the end of this journey.
Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or email@example.com. Mary Ann Gwinn appears on Classical KING-FM’s Arts Channel at www.king.org/pages/4216533.php