"The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama"
By David Remnick
Alfred A. Knopf, 656 pages, $29.95
Reviewed by Kevin Boyle
By March 7, 1965 John Lewis had been in hundreds of civil rights campaigns. But from the moment he led the six hundred marchers out of the Brown Chapel AME that afternoon he knew that Selma was different. “There was no singing, no shouting,” he said later, “just the sound of scuffling feet.” They walked, two by two, past a housing project, toward the highway, over the Edmund Pettis Bridge that spanned the Alabama River, until they saw the line of state troopers on the other side. Lewis stopped his column fifty feet from the policemen, who ordered them to turn back. For a minute they stood in silence, Lewis staring across the divide. Then the troopers advanced, helmets pulled tight over their gas masks, night sticks raised. And the assault began, an attack so relentless, so vicious it came to be called “Bloody Sunday” – the segregated south’s last desperate defense of a racial regime that had lasted for the better part of a century.
Forty-two years later, on March 4, 2007, Barack Obama brought his fledgling presidential campaign to Brown Chapel. He had been asked to headline the annual commemoration of the Selma march, a coup for a candidate whom most experts considered a long-shot to win the nomination. But Obama turned the moment into something much more than a campaign appearance. Standing in the pulpit, he made himself one with the movement that he’d been too young to join. “That bridge outside was crossed by blacks and whites, northerners and southerners, teenagers and children, the beloved community of God’s children,” he said. “They wanted to take those steps together, but it was left to Joshua to finish the journey Moses had begun, and today we’re called to be the Joshuas of our time, to be the generation that finds our way across this river.”
David Remnick, the editor of “The New Yorker” and a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, puts that powerful metaphor at the heart of his engrossing new biography, “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama”. Obama, he says, is the quintessential member of the Joshua Generation: those African-American politicians who came into public life after the monumental battles of the civil rights era, re-shaped the movement’s message of hope and redemption for a now multi-cultural America, and in the process transformed the nation’s politics in ways that, a generation earlier, would have seemed impossible.
Obama’s ability to play that pivotal role rests on his personal transformation, Remnick argues: his search for identity and community; his struggle to define himself and his place in the world; his careful crafting of a political career. That story has been told any number of times before. But Remnick, drawing on extensive interviews and an imposing range of reading, gives it a new depth and subtlety. “The Bridge” isn’t a book of revelations but of contextualization, a biography meant not to shock but to last.
The tone is set from the start, when Remnick creates a complex portrait of Obama’s parents. Barack Obama, Sr. came of age in the midst of the anti-colonial movement that swept across Africa after World War II, his aspirations shaped by the promise of a new nation waiting to be made. His mother, Ann Dunham, shared in the enormous optimism of postwar liberalism at its best – a remarkably open young woman enthralled by cultures different from her own. He exploited her idealism, then left her with a one-year old to raise.
His mother’s values shaped her son’s childhood. They also gave him a rootlessness that Barack, Jr. spent his teens and twenties trying to shake. Remnick follows him from his private school in Hawaii, where he was one of a handful of African- American students; through college in California and New York, where he gradually developed a commitment to social change; and on to south-side Chicago, where, at age twenty-four, he decided to put that commitment to the test.
Once Remnick reaches Chicago, the personal side of the story starts to recede. He makes Michelle Obama a surprisingly minor figure, her role largely restricted to complaining about her husband’s ambitions. He barely mentions Michelle’s parents, whose story would have given Remnick a perfect entrée into the imposing world of the African-American middle class. And he gives us no sense of how the Obamas managed to build a family life that was as firmly grounded as they wanted it to be. Instead Remnick focuses almost exclusively on Barack Obama’s public life. He offers a supple reading of the city’s byzantine politics, with its strange combination of idealism – his section on Saul Alinsky is particularly revealing – pettiness and chronic corruption. And he’s remarkably adept at wading through the political cross-currents that cut through Chicago’s African-American community; no small matter, since it was two of those currents – Bobby Rush’s roots in Black Power and Jeremiah Wright’s liberation theology – that almost shattered Obama’s career.
In the end, though, the key to Obama’s rise, besides a great deal of luck, wasn’t his ability to master the politics of Black Chicago but to transcend it. Remnick painstakingly traces Obama’s cultivation of white power brokers in Chicago, Springfield and Washington as he moved toward a presidential run; his honing of a political message that highlighted his multi-racial background and multi-cultural roots, turning his personal search for understanding into a symbol of a new America; his linking of that message to the great promise of the civil rights movement -- that the nation is not trapped by its racial past, that the future is ours to shape, that we can overcome.
Obama’s appropriation of the Joshua Generation confounded both Hilary Clinton and John McCain, neither of whom could find a way to combat the power of hope. Remnick doesn’t try to follow every twist of the 2008 presidential campaign – he gives Sarah Palin only two paragraphs – preferring to keep his focus on the race’s racial dynamic. That decision makes the final section of “The Bridge” more powerful than it otherwise would have been. Instead of being dragged into the minutia of political calculation, Remnick gives Obama’s autumn campaign the grandeur the candidate wanted it to have. And when he describes the Obamas walking onto the Grant Park stage on election night, the crowd cheering, the confetti swirling, he makes us feel the promise of that moment once again.
Remnick is far too sophisticated to suggest that Obama’s election solved America’s racial dilemma. There’s no denying the profound inequalities that continue to plague African-American communities – poverty, segregation, incarceration – no matter who’s in the White House. Still he insists that Obama’s election was a transformative event, a step toward, if not the creation of, a more perfect Union. Obama shares that sense, Remnick suggests, even if he’s loath to admit it. And he knows precisely who it was that made the moment possible. An hour or two after he took Obama took the oath of office, John Lewis asked the president if he might have his autograph. Obama took the sheet of paper Lewis handed him and wrote, “Because of you, John.”
Kevin Boyle teaches history at Ohio State University. His book, “Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights and Murder in the Jazz Age” received the National Book Award for Non-Fiction and the Chicago Tribune’s Heartland Prize.