On Oct. 9, 2009, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs woke up at dawn and received startling news from Oslo. President Obama, only 48, had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. Usually, this most prestigious of awards honors lifetime accomplishment (read septuagenarian) or recent diplomatic triumph (read Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles). But not this time.
Dutifully, Gibbs called his boss with the mind-boggling international development. Using swear words unprintable in a family newspaper, a curt, disbelieving Obama told Gibbs to essentially "Shut up." It was too early for scuttlebutt. It took Obama a few minutes to realize that Gibbs wasn't yanking his chain.
For "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama" -- a brilliantly constructed, flawlessly written biography -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick interviewed our 44th president about winning the Oslo honor.
"It was not helpful to us politically," Obama matter-of-factly recalls. "Although [ David] Axelrod and I joke about it, the one thing we didn't anticipate this year was having to apologize for having won the Nobel Peace Prize."
When Obama delivered his acceptance speech, many European pacifists were baffled at his quasi-martial words. Did he have to use the word "kill"? Or talk of the righteousness of war in Afghanistan? Obama clearly wasn't trying to sound like Mother Teresa or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Nobel speech, he told Remnick, reflected his "fundamental view" that the world was a "dangerous place" with terrorists who will do vicious deeds and therefore "have to be fought." This wasn't the inheritor of Gandhi's practice of nonviolence. Here was the ghost of Lincoln pledging that war was sometimes moral.
"The Bridge" is a towering monument to Obama's hyper-professionalism when it comes to the art of politics. The president is an unflappable Zen master with a belly full of audacity. Hard work, endurance and civility are inherent in his personality. His greatest strength is that the opposition always underestimates him. In "Alice in Wonderland" terms, he's the Cheshire Cat, the magical creature who saves the day just as the guillotine is about to drop.
Witness how, earlier this month, Obama managed to pass the most sweeping change to America's healthcare system since the creation of Medicare in 1965. Many pundits thought Obamacare, as Republicans called it, was roadkill. When Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January, even more conservatives heard the death knell. But by dodging lions and leapfrogging potholes (plus a little Chicago-style arm-twisting), Obama, bruised and battered, pulled out a New Deal-like victory.
Road to the presidency
How exactly did Obama become America's first black president? Remnick tells the astounding story of Obama's rise to greatness through the prism of the civil rights movement. When John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, getting badly beaten by police for promoting equal voting rights for African Americans, he was Moses opening the door for the up-and-coming Joshua generation. As Lewis himself put it last year: "Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."
Remnick has a genius for placing Obama in the wider context of the black liberation movement. There are allusions to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Joseph Lowery, Malcolm X and many others in this anecdote-rich narrative. Yet by book's end, Remnick declares that Obama, as president, believed it was best to "internalize" race talk because there was "no winnable percentage" in a national dialogue as a White House initiative. His lifetime ambition was to be an American leader, not a Black History Month poster.
Anybody who tries to pigeonhole Obama is bound to get frustrated. Remnick, who has previously written a fine biography of Muhammad Ali, navigates all of Obama's creative rope-a-dope tactics when confronted with racial prejudice, old-style jealousy and new-style (post-Great Society) urban politics.
Although operating from left-center, Obama is a consummate result-oriented pragmatist who early in life developed an earnest, open-minded consensus-seeking style. A one-man polyglot, he shuttled among Hawaii, Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York. He hated making enemies. His smile was radiant. He frowned on triumphalism. Nobody could ever accurately satirize him as an angry black man. Rage has been exorcised from his demeanor. Although blessed with a wry, mocking wit, Obama enjoys helping foes find their better nature.
"Barack is the interpreter," his friend Cassandra Butts says. "To be a good interpreter means you need fluency in two languages as well as cultural fluency on both sides. As a biracial person, he has had to come to an understanding of the two worlds he's lived in. . . . Living in those worlds, he functions as an interpreter to others."
Peter Osnos recalls how, as publisher of Times Books, he had "mid-list hopes" for marketing Obama's "Dreams From My Father"; it was aimed at "multicultural" readers. But Obama delivered a manuscript far richer in universal appeal than was expected, and that eventually became a contemporary classic. According to Remnick, Obama tapped into every possible type of black politics, including liberal integration, black nationalism, Afrocentrism, apathy, activism and even a bit of conspiratorial thinking for good measure. (Remnick does the same in "The Bridge.") Certainly, other American politicians had written excellent books before Obama, but only Obama, whose memoir became a nationwide bestseller, had the courage to describe himself with such raw openness. The Obama that emerges from "Dreams" and "The Bridge" is that of a calculating opportunist who believes that knowledge equals power, that fortitude overcomes expediency. Unflappable in the extreme, his personal sky knows no limits.
How did Obama achieve such a cult of personality at an early age? Turns out his big ears -- which have been compared to many things, including Mr. Spock's and an elephant's -- are more than a cartoonist's gag. As Remnick makes clear, Obama is an extraordinary listener. He picks up on conversational nuances and hesitations as if he's endowed with radar.
One evening at Occidental College in the late 1970s, for example, a besotted Obama sprawled on a sofa in the wee-morning hours listening to Billie Holiday's "I'm a Fool to Want You" on the stereo. When it was over, he listened to the various clinks and clanks down the hall as if studying a musical composition: "I could hear someone flushing a toilet, walking across a room," Obama recalls. "Another insomniac, probably, listening to his life tick away. That was the problem with booze and drugs, wasn't it? At some point they couldn't stop the ticking sound of the certain emptiness." Obama also became a master of human syntax. He could tell by a mere voice inflection what somebody was feeling and learned to mimic his friends with unnerving accuracy. But being able to soul-catch friends' personality tics was a far cry from achieving personal authenticity. Obama went on a post-Occidental quest to find himself: Barry became Barack, and the rest is history.
Remnick dutifully explains the year-by-year processes that led to the 2008 presidential election -- only "First in His Class," David Maraniss' 1996 biography of Bill Clinton, is as profound on a sitting U.S. president. With great verve, Remnick explains why Obama was accepted by black culture (as black) when Clarence Thomas wasn't.
There are love stories revealed in "The Bridge," but none greater than his wise courting of Michelle Robinson. There are vivid details about how Obama won Illinois' 13th District in 1996 to become a state senator, and how he lost a 2000 bid for the U.S. House of Representatives to Bobby Rush. A chapter on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright imbroglio -- complete with the roles played by Rolling Stone, Tavis Smiley and Cornel West -- is riveting. There are clownish appearances by Alan Keyes and Louis Farrakhan; the Rev. Jesse Jackson doesn't fare well. Remnick interviewed a telephone book's worth of notable figures in Obama's life; they're all roll-called in the back pages. Someday they'll form the nucleus of a marvelous Obama Presidential Library oral history collection (if they were taped).
Except for a tack-on epilogue aimed at keeping "The Bridge" as up-to-date as possible, Remnick has written a near-definitive study of Obama from 1961 to 2009. If "The Bridge" fails in any regard, it's in recycling a lot of shopworn stories -- but this, of course, can't be helped.
When Obama gets carried along by the flux of his own ideas, it's crystal clear that he feels only tangentially connected to the black power movement of the 1960s. Like Albert Murray in his seminal book "The Omni-Americans," the president finds black people as American as Valley Forge -- after all, they've been here since the beginning. King has a national holiday. Obama has a Nobel Peace Prize, and now he is aiming for Mt. Rushmore -- for a spot right beside the four presidents he so admires.
Brinkley is professor of history at Rice University and the author of "The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun