April 5, 2010


Barack Obama: The opacity of hope: In "The Bridge," a biracial dreamer in post-Reagan America becomes the first black president. Then things get tough (Joan Walsh, 4/05/10, Salon)

Reading David Remnick's "The Bridge," it's astonishing all over again that we elected as president not just an African-American by the name of Barack Hussein Obama Jr., but a relative political newcomer we knew comparatively little about.

Throughout the book I found myself marveling at the blanks and partial stories about the president that Remnick fills in: about his parents, and whether "Kenya and Kansas" factored into the person he became. How was he shaped by Indonesia and Hawaii, Occidental College and Harvard Law School, idealism, left-wing theory and it-ain't-beanbag Chicago politics? When did Barry become Barack? Maybe most compelling: When did he become the Barack Obama, charismatic, charming, ├╝ber-calm and confident; first among men; an inevitable future president?

Remnick ably answers all of those questions, though he qualifies the scope of his work by calling it "biographical journalism." (He also chases away all the insane conspiracy theories, not by confronting them directly, but with facts.) If you care about American politics, you have to read "The Bridge." One of its contributions is defining Obama as part of a demographic I hadn't thought much about: the post-civil rights movement do-gooder, leaving college and entering the workforce in the 1980s, under a depressing cloud of Reaganism (it happens to be my demographic as well). Watching the future president move through the dusty halls of well-intended but often ineffectual nonprofits, before (and even after) he finds his way to Harvard Law School, I had a new understanding of the way coming of political age in the '80s, caring about social justice but struggling to find a way to make change, shaped this particular historic change agent. Almost as much as being biracial, the pragmatic, incremental approach of post-movement left-liberal politics helps explain the cautious, conciliating president he's become.

"The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama" leaves some of his mysteries unsolved: a privacy and aloofness that also seem like loneliness (his mentor Jerry Kellman from his early Chicago days tells Remnick, "It was clear to me that he was never very long anywhere and he was different wherever he goes"); physical and emotional asceticism; an intellectual and political flexibility that makes it hard to pin him down (which some might call having it both ways); an idealistic belief in the power of listening, synthesis, compromise, that sometimes seems like an arrogant confidence in his own power to reconcile the irreconcilable.

One thing is clear: It's no accident that Obama beguiled the electorate (and maybe himself) by over-promising his ability to change Washington, end partisan gridlock and "part the waters," so to speak. He'd been practicing similar social jujitsu most of his life.

Even setting aside his tobacco addiction, ascetics aren't devoted exclusively to themselves.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 5, 2010 10:18 PM
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