By David Remnick, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 627 pages, $29.95
In “The Bridge,” David Remnick gives us a comprehensive biography of Barack Obama. It is an insightful, intriguing view of the 44th president and the times that forged him.
John Lewis, one of the remaining revered leaders of the Civil Rights movement told the author that Barack Obama “is what comes at the end of that bridge of Selma.” He is referring to the “Blood Sunday” march of March 7, 1965, during which 600 civil rights protesters—men, women and children— peaceably attempted to cross the Edmund Petus Bridge in support of voting rights. The violent beatings, tear gassing and arrest of the marchers by Alabama state troopers shocked the nation and led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
We are by now familiar with the tale of Obama’s youth, the son of a black Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas. What is poignant in Remnick’s book is the retelling of the struggle by Obama to find himself and to explore what it meant to be a black in the Caucasian world of his elite prep school and colleges.
Absent a father figure, Obama studied African-American music, literature and above all the history of the Civil Rights movement. His choice of Columbia University in Harlem for his completion of undergraduate studies could be interpreted as an effort to immerse himself in the black cultural capital of the Unites States.
Obama does not appear as a liberal or radical figure at any point in his life. To the contrary, his election and leadership as editor of the Harvard Law Review reveals that his great strengths are his ability to mediate and conciliate opposing view points. The conservative members of the law review felt he listened and respected their viewpoints and believed they were merely “misguided.”
Remnick suggests that Obama lost his 2000 congressional race to Bobby Rush because he was “not Black enough.” Truth be told, Obama was a poor campaigner who came across as detached and haughty. He was also harmed by the murder of Rush’s son in a street crime. The author leads us to the conclusion that the older generation of black voters were not ready to depose Rush, a biblical Moses figure, and follow Obama, a younger, brasher, inexperienced Joshua, to the Promised Land. That time would come. Obama learned to communicate with the people, learned to campaign and this prepared him for his two next races.
The Illinois U.S. Senate race of 2004 exposed Obama to a more diverse population of the rural and suburban votes. Unlike the congressional race, where inner city Chicago natives dominated, the statewide race oddly suited Obama’s background. As the candidate drove across the heartland he commented: “I know those people. Those are my grandparents.”
As it would later determine the course of the 2008 presidential election Obama’s ability to relate to white, blue-collar, middle-class and educated voters was decisive in his rise to the Senate.
Remnick touches too briefly upon the presidential campaign of 2008. The book treats Obama’s election as a foregone conclusion once he delivered the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. The author does succeed in detailing the painful choices made by black political leaders in switching their allegiances from Hillary Clinton to Obama. It was as if the black community needed to be shown that the election of a black president was possible. The South Carolina primary proved to them that a vote for Obama was not a wasted vote. He could win.
Obama, the cool, composed intellectual, is described by the author as crying on two occasions in his life. The first was at the ancestral grave of his father. He had learned by then that his father was a troubled, violent man and cried because he felt his pain. The second occasion was in practicing for his acceptance speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. At his mention of Martin Luther King’s speech at the Lincoln Memorial he choked up. As a student and follower of the Civil Rights movement, he understood full well the sacrifices that had been made that allowed him to achieve that moment.
It is clear from this book that Obama fully comprehends that he rose to his position as leader of the free world because of Rosa Parks, Andrew Goodman, Martin Luther King, the Freedom Riders, the four young black girls who died in a Birmingham church and countless others.
On inauguration day, Congressman John Lewis, the only speaker of the 1963 March on Washington still alive, approached the president with a piece of paper and asked him to sign it. Obama wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.” This is evidence of humility and self-awareness that is rarely found in any person or politician.
Andrea M. Alonso is a partner at Morris Duffy Alonso & Faley.