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Vol. LXIV, No. 26
Wednesday, June 30, 2010
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Book Review

The Promise of Greatness — David Remnick and the Telling of Obama’s Story

Stuart Mitchner

He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real.

Bob Dylan as quoted in The Bridge

Before taking up David Remnick’s The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf $29.95), I’d like to share some remarks from a famous American novelist who once suggested that if the candidate he was writing about became president, “he would touch depths in American life which were uncharted,” although “his politics would be as conventional as his personality was unconventional.”

The novelist went on to describe the candidate’s “cool grace,” “good lithe wit,” and “keen sense of proportion in disposing of difficult questions.” On the other hand, “there was an elusive detachment in everything he did” that made him seem “at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.” After portraying his subject as “an actor a touch too aloof” for his part, the novelist suggested that “one had little sense of whether to value this elusiveness or to beware of it. One could be witnessing the fortitude of a superior sensitivity or the detachment of a man who was not quite real to himself.”

As some readers probably already know by now, the novelist was Norman Mailer writing 50 years ago in Esquire about the 1960 Democratic Convention that nominated John F. Kennedy. The qualities with which Mailer novelistically endows Kennedy in his essay, “Superman Comes to the Supermarket,” are worth citing in the summer of 2010, when the same talking heads who helped perpetuate the inspirational story of candidate Obama, the poised exemplar of cool grace, are berating President Obama for his elusiveness, aloofness, and detachment.

According to an online piece by Mailer’s assistant Dwayne Raymond, Esquire contacted the novelist in the summer of 2007 to ask if he would “consider going on the road for a short period to profile Barack Obama.” Although Mailer’s failing health forced him to turn down the commission, he was intrigued, knowing that Obama had “something singular” and “was going to be a force” but doubting that the country would elect a black president because of the “inclination toward racial dread” that was “symptomatic of America’s core disfigurement.”

The Truest Sentence

In The Bridge, David Remnick has produced a book about Obama informed by an enlightened awareness of that “core disfigurement.” As hard as it is to employ words like “reasonable” or “just” or “objective” with a straight face these days, they fairly describe Remnick’s approach. In the current take-no-prisoners climate it seems downright Quixotic to write as if there were a journalistic golden mean, a truly “fair and balanced” point of view that would restore some integrity to the phrase so cynically exploited and mocked by its polar opposite, Fox News. In his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway said that when he could not get a new story going, he’d tell himself, “All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.” As to what actually constitutes truth, a good writer makes you feel it in the arrangement of the language, as Remnick does here and as Hemingway does when he moves Nick Adams through the burned-out landscape of “The Big Two-Hearted River.”

Remnick begins with something more ambitious than “one true sentence” when he sets his prologue in March 2007 in Selma Alabama’s Brown Chapel at an event commemorating “Bloody Sunday,” March 7, 1965, the day 600 voting-rights marchers ran into a blockade of Alabama state troopers while attempting to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge. By titling his book after a bridge named for the last Confederate general to serve in the U.S. Senate, Remnick is effectively renaming and reclaiming it for his subject. His first sentence — “This is how it began, the telling of a story that changed America” — leaves “the telling” open and unclaimed, as if it were a challenge to be confronted simply because, like Mt. Everest, it’s there. Since the story is, in essence, the one candidate Obama embellishes to establish his credibility with an African-American audience that day in Selma, Remnick is quick to define as truly as he can the “self” at “the core of [Obama’s] candidacy” — ”a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness.” That “promise” began fading almost from the moment Obama took office; as he observed at a March 2009 press conference, the pride the country felt in electing the first black president “had lasted about a day.”

In a June 19 New York Times Op-Ed piece, “The Thrill is Gone” (subtitled “Our relationship with Obama is on the rocks”), Charles M. Blow’s admonition, “We have to stop waiting for him to be great and allow him to be good,” rephrases the “promise of greatness” distinction Remnick begins The Bridge with and will echo later when alluding to “many (far greater) memoirs” in discussing Obama’s Dreams from My Father, “a good book that became, through political circumstance, an important one.”

The same could be said of The Bridge, which necessarily has to confront the fact that Remnick is competing with Obama, who has already brilliantly “been there” in Dreams and, to a lesser extent, in The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (Crown 2006), which brings the narrative up to the verge of his run for the presidency. It’s unlikely that Remnick or anyone else (including probably even a resurrected Norman Mailer) could improve on Obama’s own account, which I’ve been “rereading” in the audio version, thanks to Remnick’s suggestion that it’s “arguably of greater interest than the text.”


The chorus of witnesses (friends, rivals, mentors, and others) convened by Remnick includes the high school classmate recalling a piece of casual racism Obama endured; Michelle Obama’s discomfort with “the life of a political wife”; and some feisty remarks by the Illinois Congressman and former Black Panther Bobby Rush, who defeated Obama in the 2000 Democratic primary. Rush’s mockery of his onetime rival’s “sense of racial identification” (“It’s amazing how he formed a black identity”) provides Remnick with an amusing variation on the theme set in the prologue, with its account of the virtuoso performance in Brown Chapel that made credible Obama’s identification with the Selma marchers.

The Bridge is also replete with “Little Did They Know” moments like the one involving a professor at the University of Chicago who, after watching his colleague Barack “doing the political thing” at a reception following his loss to Rush, finds himself thinking, “What a putz. What a waste,” as he watches Obama “disappear into the crowd.”

Along with references to operatives telling Obama that his political career was doomed after September 11 because “his name rhymed with that of the most notorious terrorist alive,” there were disappointing turnouts at a book signings for Dreams from My Father (at one he sat the nine attendees in a circle, read for a few minutes, and asked, “Tell me your name and what you do”). Then there was the fund-raiser hosted by a Harvard Law School professor who “had to beg people to come”; after only 25 showed up, “Barack … talked with us for three hours. He was dazzling. This was before he was a thing. It was like seeing Hendrix in a club before he was Hendrix.”

Listening to Obama

One of the reasons Remnick recommends the audio book of Dreams from My Father is that Obama was “a master of shifting his own voice and syntax to fit the situation” (as he did in that first scene in Brown Chapel), expertly impersonating his father, mother, grandparents, various friends, classmates, organizers, black nationalists, and his Kenyan relatives. More important, he’s at his best when he speaks for himself, in his own true voice, up close, intimately analyzing his own thoughts and emotions, particularly on the subject of his mother. Numerous passages like the one where he watches her watching Black Orpheus and realizes how the movie changed her life make it hard to accept Remnick’s claim that there are “many (far greater) memoirs.” “Greater,” yes, but not “many” and not “far.” Reflecting on the The Bridge and Dreams from My Father in this summer of Obama’s discontent (a theme sounded yet again in Ross Douthat’s Monday New York Times Op-Ed piece “The Agony of the Liberals”), it’s worth revisiting what Norman Mailer observed about Kennedy’s “elusiveness.” Whether you’re reading Obama’s version of the story or Remnick’s, you have ample evidence of “the fortitude of a superior sensitivity” in a man who is undoubtedly “real to himself.” How long it will take him “to be great” is anyone’s guess, but when you read Remnick’s account of his rise against all odds, the possibility remains. Therein lies “the audacity of hope.”

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