18 October, 2010Issue 14.1North AmericaPolitics & Society

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The Invention of Hope

Rahul Prabhakar

foerDavid Remnick
The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
Picador, 2010
672 Pages
ISBN 978-0330509947

“Together we can make America great again, and build a community of hope that will inspire the world.”

“Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.”

These are the concluding lines of two different speeches by unknown hopefuls launching improbable campaigns for the American presidency: Bill Clinton in Little Rock, Arkansas and Barack Obama in Springfield, Illinois. Lamenting economic turmoil and poor health care, they berated a lobbyist-infested, progress-suffocating Washington culture as the product of Republican rule which trumped individual over community, personal gain over common purpose. Same message, different messenger.

Which is not to belittle the difference. The difference is staring out at you before you begin David Remnick’s The Bridge—Obama’s visage, his right ear listening, mouth about to smile, skin unmistakably black, more effective in the metallic darkness of the British hardcover, not in the bright color adorning the U.S. cover. It is a portrait unlike any other among American presidents, a fact pointedly made by Obama himself—”I don’t look like I came out of central casting when it comes to presidential candidates.” The Bridge is an ultimately persuasive account of how communitarian rhetoric, unapologetic ambition, and historical circumstance put Barack Hussein Obama in the White House. Despite never actually writing the word “communitarian” in 672 pages (except for one quotation), Remnick skilfully demonstrates that for all the novelty of his ascendance to become the first American president who “happens to be black”, Obama picks up the liberal agenda from where others left it.

Liberals, such as New York Governor Mario Cuomo and public intellectual Michael Sandel, had long argued during and after Ronald Reagan’s and George H.W. Bush’s conservative reigns that Democrats needed to learn the “language of self-government and community”. Liberals had to engage in moral and religious debates, not reflexively maintain blind, dogmatic adherence to the separation of church and state. Otherwise, they would cede ground to the superficial and disingenuous.

Bill Clinton developed a theme for his politicking and governance—”opportunity for all, responsibility from all, a community of all Americans”—that embraced significant welfare reform, sought universal health care, and bolstered economic development. Voters found Clinton credible because he had lived a life full of pain, but self-willed growth, too: a rocky childhood without his biological father (who died in a car crash before he was born), but a limitless curiosity and optimism which took him far (including to Oxford). A non-partisan, up-by-the-bootstraps appeal which Reagan, Truman, and other successful presidents shared. It also didn’t hurt that Clinton enjoyed being “Bubba”. Suffice it to say that Al Gore and John Kerry did not.

How did Obama become credible with the American public? Unlike Clinton, he could not draw upon an appropriately named Arkansan hometown, “a placed called Hope”. Obama had to invent—indeed, to re-invent—a hope of his own. Remnick’s narrative repeatedly reveals the careful, conscious steps taken by the inventive young Obama. He has a white Kansan mother, but his mirror reminds him each morning that he is not just another “Barry”. Frustrated by the tediousness of his first job out of college, as a junior analyst producing reports on international economic conditions, Obama chooses Chicago as the place to legitimate and deepen his black identity. Engrossed by the civil rights movement, but born too late to participate in its most turbulent moments, he takes up community organizing to tackle, often futilely, challenges—slumlords, shuttered factories—that fester still. He appropriates the linguistic and emotional rhythms of the black church, in which he hears, but does not absorb, occasionally extremist beliefs of such preachers as Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Jr.

Obama creates a story of meritocratic rise and adopts a hometown in the best manner of his predecessors—not the 19th-century log cabin, but the demoralised streets of the 20th-century inner city. He didn’t get street cred, though, not with the racially rough-and-tumble Chicago political crowd, by going to Harvard Law School, but through his own deftness in scrabbling together enough support from the predominantly Jewish North Shore liberals and from younger, reform-minded leaders on the black South Side. Beginning in the Illinois State Senate, he picks up the political mantle of social justice, but not as the scion of a dynasty like Jesse Jackson’s or the presumptive heir of a movement. He is helped along by mentors who remember that movement; mentors like Illinois Senate president Emil Jones, who allows him to put his stamp on ethics and health care bills that will bolster Obama’s then-meager legislative record. It is the natural aristocracy which he joins that grants and reflects his suitability for the American presidency: leading the Harvard Law Review, lecturing at the University of Chicago, moving up the Illinois political ranks.

It is in describing this “Narrative of Ascent”, the title of the book’s most compelling chapter, that The Bridge hits its stride. When Remnick combs through Obama’s Dreams From My Father (1995), the audacious memoir of a 30-something, we sense that the biographer is in his wheelhouse deconstructing Obama’s motives and memories. Remnick is also at his finest when pulling back the covers of the new Camelot, drawing in Michelle Obama’s story and describing her “bracingly astringent bemusement” at the Obamania engulfing their lives and the nation. After placing Obama’s rise in the context of America’s struggle with race and drawing out the steps he took to enter the liberal establishment, Remnick persuades us that, yes, Obama used the newly freed’s memoir and the black preacher’s cadence—slow, halting start giving way to a goosebumpy crescendo—to create the rhetoric that culminates in his speech in Selma, Alabama. This speech introduces the “Joshua Generation”, allowing all of us to collectively participate in America’s renewal, and happens, by the way, to make you feel comfortable voting for a black man. Generally, though, what Remnick writes is not new at all, but freshly rephrased, by extensively drawing on the work of other political journalists, into an engaging history that is all the more impressive for how soon it was published.

Perhaps the biggest drawback of The Bridge is that it is simply not as good as Remnick’s other work. The Bridge does not have the vividness of Remnick’s masterpiece on the final days of the Soviet Union, Lenin’s Tomb (1993), which allowed the reader to imagine the rattling descent into a Siberian coal mine shaft. Remnick rather uncritically records the views of Obama’s Pakistani college friends, resentful political elders, and some 200 others. There is little mention of ex-girlfriends’ impressions of Obama; we will have to wait for his former Washington Post colleague David Maraniss to fill in the gaps. But not long: Maraniss’s own take on Obama is due in 2012, in time for re-election. If he digs into Obama’s past as he did in First in His Class (1996), his biography of Bill Clinton, it will be a juicy turducken stuffed with past friends, rivals, and ex’s.

And for a biographer who uses so much of Obama’s own words—memoirs, speeches, interviews—Remnick misses entirely a moment in the campaign when Obama’s words were accused of not being his own. It was in mid-February 2008, after the multi-state, all-important Super Tuesday primaries had failed to establish Obama or Clinton as the Democratic nominee. As the two campaigns looked ahead to drawn-out, exhausting weeks of more uncertainty, it was revealed that Obama had used language in some speeches similar to that of Deval Patrick, the black Massachusetts governor. Rebutting charges in his own campaign two years earlier that he was all rhetoric and no substance, Patrick had cleverly cited the political force and import of historical lines—such as “all men are created equal”—to rebut his critics’ suggestion that he was offering “just words”.

As the media and Clinton campaign pointed out, Obama used nearly identical language to defend himself against similar criticism. For all of Remnick’s emphasis on the memoir tradition as a way for aspiring blacks to assert their identities, and how important Obama’s literary success was to his political rise, it is surprising Remnick missed this pi√±ata. It was a chance for him not to disprove plagiarism, but to exemplify how communitarian rhetoric has to be defended, lest it be dismissed as shallow or superficial.

Two years in, the Obama White House faces headwinds similar to those that destroyed the 40-year reign of Democratic control of Congress in 1994. But what took Bill Clinton by surprise is plain for all to see this time, the starkest example being Scott Brown’s stunning January 2009 win of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts. Republican control of Congress—or of just the House—is not necessarily bad for Obama. A party out of power, like the Republicans today and Democrats for six years under George W. Bush, can get away with whacking the president without accountability. As it did for Clinton, by magnifying the differences between the parties, a Republican Party with some power would present a clear choice for voters—our agenda or theirs?—that is often more effective than laying your own ideas out only to be shot at. But what if Obama’s problems are deeper? There was never any doubt on the part of voters about the strength of Clinton’s empathy or passion (or his religion, for that matter). Has there been an erosion of basic public trust in Obama? If so, is it the inevitable realization that the rhetoric of communal hope doesn’t change the way power works? Or is it because of painfully high unemployment? The Bridge reveals little about the American public that embraced Obama or about those who are now disheartened.

Instead, Remnick chooses to place Obama both in the history of America’s racial struggle and its liberal tradition, often at the expense of exploring Obama’s day-to-day political challenges. Where Martin Luther King, Jr was stopped—beginning a crusade for black economic opportunity—was where Obama started as a community organizer. Where Bill Clinton left office—stymied in enacting universal health care—was where President Obama picked up. What does an even-keeled, purposeful leader do in the face of intractability: a moribund economy, war in Afghanistan, climate change? Can these bridges be crossed? Where Remnick falls short is where other biographers should begin.

Rahul Prabhakar is reading for an MPhil in International Relations at St John’s College, Oxford. Rahul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.