A Bridge Too Far?

Barack Obama’s election showed how far Americans had come on the issue of race. His presidency so far shows how much farther we have to go.

David Remnick has taken on an impressively difficult task: retelling a well-known story about an extraordinarily famous contemporary figure, who as it happens has told much of the story in his own words.

In writing a biography focused on Barack Obamas role in the history of American race relations, Remnick re-tracks much of the ground covered by Obamas own Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, not to mention the vast literature on the president since his emergence into the national spotlight in 2004 (some of it by Remnick himself).

Remnick largely meets the challenge he sets out for himself with a lively and enjoyable biography that is likely to remain definitive if not always pathbreaking. Moreover, his tight frame on Obama as a racial pioneer helps provide a sound platform for understanding the racial dimension of Obamas young presidency, which is necessarily beyond the scope of this book.

Among its many merits, The Bridge provides readers with an eloquently rendered history of crucial moments in the civil rights struggle (dating back to slavery times), and a continuing commentary by many of its living leaders on the significance of Obamas rise to the presidency. Most notably, John Lewis gave Remnick the title of his book when he said on the eve of the forty-fourth presidents inauguration, “Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

Lewiss contention is debated by African American political figuresand, indirectly, by Obama himselfthroughout much of the book, though by the time of Obamas election, all but a few bitter-enders seem to have been swept up in the excitement. Many appear to echo the attitude of African American voters in the early primaries of 2008, whose ambivalence about the first viable black presidential candidate was largely quelled by his success in attracting white support.

The central metaphor for Obamas rise in Remnicks account is the succession of Moses by Joshua as leader of the Hebrew people. Obama exemplified the “Joshua Generation”the title of a Remnick essay published in the New Yorker shortly after Obamas election, which presents most of The Bridges central themes in miniature. Like Moses, the pioneers of the civil rights struggle couldnt reach the promised land, but their successorhalf white, born and raised in a strange and privileged milieu, a politician, not a prophet, and a man who bleached the rhetorical cadences and communal memories of the African American struggle into American universalismcould and did.

Obamas erratic progress toward this omega point of embodying a fusion of the African American and American “stories” is largely the plot of Dreams from My Father, which Remnick fact-checks and contextualizes for roughly half of his own book. If Remnick finds omissions and exaggerations in Obamas account, he generally confirms its authenticity. And its significant that Remnick considers Obamas struggle with his racial identity essentially complete (though perhaps reaching its culmination in his subsequent marriage to the exceptionally well-grounded Michelle Robinson), and his rise to power well under way, by the time the young man penned a deal to write Dreams, after becoming a minor national celebrity upon his selection as editor of the Harvard Law Review. At this relatively tender age, Obama had already abundantly exhibited the qualities that made him an exemplar to African Americans and an enormously appealing personality to his white peers and mentors, including and even particularly those with conservative views on the law and politics. Once he fully came to grips with the legacy left him by the prophets of the African American struggle, his own ability to “stand on the shoulders of giants” and transcend that legacy became clear and natural to him.

One of Remnicks most insightful passages involves Obamas speech on the night of the 2008 Iowa caucuses, when he was introduced to the country as, incredibly, the instant front-runner for the Democratic nomination for president:

An astonishing set of rhetoric gestures: Obama called on the familiar cadences and syntax of the black church, echoing Jesse Jacksons more overt lines: Hands that picked cotton can now pick presidents: Our time has come! He gestured toward what everyone was thinking aboutthe launching of a campaign that could lead to the first African-American President. Jon Favreau, Obamas speechwriter, said that the two of them were immersed in all of Kings rhetoric, in the two Lincoln inaugurals, and in Robert Kennedys 1968 campaign speeches. The opening of the Iowa speechthey said this day would never comeechoed King, but it was not explicitly racial; it was a way of intensifying a universalist purpose with a specific, historical ring. I knew that it would have multiple meanings to multiple people, Favreau said.

This Joshua had to find Moses before finding himself as Joshua. And this Joshua knew how to redeploy the prophetic words of Moses in a tongue that all ears could hear.

If Remnick is artful in weaving the history of the civil rights struggle into his account of Obamas rise, he is more straightforward in explaining the less familiar territory of Chicagos African American and progressive politics. The ghost of Mayor Harold Washingtonthe brilliant conqueror of the Daley machine whose sudden death in office represented a U-turn from triumph and tragedy for an entire generation of Chicago reformershaunts his account as it apparently haunted Obamas own aspirations from his first days in the city as a novice community organizer on the South Side.

To veterans of the Washington campaign and its antecedents and aftermath, Obama was a parvenu when he first ran for office in 1996 after returning to Chicago as a young attorney and law professor; his community organizing experience was viewed as little more than an internship in the civic life of the community. He had, however, shown an extraordinary flair for networking and making influential friends, preparing him well for the opportunity that suddenly opened up when his state senator, Alice Palmer, decided to run in a special election for a rare open congressional seat. He managed to secure Palmers tacit backing to succeed herconveyed in a small gathering hosted by Palmers ex-radical friends William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn (an event that would loom large in attacks on Obama in 2008). But when Palmer was crushed by Jesse Jackson Jr. in the congressional contest and reconsidered her decision to retire from the state senate, Obama refused to withdraw, and ultimately relied on a successful challenge to her ballot petitions to thwart her comeback. This act struck many political activists in Chicago as epitomizing Obamas refusal to pay his dues, and, as Remnick explains, contributed to his humiliating defeat by Congressman Bobby Rush in 2000, which nearly ended his political career.

Remnick effectively describes Obamas boredom and frustration in the state legislature, but also his good luck: had Obama succeeded in representing the South Side in Congressor following Harold Washingtons path to the mayors officehis mercurial climb in national politics, and likely his biracial appeal, would never have happened. Moreover, his unlikely bid for the U.S. Senate in 2004 (after he convinced Michelle that this would be his last campaign if he lost) was built on the patronage of the state senate president, Emil Jonesan African Americanwho not only helped make Obama viable, but ensured he would enjoy exceptional opportunities to sponsor popular legislation once he had decided to run statewide.

Its at this point in his career, and in Remnicks book, that Obamas story becomes part of national political lore and very well-trod ground. But in his account of Obamas successful U.S. Senate race, Remnick is careful to demur somewhat from the Barack the Lucky legend, according to which his main Democratic and Republican rivals magically vanished by self-destruction. (Obama had in fact pulled ahead of both of them before damaging material from their divorce papers became public.)

And even the “break” that made Obama an overnight national phenomenonhis keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Conventionis explained as more hard work than blind luck. Obama lobbied for the speaking spot, sending clips of his campaign appearances to the Kerry team. He spent weeks writing and honing the speech (as always, he was his own best speechwriter), which was essentially a version of the stock speech he had been delivering on the Senate campaign trail. After constant rehearsals, he delivered, and the rest, as the clich goes, was history, as he filled a momentary niche in American politics that seemed almost divinely predestined by his background.

R emnicks book essentially ends with the inauguration. In a brief epilogue, the author notes a sense of disappointment on “the left” with Obamas early presidency, and also suggests theres been a hint of racial animosity in the Tea Party movement. He even says, “One year after the 2008 election it was fair to wonder whether the most profound moment of the Obama era would be its first.”

This sentiment would certainly be consistent with the books overall depiction of Obama as a transitional figure in American historyas “the bridge.” But Im probably not the only reader who wonders if the events of the last fourteen months cast some doubt on the proposition that the resistance at the end of the Edmund Pettus Bridge has fully been overcome.

Remnicks account of the 2008 general election discusses the bitterness and desperation of the McCain campaign, with its conviction that the media was too invested in the drama of Obamas success to cover the campaign fairly. And he devotes some attention to the efforts of McCain allies to comb through Obamas complicated life to find evidence that he was “an alien figure with a shadowy background and pernicious intentions,” with a particular focus on Obamas cosmopolitanism, his relationship with Jeremiah Wright, and his far less intimate but no less controversial connection with William Ayers. Remnick does not, however, explore the more directly racial undertones of viral conservative efforts (eventually echoed by the McCain campaign in its most desperate hours) to create a master narrative in which Obamas old community organizing associates in the inner-city activist group ACORN had touched off the housing crisis and the financial meltdown by helping unqualified poor and minority families obtain mortgages they could not or would not pay, and was now seeking “socialist” policies to indemnify their shiftless constituency by engaging in massive voter fraud to elect Obama.

Crazy as it was, this narrative continued to spread after election day, and became integral to the lurid fears at the heart of the Tea Party movement, beginning with Rick Santellis televised “rant” against mortgage relief. By late 2009, as anti-Obama sentiment spread among older white Americans, polls were showing that near majorities of both Republicans and Tea Party activists subscribed to the theory that “ACORN stole the election for Obama.” When a crude stunt entrapped one ACORN office into counseling a phony “pimp” on how to avoid taxes, the conservative chattering classes reacted as though a conspiracy of vast dimensions had been exposed. (Congress subsequently, and perhaps unconstitutionally, disqualified ACORN from receiving federal funds for any of its activities, and the national organization folded.)

Given the complexion of virtually everyone connected with ACORN, and its inner-city focus, it is laughable to suggest there was not a racial element to this conservative preoccupation, which brought back old stereotypes of “welfare queens” voting to redistribute the assets of hardworking (white) Americans via taxation and government relief. Moreover, Obamas exceptional intelligence and urbanity, which had reassured some white Americans that he was in some sense “postracial,” convinced others that he was the biracial avatar of a vicious coalition of privileged white professional elites and their dependent black underclass clientele, all bent on looting the productive middle classa coalition demonized by right-wing populist demagogues dating back to Spiro Agnew and George Wallace.

It is possible that any Democratic president inheriting a financial collapse, a deep recession, two wars, and simmering culture wars would have faced the same radicalized conservative opposition determined to disassociate itself from George W. Bush (now deemed insufficiently conservative after years of conservative adulation). But no matter how much todays conservatives rage at any suggestion of even a hint of racism, its hard to avoid the conclusion that the ever-intensifying campaign to depict the president as the conscious enemy of every great national tradition, up to and including the Constitution and liberty itself, owes a great deal to anxiety about his symbolic victory over an older, whiter America. It is no accident that the category of voters who most resisted his appeal in 2008white seniorsis the hotbed of resistance to his agenda as president.

Arguably, then, we are now experiencing a new stage in the tangled history of race relations in America, in which its not clear whether Obama is “the bridge” on the road to a postracial society or just another leader seeking to cross that bridge: not a Moses, but not quite a Joshua, either. Part of the presidents current political dilemma, though, is that so many Americansparticularly African Americans and younger voterswho were so proud to support him in 2008 do not seem to feel a sense of urgency about his success in office, the prospects of his party in November, or his reelection in 2012. By contrast, many of his opponents clearly have not accepted his election as an irreversible fact.

Ultimately, Barack Obama, the calm, self-assured politician whom so many viewed as the heir of prophets and the harbinger of a postracial, postculture war politics, may now have to depend on the politicians skills of intelligently wrought policies, well-crafted strategies and tactics, and the mistakes of his opponents. But fairly or not, the significance of his achievement in becoming the first African American president will likely be determined by his ability to become the first successful African American president. The enactment of health care reform legislation, an enormous accomplishment won at an enormous political cost, is the first landmark on that bridge. David Remnick should already be planning a sequel.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.