Saturday, March 5, 2011
The Bridge by David Remnick
"Race isn't rocket science," one of Barack Obama's mentors said. "It's harder."
Ain't that the truth. So this is a biography of our first African-American president, written through the prism of race. Early on in his massive new biography of Barack Obama, cryptically titled The Bridge, David Remnick quotes Bob Dylan on the president: “He’s like a fictional character, but he’s real”. This comes, of course, from a man who clearly knows a thing or two about (self-) mythologizing, and he’s right. There is something unearthly and unbelievable about our president, something that makes his allies and admirers want to lavish praises upon him but makes his opponents distrust him. Is his story too good to be true.
Remnick’s framing of the book is twofold: (a) he wants to deflate the myth by giving Obama to use through the eyes of his friends, family, and classmates; and (b) he wants to increase the power of the myth by presenting Obama as the spiritual heir of the Civil Rights movement—born, as it were, to be the proof of the freedom Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought and died for--hence the title.
Remnick seeks to accomplish these two contradictory purposes by a single technique: Tell the whole story in all its magnificent, sweeping grandeur, and in all its minute, personal detail.
The aim is to present Obama’s presidency as the logical conclusion of all of these advances. Remnick accomplishes purpose (b) far more successfully than he does purpose (a). The way we know Barack Obama at the end of The Bridge is in the way we feel we know Odysseus or Huck Finn—it is the personal relationship we are able to have with a fictional character. The quotes from people who know Obama that are sprinkled liberally through this book can’t quite shatter our sense that he is beyond knowing; they are less likely to change the reader’s mind about Obama and more likely to prop up whatever his or her preconceptions were—good or bad. Great read.