Friday, April 9, 2010

'The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama'

There's an old saying about journalism that it's the first draft of history. It's still sometimes true. In the past, columnists like Walter Lippman graduated to the level of historian or political philosopher. William Manchester went from the Baltimore Sun to The Killing of a President to a three-part biography of Churchill. Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam's first drafts for the New York Times helped form the backbones for A Bright Shining Lie and The Best and the Brightest, two Pulitzer Prize winners so fundamental to our understanding of Vietnam that their names have practically become metonym.

While there are still journalists out there like Dexter Filkins and George Packer, whose outstanding The Forever War and The Assassin's Gate (respectively) both present something like a first draft of the conflict in Iraq, journalism as a whole loses its privilege to this distinction with each passing year. The first draft of history might now be an anthology called Missing the Boat, a concatenation of Newsweeks and their ilk capitulating whenever confronted with the choice of accountability or access. Our famous first drafts are Judith Miller at the New York Times parroting administration talking points in exchange for high-level access, and the majority of the media during the HCR debate uncritically repeating words like "communism" while spinning the same culture-war narrative the Republican party has relied on for 20 years to obscure the fact that they have no political philosophy outside of "tax cuts."

Obviously, New Yorker editor-in-chief and Pulitzer Prize-winner David Remnick had his work cut out for him with The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.What's most interesting about the book is that he might have succeeded in creating a first draft of history — except at a remove. He's presented the rarely seen credible attempt at objective history, but he's done so with so little showmanship that it may take a long time for people to notice.

Books about presidents just after their election tend to fall into one of four categories. The first resembles a fact-free pamphlet distributed right before the election, only the author elaborates on his dire insinuations with quotes from the inaugural address and grave forebodings for the decline of all civil society. These vituperative onslaughts are objectively worthless, and Obama by dint of party and skin color has already been subject to too many to count, sometimes in pun form (viz. The Obama Nation, a word salad of conspiratorial idiocy drafted by the man behind John Kerry's "swift-boating").

Next comes the naked cash-grab book, something that's loaded with pictures and triumphal titles and repeats the narrative of the winning campaign. The contents are paid-for reprintings of newspaper or magazine profiles, or else they're rewritten note-for-note in the way elementary-school children present a class report on something by rephrasing the encyclopedia. Primary sources include famous speeches during the campaign, pointing up their effectiveness or import. They amount to pictorial menu-depth histories of what you ostensibly agree with in the first place. There are already dozens of books on Obama like this, and for the most part they're meant to go on coffee tables and provide an emotional fillip for those invested in the campaign.

The third and arguably most successful of all post-election books is the campaign dissection. The schtick here is that you already understood the campaign enough to want to endorse the candidate, but now the people involved want to tell you both why you liked it and what it means, although presumably you thought these things before voting. David Plouffe wrote one in The Audacity to Win, which largely tells you only what the media was already telling you, except in this case it comes from an insider and achieves more "weightiness" on the "like, he would know, man" principle. Another good example is Game Change, which covers all the hot and juicy behind-the-scenes gossip, but does so by marrying the unreliable to the stuff already familiar from reading any blog between 2007 and 2009. Invariably these are interesting and even titillating books, but they're invalidated within two to four years as both subsequent elections and the president's form of governance contradict the airy promises or alleged dirty secrets about what he means to the electorate.

Remnick's book represents the fourth of these immediate election follow-ups, the sober attempt to approach both biography and electoral conflict through the lens of "objective" journalism. People tend not to like these books, because they either tell them what they already know, what they refuse to hear, or something that doesn't even include illicit staffer-scromping in hotels on the campaign trail. Everything that makes campaign autopsies fun is something that seems too unserious to meet the historical-document goal; meanwhile, even those noble ideals are just as susceptible to invalidation as campaign drama. For example, Remnick's epilogue in The Bridge, although written in January, is now mostly meaningless.

The book as a whole is not, though, and it would be a shame to lose sight of that while stressing a prescience it can never have. Remnick relies on two core metaphors throughout. The first is "The Bridge," which refers both to Obama's ability to span different racial and cultural worlds and also to the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, on which civil rights workers were so savagely beaten by whites in 1965 that it forced Lyndon Johnson to pass the Voting Rights Act and effectively destroy Jim Crow forever. The two things might seem fundamentally different — Obama's biracial ancestry and multicultural appeal versus a horrible act of violence — but both of these converge in Remnick's second metaphor: that of the Moses Generation and the Joshua Generation.

For those heathen readers amongst you, the story of Joshua follows the story of Moses. After having led the Israelites out of Egypt and out of slavery, Moses and his followers nevertheless find themselves in the desert for forty years, unable to reach home. After relaying to them God's laws — a justice for all — he is forbidden to cross the River Jordan into the land of the Israelites. He names Joshua his successor, and after crossing into Israel, Joshua becomes the first high priest of the new Jewish temple. Civil rights leaders saw the history of blacks in America as following this narrative. Having achieved freedom after the Civil War, they watched their civil liberties erode after Federal troops were withdrawn from the south following Reconstruction. Thus they spent their years in the desert, at liberty but not at home, unable to exercise their rights in a way that made them citizens of a nation.

The metaphor works well politically, because just as Moses saw but could not enter the Promised Land, Martin Luther King announced on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that he had seen the same, before an assassin's bullet years later prevented him from entering it. But it works better in the context of the "Civil Rights Generation" as a whole. Those who, with Dr. King, agitated for equality were nonetheless freighted for decades afterward with the depiction of themselves as racial- or special-interest movement figures. Often whites unfairly saw them as black activists firsts and candidates second — an appearance that GOP candidates have lustily encouraged since 1968 — which unfortunately made them appear less politically viable outside their demographic.

Obama, in Remnick's view (and not his alone; Gwen Ifill makes a very similar case in The Breakthrough), attained the leadership of the Joshua Generation in no small part because he was too young to have been part of the Moses Generation and too distant from them — in racially fairly tranquil Hawaii — to be affected by the prejudices and the enthusiasms of the same. His biracial birth and his intellectual dexterity merely add to the luck of his origins both geographically and temporally. In short, Obama was both black and white, grew up somewhere that nobody really cared whether you wanted to be either, and has studied enough to know that both sides of the divide have valuable and shared concerns that can be exported to the other.

Outside of these metaphors, Remnick tells Obama's story simply and well. He relies on hundreds of published newspaper and magazine articles, as well as personal interviews with anyone involved who was still alive and willing to talk. He also used Obama's books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, as primary-source commentary on incidents or as Obama's personal counterpoint (although Remnick interviews Obama multiple times). The results offer the best of long-form objective journalistic profiles: probably 350 pages of intense focus on Obama, with the remaining 200 or so pages contextualizing him through mini-profiles of people he meets, histories of the civil rights movement, a primer on Chicago machine politics, analysis of legal opinions, etc. Because Remnick believes in Obama as a great listener and compromiser, much of the crux of his explaining Obama relies on explaining his surroundings, be they people, politics or policy.

This last bit explains how the book succeeds, perversely, in an immediate way. While the overall goal might only achieve for readers a sense of, "Well, that sure was an Obama biography, soberly written without salacious content or crazed ideological axe-grinding," the process of creating that biography — all those contextual profiles of other people — achieves something like a passive repudiation of three years of crazed talking points. Anyone familiar with Obama or his books knows a lot about the broad conceptual sweep of this book. What's most fascinating is how the details immediately impeach so much of the abject rhetorical insanity surrounding Obama.

Suddenly here are Saul Alinsky, Tony Rezko, Bill Ayers and Jeremiah Wright in something longer than a cheap one-line guilt-by-association epithet. Here are men as they matter, not as totems of spooky communism or "community activism." Alinsky as he exists in right-wing media might as well be a liberal avatar of the bloody-mouthed Jew caricature who ate Christian babies and poisoned wells during the Black Plague, but here the man is so innocuously pragmatic and well-meaning toward poor people that it's almost funny to meet him — even before realizing that he died years before Obama ever went to Chicago. Ayers is the white-haired hippie with influence, the sort of person you run into at fund raisers in Palo Alto, CA, and dismiss as the guy whose breath smells like pot and talks too much about ultimate frisbee before another acquaintance casually mentions that he was jailed for trying to sink a supply boat in harbor before it left for Vietnam. Here's Jeremiah Wright imploding under his own power, histrionic without provocation, a man who in spite of that united disparate elements of a broken community for the public weal.

Indeed, what surprises me is that I read this book with highlighter and Post-Its in hand, making notes and trying to make sure I absorbed Remnick's historiographical aims, yet a day after I put it down what I remembered most vividly were its researched and substantiated refutations of poisonous anti-Obama screeds, straw men, slurs and fictions that are already common currency in print, online and broadcast media. Absurdly, the day after I'd asked myself what I remembered about the book, Glenn Beck devoted his show to meeting Obama's idle challenge that any one of his critics "prove" he was a socialist. Beck's approach was typically flawed and inane. Evidently his tactic — since, of course, no objective fact could substantiate his claim — was to explain how everyone else in Obama's life might be a socialist, so naturally Obama was too, because he didn't have a father in his life, or something.*

* — In this case, Remnick's book proved indispensable, because I could hear even a single sentence of Beck's and recall immediately why it was specious hogwash, and even remember how I could prove it. Beck railed against Obama's mother Ann Dunham's academic use of Critical Theory, citing how it employs Marxist critique as proof of communism. There are probably a half a dozen ways in which this is staggeringly stupid, but the most obvious is the fact that Critical Theory isn't an ideology but rather a means of interpreting and approaching things. It's a tool. Calling someone who uses Critical Theory a communist is like calling a farmer who owns a hammer and sickle Nikita Kruschchev. Beck went on to mention how she'd studied Nietzsche — in his world a man called "Nee Chee" — and how that exhibited communistic thought as well, despite the fact that it would surely make Nietzsche want to hurl. This is hardly surprising, though, since Beck views "Fascism" and "Communism" as indivisible, despite the fact that the former was created to murder and destroy communists. Whatever.

Probably his best attempt at a smear was alleging that Obama's mother was, as a child, an enthusiastic proto-communist member of the East Shore Unitarian Church in Mercer Island, Washington — the "Little Red Church," a name that itself was something of a joke even at the time. Beck alleges that there she learned at the feet of card-carrying communist John Stenhouse, president of the local school board. His evidence is that, in 1955, Stenhouse was investigated by the House Subcommittee on Unamerican Activities. Here's how Remnick writes the relevant details:
Stenhouse was born in Chunking, China. His father was a trader, and he worked in the family business until the family left China, for Los Angeles, on the eve of the Second World War. During the war, he became a machinist in a weapons factory. His union was the United Auto Workers. Stenhouse began to join left-wing discussion groups. He signed a Communist Party card, attended a few more meetings, and then quit the Party, in 1946. "The changing time was impressing itself on me," he told Time in 1955, "and I felt those people were going off on entirely the wrong track, excusing the Soviet Union and criticizing the U.S...."

A town meeting was called, at the Mercer Crest Shool, and two hundred and fifty people from town gathered to debate the fate of John Stenhouse....

And yet most of the peple at the meeting, including the county spokesman for the Young Republicans, said that, while Stenhouse had made a mistake, he had also confessed to it and ought to be allowed to stay on the board. "I realize I made a mistake," he said at the meeting. "I believe we have the power to show people throughout the world that we have a better way than the Communists." (p. 47-8)
Not only did Republicans, the party of anti-communism, exculpate Jon Stenhouse during the most paranoically anti-communist era in American history, the man's crimes consisted of going to a couple of meetings a year after the United States had just spent nearly four straight years touting the nobility of the Russian people and "Uncle Joe" Stalin. Beck cleaves to the "Little Red Church" name and this "former red" name of a man only tangentially related to Obama's mother to tar Obama with the wide brush of guilt by association. He's using a McCarthyite tactic to refer to a moment in time in which even practitioners of McCarthyite tactics realized that their attacks had no substance. This is a distinction obviously lost on Beck, since he's basically the Special-Ed edition of Joe McCarthy anyway.

Now, I realize that this was a long digression, but the point is that Glenn Beck or even an intelligent reader can come to these conclusions only after a whopping forty-seven pages.

This sort of talking-point quibbling probably exemplifies the book's current utility more than anything else. Somehow, poor Remnick has written a first-draft of history whose best use is flipping through extensive end notes and bibliography to blast a welter of citations at the next clod all too eager to repeat lies and referred lies about people who might have known still other people who might have told Obama bad things like, "Poor people deserve something better than dying," or other crackpot nonsense. At the anti-Obama movement's most credible, they can point to people Obama knew first-hand and gin up sinister implications about those relationships, but these too are handily scattered by Remnick's commitment to context and individual profiles.

Now, in fairness to critics, Remnick does give the opposition grief as good as they give Obama. He doesn't shy away from blasting the Bush administration or GOP policy for the last two decades, and especially that of the last eight years. His commentary on the Katrina response as well as fiscal policy leading up to and during two wars is mordantly funny and striking. He expresses general contempt for George W. Bush's placid and unwavering unconcern with details and pride in instinctive action without reflection. It's difficult to see how this matters, though.

Those predisposed to reject any book about Obama written by the conservative phantom of the "liberal media" won't buy or read this book anyway, so he can hardly be faulted for failing to cater to them. And in any case, the non-deranged members of conservative America have long considered it a truism that Bush elected Obama. Remnick's castigation of GOP excess or mismanagement neatly co-opts (or is co-opted by) the GOP's own narrative that no Democrat and certainly no "radical black candidate" could be elected without their having tripped up and handed the election to the bad guys. Remnick's book can't please the fringe, but his contention that Obama's message of change resonated with voters tired of eight years of bad policy is something that the GOP itself has employed as an excuse. When you depreciate a candidate by claiming his advances were made by your own elective and mistaken retreats, you cannot dismiss a book because it agrees with you.

In a way, Remnick's book finds itself beset by a compelling and bizarre conundrum. It's too "objectively" and "contextually" oriented to be sexy as a current political text, but it's too immediate not to be read as one that responds to the textual dialogue occurring in print, on the internet or TV. It has present value in a strictly utilitarian or argumentative way, but it lacks a really compelling narrative in the present as well. After all, it tells you a story you might already have processed via Obama's own books, or TV pundits or the blogosphere. If you are at most dimly politically aware right now, you already know the dramatic beats, reversals of fortune or extraordinary circumstances that make this book work as a story. If you are very politically aware, you know the policy and social implications attending those dramatic beats. You know Selma. You know what a Joshua Generation is. You know hope maybe wasn't so audacious and instead was responsive to political weariness.

This explains what is meant above about unintentionally crafting a first draft of history. Remnick's book exemplifies a varying utility to those in the moment, those following blogs or shouting at people about politics in general. Those people are already armed with the tools necessary to prosecute whatever policy conflict suits them. The book deepens their understanding, maybe enriches the polemics they would already make, but it isn't necessary to the process. They'd get along without the book. With the book, they merely have to change citations, adjust tactics, but the war moves on.

Coincidentally, I happened to start my car the other day and have the dial tuned to the NPR station just as a woman reviewed this book. Her conclusions were much the same as mine: that this book tells an informed reader many things she already knows. She concluded, however, by suggesting that this book will be indispensable to those in the future who didn't live this headache. She's right.

Obama supporters and detractors who were fanatically absorbed in the 2008 election will find deeper and fuller profiles of the topics already on their minds. They won't find a lot of newness. This book succeeds in elaborating on the known and enriching our understanding of it. The twists won't surprise us. The sudden moments are not sudden. But if Remnick's book doesn't satisfy in this way, it's probably immaterial in the long run.

He closely reads both of Obama's books and checks them against published records and against his own interviews. Those interviews include friends, classmates, ideological opponents, supporters, campaign staffers, candidates he ran against, the staffers of those candidates, political observers, teachers, colleagues, family, etc. Remnick offers two overarching metaphors for what Obama means and for what he's achieved, but he relies on thorough groundwork, on the ugly business of asking questions, checking dates and minutes and registers and town hall reports. He's clearly asked questions of those in power and those who met the man in even the most inconsequential settings. This is important.

What readers can glean from the book now might not be revelatory. It might even be supplemental to more of the same. But The Bridge credibly, lucidly, sometimes entertainingly and smartly does the work it's meant to achieve. Anyone who lived through it might have browser bookmarks and endless blogs to refer to, as a product of history at the time, but those not old or engaged enough have an excellent substitute. Sometimes it's inchoate or agitated or polemical, but journalism should still be the first draft of history. That's what this is.

Rating: 4
A good resource for people sick of arguing about this stuff online and having documentary evidence dismissed because "that just came from a site on the internet." Ideal for people who didn't follow the election closely but are interested in getting a comprehensive look at Obama's biography relying on multiple sources. Also probably a good bet for those of a history/historiographical bent who want a kind of foundational text with lots of primary-source citation from which to jump off in terms of examining the process of writing the "Obama history." Not really recommended for those heavily invested in arguing online and already steeped in links and various sources about this stuff, although it could surprise you. A lot of the profiles of peripheral characters and the historical recapitulations are pretty delightful, although that might come from comparing them to the parts of the narrative that are very familiar.