A few weeks ago, I found myself in a conversation about recently read political books. One of the books that came up was “The Audacity to Win” by David Plouffe. I had read it last year and while enjoying its first hand account of the Barack Obama presidential campaign, I felt it was too sanitized. Another issue was that the history was so recent. As I read the book, I found myself reading about the campaign and finding myself thinking back to where I was at the time. Like how my friends Saeed, Deaux, and I tried to get into Park Slope’s Pacific Standard to see Obama’s convention speech. With more than two hours till he went on, the bar was already filled. We ended up finding a space at 4th Avenue Pub. Besides the TV, it seemed like no one spoke and no noise broke our attention to the events unfolding before us.
It was these thoughts that came to mind as I read David Remnick’s “The Bridge.” Remnick tells the story of President Barack Obama’s life and the role he has played and continues to play in this country’s on-going struggle with civil rights and race.
The book opens with then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton speaking in Selma, Alabama to commemorate the anniversary of the Selma Voting Rights March – “Bloody Sunday”. The title comes from Rep. John Lewis, who at the time was one of the youngest African-American civil rights leaders, remark that Obama was what comes at the end of the bridge the marchers in Selma tried to cross that day in March 1965.
Remnick, unlike Plouffe who focused mostly on the machinations of a fledgling campaign that slowly morphed into a fundraising juggernaut, pivots backwards, first chronicling Obama’s familial history. He goes back several generations, in an effort to explain how the child of a white teenager from Kansas and a Kenyan, who lived in Hawaii and Indonesia, developed into the Barack Obama of 2011.
In exploring Obama’s childhood, his college years, and his time as a community organizer, Obama the person comes alive. Maybe it is the sacrifices required of a presidential candidate or the office itself, but most of its occupants, even those alive or serving, seem to lose some personal characteristics once in office. In “The Bridge,” any struggling college grad will immediately recognize the post-undergrad living situations and desire to find a job with a meaning that Obama went through after graduating Columbia.
A good portion of the book is devoted to Obama’s search for a racial identity, a religion, and his place in politics. His relationship with race is a consistent theme in the book. Remnick avoids a full-on re-cap of the 2008 presidential primary/general election in lieu of highlighting moments where race was the dominant issue. Through all of this, particularly the Jeremiah Wright saga, Remnick remains even-keeled in his telling of the events, actions, and most importantly, the truth. Campaign spin is explained away, as is radical right wing fanaticism.
As someone who has some acquaintances and a family member who believe Obama is either a foreigner or dead set on a litany of actions that will destroy America, “The Bridge” is the perfect antidote to that wackiness. While Remnick praises Obama where he deserves it, he does not spare in criticizing him either. Every birther should read this book. I’m saving up some money and sending a copy to Orly Taitz real soon.
More importantly, it does something I don’t think the campaign or the administration has done. Towards the end of the book, Remnick synthesizes the parts of Obama’s life that inform who he is as a political leader. Obama’s pragmatism, his ability to hear all sides of an argument, his basic belief in the ability of government to help people come together to define a new type of Democratic philosophy. A post-DLC, post-Clinton, 21st Century vision of what a Democrat could be. While I may not always agree with him, I am proud to call myself a Barack Obama Democrat.
While there are many parts of the book that I could not cover in this space, there was one that particularly resonated with me. Reading about Obama’s early years in Chicago’s political universe hit home as I worked full-time on my first political campaign. Now I’m a political junkie, went to school for it, and volunteered a ton, but the day in and day out motions of a political campaign was new to me. To experience something during the day, and as I sat tiredly on the bus, read about Obama’s experience doing the same thing gave me a hope. Not that I could be president one day, but a hope that the meetings attended, the phone calls made, the attention paid to those who are in need, can make a difference. To me, that is a hope we can all believe in.