The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
672 pp., $29.95
Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (The Lawrence Stone Lectures)
Thomas J. Sugrue
Princeton University Press, 2010
184 pp., $24.95
Reviewed by Amy Black
Taking the Measure of Barack Obama
In very different ways, two new books about President Barack Obama remind us that the racial divisions and problems that have plagued the United States since before its founding are far from over. Although the election of the first black president is clearly a civil rights milestone, it cannot and does not mark the end of racism as we know it in the United States. At the same time, these works remind us that the United States has made significant progress on racial issues even as they tackle questions about Obama's potential to bridge some of the racial divisions that persist.
Two widely acclaimed authors—New Yorker editor David Remnick and University of Pennsylvania historian Thomas J. Sugrue—offer insights into the complex personality and political life of President Barack Obama and his likely influence on race and American politics. Neither of these books claims to be a definitive biography, and neither author could honestly do so. Much of Obama's story is yet to be written, so any present-day account would be, by definition, incomplete. Remnick describes his work as a "piece of biographical journalism that … examine[s] Obama's life before his Presidency and some of the historical currents that helped form him." Most of the book details Obama's early years, but Remnick changes tactics for the final 120 pages, where he tells "the story of race in the [presidential] campaign." Sugrue's work, originally delivered as the Lawrence Stone lectures at Princeton, provides "a historical vantage point on the recent past" in order to analyze the intersection of race and Obama's roles as intellectual, politician, and policymaker.
Sugrue tells the reader up front that he voted for Obama, even as he notes that he is on the record supporting some and opposing other Obama policies. He says that he is striving for balance in his presentation, and overall he succeeds. His discussion is neither polemical nor fawning; it is a straightforward appraisal by a prolific and careful scholar. The central goal of Sugrue's book is to fight against several false dichotomies that unfortunately typify so much of the American conversation about race: race vs. class, racism vs. color blindness, and pessimism vs. optimism. His work adds missing nuance and complexity to the discussion of the history of race and its present societal scars. Readers looking for simple answers or reasons to believe we are in a postracial America will be severely disappointed, as they should be. Readers willing to engage the complexity of race in contemporary American life and politics will find Sugrue's observations insightful and, at times, appropriately depressing.
Remnick's book serves as a rejoinder to worst of the blogosphere, countering some of the most vicious and persistent rumors with background details and context that paint a more complex, multifaceted, and realistic picture. At times Remnick goes too far trying to prove that he has done his homework—was it really necessary for him to read Obama's mother's nearly 1,000 page dissertation or senior theses written by Hillary Clinton or Michelle Obama?—but such demonstrations allow him to showcase the depth of his research and his often robust understanding of his subject.
Remnick weaves his account from scores of on-the-record interviews. Such sourcing provides many benefits. Remnick interviews political friends and foes, students and teachers from each of the élite schools Obama attended, civil rights activists, and even Barack Obama himself. He was clearly perceived as a friendly source or he would not have been able to gain so much access, especially to on-the-record conversations. Remnick traveled widely to interview sources, and he clearly gained the trust of many. The book benefits greatly from this access and the rich details Remnick's sources provide.
Yet the depth of access is not without its drawbacks. Although the narrative is mostly evenhanded, Remnick is clearly telling the story that he and his interviewees want told about the man who currently sits in the Oval Office. At times the "sunny side up" accounts suspend disbelief. Remnick's assertion that Obama, "like most of his classmates, spent nearly all of his time studying" while at Harvard Law School might aptly describe student Obama. But this general description of student culture is a far cry from what I witnessed when my roommate began her studies there the fall after Obama graduated. Freed from the academic pressures of undergrad life (and liberated by the school's policy of neither reporting nor even calculating class ranks), most of the students we knew were active in a vibrant culture of networking and socializing, only turning to the books in earnest to prepare for finals. It makes sense that the president's contemporaries would highlight the positive while he is in office. With the passage of time, on-the-record interviews will likely offer more complete and unvarnished portrayals.
In what may be the most unfortunate of typographical errors, Remnick names Rod Blagojevich's opponent in the 2002 gubernatorial race as "George" Ryan, confusing the actual opponent, Dan Ryan, with the embattled then-incumbent governor who chose not to run for re-election. Dan Ryan lost the gubernatorial bid; George Ryan was indicted in 2003 and ended up in federal prison. This error raises a related and much more significant omission. In explaining Obama's rise to power in Illinois Democratic politics, Remnick gives scant attention to the scandals and problems that severely weakened the once-dominant Illinois Republican party and paved the way for Democrats to take control of the state legislature and all statewide offices. Although Remnick details many of the lucky turns that clearly aided Obama in his rise to power, he misses a crucial narrative that would have added important context.
Remnick focuses his account on Obama's childhood and political rise. Obama's wife Michelle is described almost entirely in relation to her influence on Obama's decisions to enter political contests; his two daughters receive only the most passing mentions. Indeed, Remnick's Obama is an all-political man. Although Remnick explains many elements of Obama's biography in great, even painstaking detail, he gives religion quite short shrift. Perhaps he sees religion as something to relegate to the background in a political biography.
Sugrue, on the other hand, not only recognizes the significance of religion in Obama's story, he forces his readers to look beyond stereotypes with his insightful discussion of the co-existing liberal and conservative elements of the black church. His analysis of the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright is rich with insights that most discussions missed. Because so many journalists lack nuanced understanding of the black church, Sugrue contends, "the everyday world of black politics and religion remained—and remains—invisible to most of white America."
A unifying theme of both books is Obama's path for discovering and creating his racial identity. In his description of how Obama crafted both his racial identity and the narratives he attached to it, Sugrue emphasizes the role of history shaping the process. Remnick's account is a more traditional biography. He rightfully devotes attention to Obama's formative years in multiethnic Hawaii, a state whose political and social culture differs dramatically from the mainland, weaving together disparate events and interactions that influenced Obama's understanding of his own race and the ongoing struggle for civil rights. Remnick needs time and space to develop such a complex topic, and in large part he succeeds. Readers, especially white readers whose experience of racial identity is so different, also need time and space to consider the theme, even as it raises difficult questions that demand serious consideration.
Both authors provide convincing portrayals of Obama's political ambition, drive, and focus. They capture the heart of his pragmatic and conciliatory style. His first political campaign—for the presidency of the Harvard Law Review—was a harbinger of things to come. Obama won the post in large part by convincing conservatives that he was the best liberal option. As fellow Law Review member Brad Berenson recounts, "There was a sense that he didn't think we were evil people, only misguided people, and he would credit us for good faith and intelligence." Over time, Obama gained a reputation for finding political solutions to bridge divides. In the words of one of his advisers, Mark Lippert, "Obama's basic mantra is, you figure out the policy and I will figure out the process."
Although the two authors differ in style and substance, both conclude that Obama's experiences of race informed his political style, which in turn opened the political opportunity for a new kind of racial politics. As Sugrue explains, "During his journey through the polarized racial world of late twentieth-century America, Obama discovered his calling. It was to overcome the acrimonious history of racial polarization, whether it be to black power or the culture wars—to act on the understanding that such polarization was anathema to national unity."
Both Remnick and Sugrue create portraits that suggest that Barack Obama's life experiences and instinctive political style uniquely place him in history so that he could be a bridge between racial and political divisions. At the same time, they portray a shrewd and pragmatic politician who has strong political incentives not to wade too deep into the murky waters of racially charged issues.
Will Obama be willing to take such a political risk? Is such bridging really possible in such highly polarized times? Would the American people look past their cultural and partisan prejudices to seek common ground? Slightly more than a year into the Obama presidency, it is not at all clear how this story will end. Remnick and Sugrue's books offer ample evidence that the man in the Oval Office has the background and sensibility to bridge the racial divide, but the evidence so far regarding what he will do and how the American public will respond is far from conclusive.
It may be that Obama will have to wait to until after his presidency is over before making significant attempts to confront the long-term legacies of race. The powerful platform he will have as former president would free him to make bolder and riskier efforts. If Obama does decide to begin such a dialogue, I hope that evangelicals will engage in the conversation, difficult as it would be, committed to confronting the ugliness of America's historical legacy of racial inequality and seeking lasting remedies for our nation and its people.
Amy Black is associate professor of politics and international relations at Wheaton College. She is the author most recently of Beyond Left and Right: Helping Christians Make Sense of American Politics (Baker).
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