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.