David Remnick tries to explain Obama in “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama”

  • Sat Apr 24th, 2010 11:00pm
  • Life

By Christopher Ave St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama” By David Remnick; $29.95

Barack Obama is a supremely gifted leader who rose from an unconventional childhood to the pinnacles of education and politics, propelled by innate political talent, an agile mind and an unusual ability to unite. Or …

Barack Obama is a chameleon who sped through a series of positions and rose to the presidency largely on his own ambition and his skill before a teleprompter.

In truth, neither the worshipful view of supporters nor the dismissive summary of detractors completely explains Obama’s life and career.

In “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” the first of a string of new books about the president to come out this year, New Yorker editor David Remnick attempts to penetrate the mythology and reveal the man.

Born to a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya, Obama grew up in Hawaii and, for a time, in Indonesia. His father, the first Barack Hussein Obama, left his mother and created a gaping hole in his son’s life.

Obama overcame that handicap to become the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review and to rocket from an Illinois state Senate seat to the presidency in only five years.

Remnick enriches the familiar narrative by putting Obama’s story within several contexts: race relations in America, the troubled social history of Kenya, the rich tradition of corruption in Chicago politics. Each, in its own way, influenced Obama.

But a more distinctive theme in Remnick’s book is Obama’s quite intentional search for personal meaning: his quest to construct his own history and build a career that would capitalize on his ability to live comfortably in very different worlds.

In Hawaii, where Obama spent most of his youth, the African-American experience was virtually nonexistent. His parents were wanderers. His father was an abject failure as a husband and, mostly, as a father, essentially abandoning his son and finally dying in a drunken-driving accident.

Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, provided love and support. But she chose to fulfill her career desires — and her wanderlust — and left her fatherless son behind in Hawaii to live with his grandparents while she moved to Indonesia to study and work.

In college, Obama began to identify more deeply with black culture and became convinced that he should follow in the footsteps of civil rights workers and become a community organizer in Chicago, where he worked long hours for as little as $10,000 a year.

Obama showed a real skill in persuading the poor and dispossessed to get involved, to help themselves. In doing so, he eschewed the radical tactics of other organizers, honing a conciliatory tone focused on results, not rhetoric. He also found something that escaped both his parents: a sense of home.

He went on to Harvard Law School, where his academic career took off and his political future began with his election as president of the Law Review.

As Obama returned to Chicago to plunge into politics, he projected boundless self-confidence in thinking he could bypass decades of machine-enforced tradition. Remnick also makes clear that Obama’s rise from state senator to U.S. senator to president was assisted by incredible luck, as rival after rival seemed to stumble at just the right time.

Remnick’s account will not please everyone. It’s clear the Pulitzer Prize-winning author shares a fairly liberal world view with his subject, which makes Remnick gloss over such factors as the lack of conservative influences in Obama’s political upbringing.

But the book’s strengths should appeal to readers of all political stripes: a real depth of reporting and the elegant grace of Remnick’s literary style.

With a wealth of voices sharing their own perspectives on Obama, the reader is left with a nuanced account of our president’s self-crafted development.