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BOOK REVIEW

'The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama' by David Remnick

A definitive chronicle of the growth and achievement of the first black U.S. president by the prize-winning New Yorker editor.

March 28, 2010|By Douglas Brinkley

On Oct. 9, 2009, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs woke up at dawn and received startling news from Oslo. President Obama, only 48, had just received the Nobel Peace Prize. Usually, this most prestigious of awards honors lifetime accomplishment (read septuagenarian) or recent diplomatic triumph (read Woodrow Wilson and the Treaty of Versailles). But not this time.

Dutifully, Gibbs called his boss with the mind-boggling international development. Using swear words unprintable in a family newspaper, a curt, disbelieving Obama told Gibbs to essentially "Shut up." It was too early for scuttlebutt. It took Obama a few minutes to realize that Gibbs wasn't yanking his chain.

For "The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama" -- a brilliantly constructed, flawlessly written biography -- Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick interviewed our 44th president about winning the Oslo honor.

"It was not helpful to us politically," Obama matter-of-factly recalls. "Although [ David] Axelrod and I joke about it, the one thing we didn't anticipate this year was having to apologize for having won the Nobel Peace Prize."

When Obama delivered his acceptance speech, many European pacifists were baffled at his quasi-martial words. Did he have to use the word "kill"? Or talk of the righteousness of war in Afghanistan? Obama clearly wasn't trying to sound like Mother Teresa or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. The Nobel speech, he told Remnick, reflected his "fundamental view" that the world was a "dangerous place" with terrorists who will do vicious deeds and therefore "have to be fought." This wasn't the inheritor of Gandhi's practice of nonviolence. Here was the ghost of Lincoln pledging that war was sometimes moral.

"The Bridge" is a towering monument to Obama's hyper-professionalism when it comes to the art of politics. The president is an unflappable Zen master with a belly full of audacity. Hard work, endurance and civility are inherent in his personality. His greatest strength is that the opposition always underestimates him. In "Alice in Wonderland" terms, he's the Cheshire Cat, the magical creature who saves the day just as the guillotine is about to drop.

Witness how, earlier this month, Obama managed to pass the most sweeping change to America's healthcare system since the creation of Medicare in 1965. Many pundits thought Obamacare, as Republicans called it, was roadkill. When Scott Brown won Ted Kennedy's Senate seat in January, even more conservatives heard the death knell. But by dodging lions and leapfrogging potholes (plus a little Chicago-style arm-twisting), Obama, bruised and battered, pulled out a New Deal-like victory.

Road to the presidency

How exactly did Obama become America's first black president? Remnick tells the astounding story of Obama's rise to greatness through the prism of the civil rights movement. When John Lewis marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., in 1965, getting badly beaten by police for promoting equal voting rights for African Americans, he was Moses opening the door for the up-and-coming Joshua generation. As Lewis himself put it last year: "Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma."

Remnick has a genius for placing Obama in the wider context of the black liberation movement. There are allusions to Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Joseph Lowery, Malcolm X and many others in this anecdote-rich narrative. Yet by book's end, Remnick declares that Obama, as president, believed it was best to "internalize" race talk because there was "no winnable percentage" in a national dialogue as a White House initiative. His lifetime ambition was to be an American leader, not a Black History Month poster.

Anybody who tries to pigeonhole Obama is bound to get frustrated. Remnick, who has previously written a fine biography of Muhammad Ali, navigates all of Obama's creative rope-a-dope tactics when confronted with racial prejudice, old-style jealousy and new-style (post-Great Society) urban politics.

Although operating from left-center, Obama is a consummate result-oriented pragmatist who early in life developed an earnest, open-minded consensus-seeking style. A one-man polyglot, he shuttled among Hawaii, Kansas, Kenya, Indonesia, Los Angeles and New York. He hated making enemies. His smile was radiant. He frowned on triumphalism. Nobody could ever accurately satirize him as an angry black man. Rage has been exorcised from his demeanor. Although blessed with a wry, mocking wit, Obama enjoys helping foes find their better nature.

"Barack is the interpreter," his friend Cassandra Butts says. "To be a good interpreter means you need fluency in two languages as well as cultural fluency on both sides. As a biracial person, he has had to come to an understanding of the two worlds he's lived in. . . . Living in those worlds, he functions as an interpreter to others."

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