Readers of David Remnick’s new biography will run the risk of some slight Obama fatigue. The Bridge revisits recent history, after all, and Remnick’s blow-by-blow descriptions of the presidential race are relatively free of surprise. His account of Obama’s early years doesn’t stray far from the US president’s own version presented in his books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope.
Still, this ambitious and well-executed biography stands as the definitive account of Obama’s rise to the presidency. It’s fair and high-minded, sensitive but dispassionate, admiring but never fawning. Remnick’s analysis is as sound as his reporting – he’s the editor of The New Yorker, after all – particularly when he traces how Obama rethought the ‘narrative of ascent,’ a cornerstone theme of African-American autobiographers dating back as far as Frederick Douglass. Obama wrestles explicitly with race in his first book, but he makes his struggles universal, his triumphs ours to celebrate. Meanwhile, The Bridge benefits from its subtext: it’s fascinating to watch a white man try to comprehend and deconstruct how a black man understands and parses his race (that the men in question are the editor of The New Yorker and the president adds its own frisson).
Remnick covers a lot of ground, discussing Obama’s keen appropriation of civil-rights rhetoric and his years as a community activist, lawyer and frustrated senator. He captures Obama’s absent and self-indulgent father, and his absent and well-meaning mother, with empathy. It’s this mix of intellect, fact and feeling that distinguishes Remnick’s assessment of Obama’s victory – and of the luck, context and savvy tactics that made it possible.