Political reporter and New Yorker editor David Remnick has been a longtime student of world politics, particularly those of Russia, about which he has written two books, Lenin’s Tomb (1993) and Resurrection (1997). A writer of far-ranging curiosity, he became interested along the way in the world of boxing, writing about Mike Tyson and Muhammad Ali. That led him into the rough-and-tumble of American politics—and that, in turn, led him to the current president and to The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. (Ed. note: This article first appeared in our Nonfiction issue, April 2010.)
When did Barack Obama make his way onto your radar screen?
The first time I ever heard of Obama was when Bill Finnegan brought him up as an “interesting candidate” for Senate in the 2004 race, and he wrote a wonderful, early profile for the magazine. For obvious reasons, I hadn’t written a book in a long, long time—not since 1998 and King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero. Late in the campaign, I got extremely interested in Obama, not only as a figure in public life, but also as a possible subject. And I think you begin working at that moment. Potentially anyway.
Of all the turning points in Obama’s early life, which is the one that you think tells us most about his character?
I think the way he went about winning the election to the presidency of the Harvard Law Review, the way he won over both sides by radiating cautious liberalism and the capacity to hear out all points of view is, at least to some extent, a hint of things to come.
How important has Michelle Obama been to Obama’s political career? You suggest that, early in the game, she lacked a certain enthusiasm for the prospect of politics.
I am pretty cautious about pretending to know what I don’t know, and life proves you never know about somebody else’s marriage. The core of a marriage is private. But even from their own accounts, it is pretty clear that the Obamas have always loved each other deeply, though while Barack Obama was an extremely ambitious politician and determined to find his place, be it as a legislator, mayor of Chicago, or president, Michelle Obama had always been very wary of elective office, she was committed to the primacy of their family and was worried that they would sacrifice the stability and financial well-being of the household to ephemeral political dreams. Complications ensued. She was wary of the early run for state senate, she was against the run for Congress in 2000 (she knew the district better than he did), and she was always ready with blunt questions. But by 2004, she was totally committed to the political life.
Obama has been criticized as being too lofty and idealistic for the ugly world of daily politics. You give full vent to his idealism. What would you say to his fitness for the practical realm of governance?
Well, remember, the book stops at the White House door. So, we will have to see. He has had a very tough year—thanks, in large measure, to the myriad crises he is faced with, the hapless Democratic congressional delegation, and the reemergence of the Republican right. But I don’t think he is that lofty. Remember, Obama came to the fore in Chicago, a very rough town in terms of political battle and racial politics, too. He beat his first political opponent by getting her kicked off the ballot. He got his backside kicked in the 2000 congressional race. He saw two senatorial candidates fall by the wayside because of ugly divorce records. He had to learn to play ball with [Chicago Mayor] Richard M. Daley. He dealt with [former Illinois Gov. Rod] Blagojevich and other unlovely characters. He got into some lively scrapes in the state senate. His demeanor reads calm, it reads lofty, but he also out-boxed Hillary Clinton in one of the longest and toughest political races of modern times. I don’t see him as weak or recessive.
You write, with utter confidence and without qualification, “Barack Hussein Obama, Jr., was born at 7:24 p.m. on August 4, 1961, at Kapi’olani Medical Center, in Honolulu, not far from Waikiki.” We’re going to guess that you don’t have much room for the objections of the birthers.
I don’t mean to be glib, but the documentary evidence is pretty simple, clear and convincing. Honolulu, 1961: That’s where and when Obama was born. The scenario whipped up by the birthers is not an “objection” based on anything real; it is a political weapon. We’ve also heard that Obama is actually Kenyan, that he is a Muslim, that he is the spawn of other parents and so on—all of it a manifestation of the desire to whip up fear, to create a sense of what I’d call disqualifying otherness.
It’s much too early to say, of course, but given all that you know about Obama, do you have a sense of whether his presidency will be a success?
Well, by my lights it has already been an improvement, a vast one, over the previous eight years. The economy is still rocky, but it was rescued from utter collapse. That didn’t happen by accident. Even if Obama didn’t go far enough, he went a great deal farther than many wanted. Our image in the world is a great deal better. And so on. But there are just too many crises in motion to answer your question: Afghanistan, Iran, unemployment, climate change and so on.
Do you expect to be writing a companion volume to The Bridge for publication four, or eight, years from now?
I expect now to stick to my knitting, which is editing the New Yorker.
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The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
Knopf / April / 9781400043606 / $29.95
This book was featured in the Kirkus Best of 2010