Honolulu, Harvard, and Hyde Park

The Making of Barack Obama

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Obama teaching at the University of Chicago Law School. (Obama for America)

Barack Obama's appeal has always been something of a paradox. On the one hand, Obama's election as the United States' first African American president can be seen as a triumph for "identity politics" and a blow to the near hammerlock that white Protestant males have had on the presidency since George Washington. On the other hand, it moves the country closer to an era of nonracial or postracial politics, in which racial identity will matter less and less.

Obama is a clear break from past generations of black politicians. In the parlance of the civil rights movement, he is a member of "the Joshua generation" -- a term drawn from the Bible that refers to the generation of Jews who did not remember the Exodus but lived to enter the Promised Land. And he has embraced a very different political style from those of other black politicians, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. With a white mother and a Kenyan father who lived in the United States only briefly, Obama had little personal connection to the forces and history that shape African American identity. Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, two places where black-white relations were a marginal and distant force, young Barry Obama's life was touched only tangentially by race. From this start, Obama emerged as the most commanding figure in African American politics ever and was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Who is Obama? What does he really believe? How has his quest to find and understand his place in American life shaped him and his vision for the United States? These are the questions that David Remnick, the author of Lenin's Tomb and the editor of The New Yorker, sets out to investigate in The Bridge, an intelligent and searching biography of Obama. Although he covers ground that has already been examined by other writers (most notably, Obama himself), Remnick nevertheless manages to frame important questions about the current occupant of the Oval Office. The Bridge is a significant accomplishment and a compelling read. At its best, it illuminates some very dark corners.

The book is not always at its best. Most readers will feel that Remnick spends entirely too much time on detailed accounts of the ultimately irrelevant candidates who tried and failed to stop Obama's march to the Senate in 2004. Instead, Remnick should have put his intelligence to work on the mostly white world of liberal Hyde Park activism, which had a profound effect on Obama during his years in Chicago. This is a regrettable oversight, since, as Remnick's narrative makes clear, white (and often Jewish) friends and associates formed a critical part of Obama's network. Remnick has a gift for laying bare the cultural and intellectual forces at work in a person or a milieu; had he turned that searchlight on Hyde Park, he would have produced a much richer account of the president's intellectual and political journey.

When it comes to the world of black Chicago, Remnick gets closer to the story. His portrait of Representative Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who defeated Obama in a congressional primary, is particularly sharp; his take on Jeremiah Wright, the spellbinding preacher who built the church in which Obama found his faith, although good, leaves readers wanting more. The book's dominant metaphor is a bridge -- Remnick compares Obama's role in society to the bridge in Selma, Alabama, that was the site of one of the most significant struggles of the civil rights movement -- and to some degree, the image closes as many doors as it opens. The image is a compelling one, but African American politics, religion, and culture are about much more than civil rights. By scanting this complexity, Remnick leaves readers with a less than totally satisfying depiction of Obama's encounter with the world of black Chicago.

THE PRESIDENT FROM NEW ENGLAND

Nevertheless, Remnick delivers some fresh insights about the president's personal and political odyssey that open up new perspectives on American society as a whole -- particularly when it comes to understanding the degree to which Obama is a product of New England's commitment to social and global reform. The Bostonian vision of the United States as "a city on a hill," whose government is the moral agent of a society of good people determined to suppress vice and establish virtue, has fueled some of the country's most important and lasting social movements, and it is this tradition that seems to have shaped Obama most profoundly.

The high school that Obama attended in Hawaii, the elite Punahou School, was founded in 1841 to educate the children of the New England missionaries who led the kingdom of Hawaii into both Christianity and the United States. In 1851, it was opened up to students from all racial and religious backgrounds, and today, like any good New England boarding school, it attempts to infuse its students with an ethic of service, along with solid academic skills. This Exeter of the Pacific did more than give Obama the academic skills he would need at Columbia and Harvard Law School; socially and culturally, it helped prepare him for both the ideas and the people among whom his lot was to be cast.

At its best, the tradition of New England reform, with its moral earnestness and its willingness to call on the full powers of a strong state, is a nonracial or postracial vision. Punahou's 1851 decision to open its doors to nonwhite and non-Christian students reflected more than the missionary ambitions of its founders; it represented the New England faith in the essential equality, and even similarity, of all people under the skin.

That same faith led more modern representatives of the New England spirit to promote the admission of increasing numbers of nonelite and nonwhite students to schools like Punahou and Harvard Law. But the goal of these powerful establishment reformers was less the celebration of diversity than its abolition. That is, just as the missionaries believed that given Christian values and education, the Sandwich Islanders would build their own version of a New England commonwealth, so modern reformers have believed that giving African Americans, Roman Catholics, and other formerly marginalized Americans greater access to better education would ultimately lead them to embrace New England's core values.

This seems to have worked in Obama's case. Just as President John F. Kennedy, the Harvard-educated scion of Boston Irish-ward politicians, out-WASPed the WASPs by placing himself firmly in the line of high New England moral and political leadership, so Obama has used his eloquence and conviction to emerge as the leading representative of this old and deeply American political tradition. Yet the perception among some Chicagoans that if pressed, Obama would say, like the narrator of the famous William Blake poem, "I am black, but O, my soul is white!" nearly ended his political career in 2000, when Rush humiliated him in a congressional race.

For Obama to emerge as a postracial candidate, he first had to become racial; he had to find a way to become culturally black. The quest to connect with African American history, culture, and values shaped much of his personal and political activity from adolescence through 2006. Remnick does a better job with this aspect of Obama's development than many writers because he grounds much of his story in Obama's struggle to find his place in black America. And for a white writer, he gives an unusually detailed and nuanced portrait of the intellectual and political world in which Obama had to find his way.

More would have been better. In particular, readers would have benefited from a fuller and richer treatment of Wright. He represents the road that Obama ultimately chose not to take: Wright's Afrocentric theology and impassioned black nationalist rhetoric offered a competing vision with which Obama had to come to terms to find his place in black Chicago -- but that could never adequately express either the hopes or the vision that Obama brought with him from Hawaii and Harvard. Forced to choose between the spirit and legacy of New England reform as embodied in the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and McGeorge Bundy on the one hand and the Afrocentric vision of Wright on the other, Obama stands with Massachusetts every time.

BLACK LIKE HIM

The path Obama had to navigate as he built an identity and found friends and allies within the world of Chicago's African American politics was a winding one. Remnick moves rather too quickly along it, but he does help readers appreciate the magnitude and difficulty of Obama's progress. Although the circumstances of Obama's need to connect his cosmopolitan upbringing and education with the hopes and fears of a particular community of voters were unique, the task is common. The U.S. educational system is largely deracinating: it aims to do more than take the boy out of Iowa; it wants to take the Iowa out of the boy. For those graduates who seek a career in electoral politics, the process must be reversed.

Returning to Arkansas after his years as a Rhodes scholar and Yale law student, Bill Clinton, the great chameleon of modern American political history, had to reconnect with an American vernacular. George W. Bush had to navigate the transition from Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School back to the pork rinds of Texas. The declining political fortunes of the Kennedy dynasty seem connected to the way that each succeeding generation has been more Harvard and less South Boston; by contrast, each generation of the Bush clan has moved further away from its blue-blooded, bluenosed Connecticut roots toward a more total immersion in rising American subcultures.

Given the unique and uniquely charged history of black America, African American politicians face tougher challenges than their white, Latino, and Asian peers. The loyalties are deeper, the suspicions on all sides greater, the questions to be addressed more explosive. Obama's success in finding a path through these obstacles and developing a political stance and style that has attracted both black and white voters to his side reveals a powerful intellect linked to a capacity for empathy and a receptiveness to others that recalls both Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Reflecting on Obama's path from Harvard Law to the South Side of Chicago also helps one understand the limits of his political appeal. Learning to integrate his New England value system into a public persona that could reach Chicago's black voters gave Obama a potent and even mythic political appeal, but it also left him with a weak suit: the folks out in the hills clinging to their God and their guns. For many Americans, the New England vision of a strong state acting as the enforcer of a common moral purpose has always been something to resist. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian radicals fought to abolish the state establishment of religion in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the South fought the abolitionists and then the Freedmen's Bureau during Reconstruction, the white working-class South and North united in defiance of Prohibition, and so on.

Obama's effect on this populist tradition is like that of a red flag on a bull. As a New England reformer building a larger, more intrusive state, and as the most prominent beneficiary of New England's determination to broaden access to its most elite institutions, Obama represents forces that many populists instinctively oppose. At the same time, nothing in Honolulu or Cambridge or Chicago taught Obama what Clinton learned in Arkansas: how to reach out to these people and to know what, and what not, to say to them. The economic crisis of 2008 and the country's unhappiness with the Bush administration gave Obama an opportunity to be heard by populist voters; since his inauguration, they have shown signs of retreating to their former loyalties and ideas. Obama's hopes for reelection in 2012 may turn on his ability to bridge yet another divide in America's soul and to reach out to a constituency that so far has proved resistant to his charms.

THE WORLD BEYOND

Students of foreign policy will be bemused and somewhat alarmed by the near-total absence of evidence in Remnick's book that Obama ever showed any interest in foreign policy before running for president. There is a casual mention of the human rights scholar Samantha Power as an adviser to and influence on Obama, and there are narrative descriptions of Obama's sojourns abroad with his mother and a fascinating account of his father's troubled career in Kenya. But to judge from this book, Obama spent little time dealing with foreign policy until he failed to get the Senate committee assignment he really wanted and was forced to make the best of an appointment to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. While traveling with Senator John Kerry and others in 2005, Obama saw the poor security surrounding Russian nuclear materials and was seized by the importance of getting the world's nuclear material under better control. This is a worthwhile idea, and it bore fruit at the recent Nuclear Security Summit, but one looks in The Bridge in vain for more clues to the future of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration.

It seems reasonable to infer that Obama's foreign policy instincts, like his domestic policy ideas, are rooted in the New England tradition that blends a form of moralism tempered by pragmatism, a faith in strong government, and a commitment to leading by example. One could look to John Quincy Adams for an example of the foreign policy ideas to which Obama might aspire. Like Adams, Obama believes in American power and in an American destiny to do well by doing good; yet also like Adams, he prefers to hold power in reserve when he can and is conscious of the United States' capacity to err. Whether he can succeed in foreign policy as well as Adams did remains to be seen; Adams was immersed in diplomacy all his life, whereas Obama is still finding his way.

The Bridge is a biography of a life still being shaped; everyone, including Obama, will know much more about who he is and what really counts to him once his presidency has drawn to a close. This makes for a book that in some ways is frustratingly open ended and sometimes feels unfinished. Nevertheless, it accomplishes the one thing that it needed to do: it encourages readers to ask the right questions about Obama.

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