Brad Hodges's Reviews > The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

The Bridge by David Remnick
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's review
Jan 30, 2011

really liked it
Read from January 12 to 30, 2011

The Bridge is, as the subtitle suggests, at the life and rise of Barack Obama, and at times it's a great read. But it is a long book, with several tangents that sometimes seem appropriate and sometimes seems like the author is being paid by the word.

David Remnick, the editor The New Yorker, starts the book with a look at Obama's parents, in particular his father, a man who had several families and ended up embittered and impotent with anger. Obama was determined not to repeat his mistakes. Remnick also details Obama's mother's family, and his grandfather, Stanley Dunham, is presented as a valuable part of Obama's upbringing. I was particularly impressed that Dunham, in an attempt to make sure that Obama connected with his African heritage, connected him with an older black mentor while he was a teenager in Hawaii.

Much of Obama's childhood story is well known today, especially in his own book, Dreams from My Father, but I found this the best part of Remnick's book. Partly this is due to Obama being exactly my age (he is a few months younger), and so I was able to relate to what was going in the culture of America at the time. The chapters about his college years resonated me with, especially this one: "Among Obama's friends--among so many young people going to college in the seventies and eighties--there was a feeling of belatedness, a sense that political activism had lost most of its energy. They had come along too late for the March on Washington, Black Power, the Stonewall riots, the antiwar and women's-liberation demonstrations. Rightly or not, many of them felt they had the desire but not a cause."

The other great part about these early chapters is the almost insane proposition that someone with Obama's background, a middle-class mixed-race boy from Hawaii, who spent a good chunk of his boyhood in Indonesia, could one day be president. Consider when Obama and his black friends in high school used to gather and talk about things: "They even discussed whether there would be a black President in their lifetime--and they decided it wasn't possible."

I was also interested to read about how Obama flipped a switch after his rather lackadaisical early college years, after which he went into his "ascetic" mode, finishing school at Columbia, and working a variety of jobs in New York before moving to Chicago to be a community organizer. The book covers his decision to go to Harvard Law, where he became the first black president of the Law Review, and then going back to Chicago where he started his career in politics.

Remnick goes on a long riff about the history of Chicago politics from the Daley years through the Harold Washington years. Washington was a hero of Obama's, and he thought he might like to be mayor one day. But he ended up on an ill-conceived plan to unseat incumbent Representative Bobby Rush, who was a Black Panther, and failed, which perhaps taught him important lessons (Bill Clinton being turned out of the governor's mansion in Arkansas after one term was equally important for him). We then follow Obama in his run for Senate, in which he had some incredible luck (his first opponent had to withdraw after a sex scandal, and he ended up facing the carpetbagging Alan Keyes, a fringe candidate).

Remnick's chapter on Obama's keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention, which made him a star, is well covered, as his process of deciding to run for President. The campaign chapters didn't seem to me to cover anything new, and I'm sure there is more than one book that dissects this campaign more thoroughly than Remnick does.

Remnick is clearly an admirer of his subject, and his liberal politics shine through. He scornfully dismisses birthers and those who tried to tie Obama to Bill Ayers. He has some really harsh words about Jerome Corsi, the guy who "Swift Boated" John Kerry but tried and failed to do that to Obama with the book Obama Nation. But he covers the relationship between Obama and Jeremiah Wright with clear eyes, and several times recognizes what is perhaps Obama's greatest flaw--his ego. But, of course, can anyone run for President without having a tremendous ego?

Some of the branches that Remnick takes don't strike me as being as relevant to his story, such as a brief biography of Jesse Jackson, or a detailed description of Frederick Douglass' first visit to Lincoln's White House. It's all interesting, but stops the narrative in its tracks.

The title The Bridge refers to the bridge in Selma, Alabama, in which civil rights protesters, led by Martin Luther King Jr., marched in 1965. John Lewis, who marched on that day, and is now a Congressman from Atlanta, said "Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma." Reading about the inauguration, when Lewis, the last living man who spoke at the March on Washington in August of 1963, sitting right up front. "Obama [in his office] also displayed a framed cover of Life magazine from March, 1965; it showed a long line of demonstrators, led by John Lewis, about to confront the Alabama state troopers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Lewis had signed and framed the cover and had given it to Obama as a gift. Now, at the luncheon following the swearing-in ceremony, Lewis approached Obama with a sheet of paper and, to mark the occasion, he asked him to sign it. The forty-fourth President of the United States wrote, 'Because of you, John, Barack Obama.'"

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