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The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama Paperback – Jan 11 2011
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“Brilliantly constructed, flawlessly written….A near-definitive study of Obama.” –The Los Angeles Times
“If you care about American politics, you have to read The Bridge.” –Salon
"Superb. . . . Remnick is a master blender of history, reporting and narrative.” —The Seattle Times
“Insight[ful] and nuance[d]. . . .Writing with emotional precision and a sure knowledge of politics, Mr. Remnick situates Mr. Obama’s career firmly within a historical context.” –Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“There are a few people of such skill that envy gives way to admiration, and one is left feeling not hostility but respect. Remnick is one of those exceptional practitioners.”–Newsweek
“His work will serve as a building block for all future works on Obama. . . .Lovely and assured.” –Entertainment Weekly
“Engaging. . . .Sparkling.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“An expansive work. . . .Recounting a pivotal March 2007 speech in Selma, Remnick writes that Obama’s words were ‘at once personal, tribal, national and universal.’ The same can be said of The Bridge.” –Time
“An insightful, nuanced look at the making of the 44th president, placing his career in the context of history.” –The Chicago Tribune
“Absorbing and seminal. . . .Remnick is the most gifted and versatile journalist in America. . . .The Bridge is the first truly great biography of the man in all his promise and complexities.” –San Antonio Express-News
“Remnick deserves credit for telling Obama’s story more completely than others, for lending a reporter’s zeal to the task, for not ducking the discussion of race and for peeling back several layers of the onion that is Barack Obama.” –Gwen Ifill, The Washington Post
“What Remnick brings to a complex story are the tools of an exceptional reporter: persistence, curiosity, insight. . . .Rich in reflections and refractions.” –Bloomberg.com
“Compelling. . . .A living metaphor for an increasingly diverse America. . . .Remnick is one of the finest journalists in America, and has delivered a thorough, well-crafted early entry in what is sure to be a long list of Obama biographies.” –St. Petersburg Times
“[Remnick] manages to mine this young president’s familiar story—the absent Kenyan father, the itinerant and idealistic young white mother, a childhood of wandering from Hawaii to Indonesia and back again—and find new insights.” –The Christian Science Monitor
“Insightful, [a] valuable book. . . .Remnick places Obama’s story squarely in the framework of America’s civil rights struggle.” –The New Statesman
“Masterful, absorbing. . . .A splendid synthesis, an argument for [Remnick’s] reporting gifts. . . .For those interested in race as a social construct, The Bridge is essential reading.” –The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“The book’s strengths should appeal to readers of all political stripes: a real depth of reporting and the elegant grace of Remnick’s literary style. . . .The reader is left with a nuanced account of our president’s self-crafted development.” –St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“A lively and enjoyable biography that is likely to remain definitive. . . .Remnick should already be planning a sequel.” –The Washington Monthly
About the Author
David Remnick was a reporter for The Washington Post for ten years, including four in Moscow. He joined The New Yorker as a writer in 1992 and has been the magazine’s editor since 1998. His last book was King of the World, a biography of Muhammad Ali, which was selected by Time as the top nonfiction book of 1998. Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.See all Product Description
Top Customer Reviews
If you're looking for a reflective, informative and well-researched book, this is it.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Dreams From My Father, while a more revealing book than most, clearly falls into the category of a pro-Obama work. While it certainly included many of the warts of the President's early life, the ones that found their way into the story were usually carefully chosen anecdotes designed to shape the narrative he has sold to the public.
The Bridge is the first book that moves beyond this and can be called a "history." It relies heavily on Dreams, but doesn't take what was written as gospel. Scores of interviews with former classmates or colleagues are included, corroborating or refuting the tales that were told in this memoir. When the Robert Caros and Edmund Morrises of the next century write the "defining" Obama biographies, these primary sources will be heavily cited.
This work does a fantastic job of pointing out Obama's key role in American civil rights history while still maintaining a reasonable air of detachment as to the man and his policies. No matter what your politics are, you should be able to get something from this. Several conservatives have written one sentence reviews attacking the book simply because it is about an individual they despise; they should be aware that this is the most balanced book that has yet to be written about this age in American history. If you want to read only books written on people you lionize, there are plenty of stories about George Washington and his cherry tree; if you want to read a balanced, well-researched work on a major historical figure, I'd highly recommend The Bridge.
What makes this book worth reading and a book that will be referred to long after Obama has left office, is Remnick's ability to weave the person Barack Obama into a larger cultural context. In this case, the post-civil rights era and the new generation politics recently arisen. This skill of Remnick's is what struck me in "King of the World."
This is done by detailing important external components beyond Obama. In particular, the civil rights movement, social organizers, the political climate in Chicago pre- and post- Mayor Harold Washington, and the Clinton machine are all explored. The divergences to explicate these things are never too long-winded. The focus of the book remains Obama. But the attention paid to creating a full picture makes the book successful in rendering how improbable and significant Obama's rise was. Thus, Remnick illustrates that Obama's rise is both a consequence of his own volition and the perfect socio-political climate. In other words, the stars were perfectly aligned for this all to take place.
Obama's human nature is revealed through consistent anecdotes. From how he handled being the editor of The Harvard Law Review, to his reactions to harassment on the floor as a state senator, to questioning his role and future in politics when dealing with a loss to Congressman Bobby Rush in 2000. The stories often add levity to counterbalance the historical aspects.
The book also clarifies a lot of the blurred facts of his life that both sides of the media have distorted. For instance, the non-relationship with Bill Ayers is explained. So is his seemingly muddled upbringing in regards to his relationship with his mother and grandparents (his father was nearly non-existent).
Now, the book is not perfect. Remnick gives fairly thorough introductions to the major players surrounding Obama, including Valerie Jarrett, Bobby Rush, David Axelrod, and especially his parents. These passages can come across as too tangential. A large portion of the first section focuses solely on the lives of his father and mother when both figures were often out of his life. Most other minor characters who enter Obama's orbit also receive seemingly excessive, though not as extensive, attention. If you have read "Dreams From My Father", the elongated summary will drag. Thus, Remnick's willingness to be more thorough than ever before results in occasional excess that diverges from Obama's Rise.
But the result is still the best book out on Obama, for now and likely for the foreseeable future. The Bridge provides the facts of his life, makes a compelling case for how significant it relates to civil rights, and even serves as a well executed bildungsroman as the book ends with Obama's election to the White House.
In a literal sense, the bridge is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, site of the "Bloody Sunday" march in 1965. In a more spiritual sense, Obama is the bridge himself. Author David Remnick's book gives Obama's political rise context, by analyzing the setting in which his rise occurred. Examined in vivid detail: the civil rights battles in the south before he was born; the volatile mix of race and politics in Chicago, where Obama first ran for office; his successes and failures in the Illinois State Senate; skirmishes with older black politicians; and the bitter presidential campaign--in particular the primary fight against Hillary Clinton.
Included are many quotes from Obama's friends, family and associates, and powerful recollections of events from his life. A childhood classmate remembers an incident when Obama's skin was deemed too "dirty" to touch a draw sheet before a tennis tournament: "the implication was absolutely clear: Barry's hands weren't grubby; the message was that his darker skin would somehow soil the draw." Obama's former college roommate recalls the party-time atmosphere in the dorm, even listing the some of the music pounding out of the future chief executive's room: the B-52s, Talking Heads, Bob Marley, Billie Holiday. Remnick gives indelible accounts of Obama's wife Michelle--including her insistence that he do his share of grocery shopping and car-pool duties--and his closely fought duel with Hillary Clinton over the nomination.
Richly detailed and full of life, The Bridge will not disappoint.
Included: 16 pages of photos, some color, some black and white historical images.
Here's the chapter list:
Prologue: The Joshua Generation
1. A Complex Fate
2. Surface and Undertow
3. Nobody Knows My Name
4. Black Metroplex
6. A Narrative of Ascent
7. Somebody Nobody Sent
8. Black Enough
9. The Wilderness Campaign
11. A Righteous Wind
12. A Slight Madness
13. The Sleeping Giant
14. In the Racial Funhouse
15. The Book of Jeremiah
16. "How Long? Not Long"
17. To the White House
Race is the prism through which Remnick tells the story, an artful narrative choice not only because of its importance in understanding Obama's appeal but because race is key to how Obama understands himself. Obama's identity is "both provided and chosen," Remnick observes. "He pursued it, learned it...had to claim that identity after willful study, observation, even presumption." Remnick, relying on extensive research, a close reading of Obama's own best-selling texts, and hundreds of interviews, provides the most substantive look at Obama in his wilderness years that I have read. The set shifts from Honolulu to Jakarta, Los Angeles to New York, Chicago to Cambridge to Kenya. The conversations with classmates and roommates and professors, many of whom kept silent during the election season, add a fascinating touch.
The interviews also confirmed, in absorbing detail, the extent of Obama's ambition and cunning once he had resolved his inner conflict and settled on a political career. In one sense this is no surprise in any candidate who runs for the presidency. (Lincoln, his law partner William Herndon reflected, possessed an ambition of such force that it was "a little engine that knew no rest.") It is nonetheless arresting to read that, from the time he was at Harvard Law School, Obama wanted to be president "like a waking dream," as one contemporary noted, and set aside the opportunity for a Supreme Court clerkship after law school so that he could establish roots in Chicago. The suburbs bore him, he says, and he adds that if he ever were to have to commute to an office job every day he would consider his life a "nightmare." Even after his election to the United States Senate, he "hated being a senator," David Axelrod tells Remnick, and of course he did not stay in the Senate for long.
The picture of that ambition that Remnick draws is a balanced one. Obama can be guilty of "romantic overreach" in his speeches, Remnick writes, and his "novelistic contrivances can sometimes feel strained." His second book, The Audacity of Hope, was "purposefully, cautiously political...a shrewd candidate's book." And Obama's political and personal opponents are given voice in this book. (One former Chicago ally tells Remnick that Obama is an "arrogant, self-absorbed, ungrateful jerk.") Jeremiah Wright is given ample coverage. But it is also clear that Remnick admires Obama's ability to be a "shape-shifter," to understand and inhabit multiple points of view while remaining secure in his identity. The story of Obama's courtship of Michelle Robinson and his struggle to balance his ambition with his obligations to his wife and daughters humanizes him, as does the story of the searing defeat that he suffered in his race for Congress. And Remnick has little patience with the Web-based rumors that surround Obama's past, dismissing them as an "extended game of guilt by association and drive-by character assassination."
The story itself is riveting because, even as we tell ourselves we know the ending, Remnick reminds us, in a subtle yet sophisticated manner, how improbable it all was. (Obama, Bob Dylan reflected, is "like a fictional character, but he's real.") The Bridge is adept in dramatizing the historical significance of Obama's successes without itself being dramatic. I was moved by the image of the wait staff at the Harvard Club of Boston in 1990, a staff that consisted mostly of elder black and Latino men, pausing from their work and listening attentively, and with evident pride, as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review addressed the audience. (Afterward, one rushed forward to shake Obama's hand.) And Remnick takes the story backward: to the misunderstood but vital contribution of Jesse Jackson's presidential campaigns; to Robert Kennedy's declaration soon after JFK was elected that an African-American could be elected to the presidency within thirty or forty years, a declaration that, James Baldwin wrote, was greeted with "laughter and bitterness and scorn" in Harlem; and all the way back to Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Keckley, two of the very first African-American visitors to the White House in a very different time.
"I'm a journalist," Remnick observed recently about this book, "not Robert Caro." It is true that the authoritative work on Obama can only be written after he has left office. Still, a decade has passed since Bill Clinton left the White House, and the biography that David Maraniss published during Clinton's first term remains the most measured and judicious of them all. In the months and years to come, many books will be published on Obama's life and presidency. But it is unlikely that any will be as good as this one.
It turns out that Obama's writing skills (which are in a class all to themselves) are a hard act to follow and they perhaps represented a bridge too far, or a bar too high, for Remnick to have successfully spanned or scaled. And while there are a few things to recommend from Remnick's version (it clears up the matter about Ayers, revisits the Jerimiah Wright issue, but nothing about Obama and Michelle's relationship?) there are just too few surprises and too little new here to justify 600 pages. This was especially so since the current administration's tenure in office was relegated to a five page epilogue. Altogether, this was a painful rehash for those of us who have already read Obama's two book.
Sadly, it appears that the author's fallback position has been when in doubt, then rehash much of what Obama has already covered in his two books, often adding not a single new detail. The intro, which kind of explains John Lewis' comment which led to the title (Barack Obama is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma) , seems contrived and "tacked on" to give the book a reason for existing. The problem such a strategy represents for this author is that at least in Obama's original the vignettes were not contrived, the substance was first hand, covered more thoroughly than here, at least as trustworthy, and done infinitely more elegantly.
To his credit, the author does catch Obama exaggerating occasionally in his recounting of certain events in his past and in a few of his speeches, but these were mostly honest errors, misperceptions or recreations from memory, or occurred mostly during the heat of the 2008 political campaign. However, on the basic themes of Obama's life: his relationship with his parents, his identity crises, the way he has dealt with the race issue, his coming of age-- the book parrots Obama's two books, precisely. Having read (and reviewed) both of Obama's books, Remnick simply confirms what we already suspected: that at least as far as his background is concerned, Obama is basically a "truth teller."
The only psychological frame that I had distrusted in the Obama version of his own life story was that while he roundly blamed his father for being absent, he said almost nothing about his relationship with his mother, who it seemed, had in part also abandoned him to her parents. Remnick does clear up this important relationship, convincing me that Obama has more than just his mother's DNA, but also her rosy outlook on the world and her belief that through intellect, reasoning, and compromise, the international system as a whole can somehow, in due course, work itself out and survive. However, going so deeply into her dissertation field research seemed a major distraction and added very little.
This book will make a lot of money, but it is not nearly as good as Obama's own version of the same facts.