Barack Obama is the most powerful man in America. And David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, [Email him] is one of the most powerful figures in American journalism.
So, not surprisingly, reviewers of Remnick's new Presidential biography/doorstop, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, have prostrated themselves before Remnick with the same shamelessness as the journalist himself does before the politician in these 656 pages of humorless hagiography. (Historian Douglas Brinkley's review of The Bridge in the L.A. Times is particularly embarrassing.)[ "A definitive chronicle of the growth and achievement of the first black U.S. president by the prize-winning New Yorker editor." March 28, 2010]
A biography of Santa Claus would be more hard-hitting than The Bridge. Remnick, who is certainly a bright fellow, makes himself seem obtuse as he constantly offers insipid interpretations of Obama's choices.
The Bridge stands as a self-emasculated monument to the insidious costs of Access Journalism. Yes, Remnick scored a lot of interviews. The Bridge, for examples, ends with Remnick reverently interviewing his subject in the Oval Office about the meaning of his being in the Oval Office.
Yet, for what shall it profit a writer, if he shall gain the whole world of access, and lose his own soul?
When you could speak truth to power, what does it say about you that you choose to speak spin for power?
The irony however, is that Remnick's bland and bloated tome lavishly confirms the interpretation of Obama's life I put forward in my own 2008 book, America's Half-Blood Prince: Barack Obama's "Story of Race and Inheritance," a reader's guide to the politician's 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father.
David Axelrod, Obama's Karl Rove, sold him to a willfully gullible press as the post-racial candidate with what Remnick quotes West Wing writer Eli Attie as calling "an almost militant refusal to be defined by [race]". But Remnick's book makes exhaustively if inadvertently clear that, as Remnick puts it, "race is at the core of Obama's story …" Remnick aptly quotes Obama's Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree as saying of the white-raised, mixed-race man from mixed-race Hawaii: "Black identity was not given to him, he sought it".
In contrast, the great frustration of Obama's life—epitomized by his soul-crushing defeat at the hands of former Black Panther Bobby Rush in the 2000 Democratic primary for the South Side of Chicago's First Congressional District of Illinois—was that he could never make himself quite "Black Enough" (as Remnick ironically entitles his chapter about Obama's loss) to become a major black leader.
Politics is fundamentally about whose side you are on. The Bridge marks a milestone: the Main Stream Media finally and reluctantly beginning to admit they systematically misled the electorate about what Obama's autobiography has to say about that crucial question.
Despite Obama's hopeless struggle with being black enough relative to other black politicians, he was a natural at exploiting white people's vast reservoir of good will toward blacks—and desire to feel superior over other whites—for his own personal advancement. He was the one they'd been waiting for. As Eric Zorn, the liberal Chicago Tribune columnist, said about Obama's campaigning among whites in 2004:
"Obama was somehow all about validating you. … He was radiating the sense that 'You're the kind of guy who can accept a black guy as a senator.' He made people feel better about themselves for liking him."
Indeed, although I say it myself, Remnick's Bridge reads much like my America's Half-Blood Prince—just with all the interesting bits ruthlessly excised for the sake of message control; and with vast, eye-glazing digressions from Black History Month interlarded.
Remember how, back in the 1980s under elderly editor William Shawn, The New Yorker would run meandering, interminable articles? Well, you can now relive those days. The Roman poet Juvenal famously asked, "Who watches the Watchmen?" The Bridge's 656 oversized pages raise the question, "Who edits the Editor?"
The "Bridge" of the title, as Remnick explains in his 23-page prologue, is the one in Selma, Alabama where Martin Luther King triumphed over Jim Crow in 1965.
Barack Obama wasn't, technically speaking, there. (He was a busy being a three-year-old in Honolulu.) Still, Obama managed to convince Remnick that the sacramental fulfillment of King's Dream required his own personal aggrandizement to the Presidency.
When you stop to think about it, this is one of the funnier hustles any man on the make has ever pulled off.
Yet, to Remnick, there's nothing at all comical about the preppie from paradise's rise to power. It's sacred stuff. (Remnick proudly emphasizes throughout how Obama seemed like a dream come true to countless Jewish liberals.)
Remnick retells Obama's not very eventful life story with appropriate piety. Thus, despite The Bridge's endlessness, Remnick chose to leave out many juicy details.
Consider Remnick's dull treatment of Obama's long-time friend and financial benefactor Tony Rezko, who is still awaiting sentencing in Chicago's jail. There are a lot of crooks in Chicago politics, but what makes Rezko extremely relevant to a book that's overwhelmingly about race is exactly what Remnick decided to leave out: for a quarter of a century, Rezko was in business with the Black Muslims.
Despite the Syrian Christian immigrant's non-Black non-Muslimness, Rezko got his start as a big-time Chicago operator by managing for the Nation of Islam its most famous recruit: boxer Muhammad Ali. (The champ's latest wife eventually liberated him from Rezko and the NoI.) Rezko went on to a long career of pocketing lucrative minority set-aside contracts using the son of the founder of the Nation of Islam as his token black front man.
Now, you might think that, well, maybe Remnick just doesn't know much about the Black Muslims. But in fact Remnick authored a 1999 biography of Muhammad Ali. So he's familiar with the score.
Remnick, we can infer, left out his most amusing and germane material about Rezko intentionally. Why?
Perhaps because allowing readers to contemplate just how much money was made off black pride and affirmative action by Tony Rezko—a white guy from the Levant!—would inject a subversively farcical note into Remnick's sanctimonious book about race.
Moreover, Obama's 15 years of chumminess with the Black Muslims' chief wheeler-dealer inevitably raises embarrassing questions about Obama's cold-bloodedness. After all, Obama's boyhood hero, Malcolm X, was executed by a well-organized assassination squad of…Black Muslims. Would you pal around with the business agent for the organization that murdered your idol?
Obama would, if it was in his self-interest. The President is a fascinating man, although you wouldn't notice that from The Bridge.
Unfortunately for the readability of The Bridge, Obama's career largely consisted of showing up, asking intelligent questions but not doing much of anything actually to help black people's stubborn problems; and then getting promoted out of there by worshipful white people.
Remnick therefore feels compelled to devote pp. 164-169 to the community organizer's participation in that semi-successful 1986 attempt to get some asbestos removed from certain public housing projects.
Sure, it's as dull as it sounds. But, after all, what else besides the world-famous asbestos project did the young Obama ever accomplish—other than to promote himself?
There are only two places where Obama's semi-blackness wasn't an advantage: the South Side of Chicago's First Congressional District; and Indonesia, where the local Asian boys tried to drown him for being black. But with whites in America, despite all the self-pity in Dreams from My Father, it's been a sweet ride for Obama.
As it happens, one of Obama's schoolmates Honolulu's Punahou Prep emailed me last week in regard to Obama's self-pitying portrayal in Dreams from My Father:
"Barry was treated very well and almost worshiped at Punahou because he was black. This 'poor me, nobody ever liked me' is a complete fabrication."
The Bridge consists in large part of white people saying that they thought Obama should be President the first time they met him. (Something I hadn't known previously is that the Joyce Foundation offered Obama a million dollars a year to leave the Illinois State Senate and head their organization. The materialistic Michelle Obama was not happy when he turned that job down to continue his pursuit of power.)
Why did white people love Obama so much his entire life?
BBecause he's smart. Not with an Al Sharpton-like quickness, but in a conventionally white way.
At Harvard Law School, the normally aloof professors were, in the words of classmate David Goldberg, now a civil rights lawyer, "almost sycophantic" toward Obama "because he was brilliant and because he was African-American". Similarly, political consultant Don Rose recounted that when Obama got back to Chicago and networked with wealthy white liberals, "they are all bowled over to discover this brilliant black guy".
Hmm. Well, how "brilliant" is Obama?
My answer: certainly, he's smart enough to be President—but that's not a particularly high bar. I see no evidence in The Bridge or Obama's own books that he has ever had an original thought about anything. But that's hardly necessary in a President.
The Obama camp has refused to authorize the release of any of his academic records. (Bush and Kerry didn't release their records either, but I was able to draw conclusions about both men's IQ, because they had both served in the Armed Forces, and taken the IQ-heavy tests given to everyone in uniform.)We have a general sense that Obama's grades were mediocre at Punahou, Occidental, and Columbia, but then good at Harvard Law.
His test scores remain particularly shrouded. It's easy to see that releasing them would be a no win proposition for Obama. Either they weren't good, which would then underline the benefits he, coming from an upper middle class white background, received in getting into all these gaudy universities from racial quotas.
Or, his test scores were good, which would emphasize the validity of standardized testing. That's an uncomfortable subject in polite society in general, and in the Obama household in particularly, since Michelle Obama continues to complain about being dissed by standardized testing. Yet, her failures in her abortive law career, such as not passing the bar exam at her first chance after graduating from mighty Harvard Law School, are a classic example of the failures of affirmative action in general.
My guess is that the President did quite well on at least the verbal sections of his tests.
Obama has a way with words, less in speech than in text. Remnick reprints several well-written personal letters he sent to friends, which again demonstrate a certain literary talent that makes him unusual among politicians.
Obama is especially facile at restating other people's views, which is a highly useful skill that everyone should try to develop.
Paradoxically, most people aren't good at listening to other people's arguments because they assume that their opponents disagree with them because they simply don't understand their point of view; so they are in a hurry to reiterate it. Obama, in contrast, cares less about being right than about winning. He assumes that most people's opinions are, like his, motivated by race, class, and self-interest, so he's not terribly interested in arguing with people who disagree with him.
Remnick notes that Obama signed up for a course at Harvard Law School taught by the prominent black moderate Randall Kennedy, on one of Obama's passions, affirmative action. Yet, when Obama discovered that Kennedy encouraged white students to engage in frank debate with blacks over quotas, he quickly dropped the course.
Most young men with political ambitions would think they could persuade their fellow students to share their views. But Obama didn't appreciate in-depth discussion of racial preferences. What was in it for him?
Instead, Obama's usual goal is to outsmart his opponents with apparent compromises that tempt them with a rhetorical slice of the pie while he quietly takes the lion's share.
Thus, for example, when TV newsman George Stephanopoulos got up the courage to ask Obama if his two privileged daughters should benefit from quotas, Obama waffled, giving many the impression that, if elected President, he would cut quotas because his election demonstrated a decline in discrimination.
In reality, as soon as he reached the White House, he expanded quotas.
This kind of thing takes skill.
On the other hand, Obama is being judged against the low average standard of black politicians who have emerged over the last few decades as the Voting Rights Act has corralled blacks in majority-minority districts where they launch their careers by playing the "Race Man". It's not hard to look better than, say, Marion Barry. The poor quality of so many black politicians reflects what the black community demands. In contrast, Obama is a product of white elite tastes.
Blacks who knew Obama better, such as Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., offered Remnick more interesting accounts of him than the endless quotes from Obama's white acquaintances about his super-duperness. Thus Wright told Remnick something particularly interesting: that "a close friend of Barack's" offered Wright money to shut up. Wright refused.
But the one thing Remnick can't abide in a black is public reference to Jewish political power. So, after many pages of taking Rev. Wright's ideas seriously, Remnick ultimately dismisses Wright for saying:
"… hateful things. As late as June, 2009, he bitterly told a newspaper in Virginia, the Daily Press, 'Them Jews [presumably, Axelrod and Obama's chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel] ain't going to let [Obama] talk to me.' … He also said that Jewish voters and "the AIPAC" vote were controlling Obama … With these flourishes, Wright made it a great deal more difficult to see, or care about, the complexity of his drama."
After Wright's years of sermons finally hit TV (although not until 42 states had voted in the primaries), Wright and Obama talked:
"… Obama said he would greatly prefer that Wright stay at home and keep quiet through the rest of the campaign rather than continue to preach in Chicago and on the road. "He said, 'You know what your problem is, is you've got to tell the truth.'"
Obama suffers even less from that got-to-tell-the-truth problem than does Remnick. One of the relatively few revealing anecdotes in this huge book comes from Obama's class at the University of Chicago Law School on "Race, Racism, and the Law":
"'But there was a moment when he let his guard down,' one former student recalled. 'He told us what he thought about reparations. He agreed entirely with the theory of reparations. But in practice he didn't think it was really workable. … as the complexities emerged—who is black, how far back do you go, what about recent immigrants still feeling racism, do they have a claim—finally, he said, 'That is why it's unworkable.''"
Of course, the exact same questions also apply to affirmative action—which Obama finds wonderfully "workable".
Obama's student recalled:
"You could tell that he thought he had let the cat out of the bag and felt uncomfortable. To agree with reparations in theory means we go past apology and say we can actually change the dynamics of the country …"
And make Tony Rezko l look like a piker.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]