- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 13, 2010



By David Remnick

Knopf, $29.99, 656 pages

Reviewed by Claude R. Marx

Talk about being a paradoxical leader. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week described President Obama as the “most radical” president in history who is running Washington like a Chicago political boss. At the same time, Mr. Obama’s hard-core supporters complain that his troop surge in Afghanistan and failure to push for progressive goals such as a single-payer health plan indicate that he is unwilling to go to the mat for his principles.

Those who have studied how Mr. Obama has lived his personal and professional lives won’t be surprised that he’s confounded those on the right and left, despite his generally predictable liberal world view. Those not familiar with the arc of Mr. Obama’s life - and those wanting to learn more - will get a great deal out of reading “The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama,” David Remnick’s thorough and engaging account of Mr. Obama’s pre-presidential life.

Much of the book discusses how Mr. Obama successfully navigated several different worlds. His intellect, progressivism, electability and emotional intelligence endeared him to many of the elite who have become a key part of the Democrats’ constituency. However, because he is half-black and worked as a community organizer and was active in a predominantly black church, he was able to reach out to that crowd, even though he hadn’t come out of a traditional black background.

“The fact that I conjugate my verbs and speak in typical Midwestern newscaster voice - there’s no doubt that this helps ease communication between myself and white audiences,” Mr. Obama told Mr. Remnick. “And there’s no doubt that when I am with a black audience I slip into a slightly different dialect.” But Mr. Obama added that there is a “level of self-consciousness about these issues the previous generation had to negotiate that I don’t feel I have to.”

The title of the book comes from a comment by Congressman and former civil rights activist John Lewis who said that Mr. Obama is “what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma.”

Much of the president’s knowledge of black culture was self-taught, both from reading history and literature and from his work as a community organizer in Chicago after college. Mr. Obama’s time as an organizer - although much ridiculed by his ideological foes - made him more pragmatic. Although he hasn’t changed many of his core beliefs, he has always been quite flexible about how to achieve his goals.

This adaptability has been in evidence throughout his fairly young presidency and resulted in Mr. Obama being more willing to be partisan, play hardball, cut deals and be less wed to the idea of changing the nation’s political culture.

As a result, the Obama administration has operated in a manner that’s not so different than we might have seen had Hillary Rodham Clinton won the 2008 election.

This pragmatism is partially a result of having cut his political teeth in a city where governing is a blood sport. The future president made his peace with the machine of Mayor Richard M. Daley because he felt if he were too much of a maverick and lone wolf he would never have risen far in politics.

The author spends a great deal of time discussing that city’s political culture and the history of black involvement in it. While it’s helpful in contextualizing Mr. Obama’s rise to power, at times the narrative gets bogged down in minutiae.

Mr. Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker and author of previous books on topics such as post-communist Russia and the boxer Muhammad Ali, clearly admires his subject but occasionally goes overboard to dismiss criticisms made of Mr. Obama. The president’s arrogance and occasionally imperious demeanor - traits that many liberals criticized former President Bush for - are excused by the author as natural results of Mr. Obama’s extraordinary political talents.

Despite this occasional hagiography, it’s hard to see how subsequent authors will be able to improve on the treatment of Mr. Obama’s pre-presidential life that is found in “The Bridge.”

Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist who has written extensively on politics and history.

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