The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

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9780330509947: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

No story has been more central to America’s history this century than the rise of Barack Obama, and until now, no journalist or historian has written a book that fully investigates the circumstances and experiences of Obama’s life or explores the ambition behind his rise. Those familiar with Obama’s own best-selling memoir or his campaign speeches know the touchstones and details that he chooses to emphasize, but now—from a writer whose gift for illuminating the historical significance of unfolding events is without peer—we have a portrait, at once masterly and fresh, nuanced and unexpected, of a young man in search of himself, and of a rising politician determined to become the first African-American president.

The Bridge offers the most complete account yet of Obama’s tragic father, a brilliant economist who abandoned his family and ended his life as a beaten man; of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, who had a child as a teenager and then built her career as an anthropologist living and studying in Indonesia; and of the succession of elite institutions that first exposed Obama to the social tensions and intellectual currents that would force him to imagine and fashion an identity for himself. Through extensive on-the-record interviews with friends and teachers, mentors and disparagers, family members and Obama himself, David Remnick allows us to see how a rootless, unaccomplished, and confused young man created himself first as a community organizer in Chicago, an experience that would not only shape his urge to work in politics but give him a home and a community, and that would propel him to Harvard Law School, where his sense of a greater mission emerged.

Deftly setting Obama’s political career against the galvanizing intersection of race and politics in Chicago’s history, Remnick shows us how that city’s complex racial legacy would make Obama’s forays into politics a source of controversy and bare-knuckle tactics: his clashes with older black politicians in the Illinois State Senate, his disastrous decision to challenge the former Black Panther Bobby Rush for Congress in 2000, the sex scandals that would decimate his more experienced opponents in the 2004 Senate race, and the story—from both sides—of his confrontation with his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright. By looking at Obama’s political rise through the prism of our racial history, Remnick gives us the conflicting agendas of black politicians: the dilemmas of men like Jesse Jackson, John Lewis, and Joseph Lowery, heroes of the civil rights movement, who are forced to reassess old loyalties and understand the priorities of a new generation of African-American leaders.

The Bridge revisits the American drama of race, from slavery to civil rights, and makes clear how Obama’s quest is not just his own but is emblematic of a nation where destiny is defined by individuals keen to imagine a future that is different from the reality of their current lives.

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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.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Prologue

The Joshua Generation


Brown Chapel
Selma, Alabama

This is how it began, the telling of a story that changed America.

At midday on March 4, 2007, Barack Obama, the junior senator from Illinois, was scheduled to speak at Brown Chapel, in Selma, Alabama. His campaign for President was barely a month old, and he had come South prepared to confront, for the first time, the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton. He planned to discuss in public what so many believed would ultimately be his undoing—his race, his youth, his “exotic” background. “Who is Barack Obama?” Barack Hussein Obama? From now until Election Day, his opponents, Democratic and Republican, would ask the question on public platforms, in television and radio commercials, often insinuating a disqualifying otherness about the man: his childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia; his Kenyan father; his Kansas- born, yet cosmopolitan, mother.

Obama’s answer to that question helped form the language and distinctiveness of his campaign. Two years out of the Illinois State Senate and barely free of his college loans, Obama entered the Presidential race with a serious, yet unexceptional, set of center- left policy positions. They were not radically different from Clinton’s, save on the crucial question of the Iraq war. Nor did he possess an impressive résumé of executive experience or legislative accomplishment. But who Obama was, where he came from, how he came to understand himself, and, ultimately, how he managed to project his own temperament and personality as a reflection of American ambitions and hopes would be at the center of his rhetoric and appeal. In addition to his political views, what Obama proposed as the core of his candidacy was a self—a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness. There, in large measure, was the wellspring of his candidacy, its historical dimension and conceit, and there was no escaping its gall. Obama himself used words like “presumptuous” and “audacious.”

In Selma, Obama prepared to nominate himself as the inheritor of the most painful of all American struggles, the struggle of race: not race as invoked by his predecessors in electoral politics or in the civil- rights movement, not race as an insistence on ethnicity or redress; rather, Obama would make his biracial ancestry a metaphor for his ambition to create a broad coalition of support, to rally Americans behind a narrative of moral and political progress. He was not necessarily the hero of that narrative, but he just might be its culmination. In the months to come, Obama borrowed brazenly from the language and imagery of an epochal American movement and applied it to a campaign for the Presidency.

The city of Selma clusters around the murky waters of the Alabama River. Selma had been a prosperous manufacturing center and an arsenal for the Confederate Army. Now it is a forlorn place of twenty thousand souls. Broad Street ordinarily lacks all but the most listless human traffic. African Americans live mostly in modest houses, shotgun shacks, and projects on the east side of town; whites tend to live, more prosperously, on the west side.

Selma’s economy experiences a burst of vitality during the annual flowerings of historical memory. The surviving antebellum plantation houses are, for the most part, kept up for the few tourists who still come. In mid- April, Civil War buffs arrive in town to commemorate the Confederate dead in a re- enactment of the Battle of Selma, where, in 1865, a Confederate general, a particularly sadistic racist named Nathan Bedford Forrest, suffered defeat. The blacks in town do not share in the mood of Confederate nostalgia. An almost entirely black housing project just outside of town was, for decades, named for General Forrest, who had traded slaves and became Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

After the Civil War, black students came to Selma University, a small Bible college, and the town—a town of churches—became renowned as a center of African- American preaching. Selma, Ralph Abernathy wrote in his memoirs, “was to many of us the ‘Capital of the Black Belt,’ a place where intelligent young people and learned elders gathered.” At the same time, because of the grip of Jim Crow, Selma was, as late as the nineteensixties, a place of literacy tests and poll taxes; almost no blacks were able to register to vote. Surrounded by disdainful white registrars, they were made to answer questions like “How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?”

The local sheriff, Jim Clark, was in the grotesque folkloric mold of Birmingham’s Bull Connor; he wore a button reading “Never” on his uniform and could be relied upon to take the most brutal measures against any sign of anti- segregationist protest—which is why, as the civil-rights movement developed, the grassroots leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (S.C.L.C.) made Selma a test case in the struggle for voting rights.

On January 2, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., came to Brown Chapel, a brick citadel of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and told the congregation that Selma had become a “symbol of bitter-end resistance to the civil-rights movement in the Deep South.” Just as Montgomery had been the focus of the first bus boycotts and the struggle for civil rights and equal access to public facilities, Selma, King and his comrades decided, would be the battleground for voting rights.
Barack Obama had been invited to Selma more than a month before the anniversary event by his friend John Lewis, a veteran congressman from Atlanta. In his late sixties, portly and bald, Lewis was known around Capitol Hill and in the African-American community less as a legislator than as a popularly elected griot, a moral exemplar and a wizened truthteller of the civil-rights movement. During the long “conservative darkness,” from the first Reagan inaugural onward, Lewis said, it was especially “hard and essential” to keep progressive politics alive. “And the only way to do that was to keep telling the story,” he said.While King was organizing for the S.C.L.C. in Alabama, Lewis had been the chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (sncc). Lewis was present at nearly every important march. He was at King’s side at the front of countless demonstrations and in meetings with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office. He was the youngest—and most militant—of the many speakers at the March on Washington in 1963; now he was the only one among them still alive. People called John Lewis a hero every day of his life, but now he was feeling quite unheroic, unsure whom to support: the Clintons, who had “never disappointed” him over the years, or a young and talented man who had introduced himself to the country with a thrilling speech at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston. At first, Lewis signaled to Obama that he would be with him, but the Clintons and their circle were appealing to his sense of friendship and loyalty—and they were almost as hard to resist as the lure of history. Feeling acute pressure, Lewis promised both the Clintons and Obama that he would soon have “an executive session with myself” and decide.

For Lewis, growing up in Pike County, Alabama, Jim Crow was like a familiar but ominous neighbor. As a boy, he wanted to leave so badly that he dreamed of making a wooden bus out of the pine trees that surrounded his family’s house and riding it all the way to California. His parents were sharecroppers and he was one of ten children. He wanted to be a preacher, and, to practice, he declaimed sermons to the chickens in the coop in the backyard. He preached to them weekdays and Sundays alike, marrying the roosters and hens, presiding over funerals for the dead. (“There was something magical, almost mystical, about that moment when those dozens and dozens of chickens, all wide awake, were looking straight at me, and I was looking back at them, all of us in total, utter silence. It felt very spiritual, almost religious.”)

In 1955, Lewis listened on the radio to a young preacher from Atlanta giving a sermon called “Paul’s Letter to the American Christians.” The preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke in the voice of the apostle Paul addressing Christians, white Christians, condemning them for a lack of compassion toward their black brothers and sisters. As he listened to the sermon, Lewis wanted to become a minister like Dr. King. Later that year, he joined a movement that started when a department store clerk in Montgomery named Rosa Parks was arrested after she refused to change her seat on the Cleveland Avenue bus. As a seminarian at Troy State, Lewis took workshops in nonviolent resistance and joined the drive to integrate lunch counters and bus- station waiting rooms in Nashville and other Southern towns and cities. He passed out the axioms of Jesus, Gandhi, Thoreau, and King to his fellow demonstrators even as he was being taunted as an agitator, a “nigger,” a “coon,” as teenaged thugs flicked lighted cigarettes at his neck. As a Freedom Rider, Lewis was nearly killed at the Greyhound station in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Getting beaten, arrested, and jailed became a kind of routine, his regular service, and, after each incident, he would rest a little, as if all he had done was to put in a decent day’s labor:
Some of the deepest, most delicious moments of my life were getting out of jail in a place like Americus,  or Hattiesburg, or Selma— especially Selma—and finding my way to the nearest Freedom House, taking a good long shower, putting on a pair of jeans and a fresh shirtand going to some little Dew ...

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