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The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

New Yorker editor David Remnick examines Barack Obama’s unprecedented political odyssey.

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It is to Remnick’s credit that he 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. He achieves this by dogged persistence, chatting with a wide range of friends, bosses, teachers, rivals, campaign staffers, and family members to explore what led a self-described skinny biracial kid with a funny name to the most powerful political office in the world.

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At the same time, Remnick’s firm grasp of race and its infinite volatilities is nuanced and balanced. Here again, he benefits from rich recollections resulting from his fresh interviews with, among others, former Black Panther Bobby Rush; the radical activist Bill Ayers; and Martin Luther King Jr.’s surviving aides: Congressman Lewis, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr., and the Rev. Joseph Lowery, who delivered the final benediction at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.

If Remnick falters, it’s in the area of objectivity. Even as he dutifully mentions Obama’s inevitable political entanglements and missteps (the dubious Chicago developer Tony Rezko, his defiantly controversial minister Jeremiah Wright, etc.), the author remains all but starry-eyed. An occasional, gentle rebuke aside, Obama emerges as nearly flawless. And it seems safe to say Remnick is more than a little seduced by the occasional one-on-one Obama interview in the Oval Office and collegial phone calls, such as the one in which Obama saluted The New Yorker for an amusing cover depicting him walking on water before succumbing to a splashing pratfall.

Depending on political perspective and curiosity, these are smaller flaws in what still stands as a powerful account of how racial politics have shifted, particularly in the past 50 years, as well as how Obama navigated such tricky waters. For some, the glowing portrait may be too much.

But no matter your partisanship, Obama’s rise is an intriguing piece of American history, hinging on a jaw-dropping series of just-in-time cultural and political winds changing direction – and, always, without fail, lifting Obama. This is true of almost every candidate and campaign, but because Obama has done what no one else had ever done before, the precariousness of his unexpected triumph becomes all the more palpable.

Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.


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