Here is a great what-if moment for historians: What if Alice Palmer had secured a spot on the Illinois ballot in the 1996 state Senate race featuring a young community organizer named Barack Obama? Palmer, the incumbent, supported Obama’s entry into the race, as she had stepped down to pursue a congressional seat. A popular South Side politico, Palmer expected an easy win in her congressional bid. Instead, Jesse Jackson Jr. jumped in the race and beat her.
That left Palmer without a political home. She opted to return to the state Senate race she had earlier encouraged Obama to join. An unknown political quantity at the time, Obama was already ambitious, as he proved by invoking local rules and demanding validation of the required voter-petition signatures each candidate, including Palmer, had filed. Obama’s audacity paid instant political dividends. Palmer fell 200 signatures short of the minimum, catapulting Obama to victory – and setting in motion a political whirlwind that led to the election of the nation’s first African-American president in 2008.
His improbable debut victory in the Illinois state Senate race 14 years ago is the kind of thing that should have kept John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton awake at night. As Illinois Democrat Ricky Hendon tells author David Remnick years later, “I don’t know anyone who thinks Alice wouldn’t have won at that time and in that era. She was the queen.”
Hendon’s reflection, and related remarks about how and why Obama aggravated him, are part of Remnick’s thorough biography of the 44th president’s unprecedented political odyssey. In The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker magazine, proves an exhaustive reporter and skilled writer as he recounts Obama’s journey.
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.
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.