Two views of the Obama effect

Biography touts the man as cross- cultural bridge

By David M. Shribman
Globe Correspondent / April 13, 2010

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This we know: He was the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan. He grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia. He went to Occidental before transferring to Columbia. He was a community organizer. He was president of the Harvard Law Review. He gave the best speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. He went from the Illinois Senate to the US Senate to the White House in about a nanosecond. He is now the president of the United States.

So what can we expect to learn from a new biography of Barack Obama, even one written by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker and holder of a Pulitzer Prize?

A few new details perhaps — in this case more than we already knew about the most unexamined part of Obama’s life, his undergraduate years at Columbia. Maybe a few tidbits about his early life — when, for example, he stopped calling himself Barry. Perhaps a sharp-eyed observation — such as that it was Hillary Rodham who, at Wellesley, wrote her thesis on Saul Alinsky, the great community organizer, while it was her later rival who adopted and adapted Alinsky’s ideas in Clinton’s home turf of Chicago.

But it’s difficult indeed to find a rationale for a new biography of a well-examined president who wrote two memoirs before he accomplished much of anything. The broad trajectory of Barack Obama’s life is so well-known that perhaps the most remarkable American of his generation has nearly been rendered a cliche, and he’s only been in office 14 months.

That said, the virtue of “The Bridge,’’ Remnick’s thick but eminently readable volume, isn’t how comprehensive it is, but how Remnick comprehends the meaning of Obama. And the great achievement of the book is that Remnick manages to say something different, or at least something of more clarity, than all the tens of millions of words already written.

Remnick’s Obama is “a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young’’ man who in a nation weary of identity politics built his campaign around his own identity. Obama ran for president as a “multi-confessional, multiracial, multi-lingual, and multi continental’’ character and won not because he had accomplished something but because he had the potential to accomplish much.

Americans have elected presidents in the past based more on what they were than on what they had done, but perhaps not since Lincoln — a recurrent model for Obama, who served in the Illinois legislature and announced his presidential candidacy in the state capital of Springfield — had there been a gap between the two that yawned quite so wide.

In broad, bold, colorful strokes, Remnick sketches an inexperienced president who was a child with an easy way, a young man with a hard passage, a young adult who struggled with great philosophical issues, and a law student with the serene but cerebral approach now familiar to us all. “Almost from the start,’’ Remnick writes in a particularly striking section of his biography, “Obama attracted attention at Harvard for the confidence of his bearing and his way of absorbing and synthesizing the arguments of others in a way that made even the most strident opponent feel understood.’’

Thus the image of the bridge, set out artfully from the very first pages, when Remnick describes Obama’s trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the iconic and bloody Alabama symbol of the civil rights movement, and then proceeds to portray Obama as a bridge between a multitude of voter alliances, demographic groups, and geographic areas that for several generations clashed mightily but in the campaign of 2008 managed, more or less, to settle on a president who bridged them all.

In this regard, Remnick himself is a bridge — to seeing fresh a man we think we know but only now, in his hard days in the White House, are beginning to understand.

David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief.

THE BRIDGE: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

By David Remnick

Knopf, 672 pp., $29.95