New Yorker editor-in-chief David Remnick takes his sweet time painting a warts-and-all portrait of Barack Obama. In The Bridge: The Life And Rise Of Barack Obama, he occasionally tries too hard to situate the current president in the grand sweep of history: everyone from John F. Kennedy to Booker T. Washington makes cameo appearances. But Remnick’s portrayal of Obama as a headstrong, slightly egotistical man who is nonetheless compassionate and deeply intelligent has the “first draft of history” feel of the best journalism.
The big problem with writing anything about Obama is that his life story has been thoroughly picked over by the media and Obama himself (in his memoir, Dreams From My Father), and the major events of his political career—his speech to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the 2008 presidential race—are among the most thoroughly reported-on events of the last decade. There’s no new ground for Remnick to cover, so instead, he tells the story everyone knows, but digs deeper.
It can be tricky to get a bead on Remnick’s Obama. His ability to soak up the stories of everyone he meets and incorporate them into his worldview makes him uniquely well-suited to leadership. But his prickly nature and certainty that he’s born to be something greater than, say, a mere state senator can make him surprisingly unsympathetic at times. The Bridge’s portrayal of the man’s many facets avoids making him either an easy messiah figure or a shallow huckster, selling himself more than any cohesive policy plans. Remnick’s ability to paint a more complicated portrait is the best reason to read the book.
But The Bridge has its problems. Other people in Obama’s life come off as mere sketches, particularly if Remnick was unable to interview them (as was the case with Michelle Obama). And the early material drags—it mostly recontextualizes Dreams, retelling a story nearly everyone knows at this point, and not finding much new in it. But once Obama begins his political career by forcing out his district’s state senator and setting his eyes on higher prizes, the book comes alive, as all the contradictions of Remnick’s subject come to the fore. The definitive Obama biography will likely have to wait a few decades, but The Bridge is a good start.