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June 13, 2011

Barack Obama 1: The Bridge from Selma to Pennsylvania Avenue

by quaesitor
Obama

If there is a point to Barack Obama becoming US President – and let’s face it, how can we ever reduce anyone’s life to having ‘a point’ – it is not his politics but his race. Race is what made his election seem so unthinkable, and yet, conversely, once he was the Democrat candidate, such a difficult opponent to beat in the 2008 election. And it is what will give him his enduring legacy (politics and 2nd term aside). It is also, in a nutshell, the point of this remarkable, beautifully crafted and historically informed biography by New Yorker editor David Remnick, The Bridge. From my limited perspective and knowledge, I would have to say that this book is essential reading for any seeking to understand recent American political history, and, I dare say, will remain so for many years to come. I’m deliberately not going to post about Obama’s politics – for as an outsider with limited insight, that would be to venture where angels fear to tread. But then, Remnick’s book is not particularly about his politics either, so as in intro review, this is perfectly legitimate.

Of course, it is far too early to give a rounded sense of Obama’s achievements and life in a biography when his first term (and who knows whether or not it will be followed up by a second?) is only 2/3rds through. He is going to be only 50 this August, after all! Which is why Remnick is wise to leave further analysis to others by concluding his book with the moment that Obama is unlikely ever to eclipse: his 2009 inauguration as 44th President.

The Bridge at Selma

But the location of the book’s opening is telling: Brown Chapel in Selma, in which Obama gave a speech in 2007 in the early days of his primary campaign. As a young and relatively inexperienced junior US senator, it was definitely a bold move. As Remnick says,

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’. (p4)

For quite apart from his youth, he was making a deliberate statement by speaking in Selma. He was staking his claim to be a true inheritor of the civil rights campaigns of a previous generation (a fact which certainly raised eyebrows in the African-American community because of his descent from Kenyans not American slaves). The events of 1965 at the Bridge at Selma had been a watershed in the Civil Rights movement spearheaded by Martin Luther King Jr. Known as Bloody Sunday, peaceful protestors seeking voting rights were savagely set upon by law enforcement. And now, 4 decades later, Obama was at the very same place, not now campaigning for voting rights, but for White House tenancy.

At 600 pages, Remnick’s narrative is certainly comprehensive – but it is far from turgid. He has a journalist’s ease and fluency, as well as frequent and open access to scores of the key players and opponents (including Obama himself). This gives the reader a real sense of being in the company of insiders. But what lifts the book out of ‘mere’ journalism, is that it is combined this with an acute historian’s eye for resonances and ironies. The narrative is often interspersed with extended insights into the civil rights movement, the history Chicago politics, or the disturbing relationship between slavery and the White House. The story of former slave Elizabeth Keckley and her deep friendship with first lady Mary Todd Lincoln was especially moving.

But above all, I found myself in awe of and powerfully moved by this story of a man that I might not always agree with (though perhaps more than some of my American friends) but cannot fail to respect. The book rightly debunks many of the conspiracy theories (such as the fact that he is a Muslim or wasn’t born in the USA) and enables one to gain genuine insights into a modern political phenomenon.

The Living Bridge

But the book’s name is elegant – because not only does it evoke the culmination of so much that the Selma to Montgomery marchers fought and prayed for, but it also points to the fact of Obama’s own identity. And what is the battle for racial equality if not a story of identity? For it was perhaps precisely Obama’s unique cultural mix that made him electable:

  • a white mother (with English and Irish ancestry) from Kansas and then Hawaii;
  • a black father from Kenya (whose own father had been a servant to British colonials);
  • an Indonesian (cultural but not practising Muslim, as the book makes clear, despite what the right-wing fear-mongerers insist) stepfather and half-sister;
  • an intellectual powerhouse that led to his election as President of the Harvard Law Journal and later a law professor (giving him respectability amongst the elite);
  • a community organiser and member of an African-American church in Chicago (giving a degree of credibility amongst the poor and radical);
  • And then last but not least, an African-American wife who was descended from American slaves. In fact, a number of people have suggested that he would never have had credibility amongst African Americans if he’d married a white woman.

So I suppose you could call him a one-man global village. And in a post-ideological age such as ours, identity is arguably much more influential than policy and politics. So it is no surprise that Obama attracted accusations of being both ‘too black’ and ‘not black enough’. As his father was largely absent, he was brought up in a white household, and so had to discover his African-Americanness. But this too helped. Here is one of his Harvard mentors, Martha Minow:

Obama is black, but without the torment. He clearly identifies himself as African-American, he clearly identifies with African-American history and the civil-rights movement, but his life came largely – not completely, but largely – without the terrible oppression. (p195)

Then he was also honed by his experiences of politics in Chicago. As Remnick points out:

There is no telling how Obama might have developed had he answered an ad to work in some other city, but it is clear that the history of African-Americans in Chicago – and the unique political history of Chicago, culminating in [Harold] Washington’s attempt to form a multiracial coalition – provided Obama with a rich legacy to learn from and be part of. ‘The first African-American president could only have come from Chicago’, Timuel Black, one of the elders of the South Side and a historian of the black migration from the South, says. (p143)

Of course, it was not without its risks. And by that I don’t mean political. This conversation happened before he threw his hat into the Primary ring.

[Obama & an African-American donor friend] talked some more – about the Clintons, about the Republicans, and, most of all, about the barriers that Obama would face. Finally, the fundraiser said, ‘It’s funny you call. I’ve taken my own plebiscite and there is an interesting divide.’
Obama cut him off and said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know. The white folks want me to run. And the black folks think I’m going to get killed.’
That was it exactly. The donor, who was older than Obama, had keen memories of the assassination of Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King. (p462)

Spinning the Bridge

There is no doubting that Obama’s campaign tactic of spinning his capacity to bridge different ethnicities, classes and even religions was shrewdly exploited. So this episode particularly struck me – and it is worth quoting at length.

Primary candidates Hilary Clinton & Barack Obama with Jim Wallis at the 2007 Poverty Forum (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In June, 2006, Obama went a step further in trying to expand his own party’s political base. He accepted an imitation to speak from Jim Wallis, a white liberal evangelical Christian. Wallis’s organisation, known as the Sojourners, opposed the policies of the religious right and spoke out for social justice. Obama was among those in the Party who were eager to prove that the evangelical movement was far more diverse than the political class in Washington, New York, or Los Angeles believed, that religious Christians were as capable of independent thought and politics as any other seemingly cohesive voting bloc. Obama talked about his own church – Jeremiah Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ on the South Side – and the way it viewed religious faith as commensurate with a belief in political liberation and compassion. Again, Obama asked his audience to step outside the accustomed barricades. He denounced both the intolerance of the religious right and the failure, often, of the secular left to respect the value of religious faith in the lives of others.

“What I am suggesting is this: secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their ‘personal morality into public-policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Moreover, if we progressives shed some of these biases, we might recognize some overlapping values that both religious and secular people share when it comes to the moral and material direction of our country’. We might recognize that the call to sacrifice on behalf of the next generation, the need to think in terms of “thou” and not just “I,” resonates in religious congregations all across the country. And we might realize that we have the ability, to reach out to the evangelical community and engage millions of religious Americans in the larger project of American renewal.

Obama criticized leaders of the religious right, like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who had been at the forefront of the Reagan revolution, and those liberal secularists who are wary of any and all religious appeals. At the same time he paid tribute to preachers like Tony Campolo, Rick Warren, and T. D. Jakes, who had been active on issues like the genocide in Darfur, poverty, H.I.V./AIDS, and Third World-debt relief. It was a speech that recognized how ruinous was the divide between the Democratic Party and evangelicals. Obama was attempting to reconcile the constitutional requirement for separation of church and state with recognition of sincere religious impulse for the social good. (p440-441)

Of course, there are doubters on all sides – but that isn’t really my point here. I’m merely pointing out the overarching leitmotif of Remnick’s book, namely the Bridge metaphor, as something the Obama campaign has deliberately exploited. That was clearly part of the purpose in having Rick Warren lead the prayers at the inauguration (despite controversy over the choice).

This is really hitting me…

Well something clearly worked and he was elected. But the most moving moment for me came when he was preparing his speech accepting the Democratic Party’s nomination. Again, this moment is worth quoting in full.

On the afternoon of August 28th Obama was rehearsing his acceptance speech in a modest meeting room on the nineteenth floor of the Westin Tabor Center, the hotel where he was staying in Denver. In a few hours, he was to appear under the lights at Mile High Stadium. Obama has always preferred to work in the nest of a very small circle of aides and now his audience was three: his political strategist, David Axelrod; the speechwriter, Jon Favreau; and a teleprompter operator. The rehearsal was mainly an exercise in comfort, in making sure that there were no syntactical hurdles left in the text, no barriers to clarity. Obama was never spirited in rehearsal, but he wanted to make sure he had a firm grasp of the rhythm of the sentences, so that when he looked at the teleprompter he would be like a well-rehearsed musician glancing at the score.

As a piece of rhetoric, the Convention speech was more of a ramble and a litany than what Obama usually favored; the text carried the burden of presenting a bill of particulars, a case, as Favreau put it, ‘of why yes to Obama and no to John McCain.’ Obama could not just inspire; he had to answer detailed questions of policy and difference. Late in the speech, however, the rhetoric shifted to the historical uplift and significance of the campaign. In the rehearsal session, Obama came to a passage paying homage to the March on Washington, forty-five years earlier to the day, when tens of thousands of people gathered near the Lincoln Memorial ‘to hear a young preacher from Georgia speak of his dream.’ Obama chose not to mention Martin Luther King, Jr., by name in the text, and, later, some black intellectuals would say that he had done so for fear of appearing ‘too black’, of emphasizing race in front of a national audience. And yet even as he reheated the passage, there was a catch in Obama’s voice and he stopped. He couldn’t get past the phrase ‘forty-five years ago.’

‘I gotta take a minute,’ Obama told his aides.

He excused himself and took a short, calming walk around the room.

‘This is really hitting me,’ he said. ‘I haven’t really thought about this before really deeply. It just hit me. I guess this is a pretty big deal.’ His eyes filling with tears, Obama went to the bathroom to blow his nose. Favreau thought that the only time he had ever seen or heard of Obama being this emotional was back in Iowa when he addressed a group of young volunteers who were caucusing for the first time. Axelrod agreed. “Usually, he is so composed,’ he said, ‘but he needed the time.’

‘It’s funny; I think all of us go through this,’ Favreau recalled. ‘We’ve gone through this whole campaign and, contrary to what anyone might think, we don’t think of the history much, because it’s a crazy environment and you’re going twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. And so there are very few moments – and I think it’s the same with Barack – when he stops and thinks, ‘I could be the first African-American elected President.’’

Obama returned to the room and practiced the paragraph a couple more times to make sure he could get through it without interruption. Although the passage did not mention King by name, the references were unmistakable.

Early in the evening, before the motorcade left for the stadium, Obama called Favreau in his room to go over some stray detail in the speech about science policy.

‘I’m just being nervous, aren’t I?’ Obama asked him.

Sometime after five, Obama left the hotel in a motorcade. The drive lasted about fifteen minutes and all he could see through the window was faces, crowds, signs, people ten deep cheering and yelling, and the roar grew louder as he pulled into the stadium to deliver his acceptance speech to eighty thousand people and a television audience of more than thirty-eight million Americans. (p537-8)

Tomorrow, I’ll post another strand to Remnick’s analysis: the impact of the media on the campaign, something that has interested me for years…

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