‘With time,’ writes David Remnick, ‘political campaigns tend to be viewed through the triumphalist prism of the winner.’ Never more so, perhaps, than in Remnick’s idolatrous new biography of Barack Obama, which presents the First Black President’s ascension to the White House as nothing less than a glorious saga.
Deeply read — if not rooted — in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Obama is said to have derived his spectacular political success from the great and martyred prophet Martin Luther King, Jr and King’s closest disciples, especially John Lewis. In this account, by the editor of the New Yorker, Obama’s life journey began, metaphorically, on 7 March 1965, in the middle of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of black marchers, led by Lewis and Hosea Williams, were halted by state troopers, reinforced by a deputised white mob, who bludgeoned and tear-gassed the demonstrators as they knelt and prayed. The conscience of the nation was shocked, the Voting Rights Act was swiftly passed, and the path was opened, for the first time since Reconstruction, to full participation by African-Americans in their country’s electoral politics.
To Obama, who was only four at the time and living in relative safety with his white mother and white grandparents in multi-cultural Hawaii, the events of ‘Bloody Sunday’ are the stuff of inspirational legend that stimulate his political ambitions when he learns about them later in life. For Remnick, however, ‘Bloody Sunday’ is central to the biblical arc of Obama’s rise, as well as to the narrative structure of the biography. The ‘bridge’ is finally crossed and the saga completed when we learn, at the book’s end, that Obama owns a framed cover of Life Magazine, signed by Lewis, depicting the 1965 confrontation in Selma. At a luncheon following Obama’s 2009 inauguration Lewis, now a veteran Democratic congressman, received a souvenir signature from the new president with the dedication, ‘Because of you, John.’
As satisfying and reassuring as all this sounds, there are reasons to distrust Remnick’s version of ‘the Life and Rise of Barack Obama’. For one thing, the book has all the tell-tale signs of an authorised biography, crammed as it is with knowing inferences based on insider sources, both named and anonymous. Clearly, Obama and his advisers granted to Remnick access to friends and personal letters that were previously unavailable to journalists. Sitting presidents and their media counsellors take care who they talk to, and there’s every indication that Obama’s inner circle trusted Remnick to relay their version of the story, which he does dutifully, often at excruciating length.
To Remnick’s credit, he critiques Obama’s bestselling memoir Dreams of My Father, although he doesn’t challenge the essential facts as we’ve been told them. We do learn more than we previously knew about the intelligent, frustrated and rebelliously self-destructive Kenyan father, Barack, Sr, who probably served as an anti-role model in young Barack’s imagination. Obama’s abandonment by a black father, albeit a highly educated African one, places him within hailing distance of the experience of many black Americans. However, the divide between Obama and his less fortunate ‘brothers’ is huge: raised by his cosmopolitan mother and liberal, middle-class grandparents, Obama is able to attend the most elite private school in Honolulu, a privilege that guarantees him access to ever higher and more prestigious levels of education. At first a casual student, Obama seems to have found his academic drive at some point during his sophomore year at Occidental College, but Remnick, bogged down by a ponderous, race-centered narrative, doesn’t really explain either Obama’s new-found interest or his career choices. We know he wants to be liked, has a talent for pleasing all different kinds of people, is easily bored, generally wants to help the disadvantaged and develops ‘rock star charisma’. But we never get near his core.
Why, for example, does the up-and- coming Obama leave community organising in New York for the same sort of work in Chicago — a critically important decision, as things turned out. ‘Obama knew that he had had enough of New York,’ writes Remnick, who pads this non-insight with a quote from Obama’s then boss: ‘I asked him if it would help if I got on my knees and begged — and so I did. But it didn’t help. It was time for him to go.’ Maybe he didn’t like the intellectual atmosphere at Columbia, where, a friend tells Remnick, the newly studious Obama found Edward Said, the brilliant Palestinian-American literary and political critic, to be a ‘flake’.
In Chicago, Remnick’s mythmaking turns from the merely annoying to the decidedly implausible. Again and again Obama is smart, bold and lucky — always at the right place at the right time. Even when he supposedly overreaches (as in his unsuccessful challenge to incumbent congressman Bobby Rush in 2000), Obama simply learns from his alleged mistakes. Remnick’s Obama is largely self-made and mostly independent from the family-ruled Democratic machine that has run the city and its surrounding county for most of the last six decades.
But nobody gets ahead in Chicago’s brutal, one-party political oligarchy without a sponsor — known in pre-PC days as a ‘Chinaman’ — and all the evidence suggests that Obama was spotted as talent by two important members of the Chicago establishment, a white lawyer named Newton Minow, and a key black aide to Mayor Richard M. Daley, Valerie Jarrett. Minow, a bien pensant liberal of the most hypocritical sort (he helped Rupert Murdoch buy the once enlightened Chicago Sun-Times), provides the white lakefront money and corporate connections, and Jarrett introduces Obama (as well as his future wife, Michelle, whom Jarrett hired) to her important friends at City Hall and around town.
To understand Obama’s cautious, essentially non-reformist conduct thus far as president, it is crucial to know how he got ahead in politically corrupt Chicago, but Remnick is either not interested in finding out or not up to the journalistic task. For him, Valerie Jarrett’s explanation is pretty much all you need to hear:
I always felt that I was doing someone a favour by introducing that person to [Obama]. It wasn’t like I was doing this just to help his political career.
A dubious notion, but the question of how Obama became a made man within the Chicago Democratic organisation is left hanging. Remnick’s former Washington Post colleague David Ignatius has reported — and my own inquiries support this — that the Daley machine privately ‘prodded’ the young state senator (by then under the tutelage of the machine’s leader in the Illinois Senate, Emil Jones) to run against Bobby Rush, in my opinion to punish Rush (a former Black Panther) for having dared to challenge Daley in the mayoral primary of 1999. This is standard procedure in Chicago politics: disturb the boss and suddenly you find yourself confronted by a well-funded, motivated, and even (in the case of Obama) articulate opponent from within your own party. The message is clear, whether or not you survive the challenge: don’t get out of line if you want your safe seat to remain safe. In this scenario, Obama wins even though he loses to Rush — he earns the confidence of the Daley machine.
With the mayor’s blessing, all sorts of good things come your way, including the expert tactical advice of David Axelrod and fund-raising prowess of Daley’s former chief of staff, John Schmidt. As described by Remnick, Obama on the make is a sunny idealist with a pragmatic understanding of politics, and Daley is something of a New Democrat, not in the same category as his thuggish father, Mayor Richard J. Daley. According to Remnick,
part of Richard [M.] Daley’s Machiavellian skill had been to modernise the Chicago political structure, removing its mailed fist but retaining its toleration of occasional corruption in the name of making things work.
Today, Chicago is so ‘modernised’ that Democrats hold 49 of 50 seats on a city council where there is even less independent Democratic opposition than in the days of the old boss Daley. And the mailed fist is still very much in evidence, as in Daley’s unilateral and illegal midnight bulldozing of Chicago’s lakefront airport, and his crushing (Remnick doesn’t mention it) of a rare city-council rebellion in favour of a special minimum wage for employees of large retail stores like Walmart.
Remnick sees mostly good in Obama’s accommodations to the party machine: after all, ‘to remain pristine in Chicago politics — to follow the path of someone like the independent alderman Leon Despres — was to put a cap on ambition.’ Remnick writes that Obama’s goal after five years in the state senate was to ‘re-establish himself as a Democrat independent of the Daley circle and organisation, but also as someone who would not wage an overtly anti-Daley race.’ Thus, Obama remained silent during the 2004 battle over the minimum wage, a law that would have helped Chicago’s working poor, including those in his own state senate district, to make ends meet.
Pristine we can certainly do without, but what about principle? There is nothing in Remnick’s biography about Obama’s eager courting, once he gets to the US Senate, of the sleazy Democrat-turned-‘independent’ Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who continues to champion the invasion of Iraq that Obama once said he opposed. We hear almost nothing about his dogged pursuit of Wall Street and K Street lobbyist money (including the law firm of convicted felon Jack Abramoff) for his own and his party’s campaigns; nothing about his unfailing respect for the prerogatives of congressional committee chairman, or the spoils system that rules Washington, DC, through the awarding of pork-barrel projects and patronage appointments.
Given Obama’s Windy City heritage, it is no surprise that his health care ‘reform’ was written by Liz Fowler, a former executive for a private health insurer, who now works for Senator Max Baucus, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and a beneficiary of millions of dollars in contributions from insurance and health care companies. As ‘pragmatists,’ Obama, and Remnick, can easily rationalise such behaviour, despite the candidate Obama’s incessant rhetoric about ‘change you can believe in’. How else could he have wrested control of the party from its previously dominant faction, the ethically compromised fundraising machine called Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Nowadays, according to the Washington Post, even the Congressional Black Caucus is unhappy with Obama for doing too little (beyond recruiting poor kids to fight in Afghanistan) to combat black unemployment, now at 16.5 per cent. These disappointed heirs to Martin Luther King, Jr might want to refer to a more obscure book by Rickey Hendon, Obama’s former state senate colleague, cited by Remnick. In Black Enough/White Enough, Hendon relates a blatant case of Obama’s hypocrisy over Republican-sponsored budget cuts affecting the poor in their respective Chicago districts and to Obama’s ugly reaction when Hendon called him out in public. From this run-in, Hendon concluded that Obama was ‘bipartisan enough and white enough to be President of the United States’. I’m not sure that’s what Dr King had in mind for the Selma marchers when they reached the other end of the bridge.
John R. MacArthur’s latest book is You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America.