David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker, is a journalist other journalists would like to hate. But in every craft—athletics, banking, politics, whatever—there are a few people of such skill that envy gives way to admiration, and one is left feeling not hostility but respect. In my field, Remnick is one of those exceptional practitioners, and as a reader I have long benefited from his mastery of the art of the profile. Look up his pieces on—to pick just a few—Gary Hart, Murray Kempton, Mario Cuomo, Al Gore, and Elaine Pagels to get a sense of how a writer can best bring empathy and judgment to the most complicated of subjects: human beings.
This week Remnick is publishing a biography of President Obama. The book, titled The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, comes at an especially opportune moment, for its reporting and its analysis turn our attention from the hurly-burly of the arena of the president's life in the White House to the man himself, a figure at once ubiquitous and remote. The prevailing caricatures of Obama are solidly fixed. To the right he is a socialist, to the left a middling messiah. Remnick's book brings us back to the man himself. For those of us who agree with Emerson that "there is properly no history, only biography," The Bridge offers dual portraits: one of American race relations, the other of the young president, the son of an idealistic white mother and an absent Kenyan father.
Unlike John Heilemann and Mark Halperin's bestselling Game Change—a book I think of as Teddy White with bite—Remnick's biography depends not on nuggets but on his characteristically dispassionate, richly observed assessment of his subject. Without sermonizing or sentimentalizing, Remnick sheds light on the complicated role of race in Obama's rise and victory and, perhaps most relevantly, in the conduct of his presidency.
Here is what Obama told Remnick about the racial component of the opposition, including the tea-party movement: "America evolves, and sometimes those evolutions are painful. People don't progress in a straight line. Countries don't progress in a straight line. So there's enormous excitement and interest around the election of an African-American President. It's inevitable that there's going to be some backlash, potentially, to what that means—not in a crudely racist way, necessarily. But it signifies change, in the same way that immigration signifies change, in the same way that a shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service-based economy signifies change, in the same way that the Internet signifies change and terrorism signifies change. And so I think that nobody should have ever been under the illusion—certainly I wasn't, and I was very explicit about this when I campaigned—that by virtue of my election, suddenly race problems would be solved or conversely that the American people would want to spend all their time talking about race. I think it signifies progress, but the progress preceded the election. The progress facilitated the election. The progress has to do with the day-to-day interactions of people who are working together and going to church together and teaching their kids to treat everybody equally and fairly. All those little interactions that are taking place across the country add up to a more just, more tolerant, society. But that's an ongoing process. It's one that requires each of us, every day, to try to expand our sense of understanding. And there are going to be folks who don't want to promote that understanding because they're afraid of the future. They don't like that evolution. They think, in some fashion, that it will disadvantage them or, in some sense, diminishes the past. I tend to be fairly forgiving about the anxiety that people feel about change because I think, if you're human, you recognize that in yourself."
As Obama sat and spoke those words to Remnick in the Oval Office, Remnick noted the loud ticking of the grandfather clock—"an unnervingly loud reminder to the occupant that his stay is brief," Remnick writes. Obama probably needs no such reminder: his is an ironic and tragic sensibility, a recognition that politics (and life) is in the end more about the journey than the destination, since no destination is ever really permanent. Remembering this about the president—that he is a patient man because journeys require patience—helps explain his understated doggedness, a doggedness that is likely to stand him in pretty good stead as the clock ticks.