David Remnick on The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama | Bleader

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

David Remnick on The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama

Posted By on 04.13.10 at 01:29 PM

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New Yorker editor David Remnick chats with Chicago Tribune literary editor Elizabeth Taylor about his book The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama (Knopf) today at 6 PM at the Harold Washington Library Center.

Remnick drew upon a couple Reader stories in his research: "What Makes Obama Run?" by Hank De Zutter and "Is Bobby Rush in Trouble?" by Edward McClelland (aka Ted Kleine).

After the jump, an excerpt from The Bridge, when Obama (briefly) considered walking away from politics after his trouncing by Bobby Rush in the 2000 congressional primary race:

Obama is not given to rages or to depression, but the loss to Bobby Rush was decisive in every way. Years later, Obama told me, "I was completely mortified and humiliated, and felt terrible. The biggest problem in politics is the fear of loss. It's a very public thing, which most people don't have to go through. Obviously, the flip side of publicity and hype is that when you fall, folks are right there, snapping away." Not only had he lost by a margin of more than two-to-one, he had been repeatedly insulted as "not black enough," as dull, professorial, effete. Was he stuck in Springfield? If Bobby Rush couldn't come close to beating Richard Daley, how could he? In addition to the professional anxieities, there were financial ones: thanks to the campaign, Obama was sixty thousand dollars in debt.

"He was very dejected that it might be all over, Abner Mikva said, "and he was thinking how else could he use his talents." Obama began to wonder if he, and his family, wouldn't be better off if he didn't have to deal with the "meaner" aspects of political life: "the begging for money, the long drives home after the banquet had run two hours longer than scheduled, the bad food and stale air and clipped phone conversations with a wife who had stuck by me so far but was pretty fed up with raising our children alone and was beginning to question my priorities."

Michelle Obama had long been displeased with the life of a political wife. "She didn't understand Springfield," Dan Shomon said. "She worried that he was wasting his time. He could have been making so much money and here he was mired in mediocrity." Barack was always on the move, campaigning, traveling, working in Springfield, teaching, or practicing law, but Michelle did not hesitate to make it clear that she expected her husband to do his share at home when he was there. "I found myself subjected to endless negotiations about every detail of managing the house, long lists of things that I needed to do or had forgotten to do, and a generally sour attitude," Obama later wrote in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. Dan Shomon [Obama's campaign manager in the race against Bobby Rush] told a reporter for Chicago magazine that Michelle said to her husband, "'O.K., Barack, you're going to do grocery shopping two times a week. You're going to pick up Malia. You're going to do blah, blah, blah, and you're responsible for blah, blah, blah. So he had his assignments, and he never questioned her, never bitched about it. He said that Michelle knows what she's doing—I trust her child rearing and the family rearing." (Sasha, the Obamas' second child, was born in 2001.)

Obama certainly could have gone back to the University of Chicago or his law firm. Another option that he considered was leaving the State Senate and becoming head of the Joyce Foundation, which was built on a great timber fortune and doled out around fifty million dollars a year to community projects in the city.

"It was a sweet job—around a million a year, two country-club memberships, and I thought, Here it is, finally the day that all our hard work would pay off," said Dan Shomon, who imagined working as Obama's chief aide at the foundation. "Barack could have given out money to all kinds of good, progressive groups. He went into the interview, though, and his hands were shaking for fear that he would get the job. He knew that if he got it, that was it—he would be out of the game, out of politics."

Obama sparkled in the interview, but, ultimately, both he and the board of directors knew that his heart wasn't in it. "For God's sake, Barack," one of the board members, Richard Donahue, said, "this is a great job. But you don't want it." Relieved, Obama promptly walked away from the foundation world.

"That was the one thing Michelle didn't quite understand yet," Shomon said. "As much as he complained about Springfield, Barack had the addiction. And the narcotic was politics. He wanted to be an elected official. No matter what, politics competed him as a person, and he wasn't finished with it. Even when Barack was morose, when he was down and out after the race with Bobby, I never thought he would chuck politics. He had to pick up the pieces. But, ultimately, if it hadn't been for that race, there would be no Barack Obama. That was boot camp. That's what got him ready to do what he had to do."

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