The President’s Analyst
David Remnick talks about Muhammed Ali and Obama, the Clintons and the Tea Baggers, how he managed to write The Bridge, his acclaimed new biography of Barack Obama, while editing The New Yorker, and how he can hear every writer’s voice except his own.
Race is at the center of both books*, but it’s very hard to imagine two more disparate personalities than Barack Obama and Muhammed Ali [the subject of King of the World, Remnick’s previous book]. One is self-consciously and self-creatively flamboyant, the other is self-consciously disciplined and—though I wouldn’t say he’s flamboyant, Obama is a great performer when the occasion demands. But he’s a national politician, he’s not in show business. Muhammed Ali’s in show business.
What the two books have in common is themes of black identity, but, curiously, written by a white guy. I don’t think that disqualifies me, any more than an African American scholar coming along and writing a book about the Holocaust or colonial America—about the Holocaust or French history. An African American writer would bring other talents and insights to the table. But I don’t think it disqualifies him.
Without stretching the taffy too thin, both men proved that identity is something that is provided by genetics and happenstance, but also something that you have a say in. In Ali’s case he had a say by adopting another name and an identity different than his parents’, deeply rooted in questions of separatism and racial assertion and, unfortunately, a lot else. He’s changed over the years.
Barack is provided this identity by genetics. But he also has something to say about this. He goes out and learns about the African and African American side of himself. He chooses to root himself in an African American milieu in southwest Chicago and devote the energies of his idealism to that community, to become a member of a distinctly African American church.
Ann Dunham [Obama’s mother] is someone he loved dearly—but she’s a little all over the place, geographically and otherwise. She provides many, many things, but not a kind of solid grounding. Michelle Obama, whom he obviously adores, provides so much. She’s deeply rooted in a place. She had as a child precisely what Obama didn’t have—confidence about her identity. Both parents are present, her brother is there. She’s the epitome of what a community is, black, white, or otherwise.
It’s curious to a lot of people that he identified himself as an African American on the census, but it doesn’t surprise me at all. These problems were all resolved for Barack Obama himself by the time he was in his mid-20s. It’s the rest of the world that has a complicated time trying to figure him out….
It’s ongoing to the point were I saw on the Internet the other day, even now, the mayor in some city in Illinois, I think mid-state or the southern part of the state, still asking idiotic questions about where he was born and saying that he’s not a citizen.
Nobody ever said these resentments are based in fact. When I hear the phrase, “We want to take our country back,” I don’t think it’s just about taxes. It couldn’t mean just taxes, because the federal tax rate is lower than it was a while ago. A New York Times poll just a month ago showed [the Tea Party movement] is a fairly affluent group, even well-educated.
Clearly Obama has had this difficulty attracting white working-class voters. He had this trouble when he was running against Hillary. It’s not just that he’s seen as African American—some people assume because he went to Harvard that he’s arrogant. Hillary didn’t exactly come from the streets either. She went to Wellesley and Yale Law School. Even John McCain, the culture he comes from, it’s a military family but military elite. So even though he suffered terribly and gave of himself enormously as a prisoner of war, his background wasn’t exactly hardscrabble either.
It would not be easy for the first woman president either. We’ve heard all this commentary about [Hillary Clinton’s] looks and her hair and the so-called shrillness of her voice. That vocabulary would inevitably for some people be brought into play. And why would we expect otherwise? I mean, we’ve only waited centuries to have a woman or an African American….
Change comes hard, and the racial appeals that were heard in the 2008 race, though in fact they were unpleasant, were maybe less than we might have expected.
It’s funny, pop culture elected black presidents well before mass culture. It didn’t seem like a startling thing when we had a President Palmer on 24.
No matter what your politics, if you were a Democratic voter you could hardly blame the Hillary side for being a little befuddled—at how she could manage to blow it. No matter how historic a candidate he was, he was starting from a very modest place. But she also had some very heavy baggage—and the notion that people did not necessarily want to see Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton, that kind of dynastic yo-yo.* The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama and King of the World: Muhammed Ali and the Rise of an American Hero.
To read more from our conversation with Remnick, click HERE.
I don’t think he ever lied about his past [in his memoir Stories From My Father ]. Here and there there was a detail stretched to the poetic limits, and I point a few of these out in the book. But people are really barking up the wrong tree when they talk about where he was born and that kind of thing.
I think his classmates, when I talked to them, were surprised to know about his inner turmoil. But what adolescent ever knows their classmate’s inner turmoil? You know your own inner turmoil.
[Political autobiography] is not something that got invented in 2008. Andrew Jackson got one of his officers in the War of 1812 to write a biography about him, and that’s where that tradition begins in American politics.
Every presidential candidate tells a story about himself, and in some way they tend to be variations on the Honest Abe/modest woodsman story. Even FDR, who went to the fanciest private schools and universities in the country, to read his early biographical materials.
It was always legitimate to question the depth of Obama’s experience. That was always his weakest point. It was the weakest point for John Kennedy, it was the weakest point for Abraham Lincoln. It’s the weakest point for Sarah Palin. We have to distinguish where it matters and where it doesn’t. With Sarah Palin it seems to me it’s inexperience matched by incuriosity and an incapacity to care about the substance of issues. I don’t find Sarah Palin any deeper than she was when she was running for vice president. When she gets before an audience an criticizes— excoriates —Obama’s plan for reducing nuclear weapons and says ‘Ronald Reagan would never do this,’ it’s just sheer willful forgetting of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. And yet she’s applauded for this in her narrow band of supporters.
I don’t think you can compare Sarah Palin’s and George Bush’s command of policy. And I was never a fan of George Bush, by any stretch of the imagination.
People are always disappointed with presidents. Always. Even ones we vote for for second terms. Because no president is going to match a vast number of citizens issue for issue. If you’re on the left—I mean the real left—you’re disappointed with some obvious issues. If you’re a centrist and you crossed party lines or you’re an independent and you voted for him you’re disappointed with other issues. It’s totally unshocking.
A lot of young people who were voting for the first time, or who voted with enthusiasm for the first time, and they discover—just like all of us old guys—that the nature of political life is some degree of disenchantment, even in the best of times. There’s a great deal more poetry in campaigns
than in governing….
Look, I’m a journalist. It’s not my job to be disappointed over the moon, under the moon. As a citizen, are there issues I disagree with? Yeah, sure.
I don’t think he projects modesty, although I’d be hard-pressed to think of any American president who is really, truly modest. After all, it requires of someone to go before an entire country and tell people, ‘I am the ideal person to lead this nation.’” Reagan certainly could do modesty the way Ralph Richardson could do Hamlet.
Nor does he project to foreign leaders anything like a warm embrace. Some, and not just Netanyahu, have found him curiously diffident. I don’t think the Brits find anything special in the special relationship yet.
George Bush, Sr.—raised in the WASP aristocracy, the master of the thank-you note—could pick up the phone just to touch base. But of course this accumulated over time. He’d been the vice president for eight years, the UN representative. Most of these people don’t know Barack Obama. Obama was in the Senate what—10 minutes? Fifteen minutes.
Bill Clinton is a hotter personality than Obama. He quickly developed relationships with Yitzak Rabin, Tony Blair. I’m not saying this won’t happen with Obama. But Obama has been deeper than most in more crises than you could possibly enumerate.
I had two interviews with Obama. You never get as much time as you want. I didn’t cover the campaign, so I wasn’t in hallways getting 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there. And once he’s president he’s not going to dole out interviews to book writers. I was pleased to get what I got.
Look, I never interviewed Gorbachev till after I published Lenin’s Tomb. No, not true—I got one. But I spent a lot of time with him afterwards and I’ve always found those interviews to be of modest value…. I find the king and the queen are not the best interviews when it comes to trying to write about the king and the queen.
I’m not a novelist…. I can’t pretend to write about people’s souls and lives. I’m not a psycho-biographer who pretends to use the techniques of psychology and psychoanalysis married to the biographer’s art. I’m just not going to do that. I’m a journalist. I try to create a picture of someone through the use of the testimony of others, the testimony of the subject, documents and records, the printed record.
There’s just so far I’ll go. What I know for sure and what I find interesting is in the book. What I know marginally or don’t care about, or what would have been speculative or sensationalistic is not going to find it’s way in the book.
To read more from our conversation with Remnick, click HERE.
There’s nothing crucial [missing from the book because some sources wouldn’t cooperate]. There’s just nothing in it for Hillary Clinton to talk about Barack Obama for a book. Absolutely nothing in it. She’s secretary of state. It’s the last thing she’s going to do.
Bill Clinton…. I talked to Clinton about Obama, but a long time ago. Bill Clinton’s desire to pick over the campaign of 2008 while his wife is the secretary of state is zero. And I can’t blame him.
Michelle Obama has been very wary of giving interviews to book writers while in the Oval Office. The White House made it very clear that wasn’t going to happen. I don’t mean this in any derogatory way, but it’s almost a certainty that Michelle Obama will write a book after they leave. Barack Obama will with absolute certainty write at least one book after he leaves. Neither one of them had much money till Barack signed a big book contract. He’s a writer, and writers are always a little bit wary of giving away their story. I’m not saying this in terms of money—more in terms of.… I think he’d like to have something to say down the line.
[ On how he managed to research and write this tome while editing The New Yorker:]
First of all, colleagues—this magazine is not a one-man band, there are editors who are immensely better than I am. Plus an extremely indulgent family and an extremely hardworking espresso machine. You get up in the morning and you push the ball up the hill. You get out and go to work and push it up the hill again. After a year and a half of that I was really, really tired, but it was the bet that I made for myself. I wouldn’t say it was fun, because it was just this side of too much. Writing that kind of book while doing that job— ooff. [But] I felt really felt that I couldn’t take two or three years or more. For the sake of the book, because the goal of the journalism is to publish and try to understand him while he’s still in office. And second, I’ve got this other thing to do, which is more important, and it involves a lot of other people…. So I did it.
People do much harder things, by the way. Coal miner. Fireman. That’s hard. This is a pleasure.
When I wrote Lenin’s Tomb , I had a very great book editor named Jason Epstein who said, “You’ll read this book in ten years, you won’t read it anytime sooner than than, and you’ll see what you’ve done that is good, bad, or indifferent.” So in ten years I’ll pick up this book and see what I think of it.
I do have this phenomenon, and maybe other writers don’t—in time you look at your own stuff and it feels like it was written by someone else. Not because you’ve changed so much, but just the effect of time. People say, “Oh, that sounds just like you, this book.” I don’t hear it. I really hear some other writers’ voices, but I can’t hear my own. If I have a voice, I can’t hear it. I can recognize in the first paragraph nearly everybody who writes for The New Yorker, and many, many other writers besides. I’m not sure I could do it with myself. It’s very odd.
To read more from our conversation with Remnick, click HERE.