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.