Remnick is speaking tonight at Town Hall, so we're moving Heidi's interview—originally posted on Friday—into today's mix.
For the last two weeks, David Remnick has been touring with his new book, The Bridge, a comprehensive account of Barack Obama's early life and ascent to the White House. He'll be making his last stop here in Seattle on Monday night.
In just a little over a year—and while he was working full-time as the editor of The New Yorker—Remnick interviewed 223 people, including President Obama himself, Obama's friends, former colleagues, family members, and key supporters, as well as a host of intellectuals, community activists, political analysts, and journalists who have followed Obama's career.
Remnick—whom I interviewed in anticipation of Monday night—examines Obama's life from several angles, with an overarching focus on where and how he fits within African-American history.
It seems clear that Remnick admires Obama, but avalanche of reporting gives readers room to reach their own conclusions. As I told Remnick in our recent phone conversation, "You helped me get to know my president."
PubliCola: In your notes you talk about how your book is not meant to be scholarly or comprehensive, but that your hope was to write a piece of biographical journalism that would examine Obama's life before the presidency. Why?
David Remnick: Because there are different moments for different kinds of books. Right now, Robert Caro is working on, and has been for 20-odd years, a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. It's one of the most remarkable works imaginable and even though it's been a couple of decades he still hasn't published a volume on the vice presidency and the presidency. He has volumes on his youth, on his congressional campaign, on his years in the Senate and has not yet gotten to the vice presidency and the presidency. This is a task of decades and a task that's helped by the passage of time, by the availability of countless archives in many, many libraries and that will be, when it's completed, a real scholarly monument and at least for a period of time because nothing is ever definitive forever, a reasonably definitive biography of an important figure in post-war America. That wasn't my goal.
My goal was to write as best as I could, and with some dispatch, about a sitting president to try to understand him while he's president, which is a very different goal and set of limits. So the book is out and even if he's only a one-term president one could read this book and enhance their understanding of who he is, what his motivations are, what his past is, and what he's all about for another three years and maybe another seven. And maybe it'll have some lasting value beyond that. I don't know. It's a very different task, more journalistic than scholarly. There really are no archives, literally, yet on Barack Obama.
PubliCola: You have the advantage, though, of having access to so many people.
DR: That comes just from calling them up, making appointments, and working. Just the same way you work.
PubliCola: When did you start writing the book? Was it when he was still running or after he was elected?
DR: Well, I did a lot of research for a very long piece that ran in the magazine just after he was elected. It was very clear that he was going to beat McCain. So I started this piece with the idea of publishing it right after the election and we had a special issue on the election and there were three other big pieces there too, one by George Packer, one by David Grann, and one by Ryan Lizza--on a variety of subjects related to the election. And my piece was about the role of race in the 2008 election. So, I got a pretty good leg up.
And then after I found myself enjoying this reporting, I did some more and tried to figure out whether there was a real book there and I decided to go ahead with it. My consideration is another thing. I have kind of a job, a full-time job. So, I needed to figure out whether that was possible.
PubliCola: It was pretty comprehensive. For example, there's a lot on Chicago and I really enjoyed that, and I wondered: Were there chunks you had to leave out?
DR: Well, boring stuff I left out. I don't think that anybody is going to accuse me of writing a book that's too short. All books have limits on their structure, the structure that guides you on what to put in and what to put out, otherwise the book sprawls like crazy. The main one is to end the book at the White House door with the exception of a very brief epilogue. But the book really ends with the inauguration on January 20, 2009.
PubliCola: Did you know all along that that was going to be the case?
DR: Pretty much, yeah. For me, it would be folly to try to chase a running wolf while it was still running. There are journalists that live in Washington and are committed to doing that and will publish books about the presidency during the presidency and they include Ryan Lizza and Jonathan Alter and Bob Woodward and many others, I don't know. But that's not what I wanted to do. I wanted to do something different.
PubliCola: You've been touring for a couple of weeks. I'm curious about what the response has been across the country. Has it been different in different parts of the country?
DR: Well, the reviews, I'm very lucky, have been good or great or stunning and I'm kind of knocked out by it and very pleased. Some of the reviewers think I'm too soft on Obama. Some people find something too long or too short. I'm used to this by now. It's fine.
Much more interesting sometimes is to actually meet with readers who've had a chance to read all of it or part of it, and probably a lot of the readers I'm meeting with haven't read the book at all but have feelings about Obama one way or another and that's interesting.
PubliCola: Are they mostly positive feelings about Obama?
DR: Both. It would be kind of monotonous if it was just one or the other. It's good for somebody like me, it's really good for somebody like me, it's kind of why I do reporting anyway, to not just run a well-worn groove from my apartment to my office and back and stay in the same environment 100 percent of the time or listen to the same arguments with the same people all the time. For somebody like me who's got a very steady and constant job, which is editing a magazine, it's good for me to get out.
The other night I was on a radio show in Chicago and for two hours I went head to head with a very very conservative host and a very very conservative guest who had read the book thoroughly and we argued and it was a civil argument, but it was a tough one, and I found it fun and interesting.
PubliCola: What were most of their criticisms? Was it about Obama or was it about you?
DR: Mostly about Obama. It was a conservative critique of Obama. They thought he was spending crazily and went too far to the left on all kinds of issues ranging from health care to tax policy to arms control, so we had at it. It was good.
PubliCola: You didn't have any protests?
PubliCola: All very civilized.
DR: Yeah. Once in a while someone gets grouchy and starts talking about birth certificates, but mostly not. I think that group tends to—and this is part of the disease of our political culture at the moment—too much gravitation to exactly what we already believe. So, if you're really inclined to agree with Glenn Beck, you only listen to Glenn Beck. And if you only are inclined to agree with Keith Olbermann, you listen only to Keith Olbermann. And the same thing with books. My guess is that if you're inclined to believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is actually a fire-breathing dragon and all the rest, you're not going to read this book. It's not going to flatter your prejudices.
PubliCola: Was part of your desire to write this book to educate people about Obama?
DR: To be accurate. I readily confess my own politics lean toward the liberal and when I write comment pieces for the magazine my point of view is, generally speaking, liberal. But this book is not a polemic. It's a book of biographical journalism, and I hope fair-minded.
PubliCola: A good example of that is your analysis of Dreams from My Father.
DR: My feeling is that I've rarely, if ever, seen a major politician in any country call upon a story told by himself to be the center of his political campaign, and that story is told best, and most fully, in this book. So I wanted to go through the book and see what it was all about and how it was put together, and what its presumptions are and what it includes and what it leaves out. What does it tell us about this guy? What tradition is it written in? What are the qualities? Is it overrated? Is it underrated? Is it telling the truth, or bending the truth?
PubliCola: Was that a starting point for some of the questions, when you were interviewing family members and friends?
DR: I think it's a starting point for all of us trying to understand him. There's a reason that book sold so many copies. It sold almost no copies when he was just a guy named Barack Obama who lived on the South Side. It became a giant best-seller when it became a political phenomenon, especially after the 2004 speech in Boston, at the Democratic Convention.
PubliCola: Do you feel any differently about him than when you started?
DR: I feel more complexly about him. I'm not sure complexly is a word. Even though I was supportive as a citizen of him I hope I didn't do it with stars in my eyes. He's a politician, and he is a remarkably talented one. He's also someone who had limits, not only to his talents, but much more so to his experience. He's not without flaws, and certainly I disagree with him on a number of issues as anybody would. The whole idea of writing a biography, or reading a biography, is to know something more deeply. Did I hate him and now love him? Or the opposite? No, that wasn't the case.
PubliCola: Do you watch his presidency differently?
DR: Yeah, I think that having written this book and I think anybody having read this book will have a much keener sense of his motivations. Some people can't quite figure out where he is politically and I think if you read this book you get precisely where he is politically and why and where it comes from. I think you get a greater sense of where the temperament and character come from by reading this book and I certainly got it from reporting the book and writing it.
PubliCola: Has he seen the book?
DR: I don't know.
AN: You didn't send him a copy.
PubliCola: I certainly wouldn't send him an early copy. I don't send early copies to the White House, I don't believe in that. Therein lies madness.
PubliCola: And how do you feel about the book now?
DR: I feel that it's done. I'm kidding but I'm not kidding.
PubliCola: Are you done with Obama, as far as writing?
DR: I'm not going to write another book. I think I can pretty safely give you a Sherman statement. One of the thrills of writing a book is that you learn a lot about a certain person and a certain area and you read your way through a stack of books. It's not my temperament to then spend the next 30 years digging in the same hole.
And again, much more importantly, I have a magazine that I love and am devoted to. I've only written one book while being the editor now for 12 years. I really can't see it any time soon, whether it's about Obama or about Sarah Palin or the man on the moon. The magazine world is going through a dramatic set of changes and I've got to keep my eye on the ball.
PubliCola: How are things changing at The New Yorker?
DR: Well, not as rapidly—and I mean this with real sympathy—as what's happened in the newspaper world in Seattle. What's happened in Seattle is complete media transformation unimagined in a lot of other cities.
Certainly everything that begins with print is now figuring out how to exist and to thrive in print as well as on other media, whether it's the Internet or iPads and all the rest. My feeling with the New Yorker is no matter how we are read in the future on what surfaces in what ways, the only thing I'm interested in doing is publishing the New Yorker in its best and deepest sense. So if somebody wants to read it on an iPad that's great, and I hope we can do it beautifully and effectively and innovatively. If they want to continue reading it on paper that's great. Ditto. But the one thing I won't do is dumb it down and shorten it up, in other words, if it just becomes The New Yorker because it has a certain typeface and look but at it's core and at its heart is not the New Yorker any longer I'm not interested in doing that and I reject that with all my soul. I'm the fifth editor of The New Yorker and I'm determined that I'll be just one of many.
David Remnick will discuss The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama Monday night at Town Hall Seattle.
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