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Updated: October 19, 2010 11:45 IST

Who is Barack Obama?

M. K. Bhadrakumar
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Barack Obama's life spans a little over four decades; is an exhaustive Boswellian recounting warranted? Yes, it is. David Remnick's 600-page book of “biographical journalism” confines itself to focussing on Obama's journey to the White House and very little of the presidential psyche is traceable. Yet, it is an eminently readable volume. Remnick says something different. What is it that the New Yorker editor-in-chief could add to Obama's haunting memoir Dreams from My Father?

The facts are common knowledge: son of a brilliant but flawed Kenyan economist, who abandoned his family and tragically ended his life as a beaten man, and an unusual Kansan mother, a white woman who was an accomplished anthropologist; grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia; educated in elite institutions — Columbia, Harvard; sidestepped a lucrative career in law and opted for the tough life of community organiser in Chicago; got elected as Illinois state senator in 1997 to move to the U.S. Senate only in 2004; and ended up as President four years thereafter.

Political neophyte

Well, meanwhile, as a political neophyte from Chicago, he also delivered the best speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. And as he was taking the flight from Boston to Chicago, an airport security worker didn't recognise him and forced him through body searches, even as Obama took a congratulatory cell-phone call from an elder statesman from the other end of the planet who could instinctively sense his potential rock-star charisma — Mikhail Gorbachev. Welcome to Obama magic.

Obama's life story gives transcendent joy. A thing of beauty is a joy forever and the beauty of Obama's life is its great sorrows and moments of fulfilment so that it can be told and retold.

John McCain, the battle-scarred veteran-politician, asked in the middle of the bruising 2008 presidential campaign, ‘Who is the real Barack Obama?' The question remains unanswered. Paul Krugman wrote recently that Obama is a disappointing “small spender” when America needed big-time job-creating government spending. Yet, for the Republicans, Obama is a “socialist.” For a not inconsiderable chunk of rightwing opinion, he is actually “antichrist.”

Remnick peels off several layers of the onion that is Obama and reveals him to be a hard-nosed politician who, whether he is in power or out of it, can equally be the ultimate pragmatist; who while in the thick of electoral politics can echo the prophetic voice of Gandhi; and who by being just “black enough” and “white enough” could effectively make his biracial ancestry a metaphor for rallying Americans behind a single narrative of “change.”

Obama, Remnick writes, “proposed himself… he was a promise in a bleak landscape; he possessed an inspirational intelligence and an evident competence when the country had despaired of a reckless and aggressively incurious President; he possessed a worldliness at a time when Americans could sense so many rejecting, even hating, them; he was an embodiment of multi-ethnic inclusion when the country was becoming no longer white in its majority. This was the promise of his campaign, its reality or vain romance, depending on your view.” No wonder, he has all but become one of the most polarising Presidents of all time.

On the other hand, even the most calculating politician in the Oval Office today is fated to get waylaid. What a despairing job to be a bridge-builder between political camps in America — even for Obama's conciliatory character and precocious intellect! Today's America is an extremely fractious country dominated by loud voices of aggressive anti-intellectualism — Sarah Palin, Tea Party, Glenn Beck.

Promise of greatness

Remnick comprehends the meaning of Obama — “a complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man. He was not a great man yet by any means, but he was the promise of greatness. There, in large measure, was the wellspring of his candidacy, its historical dimension and conceit, and there was no escaping its gall. Obama himself used words like ‘presumptuous' and ‘audacious'.” The Bridge has three dominating themes: identity, ambition, and race. Half the book is devoted to tracing Obama's negotiations with himself to fashion a black identity, slicing through thick layers of loving influence of his white grandparents and the eclectic cast of influences in his life. A quarter of the book is about the conflicting agenda of black politicians from the pantheon of the civil rights movement. The American drama of race comes alive.

However, at the end of the day, The Bridge is a political biography and becomes an outstanding study in ambition. Did Obama meticulously plan his career? Life, after all, is an accretion of accidents, and ambition alone cannot drive a man's ascendancy. One conceit of the Obama narrative is that his presidential ambitions got aroused in a nanosecond as recently as end-2006. Maybe it isn't a false narrative, but Remnick agrees, “it is not a complete one, either.” Obama's half-sister Maya insists she and her mother used to tease him as a boy when his huge ambition to win dinner-table debates was so patently manifest. There is a gap in The Bridge, though. Although astutely insightful, Remnick would have us believe Obama's freakishly rapid ascent up the brutally corrupt world of Chicago politics was without a sponsor — and notwithstanding the notorious omnipotent “Daley machine” — and that he was simply smart, audacious, and absurdly fortunate. The Pulitzer-Prize holder, perhaps, left intact a slice of the Obama enigma.

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