Writing a biography of a sitting president — a recently elected sitting president, not a lame duck — seems an impossible task. Who is going to go on the record about the most powerful person in the country?
Plenty of people, it seems. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Remnick had no shortage of sources — friends, family, enemies — for The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama. Obama’s half? sister Maya Soetoro-Ng talked, and pastor Jeremiah Wright; so did Valerie Jarrett, Bill Clinton, and Obama himself, to name a few. Remnick did not set out looking for skeletons or scandals. ”My hope,” he says, ”was to write a piece of biographical journalism that…examined Obama’s life before his presidency and some of the historical currents that helped to form him.” And he has. What’s more, his 621-page work will serve as a building block for all future works on Obama.
But should you read it? That depends on how much detail you have an appetite for. The Bridge is stuffed to bursting with genealogical minutiae, especially when it comes to Obama’s father, Barack Obama Sr., who abandoned his infant son and saw him only once again. Obama Sr., whose parenting was defined by his absence, clearly had an enormous impact on his son. But why all the pages on his later life in Africa? On the other hand, the portrait of Obama’s intellectually inquisitive mother, Ann Dunham, is fascinating. Michelle Obama — who did not grant Remnick an interview — flits in and out of the pages here, a shadow of her vibrant self, sometimes described best in Obama’s own words.
And that’s the core problem with The Bridge: Obama has already told his story. Anyone who wants a glimpse of the inner president can turn to his eloquent memoirs, Dreams From My Father and The Audacity of Hope. Frankly, as lovely and assured as Remnick’s writing is, Obama’s is better. B