Reviewing the Review: April 11 2010

I spent some time in a bookstore yesterday deciding whether or not to buy The Bridge, the first major biography of Barack Obama, written by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker. I’m eager to learn about Obama’s background, but a cruise through the pages failed to motivate me towards the checkout counter.

I adore a good exploratory biography, one that meanders through its subject’s past to tap into the richness of a solitary human life tinged with destiny. I like and respect David Remnick, but I quickly gathered that The Bridge takes a Bob Woodward-esque approach, chronicling not the private but the public aspects of Obama’s life, primarily through an immense series of interviews. In today’s New York Times Book Review, critic Garry Wills refers to The Bridge as an “exhaustively researched” life of Obama, and by this he means that David Remnick probably exhausted himself talking to Obama’s peers and old friends, gaining every possible vantage point from which to see him. But I prefer biographies that aim, more riskily, to get inside their subject’s minds (like, for instance, this one, which I recently praised). The Bridge appears to lack the novelistic blush that enlivens a great work of biography. It seems rather to be a work of professional journalism, a 656-page magazine piece, more topical than existential.

The lukewarm review by Garry Wills, a veteran political writer who has straddled conservative and liberal positions, is topical as well, though I wonder how long ago this issue went to press, since Wills’ last paragraph must have been written before Obama’s stunning victory on health care reform three weekends ago.

… continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done.


I’ll say it again, this time with glee and extra exclamation points: hah!!!

Garry Wills was obviously taken by surprise by the Obama administration’s last-minute victory in the incredible long battle over health care reform, because he could not possibly have said that Obama “wasted the first year of his office” after March 23. Even Obama’s most bitter opponents agree with Joe Biden that passing health care reform was, right or wrong, a big fucking deal. In political terms, Obama is now riding high on a historic victory. In sixteen months, he managed to push through the major legislation that Bill Clinton could not push through in eight years. Let’s roll that final paragraph again:

… continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done.

Garry Wills is a serious thinker, but the fact that he didn’t anticipate Obama’s big March 23 victory when this article went to press suggests that his judgement might not always be sharp. (I don’t mean to brag, but I always predicted that the health care reform bill would pass, even in the darkest hour when it seemed all might be lost).

The fact that the New York Times Book Review printed Garry Wills’s now ridiculous assertion that Obama wasted his first year of office on April 11, three weeks after the bill’s passage, suggests that the New York Times Book Review should stop going to press four weeks early. (Four weeks? Hasn’t modern technology made a faster turnaround time possible?). The fact that the Book Review’s famously conservative editor Sam Tanenhaus was willing to bank on this assertion four weeks ago also suggests that Tanenhaus might have allowed his wishful thinking to cloud his common sense.

Final-paragraph howler aside, I find this review uninspiring as a whole. Remnick’s book focuses on the strong influence the civil rights battles of the 1960s had on Barack Obama’s mindset (Remnick’s title The Bridge refers to a 1964 confrontation in Selma, Alabama) and Wills pays a fair amount of attention to this context. But you wouldn’t know from this article that there was a deep philosophical principle — Gandhi called it satyagraha, or “truth-force” — to the civil rights movement. John Lewis’s name is mentioned in this article, but, strangely, Martin Luther King Jr.’s name is not.

In my enthusiastic article about Obama’s health care reform victory linked above, I wrote — risking ridicule, you better believe it — that in his best moments Barack Obama’s methodology recalls that of Mahatma Gandhi (and thus, of course, with less of a stretch, Martin Luther King, who put Gandhi’s philosophy of nonviolence at the center of the civil rights movement). This is no minor detail. It’s worth wondering how the American civil rights movement could have succeeded at all without the power of satyagraha, and maybe this is why I’ve cheered so loudly whenever I detected Barack Obama employing the same smart approach as President.

Satyagraha means staying cool when your opponents get hot. It means extending a hand of friendship even when you know your opponent will slap it away. But Garry Wills mocks Obama’s conciliatory nature throughout this article, failing to understand the deeper meaning behind the approach even in the basic terms David Remnick has made so clear. The article is titled “Behind Obama’s Cool”, and at several points Wills suggests that the President is overly conciliatory, weak at the center, destined for nothing but failure:

The price of winningness can be losing; and that, in this scary time, is enough to break the heart of hope.

Who is losing what? Sam Tanenhaus and Garry Wills ought to get on the bus. We’ll forgive them for having missed the last few that sailed by. Let’s roll that quote again, one more time, just for the fun of it:

… continuity easily turns into inertia, as we found when Obama wasted the first year of his term, the optimum time for getting things done.

Hah! Hah! Hah!

(Note: I’m sorry to have taken up this whole article talking about a single Book Review piece. There’s plenty of other good stuff in today’s issue, including Richard Howard on Edith Grossman’s Why Translation Matters, a fascinating endpaper essay by Jennifer Schuessler about an early, Modernist-influenced proponent of electronic reading named Bob Brown, and a really enjoyable piece about Charles Bernstein’s new book of poetry All The Whiskey In Heaven by Daisy Fried, who I hope will show up more frequently in the Book Review in the future.)

3 Responses

  1. With all respect to the
    With all respect to the Garden State, I think you’re expecting an awful lot from a dentist’s son from the Hackensack/Hillsdale area. Though I agree it sounds like, in true Emersonian fashion, he’s hitched his wagon to a star, but unlike Emerson, without the slightest trace of understanding the source of the radiance. It also sounds like this book unveils the New Yorker project as a whole (magazine as lively toilet-sitting reading), which appears to be: throw a lot of polysyllabic and/or pretty words (with the glossy appearance of erudition, I mean who brings a dictionary into the bathroom with them to check their aptness?) at the edges of a topic (think the not-bad-tasting goo the dentist’s assistant swipes your gums with before injecting the Novocaine) and hope the covers are clever or patron-flattering enough and the cartoons still occasionally wickedly funny enough to keep the subscribers from unsubscribing. If he thought of his job description as something more than that he would hardly have had time to write this largish tome in the first place. Not sure why the Conde Nast BOD puts up with his double-dipping (time and resources obviously skimmed right off the top of his day job). I mean it’s not as if he’s going to donate the royalty proceeds from his book to the corporate till. Anyway, if POTUS Obama is subject to term limits, why shouldn’t a little pisher of a magazine editor, albeit a Jersey boy, carry on like some Papa Doc.

  2. Oh, and P.S. If that slot
    Oh, and P.S. If that slot were to suddenly become available, I’d think that one has Frannie Lebovitz’s name all over it. She’d rock the house!

  3. Frances — I didn’t realize
    Frances — I didn’t realize Remnick was from Hackensack-ack-ack. I like your idea about Fran Lebovitz editing the New Yorker.

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