Magazine article The Spectator

Under False Colours

Magazine article The Spectator

Under False Colours

Article excerpt


by David Remnick

Picador, £20, pp. 621,

ISBN 9780330509947

£16.79 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'With time, ' writes David Remnick, 'political campaigns tend to be viewed through the triumphalist prism of the winner.' Never more so, perhaps, than in Remnick's idolatrous new biography of Barack Obama, which presents the First Black President's ascension to the White House as nothing less than a glorious saga.

Deeply read - if not rooted - in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Obama is said to have derived his spectacular political success from the great and martyred prophet Martin Luther King, Jr and King's closest disciples, especially John Lewis. In this account, by the editor of the New Yorker, Obama's life journey began, metaphorically, on 7 March 1965, in the middle of the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama, when hundreds of black marchers, led by Lewis and Hosea Williams, were halted by state troopers, reinforced by a deputised white mob, who bludgeoned and tear-gassed the demonstrators as they knelt and prayed. The conscience of the nation was shocked, the Voting Rights Act was swiftly passed, and the path was opened, for the first time since Reconstruction, to full participation by African-Americans in their country's electoral politics.

To Obama, who was only four at the time and living in relative safety with his white mother and white grandparents in multi-cultural Hawaii, the events of 'Bloody Sunday' are the stuff of inspirational legend that stimulate his political ambitions when he learns about them later in life. For Remnick, however, 'Bloody Sunday' is central to the biblical arc of Obama's rise, as well as to the narrative structure of the biography. The 'bridge' is finally crossed and the saga completed when we learn, at the book's end, that Obama owns a framed cover of Life Magazine, signed by Lewis, depicting the 1965 confrontation in Selma. At a luncheon following Obama's 2009 inauguration Lewis, now a veteran Democratic congressman, received a souvenir signature from the new president with the dedication, 'Because of you, John.'

As satisfying and reassuring as all this sounds, there are reasons to distrust Remnick's version of 'the Life and Rise of Barack Obama'. For one thing, the book has all the tell-tale signs of an authorised biography, crammed as it is with knowing inferences based on insider sources, both named and anonymous. Clearly, Obama and his advisers granted to Remnick access to friends and personal letters that were previously unavailable to journalists. Sitting presidents and their media counsellors take care who they talk to, and there's every indication that Obama's inner circle trusted Remnick to relay their version of the story, which he does dutifully, often at excruciating length.

To Remnick's credit, he critiques Obama's best selling memoir Dreams of My Father, although he doesn't challenge the essential facts as we've been told them. We do learn more than we previously knew about the intelligent, frustrated and rebelliously self-destructive Kenyan father, Barack, Sr, who probably served as an anti-role model in young Barack's imagination.

Obama's abandonment by a black father, albeit a highly educated African one, places him within hailing distance of the experience of many black Americans. However, the divide between Obama and his less fortunate 'brothers' is huge: raised by his cosmopolitan mother and liberal, middleclass grandparents, Obama is able to attend the most elite private school in Honolulu, a privilege that guarantees him access to ever higher and more prestigious levels of education. At first a casual student, Obama seems to have found his academic drive at some point during his sophomore year at Occidental College, but Remnick, bogged down by a ponderous, race-centered narrative, doesn't really explain either Obama's new-found interest or his career choices. …

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