David Remnick and David Remnick’s muse.

Publishing an enormous biography of a sitting president just over one year into his first term is rare. The last time this happened in recent memory was during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, and he had already had a lengthy and colorful career as a senator when he took office. But NPR-pledging Democrats and rabid teabaggers alike can agree that Barack Obama, already, is not an ordinary president. And so New Yorker editor David Remnick's The Bridge, a 600-page biography of Obama, doesn't seem quite as ridiculous as a book about, say, Bill Clinton's first year in office.

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Remnick's book distinguishes itself from other presidential biographies with its focus: It studies the Obama campaign and presidency through the lens of race, beginning with the 1965 battle between African-­American demonstrators and Alabama state troopers on a bridge in Selma and ending with the inauguration ceremony that many believed (with a fervor that "lasted about a day," Obama ruefully remarked a month later) would mark a new era in racial politics.

The construction is clever; in theory, it seemingly absolves the biography of feeling dated immediately upon its publication. Unfortunately, the plan doesn't quite work. Remnick wastes an embarrassing amount of the epilogue lamenting Republican Scott Brown's win of Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat and the apparent collapse of health-care reform, placing the writing of the epilogue squarely in a three-week window in January and February where Democrats felt hopeless.

But that kind of awkwardness is unavoidable when writing about current events. For the most part, The Bridge is a clear-eyed and incisive work that puts events in their proper historical perspective. In one chapter, Remnick provides a close reading of Obama's first memoir. He doesn't just lavish it with praise. He maintains his steady grasp on context:

Dreams from My Father ought not to be overvalued as a purely literary text; other writer-politicians such as Václav Havel and André Malraux wrote immensely greater and more mature work before holding office. But few American politicians of consequence before Obama have ventured to describe themselves personally with anything like the force and emotional openness of Dreams from My Father. It is enough to say that Dreams from My Father is a good book that became, through political circumstance, an important one.

Political analysts have fallen over themselves praising Dreams, but Remnick's analysis, as always, feels as though it somehow has the weight and perspective of years of history on its side. His study of Obama's character is decidedly lazier, occasionally bordering on breathless adoration. Remnick hints all through the book that Obama's image is a tightly controlled media spectacle, that his patina of coolness was as calculated as any other politician's. "Although his votes in the Senate were more predictably liberal than he advertised," Remnick writes in a passage where the new senator speaks often about his willingness to cross party lines, "Obama felt it was essential to show that he possessed a distinctive equanimity and cool."

This is interesting stuff, and it runs against popular wisdom; the media has often presented Obama as (in Oprah's words) "the real deal." But after suggesting a deeper, more considered persona for Obama, Remnick basically follows the campaign narrative, not measuring the distance between the man and the politician. He misses another chance for investigation when he quotes Obama adviser David Axelrod's memo about the senator's presidential prospects. Axelrod states, plainly, that Obama's chances for the presidency rely on his "willingness and ability to put up with something you have never experienced on a sustained basis: criticism... You care far too much [about] what is written and said about you. You don't relish combat when it becomes personal and nasty."

Again, this is a fascinating perspective, and one that Remnick could easily have explored: It's important that America's first African-American president sculpted his image into something very specific—did he become a kind of fictional character because he thought that what he was wouldn't be able to win the presidency? Or did he simply accentuate his natural characteristics? Remnick glosses over matters of personality, choosing instead to offer cultural perspective for Obama's presidency. Remnick digs into popular culture, pulling up some gems (like a Richard Pryor comedy routine about how the first black president's allegiance would be torn between his culture and his race), and his historical narratives are exceptional. One passage, about the African-American history of the White House—from being built by slaves to a long history of black servants—should be included in every textbook about race and American history.

Remnick forges some ground that has mostly been unexplored by serious reporters: He writes about the African-American community's paralyzing fear that Obama would be assassinated on the campaign trail, a factor that nearly cost him votes in important primary elections. And he lays out the difference between Colin Powell's and Obama's racial theories (Powell is of the "happens to be black" generation, whereas Obama's understanding of race is much more intricate) and their similarities (both, rightfully, cringe at the phrase "postracial").

It must be an anxious thing for an author to launch a book like this into the world: The whole enterprise could become obsolete five minutes before publication. If he were slightly less ambitious, Remnick could have cleaved The Bridge in two: a much shorter book about the civil rights movement from Selma to today with a strong emphasis on Obama, and a brief biography of the president at the beginning of his tenure. Instead, we get a huge, sprawling, occasionally unsatisfying study of where we stand right now as a black-and-white country, and a loving portrait of the man who has tried to elevate the discussion by example. recommended

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