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Artful Shape Shifting

David Remnick believes in Barack Obama.

By From the June 2010 issue

The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama
By David Remnick
(Knopf, 660 pages, $29.95)

Last year, in the Wall Street Journal, Jonathan Raban pointed out that "American writers have been among the most prominent of all the demographic groups claiming a piece of Barack Obama for themselves." Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, wrote Raban, "has been discovered by the literary profession as if it were the Comstock Lode: He wrote it himself! Every sentence has its own graceful cadence! He could as easily be a novelist as a politician!"

A novelist! The ultimate accolade from the writing and talking people, most of them white and most of them liberal. And according to the way in which the case is presented by David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker and author of this heavily padded version of an extended article published in his magazine in 2008, that might be exactly what he is. In a chapter-long excursion into literary criticism, Remnick raises the question without providing a coherent answer -- and, if anything, raising doubts: "Obama's memoir is a mixture of verifiable fact, recollection, invention, and artful shaping. The reader is hardly to be blamed for asking the difference...between a memoir and a novel that is obviously based on facts."

Nor, in addition to questions about facts and fiction, can the reader be blamed for wondering just a bit about authenticity of authorship. Did Obama in fact have help with his "artful shaping"? Did he really write the book entirely by himself, as his partisans, among them Remnick, with the faith of true believers, fiercely insist he did?

The doubts have been there from the beginning. Bill Gavin, novelist, rhetorician, and author of Street Corner Conservative, puts it this way: "We are asked to believe that this young, unknown man, an editor of the Harvard Law Review who wrote no major pieces for it, and who had never previously published an article or essay or even a letter to the editor in any recognized publication, suddenly got an agent [and a $150,000 advance], and wrote [and got published!] a memoir, praised by critics for its literary style and profound insights into the human condition. He never showed a single sign of having such enviable literary ability before, and he has not shown anything like it since, including his other best-seller. Uncanny. Almost unbelievable."

One prominent unbeliever who has extensively explored the subject is Jack Cashill, a writer/editor with a PhD in American studies and author of a well-received book on intellectual fraud. Cashill believes that Obama's friend and neighbor Bill Ayers, former Weatherman and would-be terrorist, may in fact have written much of Obama's memoir. Remnick devotes significant space to mounting an all-out ad hominem attack on Cashill, mocking the way he uses literary terms and does textual analysis, and concluding that "Cashill's assertions might well have remained a mere twinkling in the Web's farthest lunatic orbit had it not been for the fact that more powerful voices hoped to give his theory wider currency."

First, says Remnick, the National Review's powerful blog The Corner declared Cashill's scholarly readings "thorough, thoughtful, and alarming." Then "Rush Limbaugh, during his nationwide radio broadcast...digressed from a mocking segment about Dreams from My Father to take up the Ayers-as-author theory....This may not have been Limbaugh's most racist insinuation...Still, Cashill's and Limbaugh's libel about Obama's memoir," writes Remnick, somewhat libelously, "has a particularly ugly pedigree." Frederick Douglass, he says, had to get his memoir authenticated by two white abolitionists to prove he wrote it himself and "to disprove the antebellum Jack Cashills and Rush Limbaughs ready to declare fraud."

A somewhat unpleasant reach? There's more: "A century and a half later, thinking a degree of racial progress had been achieved, Barack Obama and his publisher had not thought to collect such endorsements." But apparently, along with Garry Wills in his review of the Remnick book for the New York Times, Remnick feels it necessary to provide those authentications, whether Obama wants them or not. (And it's better than even money that Obama himself is perfectly happy to let his intellectual spear carriers handle the angst.)

Wills, in his purely rhetorical authentication of Obama's authorship, tells us: "The art with which the book [he calls it a "bildungsroman"] is constructed to serve his deepest personal needs shows how ludicrous is the charge of Rush Limbaugh and others that he did not write it. (The ineffable Limbaugh thinks Bill Ayers might have written it.)"

Ludicrous? Not really. The book's structure, that so impresses Wills, is largely conventional coming-of-age, the personal revelations not particularly striking, and the prose straightforward and readable, at times a bit stilted and awkward. That's not to say it isn't interesting. It is, primarily because the narrator is an interesting figure. But as for the structuring and even the actual writing, that could easily have been done by anyone capable of producing literate prose and in possession of detailed notes and taped interviews -- as, reportedly, was Ayers.

One source is an apolitical writer, Christopher Andersen, not at all "ineffable," who last year published his best-selling Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage with Morrow. Andersen, a celebrity journalist with 29 such books to his credit, interviewed some 200 people, among them Obama's Hyde Park neighbors, and writes about Ayers's contributions to the memoir as if they were common knowledge.

Obama had already blown a deadline with his first publisher, Simon & Schuster, and spent half of the $150,000 advance, which the publisher forgave because he pleaded poverty. For most writers, that seems like a huge first-book advance, perhaps a testimonial to the power of affirmative action. Nor did the loss of half of it slow Obama down. Thanks to a sharp agent, his book contract was picked up by a second publisher with a second advance, and Barack and Michelle flew off to Bali to recuperate. When they returned, writes Andersen, with the second publisher's deadline looming, and with "Barack still stymied," the raw materials for Dreams from My Father -- "oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunk load of notes, were given to Ayers." As one Hyde Park neighbor told Andersen: "Everyone knew they [Ayers and Obama] were friends, and they worked on various projects together."

"No one has ever disputed a single important fact in any book I've ever written," says Andersen. Whether he was misled by sources is always possible, and it may be that Ayers provided only research and structural help, or no help at all. But there's also the possibility that Ayers did much or all of the writing, as Jack Cashill believes. And if he did, someday we'll know. People like Ayers always talk.

THAT BEING SAID, the question might be, so what? Obama is a politician, he has his office, and the book has served its purpose. But that's not enough for Remnick, who seems almost recklessly intent on establishing the book as a metaphor for an ongoing quest, an extension of the civil rights movement: "His quest is not just his own; it becomes emblematic of a national political quest. Writers rarely insist so boldly on the importance of their own books." Criticize the book, says Remnick, and you criticize the quest -- and therefore the whole civil rights movement.

Remnick's anxiety (and not necessarily Obama's) reflects a growing anxiety among liberals that the civil rights movement in which they'd invested so much energy and emotional capital has stalled short of the promised land, with the black leaders who attempted to cross that bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, celebrated by Obama and giving this book its title, having been succeeded in large part by hucksters, hustlers, and con men.

The task has been to keep the particulars of the dream alive -- even if no one quite remembers what the dream was or where it was going -- to present the civil rights movement as a dialectical process, a series of progressive steps leading across that bridge to a logical culmination, personified by the perfect human product. And suddenly, from nowhere, there he was -- Barack Obama, validating and legitimizing the whole process, reviving and sanctifying the quest.

In service of that quest, Remnick devotes a chapter to locating the book within a genre and attempting to demonstrate that genre's inherent literary superiority. Obama "was working within the oldest, and arguably the richest, genre in African-American writing: the memoir." He begins with slave narratives, manages to fill a page and a half with titles and authors from this "rich genre," and caps it off, somewhat desperately, with Sammy Davis Jr. and his autobiography, Yes I Can. Sound familiar? (There may be hope here. Sammy Davis Jr., at the height of his popularity, converted to Judaism, became a Republican, and embraced Richard Nixon.)

Along the way, Remnick makes a number of dubious observations about the nature of literature in general and African-American literature in particular. (Europeans write memoirs at the end of life, African Americans at the beginning.) Suffice it to say, Remnick is a better reporter than literary critic.

And it's when he rehearses the last few decades of politics in Chicago -- albeit with a relentless liberal bent that requires everything to be viewed through the prism of race -- when he brings the great cast of the city's politicos back for a curtain call, that we hear the Washington Post reporter who sent those splendid dispatches from Moscow a few decades ago and whose book Lenin's Tomb won a Pulitzer.

If there's a problem here, it's that the best parts of this book -- the Chicago parts -- have already appeared in his New Yorker article, where he kept the theorizing and philosophizing to a minimum, laid off the risky literary criticism, and stuck to what he does best. That means that the over-covered 2008 campaign has now been written to death, a whole new batch of books about the next one is already being ground out, and there's little new for Remnick to report in this extended rewrite.

NOR, IN ALL THESE PAGES, does he answer the key question. Bill Gavin puts it this way: "I'd like to know the answer to one question. Forget about race and ideology. Obama is a political phenomenon, but why has he always (with one exception) succeeded? He is so damned mysterious. And in a situation that never before happened, the outcome of his two senatorial races, one state, one national, were both determined by sex scandals. There was Bill Ayers, the crazy pastor, his association with the Chicago con man (Rezko), and his extremist positions on partial-birth abortions in the Illinois Senate, far to the left of any other politician of whom I'm aware. Any of these would have killed any candidacy. But he danced his way through. He is truly the Artful Dodger."

Why has he always succeeded? Don Terry, a Chicago Tribune reporter, says of Obama: "He's a Rorschach test....What you see is what you want to see." And what you see, adds Remnick, is often not what you thought you saw. In Chicago, Obama learned "he could change styles....He subtly shifted accent and cadences depending on the audience: a more straight delivery for a luncheon of businesspeople in the Loop; a folksier approach at a downstate V.F.W.; echoes of the pastors of the black churches when he was in one. Obama is multi-lingual, a shape-shifter."

Is it that it? Artful shape-shifting? Necromancy? Many faces? People seeing what they want to see? Or is it this? Here's Obama with an aide, as reported by Remnick:

When Obama learned that his opponent [in the 2004 Senate race] would be Alan Keyes, he could not help but betray incredulous delight.

"Can you believe this s***t?" he said to Jim Cauley. [Asterisks supplied by reviewer.]

"No, dude. You are the luckiest bastard in the world."

And perhaps, despite the oceans of words and analysis, and the hundred of fat books stuffed with stale reporting, it's just as simple as that.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).