The Making of Barack Obama: Honolulu, Harvard, and Hyde Park

May 1, 2010

Where the willingness is great, the difficulties cannot be great. (Niccolo Machiavelli)

David Remnick,   editor of The New Yorker, delivers with The Bridge fresh insights about Barack Obama’s personal and political odyssey – particularly when it comes to understanding the degree to which Obama is a product of New England’s commitment to social and global reform.

A Book Review by Walter Russell Mead 

Barack Obama’s appeal has always been something of a paradox. On the one hand, Obama’s election as the United States‘ first African American president can be seen as a triumph for “identity politics” and a blow to the near hammerlock that white Protestant males have had on the presidency since George Washington.

On the other hand, it moves the country closer to an era of nonracial or postracial politics, in which racial identity will matter less and less.

Obama is a clear break from past generations of black politicians. In the parlance of the civil rights movement, he is a member of “the Joshua generation” — a term drawn from the Bible that refers to the generation of Jews who did not remember the Exodus but lived to enter the Promised Land. And he has embraced a very different political style from those of other black politicians, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. With a white mother and a Kenyan father who lived in the United States only briefly, Obama had little personal connection to the forces and history that shape African American identity. Growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, two places where black-white relations were a marginal and distant force, young Barry Obama’s life was touched only tangentially by race. From this start, Obama emerged as the most commanding figure in African American politics ever and was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win a majority of the popular vote since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Who is Obama? What does he really believe? How has his quest to find and understand his place in American life shaped him and his vision for the United States? These are the questions that David Remnick, the author of Lenin’s Tomb and the editor of The New Yorker, sets out to investigate in The Bridge, an intelligent and searching biography of Obama. Although he covers ground that has already been examined by other writers (most notably, Obama himself), Remnick nevertheless manages to frame important questions about the current occupant of the Oval Office. The Bridge is a significant accomplishment and a compelling read. At its best, it illuminates some very dark corners.

The book is not always at its best. Most readers will feel that Remnick spends entirely too much time on detailed accounts of the ultimately irrelevant candidates who tried and failed to stop Obama’s march to the Senate in 2004. Instead, Remnick should have put his intelligence to work on the mostly white world of liberal Hyde Park activism, which had a profound effect on Obama during his years in Chicago. This is a regrettable oversight, since, as Remnick’s narrative makes clear, white (and often Jewish) friends and associates formed a critical part of Obama’s network. Remnick has a gift for laying bare the cultural and intellectual forces at work in a person or a milieu; had he turned that searchlight on Hyde Park, he would have produced a much richer account of the president’s intellectual and political journey.

When it comes to the world of black Chicago, Remnick gets closer to the story. His portrait of Representative Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who defeated Obama in a congressional primary, is particularly sharp; his take on Jeremiah Wright, the spellbinding preacher who built the church in which Obama found his faith, although good, leaves readers wanting more. The book’s dominant metaphor is a bridge — Remnick compares Obama’s role in society to the bridge in Selma, Alabama, that was the site of one of the most significant struggles of the civil rights movement — and to some degree, the image closes as many doors as it opens. The image is a compelling one, but African American politics, religion, and culture are about much more than civil rights. By scanting this complexity, Remnick leaves readers with a less than totally satisfying depiction of Obama’s encounter with the world of black Chicago.

THE PRESIDENT FROM NEW ENGLAND

Nevertheless, Remnick delivers some fresh insights about the president’s personal and political odyssey that open up new perspectives on American society as a whole — particularly when it comes to understanding the degree to which Obama is a product of New England’s commitment to social and global reform. The Bostonian vision of the United States as “a city on a hill,” whose government is the moral agent of a society of good people determined to suppress vice and establish virtue, has fueled some of the country’s most important and lasting social movements, and it is this tradition that seems to have shaped Obama most profoundly.

The high school that Obama attended in Hawaii, the elite Punahou School, was founded in 1841 to educate the children of the New England missionaries who led the kingdom of Hawaii into both Christianity and the United States. In 1851, it was opened up to students from all racial and religious backgrounds, and today, like any good New England boarding school, it attempts to infuse its students with an ethic of service, along with solid academic skills. This Exeter of the Pacific did more than give Obama the academic skills he would need at Columbia and Harvard Law School; socially and culturally, it helped prepare him for both the ideas and the people among whom his lot was to be cast.

At its best, the tradition of New England reform, with its moral earnestness and its willingness to call on the full powers of a strong state, is a nonracial or postracial vision. Punahou’s 1851 decision to open its doors to nonwhite and non-Christian students reflected more than the missionary ambitions of its founders; it represented the New England faith in the essential equality, and even similarity, of all people under the skin.

That same faith led more modern representatives of the New England spirit to promote the admission of increasing numbers of nonelite and nonwhite students to schools like Punahou and Harvard Law. But the goal of these powerful establishment reformers was less the celebration of diversity than its abolition. That is, just as the missionaries believed that given Christian values and education, the Sandwich Islanders would build their own version of a New England commonwealth, so modern reformers have believed that giving African Americans, Roman Catholics, and other formerly marginalized Americans greater access to better education would ultimately lead them to embrace New England’s core values.

This seems to have worked in Obama’s case. Just as President John F. Kennedy, the Harvard-educated scion of Boston Irish-ward politicians, out-WASPed the WASPs by placing himself firmly in the line of high New England moral and political leadership, so Obama has used his eloquence and conviction to emerge as the leading representative of this old and deeply American political tradition. Yet the perception among some Chicagoans that if pressed, Obama would say, like the narrator of the famous William Blake poem, “I am black, but O, my soul is white!” nearly ended his political career in 2000, when Rush humiliated him in a congressional race.

For Obama to emerge as a postracial candidate, he first had to become racial; he had to find a way to become culturally black. The quest to connect with African American history, culture, and values shaped much of his personal and political activity from adolescence through 2006. Remnick does a better job with this aspect of Obama’s development than many writers because he grounds much of his story in Obama’s struggle to find his place in black America. And for a white writer, he gives an unusually detailed and nuanced portrait of the intellectual and political world in which Obama had to find his way.

More would have been better. In particular, readers would have benefited from a fuller and richer treatment of Wright. He represents the road that Obama ultimately chose not to take: Wright’s Afrocentric theology and impassioned black nationalist rhetoric offered a competing vision with which Obama had to come to terms to find his place in black Chicago — but that could never adequately express either the hopes or the vision that Obama brought with him from Hawaii and Harvard. Forced to choose between the spirit and legacy of New England reform as embodied in the likes of Oliver Wendell Holmes and McGeorge Bundy on the one hand and the Afrocentric vision of Wright on the other, Obama stands with Massachusetts every time.

BLACK LIKE HIM

The path Obama had to navigate as he built an identity and found friends and allies within the world of Chicago’s African American politics was a winding one. Remnick moves rather too quickly along it, but he does help readers appreciate the magnitude and difficulty of Obama’s progress. Although the circumstances of Obama’s need to connect his cosmopolitan upbringing and education with the hopes and fears of a particular community of voters were unique, the task is common. The U.S. educational system is largely deracinating: it aims to do more than take the boy out of Iowa; it wants to take the Iowa out of the boy. For those graduates who seek a career in electoral politics, the process must be reversed.

Returning to Arkansas after his years as a Rhodes scholar and Yale law student, Bill Clinton, the great chameleon of modern American political history, had to reconnect with an American vernacular. George W. Bush had to navigate the transition from Andover, Yale, and Harvard Business School back to the pork rinds of Texas. The declining political fortunes of the Kennedy dynasty seem connected to the way that each succeeding generation has been more Harvard and less South Boston; by contrast, each generation of the Bush clan has moved further away from its blue-blooded, bluenosed Connecticut roots toward a more total immersion in rising American subcultures.

Given the unique and uniquely charged history of black America, African American politicians face tougher challenges than their white, Latino, and Asian peers. The loyalties are deeper, the suspicions on all sides greater, the questions to be addressed more explosive. Obama’s success in finding a path through these obstacles and developing a political stance and style that has attracted both black and white voters to his side reveals a powerful intellect linked to a capacity for empathy and a receptiveness to others that recalls both Clinton and Ronald Reagan.

Reflecting on Obama’s path from Harvard Law to the South Side of Chicago also helps one understand the limits of his political appeal. Learning to integrate his New England value system into a public persona that could reach Chicago’s black voters gave Obama a potent and even mythic political appeal, but it also left him with a weak suit: the folks out in the hills clinging to their God and their guns. For many Americans, the New England vision of a strong state acting as the enforcer of a common moral purpose has always been something to resist. Jeffersonian and Jacksonian radicals fought to abolish the state establishment of religion in Connecticut and Massachusetts, the South fought the abolitionists and then the Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction, the white working-class South and North united in defiance of Prohibition, and so on.

Obama’s effect on this populist tradition is like that of a red flag on a bull. As a New England reformer building a larger, more intrusive state, and as the most prominent beneficiary of New England’s determination to broaden access to its most elite institutions, Obama represents forces that many populists instinctively oppose. At the same time, nothing in Honolulu or Cambridge or Chicago taught Obama what Clinton learned in Arkansas: how to reach out to these people and to know what, and what not, to say to them. The economic crisis of 2008 and the country’s unhappiness with the Bush administration gave Obama an opportunity to be heard by populist voters; since his inauguration, they have shown signs of retreating to their former loyalties and ideas. Obama’s hopes for reelection in 2012 may turn on his ability to bridge yet another divide in America’s soul and to reach out to a constituency that so far has proved resistant to his charms.

THE WORLD BEYOND

Students of foreign policy will be bemused and somewhat alarmed by the near-total absence of evidence in Remnick’s book that Obama ever showed any interest in foreign policy before running for president. There is a casual mention of the human rights scholar Samantha Power as an adviser to and influence on Obama, and there are narrative descriptions of Obama’s sojourns abroad with his mother and a fascinating account of his father’s troubled career in Kenya. But to judge from this book, Obama spent little time dealing with foreign policy until he failed to get the Senate committee assignment he really wanted and was forced to make the best of an appointment to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. While traveling with Senator John Kerry and others in 2005, Obama saw the poor security surrounding Russian nuclear materials and was seized by the importance of getting the world’s nuclear material under better control. This is a worthwhile idea, and it bore fruit at the recent Nuclear Security Summit, but one looks in The Bridge in vain for more clues to the future of U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration.

It seems reasonable to infer that Obama’s foreign policy instincts, like his domestic policy ideas, are rooted in the New England tradition that blends a form of moralism tempered by pragmatism, a faith in strong government, and a commitment to leading by example. One could look to John Quincy Adams for an example of the foreign policy ideas to which Obama might aspire. Like Adams, Obama believes in American power and in an American destiny to do well by doing good; yet also like Adams, he prefers to hold power in reserve when he can and is conscious of the United States’ capacity to err. Whether he can succeed in foreign policy as well as Adams did remains to be seen; Adams was immersed in diplomacy all his life, whereas Obama is still finding his way.

The Bridge is a biography of a life still being shaped; everyone, including Obama, will know much more about who he is and what really counts to him once his presidency has drawn to a close. This makes for a book that in some ways is frustratingly open ended and sometimes feels unfinished. Nevertheless, it accomplishes the one thing that it needed to do: it encourages readers to ask the right questions about Obama.

Reprinted with kindly permission of The Council on Foreign Relations.

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Send Bill Clinton a birthday card

August 5, 2009
billclintonfoundationClintonPessimism is an excuse for not trying and a guarantee to a personal failure. (William Jefferson Clinton, born 19. August 1946 in Hope, Arkansas)

Press Release

William J. Clinton Presidential Center, Little Rock (Arkansas), August 5, 2009

After 40 years of friendship, Bill Clinton still inspires me daily with his intellect, compassion, and energy.

To celebrate President Clinton’s upcoming birthday on August 19, I invite you to send him a personalized birthday e-card, along with a gift to sustain his Foundation’s work.

Your e-card will make his special day even happier. And your gift will let him know that you remain dedicated to creating positive change for people in need.

Thanks to your valuable support and President Clinton’s extraordinary vision:

  • Two million people in developing countries now have access to low-priced HIV/AIDS medicine, and we’ve just negotiated new pricing agreements that will enable better, cheaper treatments for more patients in the developing world.
  • Thousands of schools across the United States have put healthy-eating and exercising programs into practice, so that more children are leading healthier lives.
  • To combat climate change, 40 of the world’s largest cities are making progress in reducing their carbon footprint.

Your donation today will help the Clinton Foundation continue to make a significant impact in the lives of hundreds of millions of people around our world.

I know your birthday e-cards and donations will mean a whole lot to President Clinton.

Thank you for your support,

Bruce Lindsey
Chief Executive Officer
William J. Clinton Foundation


Elvis Presley – His Last Farewell

January 8, 2009

Among numerous cover versions of the popular wartime ballade The Last Farewell is one by Elvis Presley on his last album From Elvis Presley Boulevard, Memphis, Tennessee. This exquisite song is well suited to reflect the tragic and beautiful life of such a great nice man like Elvis Aaron Presley.

Words & music by Roger Whittaker – R.A. Webster

There’s a ship lies rigged and ready in the harbor
Tomorrow for old England she sails
Far away from your land of endless sunshine
To my land full of rainy skies and gales
And I shall be aboard that ship tomorrow
Though my heart is full of tears at this farewell

For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell
For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

I’ve heard there’s a wicked war a-blazing
And the taste of war I know so very well
Even now I see the foreign flag a-raising
Their guns on fire as we sail into hell
I have no fear of death, it brings no sorrow
But how bitter will be this last farewell

For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell
For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell

Though death and darkness gather all about me
My ship be torn apart upon the seas
I shall smell again the fragrance of these islands
And the heaving waves that brought me once to thee
And should I return home safe again to England
I shall watch the English mist roll through the dale

For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell
For you are beautiful, I have loved you dearly
More dearly than the spoken word can tell


Elvis Presley Unreleased Gospel

September 20, 2008

“I wasn’t just a fan, I was his brother. He said I was good and I said he was good; we never argued about that. Elvis was a hard worker, dedicated, and God loved him. Last time I saw him was at Graceland. We sang Old Blind Barnabus together, a gospel song. I love him and hope to see him in heaven. There’ll never be another like that soul brother.” (James Brown)

“Fuck those people of the Scientology Church! There’s no way I’ll ever get involved with that son-of-a-bitchin’ group. All they want is my name and my money.” (Elvis Aaron Presley)

Elvis Presley was born and raised in the ‘Bible Belt‘ of the USA. He read the Bible and prayed regularly and was very knowledgeable about spiritual matters. In the seventies he started to include more Gospel songs in his repertoire and had the Gospel groups, the Imperials, the Sweet Inspirations and later, J.D. Sumner and the Stamps as his backing singers. He was also known to read passages from the Bible during his concerts. The most beautiful Gospel song Elvis Presley sang is probably Where did they go, Lord?

Where did they go, Lord?


The Religious Side of Elvis Presley

June 21, 2008

Elvis Aaron Presley – the most Christian icon of American pop culture – was Jewish.

In 1998, The Wall Street Journal published an article named All Shook Up in the Holy Land exposing Elvis Presley’s Jewish roots. Elvis’ maternal great-great grandmother, Nancy Burdine, was a Jew. Her daughter gave birth to Doll Mansell who gave birth to Gladys Smith who gave birth to Elvis Aaron. According to rabbinic law, which confers Jewish lineage by way of the mother, that makes Elvis Presley Jewish.

Schmelvis: Searching for the King’s Jewish Roots is a book about the Jewish roots of Elvis Presley.

The book includes the following discoveries about Elvis’s Jewish background: Elvis always wore a Jewish Chai pendant; he put a Star of David on his mother’s headstone; he spent his teenage years living in a predominantly Jewish Memphis neighborhood; cantorial records may have influenced Elvis’s singing style. According to the authors, Max Wallace and Jonathan Goldstein, Elvis grew up in a Jewish area of Memphis and as a teenager, lived downstairs from a local Rabbi, Alfred Fruchter.

The Rabbi’s widow, Jeanette Fruchter, recalls; “He was about 15 years old then and we got along so beautifully. He was such a nice boy, such manners. He called my husband Sir Rabbi.”


Thank You, Ireland!

June 16, 2008

“Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience and rebellion that progress has been made.” (Oscar Wilde, Irish genius born in Dublin, died in Paris)

The intelligent people from Ireland (the summer residence of the French statesman Charles de Gaulle, who loved this rebellious country) have saved the European idea of freedom and democracy on June 12, 2008, by rejecting the undemocratic Lisbon Treaty.

We have all so much to thank. for example with the unofficial anthem of old Ireland, Danny Boy.

                    Jimmie Rodgers & Johnnie Cash performing Danny Boy
The fantastic performance of Eva Cassidy
Just for fun: the incredible Muppet Show version
DANNY BOY
Lyrics written by the English lawyer, song-writer, and Oxford alumni, Frederick Edward Weatherly

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone and all the roses dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
And I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy I love you so

But if you come and all the roses dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me

And I shall feel, tho’ soft you tread above me
And then my grave will richer, sweeter be
For you will bend and tell me that you love me
And I shall rest in peace until you come to me.

Oh Danny boy, I love you so…


40th Anniversary of Martin Luther King Assassination

April 2, 2008

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

April 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of both the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (he was shot April 4, 1968, on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis), and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (also known as the Fair Housing Act), which prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex and family status.

Memphis legend Elvis Aaron Presley pays tribute to Martin Luther King
President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968

President Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968

In a 1967 speech he urged Americans to be “dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.” From 1966-1967 Congress considered but failed to pass the Fair Housing Act. When Dr. King was assassinated, President Johnson urged for the bill’s quick passage and it was signed into law seven days later, in time for Dr. King’s funeral.

Book Recommendations

A Nation of Immigrants, by John Fitzgerald Kennedykennedybook.jpg
I Have a Dream, by Martin Luther King Jr.i-have-a-dream.jpg