Did you find anything in your reporting that contradicted Obama's
David Remnick: Remember, Obama
published his autobiography at a time during a memoir craze in this
country. The ‘90’s was wall-to-wall memoirs. There were so many best
selling memoirs and some very fine memoirs, his was just one of them.
And it was the theme of his was racial identity and that pursuit. And it
was a young man’s book, and a very accomplished book for a young man,
sometimes a little purple, sometimes a little overwrought, but I think
ultimately honest. In other words he tells you: "Here’s where I’m going
to shape things a little bit beyond reality, here’s where I’m going to
play with dialogue." He doesn’t lie. And we know in recent years from a
lot of controversies about memoir that writers can sometimes go too far
and they are essentially writing fiction. He did not do that. But it is
also a book that is bereft of politics. There is no political formation
in that book except in the most elemental sense in terms of idealism.
also, the greatest presence in that book is the pursuit of an absence,
the pursuit of this father, who is really in Obama’s life in infancy,
which he can’t remember, and for a 10-day trip when he was a kid. That’s
it. Obama knows his father through stories people tell, through his
mother telling him idealized versions of his father, and then finally
meeting African relatives who tell him a much tougher version of
reality. In fact, his father was enormously and deeply intelligent,
thought he was going to be in the leadership of post-colonial Kenya, and
in fact he fell out, he failed. He became a big drinker. He was a
miserable husband and father. Probably beat one of those wives,
according to one of the kids, who now lives in China, and this was
devastating to Obama to come up against this reality, and Obama’s father
becomes not an example for him, but a counter-example; something not to
do, a path to not take, an emotionalism not to follow, a level of
erratic behavior to avoid. So, not to get too psychoanalytic about this
because Obama talks about it himself, he becomes a much more controlled
figure; somebody who keeps his cool, somebody who tried to conciliate
rather than to upset groups of people. That becomes very much his
And the figure in his own book who was the most
powerfully influential, who’s kind of an absence and I think sketched in
rather lightly, is his mother. His mother is a fascinating figure. An
intellectual, somebody who pursues an anthropological career in, for the
most part, Indonesia, who leaves him in Honolulu all throughout high
school while she is pursuing her career in Indonesia. He adores her,
he’s confused by her, he’s bemused by her because she tries to in a very
white, liberal, old-fashioned way help him with his search for a black
identity by giving him Mahalia Jackson records and tapes of Martin
Luther King’s speeches, and he’s kind of eye-rolling about this. So,
Obama’s kind of got a rough time, an unusual time. He can’t just learn
to be himself ethnically speaking, by sitting down at the kitchen table.
He’s got to go out and find his way.
Obama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?
Remnick: A book is a book, and a life is a life, and in the writing
of a memoir inevitably there is going to be some shaping, some
simplification, some rounding of the edges, some providing of structure
to life. Life is a mess. Books can’t afford to be a mess. And they can
be messy in spots, they can be complicated and they ought to be
complicated, but Obama’s memoir is a highly shaped thing. It’s three big
parts. At the end of each one, Obama is in tears. He’s in tears in the
church where he comes to accept Jesus Christ and his place in Jeremiah
Wright’s church. He’s in tears at his father’s grave as he comes to
finally reconcile himself to that search, etc., etc. It is life is not
purely like that obviously. Life is one damned thing after another.
Books can’t be that.
Question: Whose perspectives on
Obama were more salient to you?
David Remnick: I
think Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to
attract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book.
For example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get
along with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewish
from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very
involved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to
Catholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black
churches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than
Obama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonald's
and just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and
waiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics,
about Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is
enormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a
Barack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely
Or somebody at law school, like Lawrence Tribe, who
was his mentor. A great Constitutional lawyer, new Obama in a very
profound and for me, very striking and interesting way. There are all
kinds of people like that. Obama attracted mentors. That’s a certain
kind of young man or young woman’s talent.