Big Think Interview With David Remnick

A conversation with the editor of The New Yorker.
  • Transcript


Question: When did Barack Obama first come on your radar?

David Remnick: Like most people who don’t live in the South Side of Chicago or in Illinois, the first time that I ever heard of him was when he was running for Senate. And we were looking at The New Yorker for interesting Senate, Congressional and state house races to write about in addition to the presidential race and somebody mentioned this guy, Barack Obama, that he was interesting and he was quite possibly going to win and it was a state where all kinds of bizarre things were happening in that Senate race. Remember the first real great event was his big democratic opponent, Blair Hall, disappeared from the race because of his divorce records were opened up and that wasn’t a fine spectacle at all. And then, of course, there was this big speech. But Obama comes on the scene in 2004, and unless you’re a real Illinois political nut, and he gave that speech and I went to the Boston convention in the summer of 2004, and was pretty damned good, he was even better on television. He had really learned that fine art of giving a speech to a big crowd and yet, not over projecting so that it would come off as shouting on television. So he was really developing his talents in 2004. But I got to tell you, there’s no way in the world I thought he would be a Presidential candidate in 2008, much less a successful one.

Question: Where did the “Joshua Generation” article come from?

David Remnick: Well, we wanted to put out an issue of The New Yorker just after the election. It was pretty clear that Obama was going to win and there were going to be four or five big pieces. David Grann, Ryan Lizza, were among the writers in that issue. I wanted to write about race. And I had written a fair amount about race in my time as a journalist and Ryan was interested in other things and Grann was going to write about McCain. And I had written a biography of Muhammad Ali and knew my way a little bit around the South side of Chicago because that was part of the Ali geography, and politics. And I sort of took that on and I was intrigued by the speech that Obama gave in March, 2007, just after he announced for the Presidency. In Selma, Alabama, at the commemoration of the great, you know, Bloody Sunday events and the march from Selma to Montgomery, and he declared—first of all he gave his great thanks to what he called the Moses generation; the Moses generation being the Civil Rights Generation. The generation that gave so much opportunity to people that were coming down the line that succeeded on the Civil Rights Act, on voting rights, on breaking open access to institutions like institutions of higher learning that Obama benefited from. After all, he went to nothing but elite institutions: Occidental, Columbia, Harvard Law School. This would not have been possible without the Moses Generation and even that which went before it.

Then he declares himself the head of the Joshua Generation, his generation, people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s, who benefited from these elders. And he does this incredibly ballsy thing. He says, “I’m the leader of the Joshua Generation,” and he goes right after the African-American vote because if you remember, Hillary Clinton, the Clintons, thought they had a pretty good purchase on the African-American vote because of their long associations. And Obama was challenging them.

Question: Was it inevitable that Obama would win the African-American vote?

David Remnick: Well, first of all, in order to get the Democratic nomination for the presidency, the African-American vote is a very big deal. You have to pursue that vote and pursue it hard. Not in Iowa, of course, where there aren’t very many, but elsewhere down the line. Obama could not assume that vote was his. Remember, who knew who Barack Obama was at that point? Very few people, really insiders, people who had watched one speech from him some time ago. He had to really pursue it. The Clintons didn’t assume that they would win it, but they had a real historical purchase on it. They had associations certainly with lots and lots of black leaders from around the country, after all, he had been President for eight years, they had done a lot of time in black churches and black groups. There was a real relationship there. There were a lot of loyalties. And a lot of members of the Civil Rights generation and people of that generation, media, show business, and in business, people who were going to be donating money, had long associations with the Clintons. Somebody like Vernon Jordan and people who ran BET. So Obama couldn’t just jump in and by dative of his being African-American assume he was going to get that vote. He had to go out and win it.

He goes to Iowa, which is a white state and he won the Iowa caucuses running on the kind of appeal that you would have seen in previous years, like Gary Hart. Remember, he was appealing to kind of well-educated, liberal-leaning party whites, party regulars. And they came out in droves for him because of the level of organization in the state. He wins the Iowa primary, and that starts to give people around the country ideas. Suddenly, he’s on a much more equal footing with Hillary Clinton and so black folks in places like South Carolina, which is a crucial primary state, said, “Uh, I see.” There's a chain reaction that occurs. Now, that’s not to say that black people voted for Barack Obama in South Carolina because they had some kind of permission from white people. But black folks didn’t want to be voting for a symbolic candidate. That had happened before. There had been many symbolic candidates, and there had even been Jesse Jackson in ’84, and ’88.

There is not Barack Obama, by the way, without Jesse Jackson. Jesse Jackson, for all his faults, did an enormous historical good by breaking down the barriers toward the political imagination of having a successful African-American presidential candidate.

Question: Would Obama have been able to chart the course he did if he had come from a more traditionally African-American establishment?

David Remnick: Well, it’s worthwhile to kind of fact check the strangeness of Barack Obama’s beginnings in racial ethnic and identity terms. He grows up, with the exception of a sojourn in Indonesia, in Hawaii. And if you’ve ever been to Hawaii, first of all, there’s this feeling of great, almost isolation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And it’s a place that prides itself on variation, on multi-culturalism. People using that word long before it was fashionable on the mainland. And yet it’s a multi-culturalism lacking one very striking think in American terms, black folks. And most of the black population in Hawaii, the little that there is, is on military bases. And Obama goes to one of the fanciest schools in the country, this private school called Puntaho, in Honolulu which looks like Exit or Andover, if you imagined right near the beach, lockers outside. People walking around in their shorts – I mean it’s just fantastically; it looks like a high school created by Annette Funicello, or something, you know. A beach fantasy of what high school could be.

And he goes there and it’s diverse in some sense. There’s lots of Asian kids of all kinds, all the various strips that you see in Hawaii, but just a couple of black kids. And when he goes home at night, it’s to white grandparents. So, how does he learn how to be what he sees in the mirror? He pursues it by watching things on television, listening to certain records, reading certain books. He goes out and assertively goes after it. And he does it then geographically by going to Los Angeles, but he’s kind of in Pasadena, and that’s not good enough for him. He goes to Columbia, which is of course, close to Harlem and finally he winds up on the south side of Chicago, and there he’s finally able to find community, a sense of purpose, a sense of idealism, a church, a black church specifically, and he really begins to solve these identity questions there.

By the time he gets to Harvard Law School, these things are resolved for him, but when you go into public life, it’s a question of how people see you. So he’s got to struggle with these questions all over again when he does things like run for Congress, or State Senate.

Question: Did you find anything in your reporting that contradicted Obama's autobiography?

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.

And 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 personality.

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.

Question: Was Obama’s family narrative part of a broader strategy?

David 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 McDonalds 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 unguarded.

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.

Question: How has the story of Barack Obama evolved since the beginning of this year?

David Remnick: It’s always useful, journalistically, to remember the kind of sine curve of defeat and victory. I remember just a couple of months ago, we ran a cover that had four panels and Obama in three of them is walking across water in radiant light like you know, the great biblical figure. And in the fourth panel, he falls in the water. This is the nadir of the healthcare debate. It looked like he was quite possibly was going to lose, there was already talk about how horrible November elections were going to be for the Democratic party, and then he turns it around. And he won. He didn’t win a bipartisan victory, by any means. In fact, the main politicking had to be within the Democratic party to put it over. But all that said, he won an enormous victory and the momentum of the presidency changed. How long that will last, will it have any bearing on what happens in November? Well, as those reports always say, we’ll wait and see.

Question: Has he given up on trying to be bipartisan?

David Remnick: Even though Obama’s political reflex, his political personality aims toward conciliation, it’s certainly what made him a political animal as early as law school. It’s how he got to be the President of the Law Review, by drawing in conservatives as well as liberals, it’s how he succeeded. He’s not a fool. He sees reality. He sees the partisan divisiveness in the Congress. He wants to win. This is not some kind of pie-eyed idealist. Look at the health care bill, that bill contracted and was shaped over time in ways he may not have wanted, but he wanted to win. He did not want to walk out of there a gallant loser. Conciliation is also not a strategy that will necessarily work with pretty stubborn international forces. Conciliation, or charm, is not something that’s going to work with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, or any other political force of that like.

There’s also a toughness to him. It’s not toughness that obstreperous and swaggering, but he’s capable of it.

Question: How far left is Obama?

David Remnick: I think the notion that Barack Obama is a radical is preposterous. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., who is quoted in my book as saying that the only radical thing, the only true radical thing about Barack Obama is that he’s African-American. And I think that’s true. That his politics are center/center-left, they come out of the tradition of the Democratic Party. In many ways they are continuations of lines taken by the Clinton Administration. You know, look at the healthcare bill itself. This is a more modest healthcare bill than many proposed by others. He got what he could get and he succeeded. Look at the so-called radical nuclear arms treaty just signed with the Russians. There’s a lot of criticism on the right saying, Barack Obama is giving away our security. He is stripping us of our capacity to project strength in the world and to protect ourselves, and in fact, the great left-winger Ronald Reagan was far more radical when it came to nuclear arms policy.

Remember, Rekjavik in the period, I think Gorbachev-Reagan period were those two men who were intent on reducing nuclear stockpiles to nothing. And here we’ve reduced it by a third. I mean, the notion that Barack Obama somehow came out of a radical cauldron in Chicago and somewhere in his desk drawer, in the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office is a copy of Marx and Gramsci and Lenin is just obscene. It’s ridiculous. And there are just too many elements in the media and in politics trying to stoke these fires for those absurd notions to disappear.

Question: Will the Republicans win in the midterm elections?

David Remnick: It’s very difficult to see. Look, I think there is a legitimate conservative opposition, as you would expect. Of course that’s going to happen. There’s going to be a legitimate Republican opposition, there’s going to be battles. What concerns me is not that so much. What concerns me deeply is the outer edges of it and the nature of the outer edges of it, and the way the outer edges are provoked by certain politicians and certain parts of the internet and television, cable television and all the rest. And the end result of some of that kind of ugliness can be beyond our reckoning; really beyond our reckoning. And I don’t want to be too alarmist of it, but I remember, for example, in Israeli politics during Yitzhak Rabin’s time, when the far right there stirred things up to such a degree that the political atmosphere in certain quarter became quite literally murderous.

So, I think we need to be very careful about lumping everybody together in, even the Tea Party Movement. I might not agree with any of it, but the extremes of it are really alarming.

Question: How is the global transition of power affecting Obama’s foreign policies?

David Remnick: Well, Obama is president at a time where there’s no question that certain other powers in the country are asserting themselves. They are asserting themselves economically, first and foremost, and politically in the world system, such as it is. And the notion of unquestioned American singularity is ending. And that’s very painful for people to take on board.

And that two of the big powers, two of the big rising powers are questioning the orthodoxy that we believe in even on the right and the left, which is that somehow a liberal economic system—and you can obviously argue about the parameters about that—go hand in hand with the democratic political system. China and Russia are challenging at their very basis. China is implicitly and explicitly arguing to the world that they don’t need political liberty in our sense, or democracy, in order to develop at the rate that they’re developing.

The Russians, the same thing. I mean, this is a kind of soft authoritarian. Sometimes it’s not so soft under Putin and Medvedev. The degree of democracy there is decorative. There’s not an independent judiciary, the legislature is in the pocket of the executive. And there’s a kind of social compact in Russia. The social compact with the people is: "We will let you develop economically and let you travel and let you build businesses so long as you stay the hell out of politics." And in China, there is roughly much the same thing going on. This is a deep, deep challenge to the American understanding, to the Western European understanding, even to the Indian understanding of the course of historical development of successful societies.

I think, obviously, Obama’s committed to the American model and the Western model and any democratic model that also is essentially capitalistic, but I think Obama is more willing to talk about this multi-polar world in terms that certainly some of his predecessors would have been scared to, or reluctant to for political reasons.

You know, I think Fareed Zakaria has got the frame of it right in his book. And Zakaria says that it’s not about the decline of American power so much as the rise of the power of others; India, China, Russia, now Brazil. So this dream that a lot of American had after the collapse of the Soviet Union, post-1991, of American singularity in every sense was very, very short-lived.

Question: What needs to be done to address the Mideast Conflict?

To my mind, there’s no question of what the end of the Israeli-Palestine situation has to be, must be. And this has been evident to most of the main players for many years. There has to be a viable, contiguous Palestinian state, a connected Gaza and West Bank—connected somehow by bridge, highway, what have you, with it’s capital in East Jerusalem. It is impossible to conceive that the refugee problem can be solved by actual repatriation of refugees into Israel proper. That there’ll be obviously some degree of aid, or money going to the new Palestinian state. And also Israel also has to receive certain kinds of security guarantees, and those areas where big settlement blocks are, there has to be land swaps to make up for that. That’s the end game. And even pretty conservative political actors in Israel know it, and all but the most radical Palestinian leaders know it. The real difficulty has been getting there, and it’s going to get more and more and more difficult. It’s going to get more difficult because of the polarization in Palestinian political society between Hamas and the West Bank government. It’s going to get more difficult in Israel itself because of the growth in population of religious and conservative elements, and the slow diminution of secular, more liberal-leaning populations. You also have a great big Russian population that tends to be conservative.

So, time is not on the side of a decent resolution there. It’s very, very complex. But the more somebody like Netanyahu is unwilling to make a leap of history and is going to be more obsessed with parochial political interests and coalition politics and all the rest, the more difficult it’s going to get on Israeli side. And there’s no question, by the way, that the Israelis have real concerns about what would happen the day after a Palestinian state is established.

So, this is a highly complex question, it always was, but the endgame is going to be what the endgame is going to be. Otherwise it’s going to be a disaster.

I think there’s an illusion among some right-wing Israelis and right-wing Israeli politicians. And the illusion is this: that by establishing a security fence or wall, it’s cut down on terrorism immensely, and it’s given the illusion of a kind of rough stability that they can live with it and they can have their cake and eat it too. If they can keep all these settlements in the West Bank and they can have a rough security, and they can live with a few missiles going over the wall in Gaza. This is just an illusion—especially when it comes to relations with other countries, not least the United States. It’s an illusion for everybody.

Question: Will Obama find himself in a position to change this?

David Remnick: You know, there have been reports, and I first read them in David Ignatius’ column in The Washington Post the other day, that the American administration, the Obama Administration realizes that this has been a mess in the last several weeks. You know, the back and forth about these apartments in East Jerusalem and all the—I hesitate to call it minutia because they’re important,but that the Obama Administration, with the encouragement with some outside forces, other countries, wants to have a much more comprehensive plan. It’s difficult to see how that plan could work, but the alternative is even worse. This illusion of a continued status quo is to me, extremely dangerous.

Question: Why isn't Netanyahu more worried about the status quo?

David Remnick: Well, it’s important to know where this illusion comes from. The illusion comes from the notion, whether you agree with it or disagree with it, is that settlements were removed from Gaza, Gaza became under completely under Israeli control and in the Israeli point of view, its only reward was that missiles came, coming over the wall. And missiles that will inevitably become more and more sophisticated and reach places far more distanced and will hit major population centers, and missiles that are inevitably going to come from places like Iran.

So, also a lot of Israelis—and not just very right-wing Israelis—wonder why the Palestinians have had a habit of looking away from potential resolutions to this question as they did in the late Clinton Administration. And believe me, I know all the arguments back and forth about what that deal was and was not and how it improved and how it changed, right up until the end of the Clinton Presidency. I do get all that. But somehow one has to agree that not all the specifics of the Clinton view that Yasser Arafat did not allow finally came up short of being a revolutionary leader rather than just a rebel leader... That finally Yasser Arafat did not want to go that extra yard and felt he could not sell this deal, or could not sell himself on this deal that went from Camp David to Taba and then Taba two. So, a lot of Israelis wonder, what it is that the Palestinians actually want, and that’s where the anxiety comes from. It’s not me agreeing with that, I’m just trying to analyze why this politics occur.

Question: What will the New Yorker be like in 20 years?

David Remnick: To my mind, The New Yorker, whatever experiments occur, the most interesting experiments to occur, the ending of radical departure are in the writing. To me, that’s where the excitement is. Will we be on an iPad? Absolutely. I hope we look great there and if people want to read us there fantastic. We’re working very hard to do that just as we’ve worked hard to have a Web site that’s worthy of the name.

My idea of The New Yorker, as long as I’m there, is that we are not going to change who we are, no matter what the delivery systems are, no matter what the means of reading us. We are about reading. We’re about long form journalism, analysis, humor, fiction, poetry, a sense of delight, a sense of seriousness when it’s appropriate. If we start giving away these core things because in the short term we somehow think, "Wow, you know, actually three paragraph long pieces, the hell with George Packer doing 15,000 words on American politics, or Sy Hersh writing an extremely knotty piece about some aspect of intelligence or sending somebody to Afghanistan three times to get the story, or unleashing David Grand for six months to get a death penalty piece, or what have you." In other words what I think of as the core of The New Yorker. I’m not here to get rid of fiction because I think that not 100 percent of the people read it. I don’t care about that. I think this is a formula that took a long, long time to develop and people want what we do. They may want to read it on a different device soon enough and it’s not coming, it’s here.

Most of our readers at this point still think the best technology for reading it is on print. Those proportions will inevitably change. How much they will change, I don’t know. I’m not a media fortuneteller, I’m not a, God forbid, a media consultant. I’m here to edit the magazine and be as nimble as we can be in terms of this period of technological challenge and interest and it potentially will bring us more and more readers. But, I promise you that no matter what form you read it on, the intent is to be true to who we are.

Question: The Daily Beast’s traffic is sometimes double that of Does that worry you?

David Remnick: Not at all, and you know, I have a lot of respect for Tina and I reject any notion that somehow Tina was completely out of the mainstream of what The New Yorker wanted to do. I think she brought a lot to it and a lot of the visual aspect of The New Yorker is due to her innovation. She hired a lot of people that are still there, that are very important to The New Yorker. But any website that’s built around news and what’s going on now and five minutes later and aggregating and churning what’s going on in the moment, is inevitably going to get higher traffic. Certainly, is going to get a hell of a lot more traffic because it’s a daily newspaper that’s now not just daily, but is trying to keep up with the news in the moment. This is not what we’re equipped to do. That’s not what we are built for.

I’ve been at a newspaper. I spent 10 years of my life at The Washington Post. I know what that’s about. I’m not going to, at The Washington Post, have a fake AP, and we’re not going to spend all of our energies in aggregating from all over the Internet. We’re there to create the core long form journalism that may get aggregated by somebody else. It may get chopped into little bits and talked about on other websites. I can live with that easily. People want what we do and the more time goes by, and the more time this technological revolution happens, there’s not more of this. There’s not more depth, there’s not more deep analysis, in fact, there’s arguably less of it because it’s expensive to do. It’s hard to do.

So, my hat’s off to a lot of websites. I read them, but this is what I want to be doing at The New Yorker and that’s what my colleagues want to be doing.

Question: Who has sensibility to bring the New Yorker into the next era?

David Remnick: What’s interesting to me that as unnerving as any transformative period is, and there’s clearly, you can’t give young writers, or journalists the advice that you used to 20 years ago. You know, "Go to The Concord Monitor and work at a small newspaper and then find your way to a larger one." That model, it’s almost irresponsible to think that’s the singular piece of advice that a kind of middle-aged guy like me should give to somebody that’s 23. It’s obscenely wrong. In fact, the paths into journalism are now more various, they’re also more unnerving because where you get paid for it and paid decently for it are tougher to find. There’s no doubt that in some ways, it’s easier to get in and easier to get noticed because the Internet is so democratic that way, but to earn a living is getting more complicated. And I’m determined to pay people and pay people well, talented people well. Just so long as we can sustain a model or even a shifting model so that we can do that. That’s the idea, that’s the trick.

Do I see young people every bit as energetic and as intelligent, with the urge to express themselves? You bet I do. And even at some length, not everybody is interested I making a life as a blogger, not everybody thinks the best means of self-expression, or even information, or writing is to have 40 disparate thoughts in the course of the day. Some of that is interesting; some I think is really not. There are lots of people that I talk to in their 20’s that are really interested in doing the very same thing in terms of long form journalism that people twice their age and three times their age have been doing for a long time.

It is thrilling when we have the chance to hire new writers who are young and who are developing. I mean and getting better all the time and are totally obsessed with what they are doing. Somebody like Lauren Collins, or Ariel Levy, or Kelefa Sanneh at The New Yorker, who are relatively recent hires. It’s just fantastic and it’s also really fantastic to see one piece be better than the last one, and the next piece be even better. I mean because they’re just in the zone of growing all the time. It’s fantastic. It’s really thrilling as an editor.

Recorded on April 9, 2010