Skip to content
Who's in the Video

David Remnick

Since taking the helm of The New Yorker in 1998, David Remnick has returned the magazine to its profitable glory days. A graduate of Princeton University, he began his journalistic[…]

Jerry Kellman spent countless hours with the President eating at McDonald’s and talking about life.

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

David Remnick: Remember, Obama rnpublished his autobiography at a time during a memoir craze in this rncountry. The ‘90’s was wall-to-wall memoirs. There were so many best rnselling memoirs and some very fine memoirs, his was just one of them. rnAnd it was the theme of his was racial identity and that pursuit. And itrn was a young man’s book, and a very accomplished book for a young man, rnsometimes a little purple, sometimes a little overwrought, but I think rnultimately honest. In other words he tells you: "Here’s where I’m going rnto shape things a little bit beyond reality, here’s where I’m going to rnplay with dialogue." He doesn’t lie. And we know in recent years from a rnlot of controversies about memoir that writers can sometimes go too far rnand they are essentially writing fiction. He did not do that. But it is rnalso a book that is bereft of politics. There is no political formation rnin that book except in the most elemental sense in terms of idealism.

Andrnrn also, the greatest presence in that book is the pursuit of an absence, rnthe pursuit of this father, who is really in Obama’s life in infancy, rnwhich he can’t remember, and for a 10-day trip when he was a kid. That’srn it. Obama knows his father through stories people tell, through his rnmother telling him idealized versions of his father, and then finally rnmeeting African relatives who tell him a much tougher version of rnreality. In fact, his father was enormously and deeply intelligent, rnthought he was going to be in the leadership of post-colonial Kenya, andrn in fact he fell out, he failed. He became a big drinker. He was a rnmiserable husband and father. Probably beat one of those wives, rnaccording to one of the kids, who now lives in China, and this was rndevastating to Obama to come up against this reality, and Obama’s fatherrn becomes not an example for him, but a counter-example; something not torn do, a path to not take, an emotionalism not to follow, a level of rnerratic behavior to avoid. So, not to get too psychoanalytic about this rnbecause Obama talks about it himself, he becomes a much more controlled rnfigure; somebody who keeps his cool, somebody who tried to conciliate rnrather than to upset groups of people. That becomes very much his rnpersonality.

And the figure in his own book who was the most rnpowerfully influential, who’s kind of an absence and I think sketched inrn rather lightly, is his mother. His mother is a fascinating figure. An rnintellectual, somebody who pursues an anthropological career in, for thern most part, Indonesia, who leaves him in Honolulu all throughout high rnschool while she is pursuing her career in Indonesia. He adores her, rnhe’s confused by her, he’s bemused by her because she tries to in a veryrn white, liberal, old-fashioned way help him with his search for a black rnidentity by giving him Mahalia Jackson records and tapes of Martin rnLuther King’s speeches, and he’s kind of eye-rolling about this. So, rnObama’s kind of got a rough time, an unusual time. He can’t just learn rnto be himself ethnically speaking, by sitting down at the kitchen table.rn He’s got to go out and find his way.

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

Davidrnrn Remnick: A book is a book, and a life is a life, and in the writingrn of a memoir inevitably there is going to be some shaping, some rnsimplification, some rounding of the edges, some providing of structure rnto life. Life is a mess. Books can’t afford to be a mess. And they can rnbe messy in spots, they can be complicated and they ought to be rncomplicated, but Obama’s memoir is a highly shaped thing. It’s three bigrn parts. At the end of each one, Obama is in tears. He’s in tears in the rnchurch where he comes to accept Jesus Christ and his place in Jeremiah rnWright’s church. He’s in tears at his father’s grave as he comes to rnfinally reconcile himself to that search, etc., etc. It is life is not rnpurely like that obviously. Life is one damned thing after another. rnBooks can’t be that.

Question: Whose perspectives on rnObama were more salient to you?

David Remnick: I rnthink Obama is somebody who has always benefited by his ability to rnattract mentors, and mentors were among the best sources for this book. rnFor example, in Chicago, his great mentor, and he didn’t always get rnalong with him at all moments, is a man named Jerry Kellman. Born Jewishrn from New Rochelle, New York, he gets to Chicago, he becomes very rninvolved in Alinski-like community organizing and he converts to rnCatholicism, he’s working with a lot of Catholic Churches, black rnchurches, he brings Obama to Chicago and this is a guy, older than rnObama, who spent countless hours with him eating burgers at McDonald's rnand just talking about life. You know sitting in church basements and rnwaiting for meetings to begin and talking about race, about politics, rnabout Chicago, about people, about stuff. And somebody like that is rnenormously valuable because he talks to a Barack Obama and about a rnBarack Obama that we will never know again. Somebody that’s completely rnunguarded.

Or somebody at law school, like Lawrence Tribe, who rnwas his mentor. A great Constitutional lawyer, new Obama in a very rnprofound and for me, very striking and interesting way. There are all rnkinds of people like that. Obama attracted mentors. That’s a certain rnkind of young man or young woman’s talent.