Obama's Quick Ascension

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

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

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

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

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

Question: Was it inevitable that \r\nObama would win the African-American vote?

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

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

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

Question: \r\nWould Obama have been able to chart the course he did if he had come \r\nfrom a more traditionally African-American establishment?

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

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

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

The President couldn't assume he would get the African-American vote just because he was black. He had to go out and win it.

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