Obama's Quick Ascension

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.
  • 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.