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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[…]

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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