On David Remnick’s Obama and Chicago

In The Bridge, David Remnick’s central concern is the Obama story as part of the African American experience. Though a fan of his stewardship of the New Yorker, I’ve never cared much for his writing. Happily, The Bridge is not only the best book I’ve read on Obama et al, but also the most detailed look at post-Daley Chicago politics I’ve seen since Gary Rivlin’s 1992 Fire on the Prairie.

Remnick emphasizes how Obama extended the legacy of Harold Washington, Chicago’s first (and only elected) Black mayor. “The first African-American President could only have come from Chicago,” says Timuel Black. Remnick South Side politico Al Kindle saying that Obama’s model for political leadership  “was the flip side of what Harold Washington couldn’t be because the city back then was too divided racially. At this point in history, the city was less overtly racist and we didn’t have the same lightning-rod politicians like Eddie Vrdolyak who organized on the basis of race. Obama became the next generation.”

Obama experience the racial and political drama of 1980s Chicago. He arrived in town more than a year into Washington’s tenure and was present when it ended. Remnick says that Obama was among the protesters at City Hall that chaotic November night when Aldermen Dick Mell and Eddie Burke orchestrated Eugene Sawyer’s appointment as the late-Washington’s successor.

Remnick also has nuggets from 1990s and early 00s Chitown politics. He spends time with Obama’s Springfield mentor Emil Jones–“an old-sytle appartchik…gruff, earthy, and a chain smoker;” son of a 34th ward precinct captain and his bete noire in the State Senate, Rickey Hendon.  Hendon reflects on an argument between the two Senators that almost turned violent. “It probably would have been the end of my career if I’d lost…I couldn’t go back to the west side getting beat up by a guy from Harvard. Or from the South Side.”

Despite these vignettes, The Bridge has more than its share of errors. Here’s some of what the fact-checker missed:

  • George Ryan was elected Governor in 1998, not 1999.
  • In trying to show how Richard M. Daley had worked to cultivate a broad political base, Remnick credits him with be the first Chicago mayor to march in the Gay Pride Parade. In its tribute to Harold Washington, the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame notes that Washington spoke at post-parade rallies each year of his tenure beginning in 1984. (I recall photos of him marching, but can’t find a link.)
  • In discussing Obama’s 2003 build up to run for the Senate, Remnick describes his efforts “play ball” with Daley, who “had transformed the Loop, building projects like Millennium Park.” The much-delayed and over-budget Millennium Park was not finished until the summer of 2004, 10 days before Obama’s national political career was launched at the Democratic Convention.
  • Perhaps most egregious of all, Remnick refers to “Manny’s, a deli on the near North Side.” (on the near South Side. mmmm.)
  • In referring to a possible “Fishtown Effect,” Remnick calls the Philadelphia neighborhood, located just north of Center City a “suburb. (Isaiah Thompson explored the Effect for the Philadelphia City Paper.)

The Bridge was also the first non-fiction book I read on my iPad– I managed the 672 pages more quickly that I would have the hard-back. (In fact, I’d no idea the book was that long until I heard Brian Lehrer chide Remnick for his verbosity last week.)

One thought on “On David Remnick’s Obama and Chicago

  1. Hey John,

    Did U read the NY Rev of Bks review by Joe Lelyveld of Remnick’s book? He had a completely different take than yours. Would be interested in your reax.


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