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Martin Schneider writes:

On Tuesday, April 6, I joined my Emdashes colleagues Emily Gordon and Jonathan Taylor at the New York Public Library for the publication day event for The Bridge, David Remnick's eagerly awaited book about Barack Hussein Obama, the 44th President of the United States. It was an hour of spirited discussion about Obama, moderated by Atlantic Monthly blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates, who has written two articles for The New Yorker and also appeared as a panelist at the 2008 New Yorker Festival.

In the summer of 2008, Remnick and New Yorker executive editor Dorothy Wickenden entered into a wager about the election's outcome—Remnick's full explanation of his pessimism was a slow repetition of Obama's full name. Today, as Remnick rightly says, nobody thinks much about that "Hussein."

Remnick is so eloquent that I think we may have to invent a new word to describe him. Let me explain. When one listens to Remnick speak, he is so effortlessly precise and profound that one almost wants to use the word "glib"—but, of course, that word implies a want of substance, and nothing could be further from the truth. Is there a word for someone who appears to be glib but in fact is supplying all manner of valuable insight and even profundity? I don't know, but we need one.

I've seen Remnick speak before, but always as the interviewer or moderator, never as the subject. Emily afterward pointed out how easily Remnick took to the role, comfortably reminiscing about his suburban New Jersey upbringing, in a household where radicalism was defined as "sitting too close to the TV set." In short, a more personal Remnick.

The banter between Remnick and Coates was very amusing—much was made of their offstage editor-contributor relationship. For me, the funniest moment of all came during the Q&A section, when Paul Holdengräber,Director of Public Programs at the NYPL, asked Remnick about "that famous New Yorker cover," obviously a reference to Barry Blitt's "notorious" July 21, 2008, cover depicting Barack and Michelle Obama after having converted the Oval Office into a den of Islamist Black Power. Remnick: "The one with the bowl of fruit? The one with the abandoned summer house with the clothesline going across?"

Remnick's take on the cover was, as always, astute: "I think it's fair to say that not everybody liked it .... I was surprised at the scale of the not-everybody-liking-it." It's a lovely irony that Remnick, of all people, so convinced that the key to Obama's undoing lay in his middle name, would be the editor to approve that cover. But of course, Remnick's responsibility was not to ensure Obama's election. And, in my view—as unpleasant as it must have been for Remnick to be hectored on live TV by the likes of Wolf Blitzer, who noted, with characteristic subtlety, "This could have been on the cover of a Nazi magazine!"—it was an entirely worthwhile gamble. (Remnick, for his part, drily noted that he hoped his mother was not watching CNN that particular day.)

To this day, Coates objects to the cover, on the grounds that the cover showed the right-wing conspiracists' worst fears as "not ridiculous." But of course, that is precisely what it did, it rendered them ridiculous. You couldn't ponder that cover for very long without all of the scary right-wing premises seeming preposterous. I quote Art Spiegelman to that effect here, and contribute my own thoughts here. It may have been in a stealthy way, but Blitt's cover, if anything, probably helped Obama just a little bit.

It's impossible to discuss the meaning of President Obama without discussing race, and when the moderator is a black man who has written a memoir that would appear to be a bit similar to Obama's own memoir, the subject of race is all the more unavoidable—and welcome. Remnick's and Coates's comments were unfailingly astute—but I did want to push back on one point that surprised me a bit.

Everyone has a theory about how Obama's blackness helped him or hurt him. Obviously, Obama was able to maximize the ways it could help him and minimize the ways it could hurt him, the same way that Hillary Clinton would have tried to exploit/downplay her gender, or any other candidate would try to extract the positive aspects of any other notable trait he or she possesses.

But it remains a thorny subject. Our first "black president" is half-white, just as white as he is black, one might even say. Yet he signifies as black, culturally speaking, for reasons that stretch back to the abhorrent "one-drop rule" of slavery. Biracial Derek Jeter might not signify as "all black," but in the more charged arena of politics, Obama usually does.

Add to this a subject that Remnick and Coates treated with some delicacy, that Obama's father was not culturally African-American but simply African, which means that Obama had no obvious recourse to the cultural traditions and territory of regular African-American males, the ones descended from slaves. Obama is not a descendant of American slaves, and Remnick and Coates quite properly presented that as a problem for a candidate (Obama) trying to win the votes of African-Americans. You could almost say it could have been a problem along these lines: whites would disinclined to vote for him, since he signifies as "black"—but some black voters might also be (relatively) disinclined to vote for him—because he signifies to them as insufficiently "black." Certainly that would have been a pickle.

Remnick and Coates were making the point that Michelle Obama sliced through this particular Gordian knot rather tidily. Michelle Obama, née Robinson, namesake of America's most historic African-American baseball player.

So far, so good. Where Remnick and Coates lose me is their assertion that a hypothetical Obama with a white wife would have faced unusual—possibly fatal—problems. I should stress that I'm not shocked by that statement, and I'm not calling them on it for reasons having to do with political correctness. I'm just not sure the statement is as self-evidently true as the two men seemed to think.

Remnick's statement was that Obama would not have secured 94% of the black vote if Obama's wife had been white. Coates's version, allowing for the usual ambiguity that occurs when people speak extemporaneously, seemed to bleed into the premise that Obama would not have won the election at all. Remnick's statement is probably true in the narrow sense, if one adds the caveat that he could have secured 93% of the black vote and the statement would still remain true. As for Obama's general prospects, it's ... a difficult statement to parse.

In some degree, this hypothetical seems to elevate cultural concerns over political ones. The fidelity of black voters to the Democratic Party is a political fact strong enough to trump a lot of other factors. It's worth pointing out that in 2004, a white native of Massachusetts married to a white ketchup heiress (born in Africa, oddly enough) secured 88% of the black vote—and that was a low figure, in historical terms. And of course, Kerry lost the election. But are we saying that Obama would have done worse than Kerry? Are we saying that Obama's political career would have stalled in Chicago because he would not have been able to appeal to "more authentically African-American voters" the same way? The counterfactuals are too involved to figure out, and—my real point—they ignore the salient role that the characteristics of specific human beings play.

Racially, Obama is whatever he is. In addition, he's thoughtful, careful, eloquent, whip-smart, not prone to verbal gaffes ... this is the man we are saying who could never have overcome his choice decades earlier to wed a white woman? I see the dynamic involved clearly enough ... I just don't think we can rule any outcome out so easily.

Predictions and hypothetical questions are bedeviled by recourse to average, typical exemplars. As an example, if you had asked a sportswriter, on May 30, 1982, whether any current major leaguer had a chance to break Lou Gehrig's consecutive games streak, that sportswriter would very likely have said, "No. That is not possible."

But of course Cal Ripken played the first game of his (quite a bit longer) streak that very day. Obviously the mental processes of that sportswriter would not have been up to imagining the possibility of a glorious outlier like Ripken—even though by definition that record would necessarily be broken by an outlier. Thinking about the ordinary major leaguers are of no use in answering a question like that.

Similarly, if we imagine this white woman that would supposedly have hindered Obama's chances of becoming president, who is this woman, exactly? Or, more precisely, who might this woman be, exactly? Hillary Clinton? Cindy McCain? Teresa Heinz? Nancy Reagan? Nancy Pelosi? Barbara Ehrenreich? Sandra Bullock? Lorrie Moore? Even that short list of remarkable women shows the potential range involved.

Maybe I'm naive. Obama's task was formidable enough as it was, and (as Remnick pointed out) his eventual path was in part the result of astonishing good fortune. Maybe it is true that Obama would never have gotten elected within Illinois, much less across the whole country, if he had not had an easy way to make regular black voters relate to him. But I tend to think of the issue in the following way.

Barack Obama married a remarkable woman. It's safe to assume that if his chosen bride had been white, she would have been a pretty remarkable woman too. Her race might have complicated Obama's political life. But alongside that, there are two other things one might venture as well: Obama excels at overcoming circumstances that would hold other people back, and this woman would have brought something to the project (I almost wrote "ticket") in her own right.


Thanks so much for this report—it sounds great!

Joelle BieleApril 12, 2010

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