David Remnick: 2010 National Book Festival

Uploaded by LibraryOfCongress on 12.10.2010

>> From the Library of Congress in Washington DC.
>> I first met David Remnick 22 years ago
when he was just a wisp of a boy.
I was something of a wisp myself but I decided to call him
up when I heard that he had just been made the Moscow correspondent
for the Washington Post.
He had come into that position out of nowhere.
He had graduated from Princeton just six years before and gone to work
for the Post as a night beat police reporter, I think it was.
In time he graduated to covering the National Football League
for the paper.
But now he was studying Russian intently
and I being an enterprising young editor
at a New York publishing house decided to introduce him
to an author whose book I was about to publish, the very talented,
irrepressibly decedent, devastatingly acute master
of Soviet Satire, Vladimir Voinovich.
I invited David to lunch.
We met at-- I think it was Galileo's.
Voinovich who barely spoke English took to David immediately.
It was a chemical thing.
David who didn't know much Russian at the time returned the compliment.
They liked each other.
They later became friends.
It was clear that this nascent foreign correspondent was a bright
and curious young man, a reporter who watched and listened.
And even at that early point of his career, it was clear he was a person
who could look past current events
to the deeper human issues that drive them.
It's been a pleasure to watch David ever since.
Obviously he mastered Russian so expertly that he went
on to cover the historic events of the crumbling Soviet Union
with great sensitivity and insight.
When communism collapsed and glasnost
and perestroika surprised us,
David Remnick was among the few who could explain them.
Eventually he wrote a very good book called Lenin's Tomb
which won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for non fiction.
He was only 36 years old.
He had joined the New Yorker by then.
For a while he was a staff writer.
Within six years he succeeded Tina Brown as the editor of the magazine.
In the interim, he has been credited with increasing circulation
by 23 percent to more than a million readers, and he is loved
by his writers and editors and the marketers on his staff,
all of whom feel he lives only to please them.
Writer, editor and publisher,
David has written six books and edited four more.
How he does it is a mystery.
Although Malcolm Gladwell, a New Yorker staff writer
and a fellow book writer once said,
"He likes to pretend that it's no sweat.
He cruises around and chats with people and then disappears
and writes thousands of words in 15 minutes.
It's all a part of that make it look easy thing."
When asked how he could possibly write a revealing book
about President Barack Obama and still run one
of the most successful magazines in the country, his wife,
a writer with the New York Times said,
"He got up really early went back to work after dinner with the kids
and took no weekends off and no vacations for more than a year.
The result has been a fascinating book that describes our president
as a man for all seasons, a flexible mutable chameleon."
As the Post's reviewer for book world,
Gwen Ifill of PBS described it, "Remnick efficiently strips some
of the gloss off the version Obama offered
in his best selling 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father charitably
and accurately describing that effort as a mixture
of verifiable fact, recollection, recreation,
invention and artful shaping."
Here to talk about that book and to illumine his theories
and observations about our man
in the White House is the author of The Bridge.
Please welcome one of our most dynamic American journalists
David Remnick.

[ Applause ]
>> I need to offer two corrections as--
I guess if you're an editor you edit everything I just I'm extremely
pleased by and flattered by that introduction.
Let me offer two corrections one,
I did not cover the National Football League
that would have been the Redskins.
That was way too exalted for me.
I covered the United States Football League
and the team was the Washington Federals.
A league that you now sadly forget
and the team went I think two and fourteen.
And it rained every Sunday and that was-- that was my other thing.
The other thing is the notion of the no sweat business.
I think we can all agree safely that this is the Schmitz capital
of the world [laughter] and let's give ourselves a little applause
for enduring it so [applause].
And I want to thank all the organizers of this festival.
I think you can't really imagine--
I think we can vaguely imagine why readers would want to come here
and listen to Stacy Schiff or Jon Franzen or Will Haygood
or whoever they happen to see in the last hours with great enjoyment.
But you have to know what it does for writers,
to see people that actually read, read you, have things to say
about these books-- critical things to say about these books,
complimentary things about these books.
Reading is an extraordinary activity done in quiet and solitude
as Jon Franzen has said recently you--
reading is the one thing you can't do seriously and multitask.
Occasions like this though, well not reading
and maybe secondary activities are really important to writers once
in a while to get out of the house and meet their readers.
It does a lot for us, I know.
So I thank you for that.
I wanted-- I have just a few minutes that I want to talk about this book
and maybe provoke a short discussion with you and see
if I can manage to do that.
I just-- I should say a little bit about the origins of this book,
question that I get very often has Barack Obama wrote an autobiography?
Yes I know that, and even an awfully good autobiography and a second book
as well that has some virtues and also some--
I think it was utility book.
But the first book is actually good book.
It tells a lot about of his life.
Why would you bother writing a biography?
Well first of all, autobiographies, memoirs are stories
that you tell about yourself.
It has the point of view of your-- your own point of view.
You leave in and take out what you want to do
and you would no more consider a book on Ben Franklin authoritative
if it was called the autobiography of Ben Franklin
as you would imagine it if it were written by the man in the moon.
Ben Franklin is a book that requires all kinds
of biographical scholarship and pressure from brands and shift
and all the many people who have concentrated
on it from different angles.
And an emerging political figure like Barack Obama who makes use
of his own life, the story o f his own life,
and makes it into a political utility even,
bears biographical scholarly
and journalistic pressure that is not his own.
So the idea to do that book is not something
that really required a lot of thought.
But I didn't know how much room there was for maneuver.
As an editor and as a friend of John Updike's I went
to his funeral a couple of winters ago.
And on the way back from the Massachusetts shore
where this funeral took place, a very small service.
I stopped in at Harvard Law School
and spent a few days interviewing law professors and colleagues
of Obama's just to see what there was to know
after all the campaign had been going on for quite a long time.
Many, many stories had been written some
by some very talented journalists.
What was left over, and that little experiment proved to me
that there was a story to tell, a story that hadn't been told,
a story that required some depth.
Barack-- one of the chapters in The Bridge,
the book obviously is a biography and set against the background
and context of the racial drama of the nation's politics and it takes
in quite a lot everything from Harold Washington and the politics
of Chicago, the politics of Harvard Law School,
the history of African-Americans running for the presidency,
many different kind of subplots in the course of the book.
But I also spent a chapter looking at Obama's own autobiography
as a specimen of probably the richest genre
of African-American writing and that is African-American memoir.
In other words, I wanted to see how this book which was written
in relative innocence, in other words, before he became a candidate.
Before that time when politicians write nonsense books
about themselves and bland books about their political policies
and biographies that try to appeal to everybody all at once.
>> This is a book written in relative innocence and also
out of a sense of literary ambition.
The origins of his autobiography come
when a literary agent notices an article on the press
that this guy has become the first African-American president
of the Harvard Law Review.
She asked him to write a book.
He doesn't know what he's going to write.
He thinks about writing a book about Civil Rights Law
and he happens upon his own story and writes it.
Just like Michelle Laurice or any number of other African-Americans
who ventured into this genre.
And I tried to look at this book structurally,
what it sets out to do, taking note of the fact
that there are three parts to it, each of them ends
with the author in tears.
And it's structured apolitically.
It's in a political context but it is not a candidate's book.
It does not take into account Obama's life in politics
as he enters the world of Chicago politics.
So, that was how I set out writing this book.
I had no interest in trying to play a catch up game of writing
about the Obama presidency.
The book ends at the White House door.
And it examines him in all regards prior not only to the election
but even the campaign itself gets fairly short tripped compared
to these episodes in Obama's youth and childhood
in his parent's development.
I just want to say one thing about African-American autobiography,
something that it has very-- in a very generalized way, in common
and in common with Obama's own book.
If you look at African-American autobiography, a genre,
that begins with 6000 slave narratives, I mean the most famous
of which is Frederick Douglas but there are thousands of other ones,
a genre that goes straight through to the great books
of the 20th Century, we know whether it's Richard Wright or Malcolm X
or Maya Angelou, so many of them, they have certain things in common,
a struggle for freedom, a journey from either incarceration or slavery
or oppression or stifling depending on the period of time
and historical circumstances, a journey that tends to be part
of this and a search for community, a search for a self,
a search for a politics,
and a search for geography and a sense of purpose.
All these things are present in Obama's autobiography.
The book of which-- some reviewers have used the euphemism exhaustive
to describe this book.
What they mean is it is 600 pages long.
And maybe occasionally they got exhausted.
But what the goal of the book is to separate the wheat from the chaff,
the myth from-- realities from myths, the nonsense
and the conspiracy theories from the facts of the matter.
It's an active journalism and a journalism that took place
and I hope to get it out while Obama was still in office, believe it
or not, not for commercial reasons but as part of the project itself,
part of knowing a president and a president's life
as best one can while he was in office.
And here we are a year and a half
into the presidency and what has sunk in?
Over 20 percent of the American public believes
that Barack Obama is a Muslim as if there were anything wrong with that,
but believes that he's a Muslim.
We still-- any audience that I go to were very often--
I'm still asked about birth certificates, was he really born
in Hawaii, in other words the very fact of his existence,
his national existence is brought
under serious question despite all the necessary
and requisite proof otherwise.
Haley Barbour, who distinguished himself actually during Katrina one
of very few politicians who did was interviewed recently
and it's maybe not by mistake that he's mentioned
as a possible presidential candidate in a couple of years.
He said that Barack Obama was somehow, remains mysterious,
that we don't know very much about Barack Obama.
Rush Limbaugh plays this violin all the time,
Glenn Beck I need not tell you plays this violin
and recently Dinesh D'Souza, conservative intellectual,
you probably know has come out with an article
in Fortune Magazine prefatory to a book that's coming and proposes
that Barack Obama sees the world through a post colonial canon point
of view and this is a view endorsed by as brilliant by
yet another possibility for the presidency Newt Gingrich.
And I think it is too polite to distinguish these theories
and these points of view with anything more
than a most harsh answer.
The fact of the matter is Obama's born--
Barack Obama's life hides in plain sight as does his ideology,
he is the man of the center left.
He is somebody born where he says he is born,
very much had the life he says he has.
Does he know people that were way to the left of him?
Yes. Does he know people and learn from people way to the right of him?
In law school he studied both with Charles Fried and Roberto Unger.
That didn't make him a Brazilian socialist
and that didn't make him a right wing republican
in the mold of Charles Fried.
He is somebody that read the books of Richard Posner
and was a research assistant
for a great liberal constitutional scholar.
This doesn't make him them.
His associations do not make him them.
And yet for political reasons certain intellectuals,
certain politicians, certain media outlets
and myriad websites continue to play this tune.
I referred earlier and I'll make this a concluding point,
I referred earlier to the genre of African-American autobiography.
One of the distinguishing features of slave narratives is
that slaves wrote to prove their literacy,
their personhood, their independence.
And yet they had to have very often the books endorsed
by white abolitionists.
If you look at the title page
of Frederick Douglas' autobiography it has a gesture
from William Lloyd Garrison saying this book was actually written
by believe it or not by Frederick Douglas.
That's where we were in the 19th Century.
And yet on the internet, on Rush Limbaugh and elsewhere there cropped
up the theory that Barack Obama wasn't even capable
of writing the book that he wrote.
We heard theories that Barack Obama was not the author
of his own biography but who was its author?
Wait for it-- Bill Ayers.
Well if this was just one isolated website it wouldn't worth
distinguishing in an audience like this but that is where we are,
and Barack Obama's life is still in play as a political weapon.
I'll stop there and why don't we have some questions
from the audience.
[ Applause ]
>> Thank you.

>> Hi, thanks.
Is this working?
Is this working?
>> Yeah.
>> Okay, I mean the scurrilous smears that you've alluded
to here are shocking, they're repelling,
they're disgusting its' a shame
that this is taking place at the present time.
However, it's not utterly unique
in American history or American politics.
>> No.
>> Look at the election of 1800, the 1850's, 1930's,
you could pick almost any decade and find if not identical
at least somewhat comparable scurrilousness
in alleged political discourse.
>> But what distinguishes it is
that he's an African-American in the White House.
This makes everything a little bit more electrifying.
This makes everything a little bit more pointed.
So, when we hear rhetoric like we want to take our country back,
when we hear rhetoric directed at Obama and his otherness
and the mystery of his background and the very purposeful fudging
at best of the facts of the matter, it takes on an outsized importance
and an outsized danger I'd say.
>> I just wanted to ask you, did you get any input or any comments
from President Obama himself from this book?
>> Yeah I interviewed Barack Obama.
Both before he was president and in the White House but I should say
that was great, that was nice, it certainly didn't hurt but that's not
where the good stuff comes from as a biographer and as a journalist.
The good stuff comes from spending a couple of days with somebody
who spent a couple of years going to McDonalds and being
in endless boring meetings and being a community organizer with him.
That's where the good stuff tends to come.
For example, you know at this time, at this point an interview
with Obama is very slowed down, purposeful, deliberate,
the goal of which is to be somewhat informative
but also to make no false steps.
And there are-- for obvious political reasons for that.
I don't blame him.

>> Hi, the August 30th issue of the New Yorker contains a puzzling piece
of commentary that I was hoping you could help me understand.
A man looks up at judge who will decide his case
and the judge says small potatoes is no defense.
Could you explain this to me?
>> I can't hear.
>> It was the-- a cartoon in where--
>> Oh I don't want to get into cartoon explanation.
>> Okay.
>> You know at the end of the year we have a cartoon section
in the special cartoon issue that comes out in November
and it's called I Don't Get It.
>> Okay.
[ Laughter ]
>> And we ourselves publish cartoons a second time realizing
that maybe they didn't get it in the first place and I want
to take full responsibility for that because I'm the judge and jury.
Look it is true I was a foreign correspondent
in Moscow, I'm very proud of that.
I'm also the judge and jury on New Yorker cartoons.
So I bear full responsibility
and whatever jail term comes with that [laughter].

Yes, sir.
>> I'm really curious about this Dinesh D'Souza piece that's gotten
so much attention and what you make of it.
And first of all of the irony that this is someone who is developing
to give the intellectual clause of or imprimatur
to these other scurrilous arguments,
an argument about post colonialism when, you know, he is too a son
of immigrant parents from India.
>> This whole country is post colonial--
>> Yeah and the whole country is post colonial,
this is exactly my point.
>> Look I can't answer for Dinesh D'Souza and I want
to read the full book but I, this--
>> What I'm asking is--
>> This notion that somehow Obama inherited his father's ideology
could not be farther from the truth.
Obama if anything, Obama's father was a counter example for him.
>> Uh hmm.
>> A counter example in the sense
that Obama's father was a highly intelligent man but dissolute,
lacking discipline, in fact blew his life up.
A really difficult man at best, violent at worst,
really not anything resembling what you and I would call
as they say a "family man".
And ideologically if you're gonna call somebody that's surrounded
by Larry Summers and Tim Geitner and Christina Romer,
et cetera a post colonial socialist,
then you haven't studied hard enough.
Let's move on.
>> Well then why doesn't someone call him out on that?
>> Okay thank you.
>> Yes, I was born and raised in the South.
I graduated from college as classmate with Newt Gingrich.
I've also lived in Hawaii in a multiracial society
and I've often wondered if Obama who grew up in this multiracial society
in Hawaii, had international exposure can he possibly understand
the vitriol of southern white anger toward him
as I can having come from that culture.
>> You know I'm not a novelist and when I say I'm not--
what I mean by that is a novelist because here she is making it
up can go as deep as that imagination can reach.
I think no biographer or journalist can pretend to reach that deeply.
Certainly Obama has read widely in the history of race, in the history
of civil rights, he knows these things from a distance,
he is also a black man in America and has felt the sting of prejudice
as well as any black man or woman has sooner or later,
no one escapes uninjured in some way or another.
But if you read his own book and my own reporting reflects this,
growing up in Hawaii in a so called multicultural Hawaii even
at this very elite prep school that he went to was no picnic, why?
Because there is a very prideful multiculturalism except
for one thing there are hardly any black people there.
Most of the African-Americans in Oahu are on a military base.
And if you read his book and my own reporting bore this out and I talked
to all his black classmates he felt the sting of prejudice
as a young guy very acutely.
Was it like being a black kid in 1954 in Philadelphia, Mississippi?
No, but it had its own particularities.
Yes sir?
>> Yeah I have just a question of--
>> Well I think we don't have much time so if-- quickly as we can.
>> Oh yeah sure really quickly, so I've tried to explain
for myself what I see is the president is naive taint dealing
with the republicans and his unwillingness to talk in terms
like Franklin Roosevelt talked during the depression
and really characterizing as FDR did very clearly the deceptions, the--
and building up very exquisitely his own rejections of the right
and how the right was criticizing his reaction and--
>> But the president can't do everything no matter how exalted the
rhetoric and it is curious that Obama's rhetorical capacity
as president have not been always on the level of it as a campaigner
but as poetry prose dichotomy there that you know well.
In fact, this administration took off
on a little mini attack on Fox News for example.
It petered out very, very quickly.
There is this kind of division of people talking to themselves
and riling each other up.
I would argue that it's more intense and more pernicious
on one side than the other.
It's too polite to me to say that it's all evenhanded, it's not.
And it's very, very powerful thing
and it's not easily defeated or overcome.
>> I guess my question is more--
>> Wait this will be the last question.
>> Okay.
>> You've been a daily journalist and you've gone along
for magazine journalism and later a book and the research
and the writing behind all those forms is--
could be quite different although some similarities.
I was wondering about the process that you go
through with your writers in the editing process
and how you recommend that they do their research
and writing for the New Yorker.
It has a bit influence by your daily--
>> But I want to make one thing very clear.
>> Sure.
>> I'm the editor of the magazine but I'm not the only editor
at the magazine and there are extraordinary editors, Henry Finder,
Dorothy Wickenden and Daniel Zalewski, people that you may
and more who you may not know or you may, who are extraordinarily gifted
in doing what editors do and what do they do?
They try to help a writer find a way to maximize what it is
and make better what it is that the writer set out to do.
Not what the editor is imposing but try to get inside a piece enough
and it happens through a long relationship with the writer,
to make that thing better, to find-- to help in whether it's structural
or intellectual or word by word to make as beautiful and as clear
and as forceful a piece of writing can be.
So, and all people do it in different ways and it has to do
with an extension of their personalities
and the intellect they bring to the table.
So, there is no one way of doing this, just as there's no one way
of being a baseball manager or a teacher or any one thing.
Listen, thank you all for coming
out here I know it's extraordinarily hot [applause]

and it does us all a lot of good.
Thank you.
[ Applause ]