David Remnick joins two fellow Obama biographers, mostly to defend the president (and lambast Romney)
Last night, as Mitt Romney's chances of winning one of the evening's three Republican nominating contests were quickly slipping away, the 2012 G.O.P. candidate was also being skewered in an auditorium full of Obamaphiles in Harlem.
A panel of authors had been convened to discuss Barack Obama's time in office. Around 12 minutes into their chat, the conversation turned to health-care reform and the Republican party's disdain for it, including Romney, who does a good job pretending that the insurance policies he established in the Bay State six years ago look nothing like those signed into law by Obama in 2010.
"The anxiety in the Republican party, in which the leading candidate is running away from his only achievment as governor of Massachusetts?" said New Yorker editor David Remnick. "I just don't know how to interpret that.
Forty-five minutes later, Remnick went on about the Republican field, singling out Romney: "In my life, I've never seen a vessel so empty of precisely what you're asking about, which is principle."
The achievements of Obama, on the other hand, "given the context of the politics with which we live, are remarkable," said Remnick, to applause.
Remnick and the two men he was onstage with at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (Randall Kennedy and William Jelani Cobb, professors of law and Africana studies at Harvard and Rutgers, respectively) have at least one thing in common: They've all written Obama tomes.
Remnick, of course, also has the distinction of having commissioned numerous illustrations of the president to run on the cover of his venerable magazine.
The most recent example was last week's front, in which a gleeful Obama, with beer and football in hand, watches a big-screen TV that's broadcasting Romney and Newt Gingrich in a fictional Super Bowl tackle.
It was the type of timely and humanizing satire that can instantly put a smile on a reader's face. But not all of The New Yorker's Obama portraits have gone over so well.
A woman in the audience acknowledged this during the question-and-answer session following the panel discussion. She alluded to Barry Blitt's controversial July 2008 drawing of the president and First Lady bumping fists in a militant-looking turban-and-Afro milieu.
"That’s what satirists do," said Remnick, defending the art. "They take stereotypes and they jam 'em in your face. … This is what Thomas Nast was doing when he was doing cartoons during the Civil War period. Or Boss Tweed—he was taking these things and blowing them up. Blowing them up. And that’s what Barry Blitt was doing on the cover."
Earlier, Remnick had incited some side-splitting laughter by pulling the curtain back on an off-the-record interaction he'd had with the Commander in Chief.
"This detail is funny and irrelevant so I’ll retail it," he said. "I was in a meeting with President Obama not long ago, on foreign policy, that was off the record. One of the people was kind of hectoring about the fact of how much money we give to Egypt, to which the president replied, 'True dat.'”
The crowd erupted.
"I thought, I will bet this is the first time that this has happened in any kind of briefing ever in the White House," said Remnick.
But in large part, Remnick's remarks touched on the paradoxical nature of Obama's first term, the practicalities of which stand in stark contrast to the radical exuberance that characterized his campaign, election and inauguration.
"Barack Obama is radical in one way: he’s an African American who won the presidency," said Remnick. "After that, he’s kind of a center-left, conventional Democratic Party rendering. I mean, he’s intellectually a lot more than that, he’s a lot more interesting. He’s certainly a lot more literary. There’s more dimensions to him as a personality both historically and personally. But, in terms of policy, in terms of the policy of the possible, in terms of the policy of his own ambitions, he is no radical."
Which isn't to say that Obama has lost Remnick's vote.
"You know where I stand on Barack Obama, and it won't be a secret who we endorse, most likely," said Remnick. "But it's also my job as a journalist to do something else, and that’s to put pressure on power."