Monday, February 3, 2014
January 27, 2014 Issue
The balance between description and analysis that I look for in a political piece was never struck better than it is in David Remnick’s “Going the Distance,” a remarkable profile of Barack Obama, in this week’s issue. Remnick assesses Obama’s strengths (“This is the archetypal Obama habit of mind and politics, the calm, professorial immersion in complexity …”) and weaknesses (“unwilling to jolly his allies along the fairway and take a 9-iron to his enemies”), as he accompanies the President on a three-day fund-raising trip to Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, “rattling the cup in one preposterous mansion after another.” Of the piece’s many pleasures – the travelogue structure, the engaging first-person perspective – the most piquant is Remnick’s superb eye for detail: Obama’s fat lip (he caught an elbow in the mouth while playing basket ball at Fort McNair); Obama’s furtive chewing on a piece of Nicorette; the supply of blood matching Obama’s type kept in the trunk of his limo; the Claes Oldenburg safety pin looming in the dark at Jon Shirley’s house; “Renegade” – Obama’s Secret Service handle; Obama’s aides, ever focused on their iPhones (“The aides were, as ever, staring down at their iPhones, scrolling, tapping, mentally occupying a psychic space somewhere between where they were and the unspooling news cycle back in Washington”); Obama mouthing the announcer’s words, “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States,” as he walks toward the stage; the breakfast menu on Air Force One (“pumpkin spiced French toast drizzled with caramel syrup and a dollop of fresh whipped cream”); Obama’s trip director, Marvin Nicholson (“He and the President toss a football around, they shoot baskets, they shoot the shit”); the anecdote about Obama and his body guard Reggie Love taking a break during the Osama bin Laden mission to play spades; the Oval Office’s grandfather clock (“In the preternaturally quiet office, you could hear, between every long pause that Obama took, the ticking of a grandfather clock just to his left”). “Going the Distance” is an epic piece of reporting. I enjoyed it immensely.