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Writing Obama

May 21, 2010 |  7:27 am


In our pages this week, Mona Gable looks at the competition between biographers of Barack Obama. David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker, was first with "The Bridge." This week sees the release of another major biography, "The Promise" by Jonathan Alter of Newsweek. Gable writes:

Whereas "The Bridge" reads like a scholarly effort, with its deeply layered stories on civil rights history, "The Promise" has the feel of a political thriller. "I really tried to take people into the Oval Office and the places where decisions are made," Alter said.

A 25-year veteran of Newsweek, Alter was keenly aware of the challenge. "If you're writing about such a familiar figure, it's essential that you tell people things they don't know," he said. "I think people are really interested in him as human being. He's the most observed but least understood figure in the world. So I wanted to know, what's he like in the presidency?

"What is more compelling than that?"

Remnick took a decidedly different focus. "I'm trying to give a biography of a very specific politician," he said, "a very close look at race in his life, and in the context of being the first African American president."

Asked what he learned about Obama, he said: "The surprises all came on the level of details about race, details about discrimination."

But these are only the first two big biographies out of the gate. Still in the works: ones from New Yorker writer Ryan Lizza, Washington Post reporter David Maraniss and Washington heavyweight Bob Woodward. Which one should you read? Maybe the full article will help you decide.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Barack Obama on April 15. Credit: Phelan M. Ebenhack / Associated Press

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