University of Washington communications professor David Domke momentarily stole the show last night at Town Hall, while interviewing New Yorker editor David Remnick.
Near the end of a lively one-hour interview about Remnick's new biography of President Obama, Domke said that the biographer had rejected the theory that Obama was a post-racial president. Posing his own alternative hypothesis, Domke asked Remnick whether Obama might instead be America's first postmodern president.
Huge meaning is placed on Obama's very existence, his background, his every move and shift of opinion, Domke explained, adding that there are varied meanings derived by different groups: the nation as a whole, young people, African Americans, civil rights leaders, and so on. Turning to Remnick, he asked, "Your take?"
"My take on that, David, is that this is the most intelligent interview I've ever had," Remnick replied, to the loudest applause of the night. "Which is to say you're right."
Extending his love for Seattle, Remnick also described walking through Pioneer Square during this visit: "I couldn't find the bookstore of my dreams," he said, then he thanked Domke, event sponsor Seattle Arts & Lectures, and his beloved Elliott Bay Book Co.
Remnick was in town to promote The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama, and in his laid-back witty style, he charmed a packed Town Hall audience.
At points during the interview, Remnick spoke more like a civil-rights activist than a biographer or magazine editor. He described how Obama was able to win over people in southern Illinois, where politics play more like they do in Memphis than in Chicago. He got people to like him, and to feel good about liking him — "That never happened with Jesse Jackson."
Remnick explained that Obama's politics are fairly simple, landing solidly in the Democratic Party's center-left. "Barack Obama is not radical. The most radical thing about Barack Obama is that he's black, and he's the president. That is radical."
But he also described Obama's indebtedness to civil rights pioneers such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, directing his audience to the Web to watch Obama's March 2007 speech commemorating the 65th anniversary of the march from Selma to Montgomery. "It is electrifying," Remnick said.
Other highlights from the Remnick interview:
On Obama's upbringing in Hawaii: The state prides itself on multi-culturalism, but Obama attended a fancy high school where there were no blacks — they were all on military bases — and where "everybody was so goddamned happy." Under those conditions, and without the presence of his African father, who abandoned the family, Obama learned to be African-American by reading, studying, clinging to the few African-Americans he could find in Hawaii, "then getting the hell out of there."
On Obama's community-organizing work in Chicago: "Community organizing gave him much more than he gave the community. He was a community organizer for three years. No one transforms a community in 30 years, much less three."
On the president's time at Harvard Law School, and his election as president of the Harvard Law Review: "Obama had a sense that he was somebody special, and how he would use that."
On Obama's being asked, as a state senator from Illinois, to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention in Boston, a speech that launched his national reputation: "It's like winning 'American Idol.' "