FOR MOST AMERICAN LIBERAL INTELLECTUALS, the astonishing election of a black man to the nation’s highest office provided the main narrative needed to understand Barack Obama. The president was defined by his race—and the president’s race, in turn, defined a new moment in American history.
Beautiful metaphors were used to describe Obama’s ascent. Cassandra Butts, Obama’s classmate at Harvard Law School and a longtime friend, called him “a translator”— someone who could interpret the black experience for white Americans, and the white for black Americans, in the process cultivating a constituency sizable enough to elect a president.
In similar terms, the black politican and civil rights leader John Lewis—who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr—saw Obama as the culmination of the struggle for civil rights. The new president, Lewis said, “is what comes at the end of that bridge in Selma,” where civil rights activists were beaten by Alabama police during a march in 1965. And David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, borrowed Lewis’ metaphor for the title of his epic biography on Obama: The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.