In one of my last posts, I questioned why David Maraniss has contempt for those of us who want to give Barack Obama the thorough vetting that Maraniss, an editor at the Washington Post, failed to do in his recent book. Now the Pullitzer-prize winner calls us “racists,” and in particular, me, for doing the job he won’t do.
Here’s Maraniss in the WaPo:
In the introduction to my book, I took note of a sick political culture where “facts are so easily twisted for political purposes and where strange armies of ideological pseudo-historians roam the biographical fields in search of stray ammunition.” That sentence is now cited on right-wing Web sites as evidence that I hold them in contempt. True enough, one of the few accurate things that I’ve read from them. I do hold some of them in contempt … for the way they disregard facts and common sense and undermine the role of serious history as they concoct conspiracy theories that portray the president as dangerous, alien and less than American. [Emphasis mine].
. . .
What drives them? Some of it can be attributed to the give-and-take of today’s harsh ideological divide. Some of it can be explained by the way misinformation spreads virally to millions of like-minded people, reinforcing preconceptions. And some of it, I believe, arises out of fears of demographic changes in this country, and out of racism. [Emphasis mine].
As the only writer for a “right-wing” website (Breitbart.com) to have used the phrase “contempt,” I presume Maraniss must be speaking of me, but he couches it in weasel words like “some,” which is usually a mark of bad journalism, so it’s hard to tell. I’m left with no other option than to conclude that Maraniss just called me a racist, who is fearful of the “demographic changes in this country”–whatever that means.
When Maraniss accuses me and other bloggers on the right of “disregard[ing] facts,” it’s worth pointing out some of his errors and omissions and asking why he felt the need to omit them. It is he, not I, that is the trafficker in misinformation. Indeed, to mention but one example, Maraniss scrubbed entirely the role that Frank Marshall Davis may have played in forming him, declining to even mention Davis in his 10,000-word piece on Obama in Hawaii, even though Obama mentions him plenty in his own book, Dreams From My Father.
Maraniss’s Barack Obama: The Story ignores the significant fact that the speech that launched Obama’s political career took place at a rally for explicit racial preferences and quotas, in addition to divestment from South Africa.
Barack Obama’s first political speech occurred at this rally, which is recounted in the pages of The Occidental, his college paper. We know from the source notes in Maraniss’s book that he combed through the Occidental archives, so it seems odd that Maraniss would fail to recount what happened at the rally. Could it be that he didn’t want to report Obama’s mentors and friends calling for racial quotas? Did he not notice the following from Eric Newhall, an Obama mentor?
“[W]e all say we want affirmative action but we don’t want to pay what it apparantly [sic] will cost. Minorities with PhDs are in scarce supply, and thus will cost more to hire.” [Newhall] said that he doesn’t like the idea of “someone else being paid more than I am for doing the same work I’m doing,” but that he liked even less having a “virtually all white faculty.”
Maraniss also fails to seriously study Obama’s professors and what views they may have imparted to him.
In Dreams from My Father, Obama writes that at Occidental he chose his “friends carefully. The politically active black students. The foreign students. The Chicanos. The Marxist professors.” (p. 100) Obama told the Los Angeles Times that Occidental had professors who were “diverse and inspiring” And that he made “lifelong friendships” there.
So where are the inspiring Marxist professors in Maraniss’s treatment? And where are the “lifelong friendships”? They are nowhere to be found. There’s a little mention of Alan Egan, who as Maraniss mentions taught Obama foreign policy along with Larry T. Caldwell. Maraniss neglects to mention that Egan was a Marxist who, of course, attacked “Friedmanite” economic policy as bad for his native Argentina. (Anthony Russo, “Egan Gives a Native’s View of Argentine Politics,” The Occidental).
Maraniss also fails to mention that Caldwell taught antipathy to President Reagan’s anti-Soviet policies, calling them “myopic” and warning that confronting the Soviet Union was “bankrupt … and bound to fail.” In his view, America should just reconcile itself to the fact that the Soviet Union was a global superpower and cut a deal. (Anne Ball, “Caldwell charts decline of American-Soviet relations,” The Occidental, May 1, 1981). Such comments were mainstream in academe, but in Caldwell’s case may have come from his anti-Americanism.
“We [children of the sixties] felt the JFK assassination … [sic] blew the chances for our generation to take hold of the world and change things. I know that’s tremendously idealistic bullshit, but that’s the way my generation felt. The lesson that I learned from Vietnam and all those other experiences was ‘never again to have unmitigated loyalty to my country.’ (Gretchen Lux, “Caldwell shares his ‘last’ views,” The Occidental, May 8, 1981).
Did Obama share Caldwell’s view?
We don’t learn anything from Maraniss about it.
There’s also no mention of Lawrence Goldyn, a homosexual activist and Obama professor. “[Goldyn] was a wonderful guy,” Obama told The Advocate in 2009. “He was the first openly gay professor that I had ever come in contact with, or openly gay person of authority that I had come in contact with. And he was just a terrific guy. He wasn’t proselytizing all the time, but just his comfort in his own skin and the friendship we developed helped to educate me on a number of these issues.” But there was no examination about what those issues might actually be. Goldyn was a constant professional protestor on campus, famously picketing the visit of Phyllis Schlafly, whom he said “represents fascism in this country.” (“Schlafly’s Speech Meets Opposition,” The Occidental, February 13, 1981). Had Maraniss poked around, he would have discovered that Goldyn, by his own admission, “talked about sexual politics in all of [his] courses.” When Occidental declined to grant him a tenure-track position, Goldyn blamed a benighted reaction to his homosexuality. “My not being rehired is a real, I think, clear statement, and will be interpreted, whether accurately or not by a lot of people who say ‘you are better off staying in the closet.'” (Susan Keselenko, “Lawrence Goldyn: Reflections on an abrupt Occidental experience,” The Occidental, May 29, 1981)
While he goes into the minutiae of life in Kenya and Kansas, Maraniss doesn’t do a good enough job of capturing campus life at Occidental. When Reagan was shot, the Democratic Socialist Alliance held a colloquium in which three Occidental professors–Norman Cohen, Mike McAleenan, and Lawrence Goldyn–all spoke. We don’t know if Obama was present, but given that his friends were the organizers behind the Democratic Socialist Alliance and given the nature of the talk, it seems more than likely he was. In any case, the remarks there suggest both the intensity and the low intellectual caliber of the leftism Obama was exposed to as a student. Professor Cohen blamed the shooting on the “capitalist system itself,” according to the school paper’s report. “The problem is the society we live in,” he told the crowd. In the question and answer period, Cohen refused to stand for the national anthem because that would ” support all of the American activities in El Salvador and other third world nations,” he said. Professor McAleenan provided a sociological description of would-be shooters which he blamed the “so-called American dream” and our “never-fail-always-succeed society.” Goldyn assailed the “patriotic propaganda” that portrayed Reagan as a hero, and he suggested that “if those who subscribe to the American Dream can be shot, then the lives of dissenters must be in even greater danger.” (Anthony Russo and Dan Karasic, “Assassination is topic of forum,” The Occidental, April 17, 1981).
Maraniss also doesn’t get into El Salvador, one of the hot issues on campus. Obama’s friend Caroline Boss, who gave him his start as an activist by having him speak at the rally quotas/apartheid rally, was the leader of the Democratic Socialist Alliance, which co-sponsored (with the political science and history departments) a well-attended showing of a radical propaganda film, “Revolution or Death.” In a letter to the editor of the school paper, a friend and roommate of Obama’s, Hasan Chandoo, whom Obama would later recall as his “brother,” blamed America’s desire to save the “capitalist order” for the killings in El Salvador. Egan, one of Obama’s professors for foreign policy, gave teach-ins with the help of the Democratic-Socialist Alliance. (Lisa Messinger and Debra Lewinter, “Egan Links Economics and Latin Repression,” The Occidental).
The film praised the Revolutionary Democratic Front while its visiting promoter, Roberto Alfaro, condemned America for giving aid to the Contras [they were the anti-government guerrillas in Marxist-governed Nicaragua a few years later]. “The people decided to go that way (communist) … made their own choice. Revolutions are not exported. Revolutions have to be made from within,” he told the audience at Occidental. Alfaro endorsed the Revolutionary Democratic Front, which his film said had as its goal “an end to terror… a redistribution of land, and true democracy.” (Hannah Bentley, “Salvadoran Plight Examined,” The Occidental) His group, the Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador (CISPES), masqueraded as a popular resistance group that merely opposed American involvement in Latin America. In reality it was a Communist front, connected with the terrorist group FMLN and founded by the brother of the head of the Communist Party, Farid Handal, in 1980–in cooperation with the Communist Party USA, as part of an influence operation to protect communist efforts in the region from U.S. interference.
The FBI later linked CISPES to a series of terrorist attacks in the early ’80s, including an attack on Fort McNair in Washington, DC in April 1983 and the bombing of the U.S. Capitol in November 1983. Naturally, Occidental had a chapter of CISPES when Obama was a student. Was he a member? We don’t learn from Maraniss.
Maraniss misses the Marxists. Another serious omission appears in Maraniss’s reference to Roger Boesche, whom we are merely told “worked his classes through Nietzsche, Tocqueville, Freud, Weber, Sartre, and Marcuse, following more on the questions they raised than the answers.” (p. 358)
So where’s Marx in this list?
Gone, perhaps because Maraniss has noted that Boesche was Obama’s “favorite professor.” In fact, Boesche’s favorite political philosopher was Marx, whom Boesche said he “loves.”
From the Occidental:
What Marx offers to Boesche … is an historical analysis, an explanation of how this world of capitalism emerged. “Gradually,” Marx explains [Boesche] said, “the economic power of the Third Estate, the commercial classes ended the power of a landed aristocracy.” And gradually, he continued, “the vast majority will recognize their power, recognize an ‘utterly umimbelishable[sic]’ need to transform the world, and bring a more sophisticated form of democracy than Jefferson’s world of sheperds [sic] and yeoman farmers could offer.
Marx’s socialism, he explained, offers a democracy suited to the modern world of cities and technology, in which the producers or workers control the workplace, in which those who work reap the benefits. With Marx, he said, “I can share the optimism of those who believe in the wonders of science and technology.” Marx is confident that through technology, humans can be liberated from drudgery, and that within the body of a people once liberated, we will find, said Boesche, “A thousand Shakespeares and a thousand Newtons each generation.”
It was from Boesche’s Marx, and not (as Maraniss implausibly suggests) his Tocqueville, that Obama may have decided to become a community organizer.
Marx, [Boesche] explained, is optimistic in his belief of “community, fellowship; each man or woman as artist; democracy in a more perfect equality; control over one’s daily life.”
Boesche believed in democracy applied to everything:
…I choose to value democracy in its broadest sense–democracy of the community and neighborhood, decentralization of centralized cities and states, democracy in unions and schools, and factories, and workers who control the enterprises in which they work.
(Susan Keselenko, “Boesche Synthesizes Political Convictions,” The Occidental, May 1, 1981).
My broader objection to Maraniss’s work is that he doesn’t examine the rise of the political Obama, which began after he left for Harvard Law School–and right before the point at which Maraniss chooses to end his account. He is therefore ill-equipped to make many of the sweeping statements he has made about how Obama’s political mind developed. Obama’s incrementalist socialism, which I have documented elsewhere, is gainsaid and even attacked by Maraniss as having been “utterly disproved” by his “every move as a pragmatic liberal politician over the past 16 years.”
But in what’s pragmatic and what’s ideological, only Maraniss is apparently allowed to be the judge. In Maraniss’s world, the rest of us are just “racists,” or, as we call them in the real world, “reporters.”