May 6, 2011
Misreading ObamaBy Jack Cashill
From the moment Barack Obama took center stage at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, the world has been busily trying to decipher the man. No one has been more busy reading Obama in the years since than the chair of the Harvard History Department, the esteemed Dr. James Kloppenberg. At numerous symposia, on both sides of the Atlantic, he has shared his distinctive insights on our 44th president.
In his new book, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition, Kloppenberg has assembled his insights into a misreading of Obama so sincere and so profound that it causes one to doubt the entire academic enterprise. In the heat of the 2008 campaign, a book like this would have been understandable. No one seemed to know much about Obama. Two years into the presidency, one marvels at how much information the author, his readers and editors had to ignore to allow this book to go to press.
Working from Obama's early articles, his later columns in the Hyde Park Herald, his key speeches, and his two books, the 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father and the 2006 policy brief Audacity of Hope, Kloppenberg finds in Obama a philosophical pragmatist with a "firmer grip on America's past" than any president since Woodrow Wilson.
To arrive at this understanding, Kloppenberg had first to convince himself that Obama actually wrote his own material. This was not difficult, at least not for the good professor. "But since I began investigating Obama's ideas," he observes, "no one who knows him has expressed any doubt to me that both books are his work." For Kloppenberg, this was proof enough. Immured in his academic keep, he apparently sheltered himself from the 20,000 or so words I had already put into cyberspace establishing that Obama had substantial help with everything good that he has ever said or is alleged to have written.
Kloppenberg's enthusiasm leads him to overlook the cautions of his own ideological allies as well. This was most evident in his discussion of Obama's March 2008 Philadelphia speech, "A More Perfect Union." As the reader will recall, Obama delivered this stem-winder to distance himself, without exactly disowning, the suddenly toxic Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
For the Philadelphia speech, according to Kloppenberg, Obama "did not need the assistance of his speech writer Jon Favreau." This one he wrote from the heart. Jonathan Raban, the esteemed British travel writer and novelist, suspects otherwise. Although once as blind to Obama's limitations as Kloppenberg, Raban was "disconcerted" to learn that Obama used a speechwriter at all. He was more troubled to learn that the speechwriter in question, Favreau, was a video-game whiz whom Obama had recruited in 2004 when the lad was just 22 years-old.
Raban traces his awakening to Obama's 2009 inaugural address, one that, in his words, suffered from "moth-eaten metaphors," "faux-antique dialect," and jarring semantic errors like Obama's use of the word "forbearers" when he meant "forebears." Raban felt even more "let down" upon discovering that the "More Perfect Union" speech was "a joint Obama/Favreau production." Kloppenberg apparently has not yet made this discovery.
In his underappreciated 2008 book, The Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win, Shelby Steele, who is bi-racial himself, nicely dissects the malady that afflicts Kloppenberg and many of his fellow academics. "Blacks like Obama, who show merit where mediocrity is expected," writes Steele, "enjoy a kind of reverse stigma, a slightly inflated reputation for ‘freshness' and excellence because they defy expectations." At the time, Steele did not know how much of that "merit" was unearned.
Kloppenberg still does not know. He unblushingly describes Obama as "gifted," a "genius," a man of "exceptional intelligence," one who writes "brilliantly and poignantly." To preserve this illusion, he chooses not to see even the coarse print in Obama's scant paper trial.
Obama's first published piece, "Breaking The War Mentality," an 1800-word article published in 1983 in Columbia's weekly news magazine, Sundial, represents the single best sample of Obama's literary DNA. Had Obama been raised by wolves in an Indonesian cave and then unleashed on the Columbia campus a year earlier, the reader might cut him slack for this low-C silliness.
In fact, though, Obama was completing his fourth year of college, his second in the Ivy League, after spending eight years at Hawaii's best prep school. His formal training as a writer culminated in this essay. It is unlikely to the point of impossible that he would improve his skills appreciably even if he had worked at it, which he did not. A few sentences should suffice to capture the writer's skill or lack thereof. Italics mine:
This is one of an appalling five sentences in which the noun and the verb do not agree. It should read, "advantages . . . are leading," but only if "advantages" could lead. The last phrase dangles.
Again, an agreement issue: This should read, "The belief . . . keeps SAM's energies alive." The random use of commas throws everything off.
I went back and reread the hard copy on this sentence to make sure it had not been deformed when digitized. This, alas, reads as weirdly as written. "Infuse" is the wrong word. One infuses something "into" something else. There should be an "and" after "situation," not a comma. Obama utterly mangles the "bring to bear" phase." It should read something like, ". . . bring the words of those formidable men on the face of the Butler Library -- Thoreau, Jefferson, Whitman -- to bear." As to how or whether we are part of a "twisted logic," I will leave that to the reader's imagination.
To put his literary potential in perspective, Obama was twenty-one at the time he wrote this article, just a year younger than Favreau was when Obama hired him. The lowliest Chicago alderman would not have hired the author of "Breaking The War Mentality" to write his speeches.
Five years later in 1988, Obama wrote an essay titled "Why Organize." Kloppenberg calls it "beautifully written." It is not. Although this effort shows a modest improvement from his Columbia essay, which may be due to more vigilant editing, it exhibits many of the same problems -- awkward sentence structure, inappropriate word choice, a weakness for clichés, the continued failure to get verbs and nouns to agree. More troubling for the Obama faithful, this essay shows not a hint of the grace and sophistication of Dreams.
Gifted writers do not pen sentences like "Facing these realities, at least three major strands of earlier movements are apparent" or "But organizing the black community faces enormous problems as well . . . and the urban landscape is littered with the skeletons of previous efforts."
"Facing these realities" modifies nothing. "Strands" do not "face reality." "Organizing" does not face anything either. "Efforts" do not leave "skeletons." Kloppenberg ignores these flaws and finds a sign of Obama's poetic promise in the following uninspired passage:
In Dreams, this appeal to black cultural memory is echoed in clearly superior language, language that is not Obama's own:
In my new book, Deconstructing Obama, I argue that neighborhood writer/editor Bill Ayers heavily doctored Obama's unfinished manuscript. The impeccably credentialed celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen confirms the same in his book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage. The charge is not at all implausible. Mutual friend of Ayers and Obama, Rashid Khalidi, begins the acknowledgment section of his 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire, with a tribute to the self same literary muse. "First, chronologically and in other ways," writes Khalidi, "comes Bill Ayers." The politically cautious Obama had no acknowledgment section.
To make a textual case for Ayers's involvement takes a lot of words, which I finally have had the opportunity to do in my book. The would-be critic risks embarrassment if he judges the validity of the thesis without reading Deconstructing Obama.
As it happens, Kloppenberg focuses not on the much-acclaimed Dreams but on the less celebrated Audacity, which he describes as "a refreshingly serious and cogent account of American political and cultural history." It is this book, the professor argues, that puts Obama in a league with Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt as a thinker and that establishes his bona fides as a philosophical pragmatist of the highest order. Not everyone agrees. Ayers, who was much closer to the action, is also much closer to the truth in dismissing Audacity as a "political hack book."
The question that might first be asked is who did the writing and/or hacking. Kloppenberg would have us believe that newly minted U.S. Senator Obama found time to write a 431-page book without any writing help in what was roughly an 18-month window from contract signing to due date.
In reality, the window was much less than 18-months. "He procrastinated for a long time," concedes Obama-friendly biographer David Remnick. It is understandable why Obama might have. His schedule was ridiculous. He would typically fly in to DC on Monday evenings and out on Thursday evenings. In addition to a daily trip to the gym and occasional lunches and dinners with friends, Obama's DC workdays were packed, in his own retelling, with "committee markups, votes, caucus lunches, floor statements, speeches, photos with interns, evening fund-raisers, returning phone calls, writing correspondence, reviewing legislation, drafting op-eds, recording podcasts, receiving policy briefings, hosting constituent coffees, and attending an endless series of meetings."
When home, in that first year alone, Obama hosted 39 town hall meetings throughout the state of Illinois. He traveled abroad to Russia, Eastern Europe, Israel, and Iraq. "Like a traditional pol," admits Remnick, "he spent hours making cajoling calls" to raise money for his political-action committee. Given his high profile, he hit the campaign trail to raise money for his colleagues. All business aside, the fatherless Obama also worked hard to be a good father to his daughters and a good husband to Michelle. Accordingly, he set aside Sundays for his family and as much other time as he could squeeze in.
How did Obama moonlight a book project in a day job that always ran overtime? "I usually wrote at night after my Senate day was over, and after my family was asleep -- from 9:30 p.m. or so until 1 a.m," he told interviewer Daphne Durham of Amazon. "I would work off an outline -- certain themes or stories that I wanted to tell -- and get them down in longhand on a yellow pad. Then I'd edit while typing in what I'd written."
Remnick observes that, facing his deadline, Obama wrote "nearly a chapter a week." The chapters are on average close to 50-pages long. Remnick is a writer. He should know better than to think that an absurdly busy U.S. Senator could suddenly find his mojo and knock off fifty pages of well researched, well crafted prose a week, writing longhand no less.
In the acknowledgment section of Audacity, Obama lists 24 of his own people who provided "invaluable suggestions" in reading or fact checking the book prior to publication. If there is a muse-in-chief among this crowd, it is almost assuredly speechwriting wunderkind Favreau.
No writer was closer to Obama or more trusted. While getting to know the Senator, he carried Dreams around and committed it to memory. His goal, reports Ashley Parker of the New York Times, was "to master Mr. Obama's voice," meaning the voice of Dreams. Continues Parker, "Now, he said, when he sits down to write, he just channels Mr. Obama -- his ideas, his sentences, his phrases."
Obama biographer David Mendell got to see Favreau in action before he became a minor celebrity. "In crafting a speech," Mendell writes, "Favreau grabs his laptop and sits with Obama for about twenty minutes, listening to his boss throw out chunks of ideas. Favreau then assembles these thoughts into political prose." Although I cannot prove that Audacity was assembled in the same fashion, I can confirm that portions of Audacity sound like what the Times called "outtakes from a stump speech" precisely because they were, in fact, outtakes from a stump speech.
My colleagues and I found no fewer than 38 passages from Obama speeches delivered in 2005 or 2006 that appear virtually word for word as ordinary text in Audacity. The following passage, for instance, comes from a speech Obama gave on October 25, 2005:
This second passage comes from Audacity:
Of the 38 speech passages from 2005-2006 that found their way into Audacity, the Obama faithful are forced to believe that Obama wrote all of them. If he did not, then he did not write Audacity by himself, and if he dissembled about that, then he was also capable of deceiving the public about his unique authorship of Dreams. "I've written two books," he told a convention of Virginia teachers in July 2008. "I actually wrote them myself."
It seems much more likely that Favreau wrote all of these speeches. Yes, Obama may have dictated his thoughts or written down notes in longhand, but why would he not have given those notes to his gifted, government-issue speechwriter to put into prose? If Favreau wrote the speeches, he likely wrote most of the book, doing his best all the while to mimic the style of Bill Ayers. Oh, what a twisted web we weave!
As to the "moderation that has become [Obama's] trademark," that too is mere wish fulfillment on Kloppenberg's part. In fact, Audacity represents a strategic feint to the center. Adviser David Axelrod saw in "Obama" a product that would have excellent shelf appeal if properly repackaged, and he used the fall 2006 release of Audacity to launch the national rollout.
Although Kloppenberg chooses not to see, there is no mistaking the nature of the core product, Obama himself. As a boy in Indonesia, his secular humanist mother would say of less enlightened Americans, "They are not my people," and Obama got the message. As a teen in Hawaii, communist Frank Marshall Davis nudged him further to the left. Upon hitting the mainland, Obama immersed himself in a deeply leftist milieu. After college, he rejected a corporate life to community organize Alinsky-style.
After Harvard, when Obama could have had any job he wanted, he returned to Chicago and civil rights law, most notably working with ACORN on voter registration. For a pastor, he chose the most radical one in Chicago. For pals, he turned to people like Ayers and Khalidi. As a state senator, he proved himself, in Mendell's words, an "unabashed liberal." In the U.S. Senate, the National Journal cited him as "the most liberal." And yet Kloppenberg insists on reading Obama as a moderate, a pragmatist, one who has resisted the partisanship into which both parties have allegedly fallen.
Kloppenberg has obviously chosen not to read the fine print on the Obama package. Although he concedes that Obama "never explicitly addresses his education or his teaching," he nevertheless traces Obama's philosophical roots to heavyweights like Augustine, Madison, William James, and Reinhold Neibuhr among others.
In Dreams, however, Obama traces his own growth to radical anti-imperialists like Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X, communists like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and Stalin-loving fellow travelers like W.E.B. DuBois. The then 33 year-old Obama gives no suggestion that this reading was in any way problematic or a mere phase in his development. He moves on to no new school, embraces no new worldview.
Even Kloppenberg acknowledges that Obama "had a special interest" in radical historian Howard Zinn. Zinn, who described himself as "something of an anarchist, something of a socialist," is best known for the heaps of anti-American pabulum he has served to generations of self-doubting undergraduates.
Obama's Zinn phase did not end with graduation. In the 2004 preface to Dreams, written after his keynote speech at the Democratic convention, Obama describes an ongoing "struggle -- between worlds of plenty and worlds of want." America, he implies, prospers only at the expense of the rest of the world, a zero-sum fallacy common among those who refuse to understand the way free enterprise works.
"I have seen, the desperation and disorder of the powerless: how it twists the lives of children on the streets of Jakarta or Nairobi in much the same way as it does the lives of children on Chicago's South Side," Obama continues. When the powerless strike back, the powerful respond with "a steady, unthinking application of force, of longer prison sentences and more sophisticated military hardware." By equating Chicago with the third world, Obama endorses not philosophical pragmatism but a vaguely Marxist, post-colonial view of the American experience.
Although some on the right have objected to the left's shift in self-designation, for Obama the label "progressive" fits much better than "liberal." A liberal can have a fixed set of values. But a progressive, by definition, is always progressing. Like a Great White, if one stops moving, it dies.
Obama's fellow progressives, the party's base, understand that the long march through the institutions will have many strategic stalls, perhaps even a few reversals, but the march inevitably continues forward. In helping construct the counterfeit moderation of Audacity, Axelrod was confident that party activists would see why Obama seemed to be marching in place. Their continued support for Obama suggests that they have.