David Maraniss and Obama's Communist Mentor
It's interesting that not only does Barack Obama need continued vetting, but so do his biographers. The culprit is the same: the liberal bias that dutifully protects Obama like white knights guarding the king's castle, shamelessly tossing journalistic objectivity right out the window. As Sean Hannity likes to say, when it comes to Obama's background, it has fallen to us conservatives to do the job that the mainstream "Obama-mania media" plainly refuses to do.
The most recent Obama biography getting a vetting by conservatives is David Maraniss' Barack Obama, the Story. Here at American Thinker, Jack Cashill has intrepidly taken up the charge, thereby provoking the wrath of the nation's "journalists" for daring to flag the contradictions in their reporting. In his most recent post, Cashill looked at several Maraniss passages related to Obama's mentor, Frank Marshall Davis. He quoted my forthcoming book on Davis, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, the Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor. I had sent Cashill a galley copy of my book, and he has done his homework well, juxtaposing my research on Davis with that of Maraniss. I'd like to here follow up.
Let me begin by sincerely expressing my admiration for David Maraniss. He really is a good journalist -- one of the best, in my view. He's an impeccably fair liberal. His work on Bill Clinton in the 1990s was superb. I used his Clinton biography, First in His Class, in one of my courses at Grove City College. His other books are likewise excellent, including his biographies of Vince Lombardi and Roberto Clemente, a childhood hero of mine (I'm a Pittsburgh native). Among these, his honesty in covering Bill Clinton was refreshing. He was not afraid to address elephants in the living room of the Clinton story. He is, however, clearly afraid to address the elephant in the living room of the Obama story -- namely, Obama's political radicalism, and particularly a young Obama's obvious interest in communism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, precisely when he knew Frank Marshall Davis.
For the record, Frank Marshall Davis was introduced to Obama by Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham. Dunham introduced his grandson to Davis in the 1970s -- by one (authoritative) account as early as 1970. He did so for the purpose of mentoring. And what a mentor he chose: Davis had been a literal card-carrying member of Communist Party USA (CPUSA). I have the FBI pages that list Davis's CPUSA number, which was 47544. I reprint the FBI pages in the appendix of my book. Davis did outrageous pro-Soviet propaganda work for CPUSA organs like the Chicago Star and the Honolulu Record. His writings unerringly parroted the Soviet line. Like other CPUSA members, he was a loyal Soviet patriot.
The liberal Obama biographers who bother to acknowledge Davis frame him as an innocent victim of McCarthyism. That's nonsense. McCarthy never came anywhere near Davis. No, it was anti-communist Democrats who pursued Davis, at least in part because Davis's chief target was Democratic President Harry Truman, the man opposing Joe Stalin. Davis's pro-Soviet/communist activities were first flagged in a 1944 report by the Democrat-run House Committee on Un-American Activities. When he was finally called to Washington to testify for those activities, it was by the Democrat-run Senate Judiciary Committee. It was the Democratic Senate that, in a 1957 report (tellingly) titled "Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States," stated categorically that Davis was "an identified member of the Communist Party."
And this, ladies and gentlemen, was a man who would go on to mentor the current president of the United States of America.
So, how does David Maraniss deal with Frank Marshall Davis? I've been eagerly awaiting his biography to get that answer. I was not optimistic. Prior to the biography, Maraniss in August 2008 had written a 10,000-word profile of Obama's Hawaii years for the Washington Post, so lengthy that it prints 17 pages in the web version. And yet, somehow, even with all those words, and seemingly no space limitations by the Post, Maraniss managed to avoid a single mention of Frank Marshall Davis. Yep, not one.
That, of course, was a slight against Davis that Obama himself could not do. In Dreams from My Father, Obama mentions "Frank" by name 22 times (and dozens more times via pronouns and other forms of reference) over the course of thousands of words and through literally every section of his memoirs.
When Maraniss was asked about his slight of Davis by researcher Cliff Kincaid, who has posted more on Davis than anyone else, Maraniss, befitting his good character, had the courtesy to respond. Unfortunately, he lamely told Kincaid that he believed that the role of Davis had been "hyped," including "by Obama himself."
Can you imagine? Even when the subject himself -- Obama -- acknowledges Davis, liberal journalists do back-flips to avoid him. Even Obama's own words and testimony on Davis's influence are dismissed by reporters who do not want to touch this unappealing subject, this latest skeleton in Obama's closet.
And so, when Maraniss's new book was recently released, I wasn't hopeful that it would shed any light on Frank Marshall Davis at all, even as I took a quick glance at the number of pages -- 641. When I went to the index, I was pleased to find that Maraniss did better than I expected. Davis is listed in the index under Bette Davis (Obama's grandmother was a fan). He mentions Davis on eight pages, slightly more than the five pages where Bette Davis is mentioned.
And what does Maraniss say about Frank Marshall Davis?
Well, I expected very little. With those low expectations, however, I was pleased with some of what I got -- that which was there. There was the bad, but also the good. Indeed, Maraniss's reporting on Davis can be divided into two categories: understatement (the bad) and notable new information (the good).
First, the understatement: Maraniss introduces Davis on page 270, describing him as a "black journalist, poet, civil right activist, political leftist, jazz expert, and self-described 'confirmed non-conformist' who wore a gold earring in his pierced right ear and had been under surveillance by the Honolulu bureau of the FBI because of his associations with the Communist Party." All of this is accurate, and Maraniss, to his credit, at least mentions the CPUSA "associations." In that respect, Maraniss does a better job than the likes of David Remnick, whose treatment of Davis was terrible. (In The Communist, I detail Remnick's sins of omission at length.)
Nonetheless, Maraniss completely understates and ignores Davis's communist work. Davis, after all, didn't merely have CPUSA associations, but was an actual party member. More than that, he did outrageous pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin propaganda work, and he utterly demonized icons ranging from Harry Truman and George Marshall to Winston Churchill.
Moreover, Maraniss describes Davis happily as "one of the most colorful figures in Honolulu," who "became a character in Obama's memoir," a character who allowed Obama to "accentuate his journey toward blackness" (pages 270 and 305).
The word "mentor" isn't used by Maraniss, even as Maraniss acknowledges that Davis was connected to Obama by Obama's grandfather, Stan (for the purpose of mentoring).
Alas, that's where Maraniss begins to provide some worthwhile new information. He reports that the first contact with Davis by the Obama family came from Stanley Dunham's brother, Ralph Dunham, who met Davis when he was "in Honolulu on a working vacation for the U.S. Office of Education." That's something I never knew, and want to know more. Maraniss doesn't elaborate, nor does he cite his source.
Next, Maraniss includes some significant new material on Frank Marshall Davis, which I wish I had prior to when my book on Davis went to press.
Most prominent, Maraniss writes that "Obama later estimated that he saw Davis 'ten to fifteen times'" during their years together in Hawaii. Again, Maraniss doesn't provide his source, but I'm assuming the source is Obama himself, whom Maraniss interviewed for his book. I haven't seen that figure cited anywhere else. Already, in my early interviews for my book before its official release, I've been asked how often Obama met with Davis. My answer has been that I didn't know, and that I could document only the occasions that Obama documented in Dreams from My Father.
Maraniss, however, has made clear that they met a good number of times. In fact, 10 to 15 times is notable, especially given the nature and duration of these one-on-one meetings -- often long late-night evenings together. (Some people cite mentors whom they've barely met or not even met at all.) In reality, I bet the number of Obama-Davis meetings is actually greater still, given that Obama would be expected to understate Davis's influence. Bear in mind that in Dreams from My Father, Obama was so sensitive about Davis that he never once divulged his full name anywhere in the book.
In my book on Davis, I speculate on specific areas of politics and policy where Davis might have influenced Obama, from redistribution of wealth to nationalizing health care to General Motors (plus much more). In his memoirs, Obama doesn't dare go into any of that. But such lessons at the knee of the extremely political and outspoken Davis could have easily occurred at any of these many meetings.
Maraniss also notes that when Obama in Dreams from My Father said that Davis must have been "pushing eighty" when they first met, this is another case of Obama's now-infamous "literary license." Indeed it is. Davis would have known Obama from his mid- to late 60s into his mid-70s, when Davis was still a political radical and still a member of at least one of the worst communist front-groups, the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born.
And finally, another crucial piece of information provided by Maraniss is his confirmation that Frank Marshall Davis became "a subject of some of his [Obama's] teenage poetry." That's a significant fact. As Jack Cashill has noted in his book Deconstructing Obama, and as I detail in my book, Obama in 1981 at Occidental College published a poem called "Pop." That fact was reported by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. Mead, however, argued that the subject, "Pop," was Obama's grandfather, Stan. To the contrary, as a careful read of the poem shows, "Pop" was clearly Frank Marshall Davis. I will not quote the poem here, but the fact that it was Davis, and given its warm details about Davis, clearly indicates not merely Davis's mentorship but his deep, abiding influence on Obama's life.
Maraniss acknowledges that "Pop" is Davis (pages 382-4). More than that, he adds a further confirming detail that I didn't know: "The younger hippies who lived around Davis and acquaintances in the bars on Smith Street often called him Pop or Pops."
Ah, there you go. Case closed. Obama's enigmatic "Pop" is Frank Marshall Davis. That's very revealing.
More than that, Maraniss says that Obama wrote additional poetry about his poet-mentor. Though unclear, he seems to suggest (pages 317 and 363) that one of the additional poems was a piece titled "An Old Man," written by Obama for the Punahou Bulletin, his high school alumni magazine, and 20 years after his graduation. This would again bespeak Davis's deep impact on Obama, even as, ironically, and amazingly, Maraniss himself never explicitly concedes that impact.
And therein is the central liability in David Maraniss's treatment of Frank Marshall Davis, even given the noteworthy new material he provided. His failures with Davis are symptomatic of his overall failure to deal with Obama's politically radical past. In this, unfortunately, Maraniss is not alone. He is yet another liberal Obama biographer who has left the vetting to us conservatives -- so we can be attacked as Neanderthal McCarthyites, or worse. So be it. Someone needs to do the mainstream media's job.
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His new book is The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor. He is also author of Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.