October 29, 2010
New Obama Bio Goes Comically Awry
Said William Buckley for the ages, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."
In his forthcoming biography, Reading Obama: Dreams, Hopes, and the American Political Tradition, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg shows the timelessness of Buckley's wisdom. Although the Kloppenberg book is not yet on the shelves, he gives enough away in a recent New York Times article for me to dismiss it for the blathering nonsense it promises to be.
In New York last week to lecture on the book, Kloppenberg insisted that President Barack Obama was a true intellectual, a rare "philosopher president," one that he classed with the likes of Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Wilson.
If this were not removed enough from reality, Kloppenberg doubles down on his obliviousness by insisting that the philosophy guiding Obama, according to the Times, "is pragmatism, a uniquely American system of thought developed at the end of the 19th century by William James, John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce."
To be sure, Kloppenberg dismisses outright those conservatives like Dinesh D'Souza and Stanley Kurtz who argue that Obama is either an anti-colonialist or a socialist. "Adams and Jefferson were the only anti-colonialists whom Obama has been affected by," Kloppenberg told his audience in New York. "He has a profound love of America."
To make his case, Kloppenberg would seem to have ignored everything we know about Obama's leftist, anti-American influences: his secular humanist mother, his communist mentor Frank Marshall Davis, his radical Hyde Park pals Bill Ayers and Rashid Khalidi, and, of course, his deranged pastor Jeremiah Wright.
In college, as Obama relates in his 1995 memoir Dreams from My Father, he discussed "neocolonialism, Franz Fanon, Eurocentrism, and patriarchy." The literary influences Obama cites include radical anti-imperialists like Fanon and Malcolm X, communists like Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and tyrant-loving fellow travelers like W.E.B. DuBois.
Nowhere does Obama suggest 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. It was for good reason that the National Journal cited Obama as "the most liberal" member of the U.S. Senate.
Then, too, for a philosopher-president, Obama has put surprisingly little in print: two awkward articles pre-Harvard, an unsigned case note at Harvard, a memoir heavily doctored by Bill Ayers, and in the ten years after Dreams, nothing at all save for a trivial, self-aggrandizing column in the neighborhood newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald.
If Obama wrote a single inspired or imaginative sentence in his many Herald columns, I was not able to find it. Worse, virtually every column promised more counterproductive meddling in the life of the community. Such was the petty political yoke to which our literary master had to harness his outsized talent during these fallow years.
Obama's claim to both pragmatism and to the designation "philosopher-president" lies in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. Again, had Kloppenberg not been so willfully blind, he would have seen Audacity for what it was: a repositioning of the Obama brand, orchestrated by the savvy marketer David Axelrod and produced by committee.
Obama did not get the commission to write the book until after he was elected senator in November 2004. "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," Obama has alleged. "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."
How a slow writer, off to a late start, using 19th-century technology, could pen (literally) a well-researched, well-crafted 431-page book in the face of an absurd work schedule and a weekly commute home is a question that Kloppenberg is not likely to have asked. Obama biographer David Remnick notes that facing his deadline, Obama wrote "nearly a chapter a week." The chapters are on average nearly fifty pages long. None of this passes the most basic smell test.
If Obama had a muse-in-chief on Audacity, it was almost assuredly speechwriting wunderkind Jon Favreau. Obama interviewed Favreau on his first day in the Senate in 2005 and promptly hired the then-23-year-old video game junkie.
No writer was closer to Obama or more trusted than Favreau. "In crafting a speech," writes Obama biographer David Mendell, "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 correspondents and I found at least 38 passages from Obama speeches delivered in 2005 or 2006 that appear virtually word for word as ordinary text in Audacity. In short, whoever wrote Obama's speeches wrote large sections of Audacity, likely most of it. Here is a sample from a speech Obama gave on October 25, 2005:
... those who work in the field know what reforms really work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills. Longer hours and more days to give kids the time and attention they need to learn.
This second excerpt comes from Audacity.
And in fact we already have hard evidence of reforms that work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills; longer hours and more days to give children the time and sustained attention they need to learn.
At the start of his Senate career in 2005, Newsweek had made Obama its cover boy under the heading "The Color Purple." This represented a full media buy-in to the conceit Obama had advanced in his God-fearing, flag-waving 2004 convention keynote speech, an inspired exercise in faux pragmatism.
The less inspired Audacity fooled few people off the Harvard campus. Writing from Obama's left, Michael Tomasky neatly summarizes the gist of the book in his critique for the left-liberal Saturday Review of Books:
The chapters boil down to a pattern: here's what the right believes about subject X, and here's what the left believes; and while I basically side with the left, I think the right has a point or two that we should consider, and the left can sometimes get a little carried away.
Time Magazine's Joe Klein had less patience still with this pattern. Klein counted no fewer than fifty instances of "excruciatingly judicious on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-handedness" in Audacity. He calls the tendency "so pronounced that it almost seems an obsessive-compulsive tic."
It takes a Harvard professor to elevate an obsessive-compulsive tic to presidential greatness. In my own forthcoming book, Deconstructing Obama, I will show how students can learn more about America at my alma mater, Purdue, than they can at Harvard, and at a sizeable discount, to boot.