February 9, 2011
Dueling Narratives: Reagan vs. Obama
This February marks the centennial of Ronald Reagan's birth, with all sorts of commemorations happening throughout the month. Having written a lot on Reagan, I've been asked countless questions about the man. Lately, some of those questions dovetail with some intriguing questions regarding the current president, Barack Obama, particularly those raised here at American Thinker by Selwyn Duke. Before considering Duke's analysis, I'll explain on Reagan.
Over the last few months, I've fielded questions over my provocative inclusion of Ronald Reagan as one of the dupes in my latest book. Conservatives and liberals alike have been taken aback. In truth, this is easy to explain: Reagan, as a young liberal actor in Hollywood, notably in a brief timeframe from 1945-46, had been duped by several communist front-groups that he innocently joined.
As Reagan later regretted, he had "blindly and busily" joined "every organization I could find that would guarantee to save the world." He was "an active (though unconscious) partisan in what now and then turned out to be communist causes." The duped Reagan saw the folks at these organizations as "liberals, and being liberals ourselves, [we] bedded down with them." Reagan learned that the Reds were not under the bed, but in the bed. "By reason of deception," he had not been "sharp about communism."
Of course, the rest of the story is critical, and gripping and redeeming: Reagan wasn't a dupe for long. He learned. Actually, he really, really learned. By October 1947, Reagan was testifying on communist infiltration in Hollywood as a friendly witness to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His statement was rightly hailed as "magnificent." One observer called Reagan "the hero" of the hearings.
Later still, fellow actor Sterling Hayden, who had once joined the Communist Party, recalled confronting Reagan at a meeting and getting demolished. As Hayden put it, the anti-communist Reagan coolly "showed up and took over and ground me into a pulp."
In short, Reagan became a tour de force, extremely effective in taking down communists in Hollywood, decades before he took them down in Moscow.
Here's the key point for this article: Ronald Reagan, onetime dupe, became the best anti-dupe, transforming from deceived Democrat to conservative Republican, from progressive sucker to crusading Cold Warrior. The Reagan narrative is a wonderful conversion story.
That brings me to Selwyn Duke's piece at American Thinker. Duke responded to an article I wrote for American Thinker, titled, "Obama's Missing Link," based on an interview I did with Dr. John Drew, a former Marxist who knew Barack Obama at Occidental College, and knew Obama as a fellow Marxist. Drew's testimony is extremely compelling; it cannot be ignored by anyone trying to piece together Obama's still-mysterious, elusive political past.
Of course, Drew's account ultimately leads to the central question: How much does this matter now? Where does Obama currently stand ideologically? Is he still influenced by remnants of a Marxist worldview? If so, to what degree? Where, precisely, does he fall on that left-side of the political spectrum?
Most important, if Obama has changed, when and where and why and how did he change? And where's the documented account of that change?
Alas, that's where Selwyn Duke's analysis was so spot-on. In his piece, "The Missing Link in the Evolution of Barack Obama," Duke followed up with this brilliant line of thinking on Obama:
Now, some may say that a person can change markedly over a thirty-year period. This is true. Yet not only do we have the recent evidence of Obama's radical communist appointments, but there's something else as well. It hit me just the other night. ...[A] transition from flat-out "Marxist-Leninist" to someone who rejects the red menace is a pretty big change, don't you think? In fact, wouldn't such a personal evolution -- some might say revolution -- be a kind of conversion? I think so.Now, many people do experience conversions. I think here of erstwhile radical-leftist David Horowitz; ex-liberals Michael Savage and Robin of Berkeley; and President George W. Bush, who accepted Christ as an adult. And then there's me: I was never a liberal, but I did transition from being a scoffer at religion and an agnostic to a devout Catholic.There's an interesting thing, however, about conversions.You hear about them.You see, a conversion is a sea change, a rebirth, a turning point in your existence. ... And those around you will know about it.As for this writer, everyone who knows me would say that my religious conversion was a seminal point in my life. Horowitz has spoken of his rejection of the "loony left," Bush's conversion is well known, Savage has talked about his on the radio, and Robin of Berkeley can't stop talking about hers. A conversion becomes part of your life narrative.Now consider something. Barack Obama is one of the most famous, most discussed individuals on the planet.But we have not heard about any soul-changing conversion in his life.Not a whisper.
Nothing.Nothing that could reconcile the flat-out Marxist-Leninist Obama was in his college days with the man he supposedly is today. There's no one who says, "Yeah, he was a radical guy in his youth, and I just couldn't believe how he became disenchanted with his old ideas." There are no stories about a great epiphany, an overseas trip that opened his eyes, or a personal tragedy that inspired growth. There's nothing to explain how a radical Marxist became a reasonable politician. And if there is such an explanation, it's the most elusive of missing links.
Selwyn Duke is exactly right. Where's the conversion narrative for Barack Obama?
When Duke wrote that piece, it got me thinking as well. And as I've repeatedly retold Ronald Reagan's conversion narrative recently, the contrast has sunk in even more.
And now, especially after Obama's State of the Union, the half-way point of his presidency, and with the media focusing on the Reagan centennial, we're hearing all kinds of comparisons between Obama and Reagan, including a silly cover photo by Time magazine. Even Obama himself is having the thoughts, reading a biography of Reagan and authoring an op-ed on Reagan in USA Today.
And yet, of all these contrasts, the single most telling is the lack of a conversion narrative for Obama, unlike Reagan. The young Reagan transformed from duped liberal, duped by communists, to the man who undermined the Evil Empire. Reagan did a "180," a transformation he discussed at length, including in memoirs published two decades before his presidency.
Obama, however, has never left the left. More than that, if he really was on the Marxist-Leninist left, as John Drew describes, we have no accounting, from Obama or anyone, of a switch. In Obama's memoirs -- he's already done two of them -- we hear about him attending socialist conferences and "hanging out" with Marxist professors, but we never get any repudiation of those conferences, professors, or even a tiny, passing comment suggesting these were fanciful political musings from a misguided youth.
We have the Reagan conversion narrative. Where's Obama's? And could someone in the media, with access to Obama, please ask the question?
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, God and Ronald Reagan, and the newly released Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.