May 31, 2011
Are Obama's Academic Defenders Vulnerable?
In late October 2010, Harvard historian James T. Kloppenberg gave a standing room-only lecture at a New York City conference on intellectual history.
There, the New York Times reported, Kloppenberg shared the insights gleaned in researching his book, Reading Obama. As the good professor explained, Obama stood tall among that rare breed of philosopher presidents.
"There's John Adams, Thomas Jefferson," he told the crowd, "James Madison and John Quincy Adams, then Abraham Lincoln and in the 20th century just Woodrow Wilson." And now Obama, a "true intellectual" and a philosophical "pragmatist."
In his book, Kloppenberg would unblushingly describe the president as "gifted," a "genius," a man of "exceptional intelligence," one who writes "brilliantly and poignantly." Kloppenberg's colleagues shared his enthusiasm. According to the Times, they responded to his talk "with prolonged applause."
As I keep being reminded, the Obama genius myth will not easily yield to evidence or reason. For the record, this myth derives largely from one source, Obama's celebrated 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father. On the basis of this book, British literati member Jonathan Raban anointed Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln," and his is the consensus opinion.
Unlike most other critics, however, Kloppenberg chose to concentrate not on Dreams but on Obama's Audacity of Hope, published in 2006, two years into Obama's career as a U.S. senator. In so doing, however, he advances a thesis so profoundly wrong in so many salient ways that it could undermine the whole Obama enterprise.
I first became aware of Kloppenberg's folly in a Washington Post book review written by a Yale graduate student named Craig Fehrman. What caught my attention was that Fehrman compared Reading Obama to my new book Deconstructing Obama. It will surprise no one who knows the largely shared worldview of Harvard, Yale, and the Washington Post that Fehrman much preferred Kloppenberg's book and felt free to say so in no uncertain terms.
Kloppenberg's book, Fehrman assures the reader, "will teach you much about Obama." What it will teach is not entirely clear. On his blog, Fehrman concedes that "Obama's early writing sucks." Yet he makes no effort to explain how someone who "sucks" as a writer even after graduating from an Ivy League college could write "brilliantly and poignantly" just a few years later. It does not happen in the real world. Fehrman knows this, but as an aspiring presidential historian, he is savvy enough not to cross Kloppenberg, the esteemed chair of the Harvard History Department.
Shortly after Fehrman's review was published, I wrote a piece on Kloppenberg's faulty understanding of Audacity. Among the problems I cited was that at least 38 passages from Obama stump speeches delivered in 2005 or 2006 appear virtually word for word as ordinary text in the book.
Days before I posted this article, Bill Ayers had publicly dismissed Audacity for what it is -- a "political hack book." He knew whereof he spoke. He largely wrote Dreams. He did not write Audacity. As I document with ample evidence, Obama turned to 23-year-old video game whiz Jon Favreau for the speeches in question and likely for most of Audacity as well. This raises an inconvenient question: Does Obama rank with Jefferson and Lincoln or does Favreau?
As part of his research, Kloppenberg claimed to have read every article published while Obama was an editor of the Harvard Law Review, "a superb cure for insomnia." What he apparently did not read was anything written by anyone on the right, no matter how relevant.
By the time of Kloppenberg's New York speech, Stanley Kurtz's Radical-in-Chief had been released and Dinesh D'Souza's The Roots of Obama's Rage was climbing the bestseller charts. Kurtz, in particular, had been meticulously documenting Obama's radical associations for the previous two years.
Although both are Ivy Leaguers, D'Souza of Dartmouth and Kurtz a Harvard Ph.D., their pedigrees make no impression on their liberal brethren. By identifying as conservatives, they long ago relinquished their rights to relevance or reviews in mainstream publications. Kloppenberg could safely ignore them because few, if any, of his colleagues would have read them or even heard of them.
Conservatives outside the ivied gates occupy a lower rung still on the Great Chain of Being. By way of example, New Yorker editor David Remnick -- Princeton '81 -- traces my provenance to what he calls "the Web's farthest lunatic orbit." Fehrman calls my book "grotesque, delusional and paranoid." Both can be sure no one they know will challenge their lack of judgment or their lack of manners.
On May 6, I posted a lengthy review of Kloppenberg's Reading Obama in the American Thinker. Immediately afterwards, I drafted a review more appropriate for an academic publication and tried to place it. The message I have gotten from those editors who responded was that it did not quite fit the expectations of their audience.
Allow me to cite one such response. In that the editor was gracious enough to read what I sent him, I conceal his and his publication's name:
... my main problem with the review is that 4.5 of the 11 pages of text are dedicated to the question of authorship -- meaning Obama's ability or inability to author both *Audacity of Hope* and *Dreams from my Father*. The blog demands a focus on the intellectual history, or history of ideas, in Kloppenberg's book. Another three pages of the review address issues of style and editing on Obama's essays from the 1980s. Issues and questions like these are more appropriate for journals dedicated to book history and print culture ...
The editor claimed that neither my "credentials" -- a Ph.D. in American studies from Purdue -- nor my "ideology" had anything to do with his decision. Taking him at his word, I am left to conclude that he shied from a debate of potentially historic consequence because my review did not fit precisely into his narrowly defined academic portfolio. This is possible in academia but not likely here.
Short of my finding the literary equivalent of a stained blue dress, I believe now that only an academic insider can bring Kloppenberg to his senses. That may be happening. Last week, a Rutgers professor named David Greenberg weighed in with a seriously impertinent review of Reading Obama in the New Republic.
Greenberg wondered out loud if Kloppenberg's judgments were "not shaped in part by his admiration for his subject," an admiration that Greenberg found "cloying." This excess affection for his subject led Kloppenberg "to over-value Obama as an intellectual" and to shower him with praise that "strains credulity."
In the final analysis, Greenberg rejected Kloppenberg's argument that Obama was a pragmatist and an intellectual. Concluded Greenberg, "the case does not persuade." This was not quite the same as calling it "lunatic" or "grotesque," but within the ivied walls, it was close.
Impressed, I sent Greenberg an email with the subject line, "Enjoyed the Kloppenberg review." In the text I praised his boldness and elaborated, "There is a deeper level of challenge involved when you realize that Obama does not write his own material." I asked Greenberg's help in expanding the debate.
Terry Scambray, a writer who teaches English at Fresno City College in California, independently contacted Greenberg with the same idea. "Your review is thick with ideas and I do look forward to reading your book on progressivism," Scambray wrote. "However, no mention of Jack Cashill's Deconstructing Obama?"
Greenberg sensed a conspiracy afoot. "You are the fourth person to write me about Cashill, including Cashill himself," Greenberg wrote Scambray. "Is this coordinated?" It was coordinated only to the degree that Greenberg's review circulated around the blogosphere and provoked a similar response from several people.
"I don't know Cashill," Scambray responded. In fact, he and I had never communicated before he shared this email with me. "You are clearly a scholar so I think that my concern is justified as to whether you have examined all the pertinent information on your subject."
Curiously, although he answered Scambray's email, Greenberg has yet to answer mine. This does not surprise. Despite the fact that Donald Trump, Andrew Breitbart, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity have all publicly advanced my thesis, I have yet to hear from a single person within either the media or academic community curious enough to contact the source of that thesis and assess its validity.
(This 7-minute video by Chris Kusnell gives an excellent overview of the media reaction to this subject.)
Still, I will keep the door open for Greenberg. He showed some grit in taking on Kloppenberg. Let us see how true it is.