The Washington Post Sugarcoats Obama's Communist Mentor

Someone in the mainstream press has finally bothered to look into Frank Marshall Davis, the Communist Party member who influenced a young Obama from 1970-79, the long period of our current president’s adolescence. It took Rudy Giuliani to call out Davis for the media to at long last hazard a look. As soon as Rudy dared do so, he naturally became the story rather than Obama or Davis. The story became Rudy’s outlandish claims rather than Davis’s outlandish politics or the outlandish reality that the current leader of the free world had a formative influence who was a devout communist who joined the Party under Stalin.

The article was published by the Washington Post in the form of one those “fact check” thingies. Conservatives no doubt assume that the Post’s final judgment was as preordained as a Soviet show trial. Yes, there would be the appearance of an investigation, with a limited degree of evidence presented, but, in the end, the verdict was predetermined. Really, can you imagine the Washington Post running a headline like this? “Rudy Was Right: Young Obama Influenced by Communist Party Member.”

Yes, you can stop laughing.

I was tipped off to the Post’s interest by Cliff Kincaid, the anti-communist researcher who started looking into Frank Marshall Davis even before I did. It was Kincaid who years ago posted Davis’s entire 600-page FBI file on-line (click here to view). Kincaid told me last week that a Washington Post reporter had contacted him. We weren’t optimistic. The last Post reporter who tracked down Kincaid was Dana Milbank in May 2008, who promptly mocked Kincaid’s investigation of Davis-Obama (publicly presented by Kincaid and the late Herb Romerstein at a conference) as tantamount to “a UFO convention.”

So, I read the Post piece. The reporter is Michelle Ye Hee Lee. In all, she did a better job than I expected. She was fairer than I expected. She is absolutely Woodward and Bernstein compared to Dana Milbank, who would not pause to even take this troubling issue seriously.

I feel bad for Lee having been given the assignment. She strikes me as an honest reporter who earnestly handedly her task. And yet, her hands were surely as tied as a Kremlin prosecutor in a Soviet kangaroo court. Again, there was simply no way the Post would publish a piece in which Lee affirmed that Rudy and Cliff Kincaid and their crazy McCarthyite buddies were right about Davis and his influence on Obama. Did Lee ever want to work in journalism again?

For all their hysteria about communist blacklists, liberals have long orchestrated blacklists of their own for those with the audacity to reach conclusions contrary to their whitewashed narratives about communists. For liberals, America is a nation rampant with racists and homophobes but not one pro-Soviet communist every trod this country’s soil.

And so, what did the Post conclude? After presenting certain details pro and con, Lee summed up:

It has been seven years since this assertion surfaced, and it continues to be perpetuated. Davis was indeed associated with the Communist Party, and the FBI identified him as a member. He was affiliated with more than a dozen other groups that were open to his views on social and racial inequality. He repeatedly showed his bitterness toward Jim Crow laws and wanted African Americans to have constitutional rights. He was an activist, but there is no evidence that Davis was a hard-core Communist who spied for Soviet leaders. He was critical of American society, but not America as a country.

Davis made an impression on Obama, as shown in his memoir. Obama mentions Davis several times in “Dreams from My Father” as someone who influenced his understanding of his black identity. But there is no evidence Obama was “raised” by Davis, or that Davis remained a close Communist mentor who advised him throughout his life. We carefully considered the facts underlying this assertion, and the evidence is slim. We may never definitively know one way or another, but it is time to put it to rest.

This pretty much lets Frank Marshall Davis off the hook, though it is accurate in some important places -- albeit not quite right in others. As for the latter, Frank Marshall Davis was, in truth, unequivocally a “hard-core Communist.” This is demonstrated by his Party membership alone. No one who took the step of actually joining the Party -- which even most (small “c”) communists didn’t do -- was not hard-core. There were probably at least a million American communists (small “c”) when Davis joined the Party, but no more than 100,000 or so took the extraordinary step of joining the Party. When you joined the Party, you swore this loyalty oath to Stalin’s Soviet Union: “I pledge myself to rally the masses to defend the Soviet Union, the land of victorious socialism. I pledge myself to remain at all times a vigilant and firm defender of the Leninist line of the Party, the only line that insures the triumph of Soviet Power in the United States.”

Beyond Party membership, Frank Marshall Davis’s vast volume of writings, which I quoted across hundreds of pages in my biography of Davis, The Communist, clearly show that he was hard-core. Anyone who reads his writings cannot conclude otherwise. It’s impossible.

Did Lee not read Davis’s writings for Party-line newspapers, including the Chicago Star, of which he was the founding editor-in-chief? Normally I would expect a reporter from a liberal publication to not have done that crucial reading, but Lee seems to have read my book, or at least part of it, and my book repeatedly quotes these blatantly and unapologetically communist writings.

For the record, mine is the only biography of Davis and his relationship with Obama. The final manuscript that I turned in to the publisher contained 127,026 words and 760 endnotes. It was over 400 pages in length. It relies exhaustively on archival documents. The book was published by a Simon & Schuster imprint and debuted at #9 on the New York Times bestseller list. It isn’t a crackpot work by a crackpot author (well, not totally) published by a crackpot house.

Lee did not email or call me (that I know of). That’s fine, if she read the book, which has everything she needs.

Anyway, back to Lee’s analysis of Davis and Obama.

Among Lee’s statements, the one about Davis being critical of American society but not the country is objectionable at many levels -- too many to delineate here. But one level is especially important for this discussion, because it goes to Rudy Giuliani’s initial point about Davis being bitterly anti-American, and thinking that this bitterness and anti-Americanism might have rubbed off on Obama.

Obama himself provided testimony to Davis’s bitterness. Among the many mentions of Frank Marshall Davis in Dreams from My Father -- Obama mentioned him 22 times as “Frank” (never once divulging his full name) and dozens more via pronouns and other forms of reference -- there is a key passage prior to Obama leaving Hawaii in the fall 1979 to attend Occidental College. Despite being ignored by certain Obama biographers, this may be the most instructive Davis-related passage in Dreams from My Father. Obama wrote:

I thought back to the last time I had seen the old poet [Frank], a few days before I left Hawaii. We had made small talk for a while; he complained about his feet, the corns and bone spurs that he insisted were a direct result of trying to force African feet into European shoes. Finally he had asked me what it was that I expected to get out of college. I told him I didn’t know. He shook his big, hoary head.

 “Well,” he said, “that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t know. You’re just like the rest of these young cats out here. All you know is that college is the next thing you’re supposed to do….”

 He studied me over the top of his reading glasses. “Understand something, boy. You’re not going to college to get educated. You’re going there to get trained. They’ll train you to want what you don’t need. They’ll train you to manipulate words so they don’t mean anything anymore. They’ll train you to forget what it is that you already know. They’ll train you so good, you’ll start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way and all that sh-t….

The Davis that Obama described here is the one I read countless times, one armed with bitter statements directed at America in communist organs like the Chicago Star and Honolulu Record. Most notable was Davis’s continued disparaging use of the phrase “the American way,” here referred to as “the American way and all that sh-t.”

Thanks to Obama (unintentionally), we find here a consistency in Frank Marshall Davis traversing four decades, dating back to columns in the 1940s and 1950s. In the Star and the Record, Davis likewise demeaned “the American way,” though style guidelines and editors and protocol and manners of the day assured he would not refer to the American way as “sh-t.”

“I’m tired of being beaned with those double meaning words like ‘sacred institutions’ and ‘the American way of life,’” growled Davis in the Chicago Star on November 9, 1946, “which our flag-waving fascists and lukewarm liberals hurl at us day and night.”

Now, over 30 years later, here was Obama recording “Frank” holding the same grudge.

It was indeed as if Frank Marshall Davis were (as Obama himself put it) in a “time warp.” Obama had nailed it, maybe more than he realized.

That diatribe against “the American way” is very revealing, is it not? Davis used it constantly. In fact, there are 38 uses of it in my book. It was so common to the Davis story that the subtitle that I originally submitted for my biography was “Frank Marshall Davis and the America Way.”

Frank Marshall Davis was very bitter toward America, period. Call it American “society” or the “country.” It was really both.

I could analyze the Post piece much more, but I’ll finish with this.

The most noteworthy item in Lee’s conclusion is this final one: “We carefully considered the facts … and the evidence is slim. We may never definitively know one way or another, but it is time to put it to rest.”

Well, I have a great idea on how to put it to rest: Why not ask the only man who can answer the question? That man, of course, is Barack Obama. Indeed, no one but Obama really knows the precise extent to which Frank Marshall Davis’s radical political ideology influenced Obama. Only Obama can tell us that. So, why not ask him?

In the absence, however, why would it not be reasonable to assume that Davis, who lived and ate and breathed the ideology, would not have influenced Obama during their many one-on-one meetings together? Davis was clearly a mentor of some influence, and we normally have no problem making some assumptions between mentors and those they mentored. But in this case, the standard of evidence for liberals must be unimpeachably perfect, at times almost implausibly high, as if in a courtroom where we’re aiming for a death conviction. It’s a standard that liberals plainly don’t apply to conservatives and Republicans.

In the end, the Washington Post piece concluded (no surprise) that “the facts … and the evidence” underlying Rudy’s assertion about Davis and Obama is “slim.” The Post then itself went to a level where evidence does not exist: it smacked Rudy Giuliani with “Three Pinocchios,” meaning, in effect, a triple-whopper of a “lie.” Really? Now is that fair?

Frankly, I detest this whole childish Pinocchio business. It implies that Rudy lied. He did not lie. He could have been mistaken (he was not), but he did not deliberately advance a lie.

How about this? If Rudy merits “Three Pinocchios,” then Barack Obama deserves at least 22 for expunging all 22 references to “Frank” in the audio version of Dreams from My Father that was released in 2005, as he prepared for a run for the presidency and no doubt feared being tied to closely to a man who joined the Communist Party under Stalin and had been so radical that the federal government placed him on the Security Index. By completely scrubbing all mentions of “Frank” from the audio version of Dreams, which Obama himself personally approved (as the jacket design says) and narrates in his own voice, Obama deliberately concealed Davis.

For that matter, should we give 23 Pinocchios to the Washington Post for doing a story on this issue and consulting every source but the most important one of all, Obama himself?

Alas, the longest Pinocchio of all should go to liberals who continue to lie to themselves about their president’s remarkably radical upbringing.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.

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