What Biographer Garrow Missed in His Obama Takedown
On August 2, two days before Barack Obama’s reported sixty-second birthday, the Jewish journal Tablet published an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian David Garrow.
Asking the questions and providing extensive commentary of his own was the well-traveled journalist David Samuels. Although Garrow is a progressive and Samuels something of a centrist, their evaluation of Obama’s tenure in the White House borders on cruel.
The exchange between the two deserves to be read in full. Rather than summarize that exchange, I will focus on a few key truths, both those they nailed and those that squirmed away. Most intriguing in the latter category are the questions about Obama’s literary talents and about his birth. Garrow’s opinion matters. His 2017 bio, Rising Star. The Making of Barack Obama, is easily the boldest and most accurate of the Obama biographies.
One thing Garrow and Samuels get right is their take on Obama as president. Says Garrow, “I think even the fanboy journalists would acknowledge, under a little bit of pressure, that it ended up being an underwhelming, disappointing presidency.” On the subject of race relations, Garrow does not equivocate: “There’s no question in anybody’s mind, that on that score, that scale, the presidency was a total failure.”
If anything, Samuels was harsher. Once a “fan” of Obama, Samuels slams his legacy: “America’s emerging oligarchy cementing its grip instead of going bust. The rise of monopoly internet platforms. The normalization of government spying on Americans. Race relations going south. Skyrocketing inequality. The rise of Donald Trump. The birth of Russiagate.” Says Samuels, “It all happened with Obama in the White House,” a man he derisively labels, “the Magic Negro of the billionaire industrial complex.”
Both Samuels and Garrow lament as well the demise of American journalism. Writes Samuels in his introduction, “Rising Star highlights a remarkable lack of curiosity on the part of mainstream reporters and institutions about a man who almost instantaneously was treated less like a politician and more like the idol of an inter-elite cult.”
At the same time the media were turning a blind eye to Obama, says Samuels, they spent years “broadcasting fantasies about secret communications links between Trump Tower and the Kremlin.” One symptom of this fantasy was the ready acceptance of the Steele dossier, packaged and sold on Obama’s watch. “From the get-go,” says Garrow, “I realized that Christopher Steele’s shit was just complete crap.”
Obsessed with Trump and still smitten by Obama, the Washington press corps failed, says Samuels, “to imagine, let alone report on, Obama’s role in government.” He believes that Obama is still the man in charge. He points out that Obama’s continued residence in D.C. is an historical first for an ex-president. Then too, “large parts of White House policymaking” belong to Obama in that they’re “staffed by his people, who worked for him and no doubt report back to him.”
More than once, Samuels looks to Garrow for affirmation on this point, but Garrow resists. He knows Obama too well. “The number one thing about Barack this past five years is how completely he’s vanished,” says Garrow. He describes Obama as “lazy” and adds, “He has no interest in building the Democratic Party as an institution… And I don’t think he had any truly deep, meaningful policy commitments other than the need to feel and to be perceived as victorious, as triumphant.”
Here, I tend to agree with Garrow. Obama is not a serious man, never was, more the Hirohito of the imperial left than a Tojo. Garrow calls Obama “hollow.” He paraphrases an intermediary who claimed “Barack once said to him that the only two things he wanted were a valet and an airplane.” Even Samuels cannot dismiss the possibility that Obama might very well be little more than a “celebrity-obsessed would-be billionaire.”
To the surprise of many readers, the two reporters ventured into several journalistic no-go zones, one of which being Obama’s sexual orientation. Garrow speaks candidly about a letter in which the young Obama “repeatedly fantasizes about making love to men.”
As Garrow reports in the paperback version of Rising Star, Obama wrote to girlfriend Alex McNear that he viewed gay sex as “an attempt to remove oneself from the present, a refusal perhaps to perpetuate the endless farce of earthly life.” Obama continued, “You see, I make love to men daily, but in the imagination. My mind is androgynous to a great extent and I hope to make it more so.”
In researching my 2020 book, Unmasking Obama, I reached out to Garrow for an explanation as to why this passage appeared in the paperback but not in the original. As Garrow told me and as he relates in the interview, he was able to access the original only after McNear sold her letters to Emory University.
Obama’s flirtation with homosexuality, perhaps ongoing, should have been big news when Garrow revealed these letters five years ago. Like so many details of Obama’s life, however, the media have obliged Obama by suppressing an inconvenient story line.
When alleged former lover and drug buddy, Larry Sinclair, planned a press conference in 2008, some leftist bloggers launched a petition drive to deny Sinclair a stage at the National Press Club. Others succeeded in getting Sinclair arrested by reporting him to authorities for an outstanding warrant. The mainstream media ignored the story altogether.
In their conversation, Samuels and Garrow dance around another touchy subject, the unreality of Obama’s literary genius. Samuels, for instance, describes Obama’s letters to Alex McNear as “poorly written.” He says of Dreams, however, “The whole book’s really good.”
Arguably, the letters are the best part of Obama’s clunky pre-Dreams oeuvre, such as it was. His one great solo effort, an 1800-word piece on nuclear disarmament as a senior at Columbia, rivals Michelle’s misbegotten Princeton thesis for sheer awfulness.
No paper trail traces Obama’s rise from sophomoric student writer to literary star. In their conversation, neither Samuels nor Garrow addresses its absence. As a way of self-protection, Obama guards his journals as zealously as he has his LSAT scores. “He doesn’t want the writerliness challenged,” Garrows tells Samuels. “It’s my story and I’m sticking to it. The book is so fictionalized. It’s so inaccurate.”
On the right, this comes as old news. In an October 2008 American Thinker article, “Who Wrote Dreams from My Father,” I made the same point -- Dreams was in no small part fabricated. In this same American Thinker article, I introduced another likelihood, namely that terrorist emeritus Bill Ayers played a major role in the crafting of Dreams.
Ayers was a fabricator as well. He called his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, a “memory book,” one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. Obama learned from his mentor.
In writing my own recently published memoir, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, I felt no need to invent incidents, create composite characters, or shift timelines to make my point. That’s not postmodernism. That’s fraud. So is plagiarism. In his chapter on Kenya, Obama freely pilfered words, phrases, and even events from Kuki Gallman’s 1994 memoir, African Nights. Garrow does not get into this, either in the conversation with Samuels or in his book.
By October 2008, the textual evidence for Ayers’s involvement in Dreams was strong. By the time of my 2011 book, Deconstructing Obama, it was overwhelming. In the interim, the apolitical mainstream biographer Christopher Andersen confirmed Ayers’s role in his Obama-friendly 2009 book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage.
Andersen’s sources in Obama’s Hyde Park neighborhood told him that Obama, with book deadline looming, found himself deeply in debt and “hopelessly blocked.” At “Michelle’s urging,” he “sought advice from his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers.” Noting that Obama had already taped interviews with family and friends, Andersen elaborates, “These oral histories, along with his partial manuscript and a trunkload of notes were given to Ayers.”
In Rising Star, Garrow put a lie to Obama’s famous 2008 campaign canard that Ayers was just another guy in the neighborhood. According to Garrow, Barack and Michelle attended “almost nightly dinners” with Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, along with PLO supporter Rashidi Khalidi and his wife Mona. These dinners continued up until the time Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004.
Garrow, however, has blinded himself to Ayers’s role in the composition of Dreams. Ayers is a skilled writer and editor. In his 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire, Khalidi gave credit where due. "First, chronologically and in other ways comes Bill Ayers,” he wrote in the acknowledgements section. As a radical with tenure, Khalidi could afford to give Ayers the public strokes an aspiring politician could not.
For all his virtues Garrow shares a flaw common to nearly all mainstream journalists, namely the failure to take seriously information generated by the conservative media. In Rising Star, Garrow fails to cite my Ayers-Obama thesis, even to discredit it. Christopher Andersen gets no mention in the text at all. He and I are relegated to the footnotes. Mine involves a poem that Obama wrote in college called “Pop.” Garrow writes, “Most commentators presumed that Obama had written about his grandfather, Stan Dunham, not Frank Marshall Davis.”
Among the friendly commentators was New Yorker editor David Remnick. In his 2010 Obama biography, The Bridge, Remnick claims the poem “clearly reflects Obama’s relationship with his grandfather Stanley Dunham.” No, the poem is not about “Gramps.” It clearly reflects the young Obama’s inappropriate relationship with “mentor,” Frank Marshall Davis, a card-carrying member of the CPUSA, a pornographer, and a man Obama and his pals called “Pop.”
Garrow implies the poem is about Davis, but he attributes that interpretation to unnamed “hostile critics.” In the footnotes, he identifies those critics as Paul Kengor, a Davis biographer and now the editor of the American Spectator, and yours truly, adding parenthetically, “someone who is cited with the greatest reluctance.” Ouch!
Remnick was meaner still. In The Bridge, he dismisses my theory about Ayers as “a mere twinkling in the Web’s farthest lunatic orbit,” calling it a “racist insinuation,” one with a “particularly ugly pedigree.” The Obama fanboys never weary of attributing racism to his critics. It remains the best way to silence high profile conservatives with careers to protect.
Remnick, I should add, made a complete botch of Obama’s first few years. In a book self-published before the 2008 election, conservative journalist Michael Patrick Leahy successfully deconstructed the sham romance that propped up, in Remnick’s words, Obama’s “signature appeal: the use of the details of his own life as a reflection of a kind of multicultural ideal.”
These details were manufactured by Obama and his family and spread mindlessly by the likes of Remnick. Not until Garrow confirmed baby Obama’s fatherless first year in Seattle did anyone in the mainstream media get the story straight.
Not surprisingly, the touchiest of all subjects with Obama was the Kenyan Barack Obama. The attorney assigned to help protect Obama’s literary legacy, Bob Bauer, told Garrow before the first of his three off-the-record interviews with the president, “Whatever you do, don’t ask him about his father.”
Bauer, a top gun from the Democrats’ go-to law firm, Perkins Coie, led the legal fight during the 2008 campaign against Democrat attorney Philip Berg. Berg had petitioned to see Obama’s birth certificate. With that suit successfully quashed, Bauer was appointed White House counsel.
“I never paid much attention to birtherism for a large chunk of time, but I know I thought that they were making a mistake by not putting the actual birth certificate out there,” says Garrow unprompted. “And I think, in retrospect, there’s no question that it was horrific political malpractice not to put the birth certificate out there ASAP.”
“Why didn’t they?” Samuels asks. Responds Garrow unconvincingly, “Because Barack was so deeply contemptuous.” Samuels offers an even less convincing explanation as to why Obama might have invested so much time and resources in so gratuitous an act of resistance. If Garrow asked Bauer for clarity, his answer does not appear in this admittedly edited interview. Bauer was in a position to know.
“Finally I decided I’d had enough,” Obama writes of Donald Trump’s challenge in his 2020 memoir, A Promised Land. “I called in White House counsel Bob Bauer and told him to go ahead and obtain the long-form birth certificate from its home in a bound volume, somewhere deep in the bowels of the Hawaii Vital Records office.” Bauer dispatched Obama’s personal attorney Judith Corley, also of Perkins Coie, to secure two copies of the long form birth certificate.
Obama went live on national TV in late April 2011 to address the birth certificate issue. The timing was strategic. Planning was well underway for the raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout. Less than a week after the announcement, Osama bin Laden was killed, and the “birther” controversy was deep-sixed along with him.
It should be noted that the same law firm that retrieved the birth certificate commissioned the “crap” Steele dossier. For the record, Trump never said Obama was born in Kenya. He merely said Obama was hiding something. I believe he was, not the state of his birth, but the date of his birth, and that’s a story for another day.
Jack Cashill’s new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, is available in all formats.