October 25, 2010


The Roots of Lunacy: How not to understand Obama: a review of The Roots of Obama’s Rage by Dinesh D’Souza (Andrew Ferguson, 10/25/10, Weekly Standard)

I remember a press conference in 1993 got up by Empower America, a now-forgotten Republican think tank. The purpose was to mark the end of the first year of the Clinton administration. A murderers row of famous-for-Washington conservatives took turns denouncing the Democrats who had seized the White House after a dozen years of Republican benevolence. The upshot of the press conference was tersely summarized by Jack Kemp, a man not known for terseness: President Clinton, Kemp said, had brought to Washington something it had never seen before, the “first frankly left-wing administration in history.”

In retrospect, of course, the charge looks nuts. We know now that within another 18 months, playing defense against a newly elected Republican Congress, Clinton was triangulating his way to the most conservative Democratic administration since the great Cleveland was trundled back to New Jersey. Yet even then, in 1993, a few wise and dispassionate observers saw that Kemp’s alarm was wildly overdone. In that first year, Clinton had embraced economic policies that made him, as he privately lamented, an “Eisenhower Republican.” Inevitably he made a few wacky appointments (Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders) but overbalanced each with much saner and more significant choices (Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen). He modified but didn’t eliminate the ban on gays in the military. After a brief hesitation, he worked hard for the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

His most “frankly left-wing” idea, a nationalized health care system, was no more outlandish than the plan Harry Truman had pushed in the late 1940s. And by 1993 Truman was being lionized by Republicans as a tough-minded man of the people, far preferable, professional conservatives said, to the Clinton radicals who had lately made his once-noble party a crash pad for ex-hippies.

Now it’s 2010, and among his former enemies, Clinton is enjoying a Truman-like renaissance. Even such sweaty anti-Clinton paranoiacs as the investigative journalist Christopher Ruddy and the newspaper proprietor Richard Mellon Scaife have decided he wasn’t so bad after all. It’s almost enough to make you forget the insanity that gripped Clinton’s political opponents. Kemp didn’t know the half of it! Throughout the nineties I heard mainstream Republicans describe the president as a shameless womanizer and a closeted homosexual, a cokehead and a drunk, a wife beater and a wimp, a hick and a Machiavel, a committed pacifist and a reckless militarist who launched unnecessary airstrikes in faraway lands to distract the public’s attention from all of the above.

At gatherings of conservative activists the president was referred to, seriously, as a “Manchurian candidate.” Capitol Hill staffers speculated darkly about the “missing five days” on a trip Clinton had taken to Moscow as a graduate student. Respectable conservatives in the media—William Safire, Robert Novak, Rush Limbaugh—encouraged the suspicion that Clinton’s White House attorney, a manic depressive named Vincent Foster, did not commit suicide, as all available evidence suggested, but had been murdered by parties unknown, to hush up an unspeakable secret from the president’s past.

So what happened? How did the left-wing, coke-snorting Manchurian candidate become the fondly remembered Democrat-you-could-do-business-with—“good old Bill,” in Sean Hannity’s phrase?

Barack Obama is what happened. The partisan mind—left-wing or right-wing, Republican or Democrat—is incapable of maintaining more than one oversized object of irrational contempt at a time. When Obama took his place in the Republican imagination, his titanic awfulness crowded out the horrors of Bad Old Bill; Clinton’s five days in Moscow were replaced by Obama’s three years in that mysterious Indonesian “madrassa.”

We should probably be grateful for this psychological limitation. Without it the negativity of our politics would be relentless. [...]

“Wonder why Obama went to Harvard?” D’Souza slyly asks. “Here is a clue: It is the leading academic institution in America. And here’s another: His father went there.” Forget that neither of these facts is a clue, technically. Surely the first assertion is enough to adequately answer the question without recourse to the second, which is simply gratuitous as well as conjectural. But D’Souza always sees absence of evidence as evidence of something or other.

Let’s linger at Harvard a moment longer. “At Harvard,” D’Souza writes, “his real mentor was Roberto Mangabeira Unger.” Unger is a brilliant crackpot who championed critical legal studies, a left-wing academic fad of the 1980s. I’ve never heard before that Unger served as the president’s mentor. How does D’Souza know it? “Obama took two of Unger’s courses,” he writes. Well, then. “Obama’s attraction to Unger’s work is obvious.” Obvious, but undemonstrated. “So what does Obama say about Unger in his speeches and writings? Nothing.” Aha! “Unger has simply disappeared from Obama’s official record, and not because his influence was minor; in fact, quite the opposite.” QED.

In this respect it’s worth mentioning the just-released Radical-in-Chief, a long, elaborately annotated study in which the writer Stanley Kurtz aims to prove that Obama is a socialist—a term that D’Souza, in his much less careful book, explicitly rejects in favor of “anticolonialist.” Yet Kurtz, in 485 pages tracing Obama’s intellectual geneology, never once mentions Unger. These guys have got to get on the same page.

There have been two great anticolonialists in American history: Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at October 25, 2010 4:08 PM
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