On the Good Ship Lollipop

 | 

No one knew it, but this column offers an award — annually, semi-annually, monthly, or whenever it feels like it — called the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech. Yeth, it doth; and today’s award goes to former FBI Director James Brien Comey. Ohhhhh goodee!

On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that Huma Abedin, cupbearer-in-chief to Hillary Clinton, had “forwarded hundreds and thousands of e-mails, some of which contain classified information,” to Huma’s unclassified and unclassifiable husband, Antony Weiner. Six days later, the assistant director of the Bureau notified Congress that Comey was (as usual) in error; there were only 12 email chains, presumably not hundreds and thousands of items long.

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.”

In itself, Comey’s misstatement wasn’t worthy of any award, except the one that President Trump presented on May 9, when he fired James Brien Comey. It’s worthy of notice that Comey’s investigation of Huma’s emails, an investigation that determined, some think, the presidential election of 2016, should have been so misleadingly characterized by him. But the really impressive, award-engendering feature of Comey’s remarks was his contribution to legal and moral philosophy. It’s this contribution that puts him in the Shirley Temple class of child stars, or at least childish ones.

Explaining why he didn’t think of prosecuting Huma Abedin Weiner, who was in manifest violation of the law, no matter how many classified messages she supplied to her husband’s computer, Comey said:

With respect to Ms. Abedin in particular, we — we didn't have any indication that she had a sense that what she was doing was in violation of the law. Couldn't prove any sort of criminal intent. Really, the central problem we have with the whole e-mail investigation was proving that people knew — the secretary and others knew that they were doing — that they were communicating about classified information in a way that they shouldn't be and proving that they had some sense of their doing something unlawful.

Here is a way of emptying the federal prisons: insist that people who commit banking fraud, for example, or write off their real estate investments as charitable contributions, or use their positions in Congress to operate phony charities, cannot be prosecuted unless it is proved that they have a sense that what they are doing is in violation of the law.

In Hemingway’s short story “The Doctor and the Doctor’s Wife,” a man has a nasty quarrel with someone who is trying to cheat him, and his wife, a reader of consoling religious books, says:

“Dear, I don’t think, I really don’t think that any one would really do a thing like that.”

“No?” the doctor said.

“No. I can’t really believe that any one would do a thing of that sort intentionally.”

I’ve known many people who violated the law, and some who went to prison, and none of them carried a sign that said, “I know I’m violating the law.” They just went ahead and did it. So I guess they’re innocent, though not as innocent as Former FBI Director James (“Jim”) Comey, who like those sweet little girls that Shirley used to play is unable to see anything consciously wrong in the strange doings of other people.

Comey’s sunny disposition is something that we may all wish we had. It would save us a lot of trouble with certain situations. I caught you cheating on a test. Maybe I should do something about it. But gosh, maybe you didn’t intend to cheat. Maybe there’s no indication that you had a sense that what you were doing was in violation of the rules. You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy. You took secret documents and gave them to your friends? It’s good that you have friends, honey. You operated a foundation to fleece people who want government influence? Well, nothing to be done about it. Maybe you didn’t know it was wrong. And after all, who’s to judge? I can’t see your heart. Here — have another lollipop.

In the Shirley Temple movies there was always someone whose crusty, judgmental attitude was reformed by contact with little Shirley’s beneficent naiveté. Crusty ol’ grampa, or whoever it was, soon started babbling endearing comments so fast that Shirley could hardly keep up with them. Comey, the former Tough Prosecutor, callin’ ’em as he sees ’em, has also experienced this Hollywood reform. The current angel of light is the former mean bastard who, in the words of the Cato Foundation’s Alan Reynolds, sent Martha Stewart to prison for “having misled people by denying having committed a crime with which she was not charged.”

You took money from the company’s accounts and spent it on yourself? Maybe you were just trying to stimulate the economy.

It’s true that Comey’s conversion from hanging judge to sweetiekins might have resulted not from spiritual impulses but from a desire to act as kingmaker on the national stage without incurring the hardship of running for office or saying what he means. It could also be that Comey is like Addison as portrayed by Pope: “Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.” But Comey’s analysis of Huma & Co. is so astonishingly warm-hearted, so amazingly insipid, as to transcend all churlish skepticism. To use the vernacular of Shirley Temple’s time, Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

Join me, therefore, in congratulating James Comey on his selection as the May 2017 recipient of the Shirley Temple Prize. It’s the culminating award of his career; he won’t get any better ones. And as Shirley would say, he weally, weally desewves to get it.

But what’s a first prize without a second prize? The question answers itself. We proceed then to the Second Prize for Saccharine Speech. And the winner is . . . (drum roll) . . . the President of the United States, Donald John Trump!

Comey is a sap, pure and simple. He’s also a chump. And if he did have dreams of glory, he pursued them like a sap and a chump.

As in his race for the White House, Trump has achieved a come-from-behind victory in this contest. He is identified more with aggressive, accusatory, pseudo-masculine, look-on-the-worst side utterances than with girlish insipidity. But he is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast. “You’re doin’ great, just great, just absolutely great” comes as easily to his lips as “Send her to jail.” And while less perceptive columnists attend only to his performance in Ranting Man roles, Trump has many unrecognized achievements playing the Sweetly Bewildered Youth.

The one that is, to my mind, the conclusive example is an interview broadcast on May 12. Entertaining the question of whether James Comey would be “honest” in discussing their failed courtship, the president said:

I hope he will be. And I’m sure he will be. I hope.

Think about it: President Trump doesn’t just speak his lines; he writes his own material and directs his own performance. Now consider what a huge, incredibly unbelievable, really unbelievable accomplishment that you won’t believe is apparent in those 13 words. Everything comes together: the loose, wandering syntax, so like the prattle of a six-year-old; the invocation of hope at the beginning and the return to hope at the end, with an inspirational rise to surety in the middle; the subtle insistence on the idea that all relationships are personal, that they are all I and he, I’m OK, you’re OK, let’s shake on it. Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice, which constantly seemed to be crafting the very ideas it was speaking forth.

Trump is a man of many roles, a man who is just as productive of empty compliments as of empty bombast.

Was this childlike performance planned, or was it literally spontaneous? No matter; all the great masters of language have had the heart of a child — J.K. Rowling, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama. So for this, and in the hope of still more remarkable achievements, I am proud to congratulate Donald J. Trump, winner of the Shirley Temple Prize for Saccharine Speech (second place). Mr. Trump can pick up his award at any time I’m in the office.

But what’s a second prize without a third prize? Nothing. And, to coin a phrase, three’s a charm. So, without further ado, I am pleased to announce that third prize in this competition goes to (you children will never, never guess, so I will have to tell you): The New York Times.

It’s an odd thing about the Times: from the paper’s own point of view, it would be a preposterous insult to common decency for it ever to be ranked as third in anything; while from the point of view of most attentive readers — indeed, most people with a brain — it would be distressing to think that anyone could rank it that high. We can agree that the Times is always thought-provoking, just as it claims; the difficulty is merely that it provokes various people in various ways.

Again we see the child mind at work, perfectly reproduced both in the sentence and in the naïve spontaneity of the speaking voice.

On May 13, the Times provoked even me to thought. It set me thinking about the special kind of childishness that actually does not see beyond its teddy bear, its little toy horse, and its doll named Pie. Isabel Paterson was concerned with this kind of naiveté when she described the childishness of government planners who go about ruining other people’s lives, never having a clue that those dolls are real:

We feel toward Planners as the heroine of the old-time melodrama felt toward the villain. After having pursued her through four acts with threats of a fate worse than death, which he emphasized by shooting at her, setting fire to her home, and tying her to the railroad track just before the down express was expected, he inquired reproachfully, "Nellie, why do you shrink from me?"

The innocence of Nellie’s antagonist is akin to that of the alcoholic who has no recollection of the bottle of whiskey he’s consumed every day for the past ten years, but who notices his wife cracking open a beer: “Honey, didn’t you have one of those just last week?” And it is akin to the innocence of the New York Times, which on May 13 ran this headline:

Election Is Over, but Trump Still Can’t Seem to Get Past It

No, he can’t. But the marvelous thing isn’t the president’s continual awareness of his victory; it’s the Times’ complete lack of awareness of itself. Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump. The Times doesn’t require any actual news; its assumption is that of Charles Foster Kane: “If the headline is big enough, it makes the news big enough.” Gleefully has the Times amassed a mountain of evidence that, far from getting past the election, it is becoming more and more obsessed with it. But now the same paper sits an’ thinks an’ scwatches its wittle head an’ says, “Golly! Ain’t it funny? Mistah Twump jus’ can’t get ovew what happund las’ Novembuh!”

You have to be sincere — sincerely blinkered — to come out with a headline like that. You have to be functioning with as little insight into yourself as the kid who smacks another kid and then is baffled when the kid smacks back.

Every day, sometimes every hour, during the past six months, the New York Times has run headlines attacking Donald Trump.

And so, for a truly classy exhibition of childlike simplicity, the Shirley Temple Prize (third place) is given to that paragon of papers, the New York Times. Let this award be exhibited next to the Pulitzer that Walter Duranty won when he was the Times’ star reporter.

This is the end of the awards ceremony. Good night to all, and to all a good night.

But before you go —  I just want to stipulate: despite my strained attempts to imitate Shirley Temple’s dialect, and my slighting remarks about her movies, she was a great talent, and at least one of her movies was very good. I refer, of course, to Little Miss Marker. Heidi wasn’t bad, either.




Share This


The Strange Case of Feelings Versus Facts

 | 

Don’t tase me, bro, but I sometimes watch “Outnumbered” on Fox News. I do it mainly because I like the discussion leader, the always poised, always intelligent Harris Faulkner. She isn’t big on one-liners, but on December 13 she put a lot of truth into just five words. “Facts,” she said, “don’t care about feelings.”

That could provide a fitting introduction and conclusion to any discussion of political discourse in 2016, which consisted largely of lunatic ravings, followed by shrieks of joy or anguish that had virtually nothing to do with facts and almost everything to do with the writer’s or speaker’s mental condition. Particularly notable was a fleet (I was going to say “raft,” then promoted it to “ship,” then “battleship,” and so on up) of statements, based wholly on their authors’ authority, the content of which demolished that authority. These statements included Donald Trump’s continuous assurances that he would successfully perform various mostly impossible economic tricks, and Hillary Clinton’s continuous assurances that she had been vindicated by every investigation ever undertaken of her.

When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us.

Blame is not confined to those two notorious offenders. Throughout my life I’ve been bored and irritated by elder statesmen, pollsters, media commentators, religious leaders, and yes, college professors like me retailing their opinions as if everyone else were bound to believe them, in obeisance to the source. This year, I was alternately nauseated and entertained as I watched such people asserting their intellectual authority by rushing onstage, tearing off their costumes, setting fire to their toupees, and making obscene gestures at the audience. These were the people who considered themselves entitled to laugh like maniacs at the idea that Trump could ever be elected, because they understood American politics, or they had taken the pulse of the American voter, or they had high ratings among Americans in the prime demographic, or they were in touch with the spiritual longings of the American people. These were the authorities who then screamed and tore their hair at the sudden discovery that America had been — all along, and unknown to them — a nation of xenophobes and white supremacists.

The facts, of course, didn’t care about these people’s feelings, any more than they cared about Jill Stein’s feeling that somehow the election had been “hacked,” or about Hillary Clinton’s feeling that it was “Comey” who had done her in, or about her later feeling that it was the Russkies that done it (by the simple act of revealing her servants’ private correspondence), or about Donald Trump’s feeling that he, like Shakespeare’s Bottom, knows how to perform every part in the play.

Fortunately, libertarians have so far avoided this bad behavior, even when sorely tempted by the example of Stein. When libertarians go wrong we are more likely to go in the opposite direction: we are likely to have too much respect for truth and fact, or at least the truths and facts that interest us. Years ago I attended a libertarian conference at which a resolution was presented. It said that such and such idea was contrary to reality, and that “reality always wins.” This might have been taken as a mere rhetorical flourish, but a lengthy debate followed among the many people who took that truth claim seriously. Some of them argued, passionately, that even false ideas are part of “reality,” while others retorted, with equal passion, that false ideas aren’t really real. After an hour or so of this, Bill Bradford and I walked out. We were laughing at the futility of the whole affair, which was simply a disagreement about two common understandings of a common word. But we were not laughing at the libertarian reverence for “reality,” and we certainly weren’t laughing at the egalitarian nature of the proceedings. If anybody had said, “I’m a college professor, and I know what ‘reality’ means,” or even, “I’m a libertarian, and this is how libertarians view ‘reality,’” the crowd would have gaped in wonder. What’s this guy talking about?

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock, or as Chelsea Clinton. He’s the former presidential candidate who became former when he announced during a debate that there were three federal agencies he would eliminate, one of which was the Department of Uhhhh. He meant the Department of Energy, but he couldn’t remember the name. His appointment recalls the ancient Athenian democracy, in which public offices were filled by lot. You or I could just as easily have received a call from the president-elect: “Hullo Stephen, this is Donald Trump. Oh, I’m doing incredible today, thank you. Look, Stephen, I’ve got this unbelievable job for you . . .”

Someone might suggest that Trump’s choice of Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy was the sign of a resurgent egalitarianism in our national government. After all, Perry is as dumb as a rock.

Alas, I didn’t get the call. (If I had, I could have told Mr. Trump that there would, indeed, be one less federal agency.) Perry got it because he is a former governor. His appointment was an act of deference to the political class, which is known for its deep feeling and sensitivity, its tendency to brood over any apparent slight. By appointing Perry, Trump was undoubtedly trying to save him from a tailspin of grief about his apparent obsolescence, while relieving other senior politicians from similar fears.

Colin Powell may be one who needs reassurance. Like many of the rest, he feels that he deserves power, no matter what. A political general whose career was advanced by the Republican Party, he repaid the GOP by exposing its racism and disdaining its presidential candidate, not expecting him to be elected. Proven wrong about that, he still let it be known that he was “available for advice” to the winner. This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because . . . he’s an Elder Statesman.

You don’t have to be all that Elder to be accorded automatic hat-tips by the Establishment media. Any government employee — any employee likely to be a modern liberal — is an object of solicitous concern. Here are two Google News headlines from December 13: “Trump taps Exxon’s Tillerson as top US diplomat, lawmakers worried” (Reuters); “Energy Dept. rejects Trump’s request to name climate change workers, who remain worried” (Washington Post). Notice that in both instances the final emphasis falls on a status group (“lawmakers,” “climate change workers”), that the two groups enjoy their place in the sun because their members are paid by the government, and that their status is exalted enough to qualify them for euphemistic treatment. In place of the common yet arresting words one expects in a headline, Google hands us the very uncommon and unarresting “lawmakers” (a euphemism for “politicians” or at most “elected officials”) and “climate change workers” (a euphemism for “government bureaucrats concerned with, and probably advocating, the theory that the climate is changing, that human beings are responsible, that this is a bad thing, and that geniuses like themselves should be employed to stop it”). When prostitutes — literal prostitutes — start getting paid by the government, we will see headlines about “sex workers” being “worried” by requests to know their names.

This is the way of the Elder Statesman, who deserves respect because he’s an Elder Statesman.

The problem that supposedly justifies these solemn headlines is that the status group is worried. Well, as Scarlett O’Hara said to her worried sister: “Too bad about that!” If there’s a significant issue to be debated, sure, let’s debate it; but why should anyone worry about the mental condition of any particular group of people? Only in a status society are specific groups or individuals granted the right to sympathy.

As 2016 drew, slogged, dragged, or devolved to its end, one saw more clearly than ever that, in today’s America, this right is conferred by modern-liberal politicians and the media that serve them. Formerly, Democrats called attention to the frequent stupidity and chronic tyranny of the FBI and CIA; now they dwell upon the selfless heroism of the CIA, because a member of the Agency has whispered that Putin loves Trump and wants him to be president. About the FBI the “liberals” switch back and forth, like locomotives looking for a train, one moment extolling its “integrity,” because it allegedly exonerated Hillary Clinton, and the next moment excoriating it as “deeply broken,” because it allegedly caused her defeat.

The Electoral College has been on a sympathy rollercoaster all year long. Before the election, a lot of Democrats who couldn’t do arithmetic smugly assumed that their party had a lock on the electoral college, because it would deliver a large block of votes from such solidly Democratic states as California. The College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era, the members of which were mindless hacks, selected for a total lack of intelligence and responsibility. Then arose the movement to reverse the election by getting Electors to switch from Trump. Now the College was a great American institution and its members wise solons who needed only to be reminded of their power. When, thus reminded, they didn’t switch, they were again the objects of scorn. They were un-Americans who had no right to vote as they did. They were people who had “sold out the country,” people who “don’t deserve to be in America.” This was one of the things that protestors screamed at Electors; a protestor in Wisconsin added a monarchical “This is my America!”Not yours, you bastards.

She had a point. If facts really do respond to (my) feelings, then I really do own . . . everything. I am a divine-right monarch with the arbitrary power to say what shall be true. Monarchs themselves often start to believe the meaningless, self-serving things they feel. It is a symptom and a means of their fall. And that’s what we’re seeing now, in the spectacle of leading Democrats demanding sympathy for what they themselves did to their party, and doing so without a hint of embarrassment. On December 19, when William Jefferson Clinton was being quoted as blaming his wife’s defeat, not on her, but on angry white men, Tucker Carlson (whose new TV show is, unexpectedly, pretty amusing) asked the rhetorical question, “Does he include himself?” It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to Clinton.

The Electoral College was therefore a good thing — until, at 11 PM on election day, it became the despised relic of a former era.

Even more obtusely self-righteous was John Podesta, chairman of Clinton’s campaign. He was the person whose computer provided many of the emails that damaged her campaign. In strict terms, those emails were probably not hacked, as people insist on saying, but were phished in the stupidest, most obvious way. But on December 18, Podesta tried to unelect Trump by saying, “It’s very much unknown whether there was collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies, in the matter of the emails. He called for the Electoral College to be informed about this very much unknown conspiracy.

I just can’t get my head around this. After everything Podesta did to lose the election, he wants some kind of do-over. Why? Because it’s unknown whether his opponent was involved in the revelation of his (Podesta’s) own stupidity. If you say things like that, you believe you have a natural right to boundless sympathy and respect, and even reparations, in the form of a delegitimized election.

In the December 22 Washington Post, Ruben Navarrette painted a suggestive portrait of Podesta and the org he managed:

Thanks to a combination of leaks and reporting, we now know just how poorly run the Clinton campaign was, how top campaign staffers dismissed the importance of working-class white voters, how Democratic leaders had contempt for their own supporters, and how the coziness between the news media and campaign officials turned to collusion and created a backlash.

And virtually all those storms have something in common: Podesta. In short, the campaign chairman was at the center of just about everything that went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House.

I wonder whether you noticed what I did: every critical comment that Navarrette makes about the Democracy can also be made about the modern state: it’s stupid, unreflective, badly managed, and sovereignly contemptuous even of its clients and supporters (with one exception: the supporters known as the mainstream media). The Clinton org was a state within a state, with its own departments of revenue, foreign affairs, enforcement, propaganda, etc. It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

It was an obvious thought, but obviously not one that had occurred to William Jefferson Clinton.

In the Clinton machine one saw statism in a pure form. That’s why no one could figure out what Mrs. Clinton’s program was, or why, in the absence of any particular goals that she wanted to achieve as president, she kept running for the office. The state in its pure form is power; it desires no reason for its existence but the projection of its power. Hillary Clinton wanted that power and needed no other justification of her political life (which, horrible to say, is her whole life). Never once did she or her organization advocate an action that was not an extension of state power; never once did they propose or recognize the existence of any limitations on this power, or reflect on the fact that human knowledge would be limited even if human power were not. Identifying themselves so completely with an all-powerful, all-knowing state, she and her associates assumed that they had a right to be the state. They still do. If you think you have a natural right to unlimited power, and you somehow, in some way that you cannot understand, lose that power, your demand for sympathy will also be unlimited. It’s another rebellion of feelings against fact.

No one actually feels sorry for Hillary Clinton, but many people feel sorry for themselves, because their side lost, and they believe it had a right to win. So they try to see her as a sympathetic figure — a kind of Charles I, condemned and executed by a mob of cretins who could never grasp his greatness. In fact, Charles was an autocrat, and a stupid autocrat, and a deceitful autocrat to boot. As with Mrs. Clinton, if Charles said you had ten fingers, you would count your fingers to make sure. But when he was deposed and executed, the self-pity of the aristocrats who had despised him during his life was focused on him, and he became a Saint. I doubt that this process will go very far with the ludicrous Mrs. Clinton, but it is well underway with her former boss, President Obama. The funniest source is Fareed Zakaria of CNN, whose December 7 crockumentary about Obama suggested that America had failed its president: “It remains unclear if the country was ready for Barack Obama’s vision.”If you’re looking for a fact-free sentence, you have found it.

It was no accident that Clinton’s campaign agents could function, or dysfunction, simultaneously as employees of the US government — it made no difference to them.

In America, we have whiny, self-privileged classes, and whiny, self-privileged individuals. Now these have given us whiny, self-privileged issues, political positions that can get away with anything. Today, you are at least as likely to be fired for questioning inclusiveness, economic equality, public education, the environment, or the rights of undocumented workers — or even seeking definitions of these sacred concepts — as you used to be for taking the same approach to Americanism, our Judeo-Christian heritage, defeating the Reds, or the fight against illicit drugs; and before that, temperance, womanhood, our men in uniform, or purity of essence. (OK, I admit it: I took that last one from Dr. Strangelove.) One of the most privileged issues is, of course, common-sense gun control (i.e., elimination of the private ownership of firearms). So empty of fact and full of feeling is the anti-gun cause that The Federalist ran an absurd but accurate headline: “Progressives Demand Gun Control After Knife Attack at Ohio State University.” The article following the headline provided many examples of “progressives” who knew that any attack must be a gun attack, or caused by guns, or preventable by the prevention of guns, or something. Among millions of Americans, the very word “gun” (or even “knife”) is enough to cause hysteria. It makes them feel so insecure.

It has often been noted that the manners of the aristocracy are eventually transferred to the middle class and thence to the lower classes. It’s true; that often happens, and often it’s a good thing. I regret the fact that aristocratic reserve is no longer practiced in restaurants and airline terminals, or even museums and nature trails, where you can always depend on somebody showing up with a cellphone and a voice like Goebbels. But aristocracy is fully alive in another, quite unfortunate way. We are witnessing a transference of self-regard, self-privilege, and self-pity from the American political aristocracy to the issues they push and then to the pathetic voters who derive their own self-regard and their own demands for pity not from any fact but from their feelings about these mighty issues. That is how state power corrupts its holders, and how its holders corrupt everything.




Share This


The Great Debate

 | 

Only my devotion to journalism made me watch the Clinton-Trump debate. It’s not my idea of fun to observe the collision of two giant gasbags somewhere above Long Island. And, as many people have pointed out, the meaning of such events, if any, ordinarily emerges not from what actually happened but from what was spun out of it, later.

So color me bored and irritated, before the thing even started.

The following is what your bored and irritated correspondent thought he observed. I’ll make it snappy, since you probably observed the damn debate yourself and have just as much right to an opinion as I have.

  1. In response to the introductory question about creation of jobs, Clinton revealed her conviction that you can do it by funding daycare, paying students’ way through college, and “making the rich pay their fair share.” Trump asserted that foreign countries are “stealing our jobs,” but Clinton returned to the idea of taxing the rich. She accused Trump of having “started [in business] with $14 million he received from his father.” She claimed that the economic collapse of 2008 had been created by a low-tax policy. She then began a long rant about government-sponsored “clean energy” creating millions of jobs.
     
  2. Responding to Trump’s verbal jabs about her failure to do anything good about the economy during her long career, Clinton smirked in a way I have often seen from schoolteachers who aren’t very bright. She then uncorked one of the most superior laughs I have ever seen, thus confirming one’s worst impressions of her character. She kept this up throughout the debate. She also continued her chronic habit of nodding her head while hearing things she disagrees with but cannot figure out how to respond to — for instance, Trump’s accusation that she had invented, or popularized, the term “’super-predator,” as applied to “black youths.”
     
  3. Trump frequently interrupted Clinton with little sarcastic remarks, to which the sworn-to-silence audience frequently made a favorable response. But I was wondering how, when Clinton brought up Trump’s failure to reveal his tax returns, he didn’t ask her why she hasn’t revealed the texts of the speeches she gave to Wall Street crony capitalists in return for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Didn’t he listen to Bernie Sanders’ successful attacks on her about that? Accused of initially supporting the Iraq war, Trump failed to mention the fact that Hillary voted for the war. He failed to mention, a propos the job-creation issue, that she bragged about her intention of putting coal miners out of their jobs. At other times, however, he provided facts (mainly about his own economic proposals) that were much more specific than hers.
     
  4. Clinton tried to popularize a catchphrase for Trump’s economic plan. The phrase seems to have been her idea of the one thing the audience should take home with them. The phrase was “Trumped-up trickle-down.” I rate that a failure.
     
  5. “Moderator” Lester Holt’s questions were filled with attempted zingers against Trump — such as a reiterated question about his birtherism — but none that I perceived against Clinton. In the second half of the event, Holt began to do “no, you’re wrong” “fact checking” against Trump, as advocated by the Clinton forces. I did not perceive him doing that against Clinton. To use a Trumpian word, Holt was a disaster. At many junctures, he seemed to be channeling Clinton.
     
  6. Trump made a clever transition from a question about internet security to a reminder that the hacking of the DNC revealed Clinton’s mistreatment of Sanders. Why, I wondered, didn’t he ask her why she, of all people, had been commenting with assurance about the security of electronic communications?
     
  7. Trump cleverly obscured his lack of thoughtfulness about nuclear war by discussing it in terms that no one could interpret.
     
  8. Hillary not so cleverly asserted — almost at the end, as if she thought that nothing else had worked — that Trump regards women as “pigs and dogs.”

The Summing Up:

Trump used the words disaster and unbelievable a lot, but most of his favorite verbal tics were absent, showing a degree of self-control that must have been heroic. He didn’t make a fool of himself, although he came close when he went off on a tangent about his “winning temperament,” as opposed to Clinton’s bad temperament, as witnessed in her remarkable “Why aren’t I 50 points ahead?” speech. He didn’t clearly identify the speech, so the uninformed were left to wonder, “What the hell is he talking about?” Hillary didn’t shriek like a maniac, which makes me wonder who on her staff had the unenviable job of telling her that she usually shrieks like a maniac.

I’ll agree with Charles Krauthammer’s instant analysis and call the thing a draw, although I’m not quite sure what I mean by that. Neither of them did demonstrably better than the other, although the media immediately started chattering about Clinton being on the offensive and Trump on the defensive. Each showed the ability to confirm the preexisting opinions of supporters. Since Trump was the underdog, he probably got a marginal advantage from his almost patient endurance of Clinton’s enormous sense of superiority. For me, the most memorable part of the debate was his comment, “She’s got experience, but it’s bad experience.” That doesn’t go far to compensate me for an hour and a half lost from what otherwise would have been a richer and fuller life.




Share This


The Battle of the Resumes

 | 

Maureen Dowd’s new column about Hillary Clinton convinces me that I am not the only one who smells something peculiarly sick and rotten in presidential politics.

On one side, we have Hillary Clinton, who presents a resume for high office with these major bullet points:

  1. Partnership in a radically dysfunctional marriage with a discredited former president, specializing in cheating and sleazing.
  2. Female gender.
  3. A long string of jobs — partner in a provincial law firm, power behind a throne, United States senator, secretary of state — which she survived, innocent of credit for any specific accomplishment.
  4. Proven ability to cadge money from Near Eastern religious fanatics, one-dimensional feminists, crony capitalists, and other people with hands out for favors.
  5. Proven ability, acquired from her husband (see 1, above), to operate (with the help of 4, above) a political mafia.
  6. Proven ability to tell nothing but lies.
  7. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

On the opposite side, we have John Ellis (“Jeb”) Bush, whose resume emphasizes these points:

  1. Membership in a family that includes two abjectly unsuccessful presidents.
  2. Modest success as governor of Florida.
  3. Proven ability to cadge money from “moderate” (i.e., non) Republicans and crony capitalists devoted to cheap labor, open immigration, and votes for Dems.
  4. Proven ability to lose votes from anyone to the right of Anderson Cooper.
  5. Proven ability to look stupid on any public occasion.
  6. Proven ability to deliver any desired quantity of self-righteous statements about other people’s duties.

It’s remarkable that everyone who has any knowledge of politics has read these resumes, understands them, and talks about them as if they were plastic disks in a checkers game.

Well, almost everyone. Dowd, for all her leftist craziness, is a respectable person.

But let’s see . . . Who has the longer resume? Jeb or Hillary?

It’s Hillary! She wins!

Can it be that in today’s America, or any other country, this is how things happen?




Share This


Executive's Orders

 | 




Share This


A Presidency Imploding

 | 

Since the beginning of the modern presidency under Franklin Roosevelt, every chief executive elected to a second term has suffered disaster during that term. FDR provoked a major political crisis when he tried to pack the Supreme Court in 1937, after which he guided the economy into a severe recession, undoing some of the economic gains of his first four years in office. Truman had Korea. Eisenhower faced Sputnik and the recession of 1958–59 (the worst in 20 years), followed by the U-2 incident and the collapse of a planned summit meeting with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Lyndon Johnson suffered through Vietnam and widespread race riots. Nixon became embroiled in Watergate, was impeached and resigned. Reagan nearly lost office in the Iran-Contra scandal. Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions” eventually led to his impeachment, though he was acquitted by the Senate. George W. Bush had Iraq, Katrina, and the financial meltdown of 2008. Now it’s Barack Obama’s turn.

Obama roundly defeated Mitt Romney to win reelection in 2012. Yet today, not even six months into his second term, he is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so. After deciding to push gun control in the wake of the Newtown massacre, he failed to secure congressional passage of even his minimum program for universal background checks. Immigration reform, expected to be the signature domestic achievement of his second term, is hanging fire in the Senate, and faces questionable prospects in the House. The implementation of Obamacare is fraught with problems (on this see David Brooks’ column “Health Chaos Ahead,” in the April 25 New York Times). Foreign policy, normally a presidential strength when the nation is not actually at war, seems increasingly in disarray. Relations with Russia are fraying. No progress has been made on curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. The possibility of US intervention in Syria’s complex civil war seems to be increasing, with planning underway for an air campaign in support of the Syrian rebels, and a forward headquarters of the US Central Command already on the ground in Jordan. Add to these problems the troika of scandals currently roiling Washington (Benghazi, the IRS targeting of conservative groups, and the Justice Department’s secret spying on the Associated Press), and a picture of an administration nearing collapse begins to form.

Let’s examine briefly the three scandals just mentioned. The 9/11/12 attack on the U.S. consulate at Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, came about as a result of mistakes made by the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress (who in 2011 turned down an administration request to provide more funds for embassy security). The administration made the scandal all its own by putting out misleading talking points that claimed the attack was not terror-related. It clearly did so for political purposes, seeking to preserve Obama’s reputation as a successful fighter of terrorism during the election campaign. The web of lies about Benghazi woven by the administration since last September will not bring it down, but the political damage is likely to be significant and lasting.

Today, not even six months into his second term, President Obama is politically wounded, perhaps mortally so.

The IRS targeting of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status probably won’t destroy the Obama presidency either, but it could. We don’t yet know just how high up the rot goes. If it can be shown that people in the White House encouraged the IRS campaign (or simply knew about it and did nothing), then the scandal rises to Nixonian levels. The betting here is that Obama and his people aren’t that stupid, but we’ll see. Don’t hold your breath for impeachment, but do expect a long drawn-out series of investigations that will bog down the administration for much of 2013.

The AP spying scandal is merely a continuation of the quasi-authoritarianism instituted by federal authorities after the original 9/11. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was based in part on his use of wiretapping without a court order. Today the Department of Justice conducts warrantless wiretaps as a matter of course, thanks to the Patriot Act and the FISA Amendments Reauthorization Act of 2012, which Obama signed into law after his reelection. This particular scandal has legs because journalists were the target. But it’s really no more than business as usual in our Orwellian Republic. The administration may take some hits, but the damage will not be mortal.

Nothing that has happened so far in Obama’s second term rises to the level of Watergate. Yet, taken together, the mistakes and lies of the past eight months have this administration reeling. It truly is in danger of imploding — which for many on the Right would be good news. A crippled presidency, however, tends to breed uncertainty and malaise, with bad consequences for the economy. And there is the further danger that a crippled president might seek to redeem himself in foreign lands — Syria, for example, or Iran.

The second term woes of Obama’s predecessors were largely the result of hubris (or, in Ronald Reagan’s case, incipient senility). Obama on the other hand suffers principally from aloofness. He is under the impression that elections are all that matter. But we do not live in a plebiscitary democracy. Successful governing involves schmoozing with people you may secretly detest. It involves coming down from your pedestal and actually engaging other human beings who also have supporters and power. Obama has never wanted to do this. He prefers to stand alone, believing that the adoration of his supporters guarantees success. As a result he has few real resources to draw upon in times of trouble. And he is in trouble now. No single problem (the IRS scandal possibly excepted) can bring him down, but he faces the prospect of a slow political death from a thousand cuts. While he undoubtedly will seek to place blame for his troubles on those who have always opposed him, his foremost enemy dwells in the mirror.




Share This


Obama’s Second Inaugural

 | 

President Obama has a reputation for eloquence. Even many of his political opponents acknowledge this supposed fact. In 2008, I was inclined to moderate agreement with the general consensus; although it would have been a stretch to say that his speeches had any literary value, neither did they contain patently hackneyed expressions, awkward sentence constructions, or offensive jingles. His second inaugural address, however, fails spectacularly on all counts.

Listening to his speech was nothing less than an ordeal. Although I could say much more about the performance (in particular, about his habit of switching in and out of falsetto as a substitute for genuine emotion), I will limit my criticism to the words themselves. This does not reflect my opinion about his policies — some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t — unless you stretch the meaning of “policy” broadly enough to include hiring a new speechwriter.

“Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.”

This is a bizarre image: politicians at a committee meeting, determining what kinds of technology and institutions are necessary to sustain a “modern economy.”

“Our celebration of initiative and enterprise; our insistence on hard work and personal responsibility, these are constants in our character.”

I was not aware that the national character of the American people was reducible to a mathematical formula. I hope he follows up on this claim by telling us whether or not the function observes strict concavity and whether or not it is defined on a compact set.

“America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention.”

America’s “possibilities are limitless”? Talk about a hackneyed expression. I’m also alarmed by the idea that Americans have an “endless capacity for risk.”

“We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship.”

Besides the awkward grammatical mismatch between “every person” and “their work,” this sentence stands out because of the curious notion of being “liberated from the brink.”

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations.”

I was not aware that it was possible to betray people who haven’t been born.

“Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

I’m imagining Obama’s speechwriter sitting at his desk with a portrait of his fourth grade homeroom teacher on the wall, remembering the teacher’s inspirational claim that adjectives are the literary equivalent of a sparkling rainbow. I can also imagine this speechwriter giving up on finding a good adjective to describe storms and settling for “powerful.”

“We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries — we must claim its promise.”

I’m baffled by the idea that green technology will drive future economic development. As far as I can tell, this technology is inefficient and therefore unprofitable. The only way it could be profitable would be if the government passed legislation making it impossible for companies to avoid using this technology without running afoul of federal regulations — wait, Sherlock, maybe that’s the idea!

“Let each of us now embrace, with solemn duty and awesome joy, what is our lasting birthright.”

How exactly does joy inspire awe?

“With common effort and common purpose, with passion and dedication, let us answer the call of history, and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

Another curious image: someone carrying light. A torch can be carried; light cannot — unless our understanding of physics has radically changed since I was in junior high school.




Share This


Small Earthquake in Obamaland, Not Enough Secrets Revealed

 | 

The title of this review refers to the headline created by British Communist journalist Claud Cockburn: "Small Earthquake in Chile. Not Many Dead." This headline never made it to print, but it was heralded as the winner of a newsroom competition for the most accurate yet boring headline.

Accurate yet unexciting. That's a perfect description for David Maraniss' new biography, Barack Obama: The Story. When the book came out this summer, it was greeted by outraged cries of treason from the Left. Maraniss, a Washington Post associate editor and noted liberal writer, was accused of having betrayed The Cause by showing Obama in a less-than-stellar light. Were the clamors justified? Curious minds wanted to know. That, and flattery from a Liberty editor, got me to review the book.

Let's immediately say that people looking for damning evidence of a shady past will be disappointed by the book. At most, Maraniss conscientiously depicts Obama and his family. Inevitably, a detailed Obama biography cannot live up to the holy legend manufactured by his fawning sycophants. But these adulators would also find outrage at the revelation that no, Obama doesn't walk on water or raise the dead. It's no surprise that they were infuriated by Maraniss' mildly halo-tarnishing revelations. On the other hand, this biography is hardly impeachment material.

Martian Chronicles

As I started reading the biography, I had just finished a book on North Korea. So when Maraniss, in his introduction, started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader. Were readers going to be treated to a double rainbow that heralded Obama's birth?

Fortunately, Maraniss never descends into hagiography, although he sometimes throws a veil on some uncomfortable truths. He's not writing a legend, but a detailed biography. A very, very detailed biography. He goes back five generations on Obama's maternal side, and three on his dad's side. The pace of the book isn't epic. To the contrary, it evokes one of these Martian robots — meandering in an alien yet strangely familiar landscape, deliberately picking a target, yet at random intervals stopping dead in its tracks to examine a seemingly random piece of dirt in excruciating detail.

When Maraniss started retracing the steps of Obama through Kenya and Indonesia, marveling at his humble beginnings in hushed awe, I had flashbacks to the official North Korean legends surrounding the cult of the Dear Leader.

It doesn't take long to understand why leftist howls saluted the book. Right in the introduction, Maraniss says that he found many contradictions and inconsistencies in Obama's own books, which are evidently so full of inventions that they are actually an impediment to a biographer's work. The characters, the places, the chronology, the events, the conversations in Obama's books were "rearranged" to fit his political narrative. All across his book, in many places, Maraniss pinpoints contradictions between actual events he reconstituted and Obama's own books (which, after Maraniss' work, cannot be called "biographies" by any stretch of the imagination).

Maraniss had access to the original draft of Obama's book, written several years before the book was published. There are large discrepancies of events and chronologies between the book and its draft, which adds credit to the hypothesis that Obama heavily modified the book to fit a politically charged, race-baiting narrative. By comparing the two versions and with the help of his very extensive research, Maraniss was able to pinpoint the lies and embellishments of the published book. For this, he got called a traitor.

Of Kenya and Kansas

The story starts in Kansas, where Obama's mother's family, the Dunhams, had its roots.

A dominant theme appears early: secrecy and dissimulation, at least within the family of Obama's mother, Ann Dunham. Her grandparents married secretly, and so did her parents. This troubled approach to love and relationships might have tainted Ann's views of a normal marriage.

Maraniss interleaves the lives of Ann Dunham and Barack Hussein Obama, Sr,, who had a short-lived union. The author immerses the reader in the daily lives and times of the characters, and shows the contrast between these two lives.

Ann Dunham was born in California in 1942. She was born Stanley Ann and predictably had to endure mocking in school for her masculine name. Her father Stanley was a somewhat unstable man with a bragging habit bordering on mythomania. Stanley habitually lost his money in poker games and had trouble keeping a job — he was in sales but hated it. Her mother Madelyn, on the other hand, was a competent, dependable woman. During her third grade year, Stanley Ann and her family moved to segregated Vernon, Texas. Obama's book contains anecdotes depicting life in the segregated South. White kids couldn't play with blacks, black customers couldn't be served during regular business hours. Tellingly, Maraniss explains that there is no reason to doubt such things happened, which says volumes about how reliable he thinks Obama's "memoirs" are.

Obama says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction.

Obama's father, the first Barack Hussein Obama, was born in colonial Kenya in a small branch of the Luo minority tribe. The name Obama means "curved spine" in the tribe's Dholuo language. Obama Sr.'s family were considered outsiders and didn't have particularly deep Luo roots. His own father, Hussein Onyango, worked as a chef and head servant for several important British people in Nairobi. In Dreams from my Father, Obama Jr. says that his grandfather Onyango was jailed and tortured for his rebellion against British rule. Maraniss interviewed relatives in Kenya and dispels this fiction. No relative ever heard of an arrest. Besides, if Onyango had been jailed, he wouldn't have been able to occupy the trusted positions he held. This would be insignificant if not for the fact that Obama paraded his oppressed grandfather as a title of glory in an imaginary struggle against white oppression. It's only the first of many inventions and boasts revealed by Maraniss.

Obama Sr., nominally a Muslim, received an excellent education in an Anglican school, doing various jobs and chores to help pay the expensive tuition. The dominant Kikuyu tribe launched the famous Mau Mau rebellion against the British while he was in school. The British administration let students arm themselves with machetes to prepare against any invasion, but the school was never attacked. Obama Sr. came out as smart but very arrogant. In particular, he thought it beneath him to clean his room. In 1953, he staged a student protest and sent a list of petty grievances to the principal. He was expelled without passing the final exams, so he found a job in the capital, Nairobi. His father had friends who would later play a big role in the newly independent Kenya. One of them, Tom Mboya — also a Luo — would later be imprisoned by the British for his role as a spokesman for Kenyan independence movements.

Obama Sr. started attending political meetings with Mboya and served as a volunteer in his movement. On Christmas 1956, during a dance in his home village, Obama Sr. met 16-year old Kezia, with whom he would elope to Nairobi a week later. Hussein Onyango assuaged the girl's outraged father by giving him sixteen cows. Obama Sr. and Kezia were married in 1957.

In 1959, Mboya toured the USA and cleverly played Democrats against Republicans to secure founding for the Airlift Africa project, which flew in 81 selected Kenyan students to study in US colleges. Among these students was Obama Sr., who didn't have a high school degree but was supported by Mboya. The chosen destination was the University of Hawaii, which Obama selected because of an article in a back issue of the Saturday Evening Post that favorably depicted the university and the island as a multiracial environment.

Now, consider this simple fact about the Post article influencing Obama Sr.'s choice of university. Biographers would consider a job well done if they had dug out this obscure factoid. Not Maraniss. Oh no. Like a Mars rover finding a shiny rock, he breaks out the laser spectrometer and treats us to a deep background on the article's author, the circumstances of his writing, and even the expenses he submitted. One cannot but admire his exhaustiveness, useless though this is.

The important thing is that in 1959, Obama Sr. left behind his child and his young wife, who was pregnant again, to go study in the USA. Since his savings didn’t amount to much, he was financially supported by American donors. Very quickly, he came to the attention of immigration authorities for his behavior as a womanizer. He was charming and bright, partied a lot, and was successful with the ladies, never mentioning his Kenyan family. He wrote an article denouncing the stereotype of Africans abusing or abandoning wives, although his own father had so done many times, and he couldn't ignore it.But getting the right message out was politically important. Obama Sr. talked a lot about politics. He associated with radicals whom Maraniss calls "establishment outsiders," and who probably didn't include many libertarians.

Obama Sr. was known as a proponent of socialism in the future independent Kenya, and hoped that the yet-to-be country would aligned with the Eastern Bloc. He wasn't alone: a lot of Kenyan activists had been trained in Moscow. He saw the Soviets as liberators. That's most likely why he decided to take Russian classes.

Meanwhile, Ann Dunham was growing up in the US, disquieted by the frequent moves and uprooting of her family, which were prompted by her father's inability to keep a job. A furniture salesman, Ann's father moved his family ten times, spending a few months or years in as many towns, before settling in Mercer Island in 1956. Mercer is a five-by-three-mile island in the middle of Lake Washington, east of Seattle. The book interviews several of Ann's friends from that era. The portrait that emerges is one of a smart adolescent lacking family stability and with a low self-esteem.

The local high school was noted for its progressive teachers. While the school's humanities program drew vigorous protests from some parents, Maraniss doesn't report that the Dunhams were among the discontented. Did these teachers influence young Ann, or does she owe her political orientation to her parents? The fact is that she emerged from her high school years as a lifelong leftist.

In 1960, Ann's father was hired by a Hawaiian furniture store whose owner knew him. The whole family moved to Oahu after Ann's graduation. Ann registered at the University of Hawaii. She took Russian as a foreign language, and that's how she met Obama Sr. They quickly started dating, but they kept their relationship a secret. Yet biracial couples were nothing extraordinary in Hawaii: about half of Hawaiian black grooms had a bride from another race.

One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled.

She found she was pregnant in November, around her birthday. She announced it to her parents, telling them she was in love and thought about marriage. They didn't take it well, but they finally conceded. Obama Sr.'s father was furious when he got a letter from Hawaii. He didn't want his bloodline to be "sullied by a white" — at least according to the Dunhams.

Ann's grades fell catastrophically after Thanksgiving. She and Obama Sr. got married in February '61. The Immigration Service found out that Obama Sr. had a wife in Kenya and didn't view the marriage too kindly. The fresh groom told them he gave his first wife a Muslim divorce — that is, he ordered her to pack. This was apparently sufficient to alleviate the accusation of bigamy.

Accidental baby, accident-prone father

Barack Hussein Obama II (his full name) was born in August 1961. The author could have used this book to dispel the myths and disinformation surrounding his birthplace. He could have explained why Obama chose to put online his birth certificate not as a simple image, but as a heavily processed layered PDF that is indistinguishable from the crudest fake, thus fueling all kind of hypotheses. Maraniss doesn't bother, and it's too bad.

Ann left for the mainland US barely a month after her son's birth and enrolled in the University of Washington in Seattle. Did Obama Sr. confess his bigamy? Maraniss doesn't know. Even before she left, Obama Sr. was rarely seen in public with his wife. His drinking got heavier, but even drunk, he never talked about his life. The author does mention the possibility of abuse: Obama Sr. later remarried another American white girl who followed him to Kenya, and he beat and publicly humiliated her.

Maraniss follows the vagaries of Obama Sr.'s life. He returned to Kenya in the summer of 1962 — it turns out he was kicked out by the Immigration Service. He found a government job, sired another son, and managed to exasperate his whole entourage with his drinking, gambling, bragging, disregard for other people's property and feelings, and especially his insufferable arrogance (he wrote an article criticizing his bosses' economic planification for not being socialist enough). He saw young Barack only once, for a week, in 1971, and the son wasn't much impressed by the father. One wonders when Obama Sr. managed to convey these dreams after which his son's book "Dreams from My Father" is titled. He was a drunk prone to car accidents. He killed one passenger in an accident, lost both legs in other crashes, and ended up losing his life in an accident in 1982.

Ann returned to Hawaii in the fall of 1962. There, she met another man, an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro Martodihardjo. She filed for divorce in 1964, without asking Obama Sr. for child support. She and Lolo married in 1965. In June ’66, Lolo had to fly back to Indonesia, his visa having run out. Ann and son joined him in Jakarta 16 months later. Lolo would act as young Barry's father for the next several years.

Not a Muslim

Our future President was registered as a Muslim in a Catholic school under the name Barry Soetoro. The author notes that Obama lied about the school in his book, inventing a "parched old nun" to play on the anti-Catholic cliche, whereas his teachers were actually young married women. He learned the local language and was noted for craving attention. He was an ordinary kid. Ikes, an Indonesian classmate interviewed by the author, tells the following story: he drove a bike while carrying Barry on the back saddle. Barry started distracting the driver and ultimately made him fall. Barry was uninjured, but Ikes got an open fracture to the arm. Seeing this, Barry abandoned Ikes and fled home. Was this a harbinger of his future tendency to avoid blame?

Maraniss painstakingly explains that Barry wasn't raised as a Muslim during his three-year stay in Indonesia. However, since he was registered as a Muslim, he received a basic Islamic education: he attended the Friday prayer and learned to read from the Koran in Arabic.

Maraniss accuses Obama of having heavily fictionalized this period in Dreams from My Father. For example, Lolo's father did not die fighting the Dutch during the independence war. He died a very pedestrian death, from a heart attack while he was hanging drapes. Lolo's eldest brother didn't die in the war either: he succumbed to cancer years after the hostilities. When Obama invented grandfathers oppressed by the evil whites, was he simply parroting family legends, or was he trying to promote black victimhood and white guilt? His book contains more race-baiting lies, such as his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article in Life.

Obama’s racial sensitivity might have been raised by his mother. Far from disregarding race, Ann gave Barry a heavily racialist education in black American history, with emphasis on white-on-black oppression. Was she trying to make him hate America?

Lolo changed quickly. He started drinking more. Soon he started bringing other women to his house. One cannot but pity Ann for her poor discernment in picking men. However, Lolo was a good provider. Thanks to the support of wealthy relatives, he got a good job. Ann tried to immerse herself in the local culture and refused to socialize with Americans, while Lolo was paradoxically more westernized. Lest we draw the wrong conclusion, this might have been related to the crumbling marriage more than to the cliche of the self-hating white liberal.

Obama writes of his shock at reading an article in Life about a black man who wanted to lighten his skin. Maraniss checked: there was no such article.

Ann nevertheless got pregnant again and gave Obama a half-sister. She sent Barry away to her parents in Hawaii, first in the summer of 1970 for a few weeks, then permanently in the fall on 1971. Barry, now again under the last name Obama, entered fifth grade in the elite Punahou high school, the oldest and most prestigious private school in Hawaii. A fifth-grade tuition was $1,165 then, equivalent to $6,600 in 2012 currency. Maraniss says that Obama wouldn't have been admitted solely on his merits. He owed his admission to the work of his grandparents, who knew influential, wealthy alumni. He also got a full scholarship because of his "diverse background" — in other words, racial discrimination in his favor.

Slack and pot

While Obama was in Hawaii, the most influential person around him was, by all accounts, Frank Marshall Davis. Maraniss doesn't mention much of Davis’ extensive background on the Left, describing him as a poet and unconventional writer, merely conceding that he was a leftist under surveillance by the FBI because of "past associations with the Communist party."

According to his book, Obama met Davis, then almost 70, in one of the smoke-filled rooms where Ann's father played poker and bridge, dragging young Obama along (to teach him poker?). This is an unlikely story that Maraniss uncharacteristically accepts at face value. Is it because we're getting to close to the real Obama? It's the first of many veils that Maraniss refuses to lift, as if afraid of his audacity.

Obama admits meeting Davis "ten to fifteen times." This sounds low, considering that Obama devoted an adoring poem to "Pop" Davis. And considering that Obama saw his (official) father only once, during a short visit in Hawaii, one wonders whose "dreams" the future president wrote about. Maraniss points out that in Dreams, many of the traits that Obama attributes to his father are actually taken from Davis. For instance, Obama writes that his father gave him a taste for jazz. But Obama Sr. was never noted for his love of music, except maybe Luo dance music, while Davis was a noted jazz amateur.

During his eight years in Punahou (fifth grade to graduation), Obama was distraught by the absence of his mother, who came and went several times between Hawaii and Indonesia. When she was absent, Obama stayed with her parents and thus was probably given frequent news, but he obviously suffered from the absence of both parents.

Ann came back to Hawaii in fall ’72 and enrolled at University of Hawaii in anthropology. She got a full scholarship through the patronage of Alice Dewey, the niece of the "progressive educator" John Dewey. She spent many years in Indonesia documenting traditional craftsmen. Her daughter Maya, fathered by Lolo, would accompany her on these trips, but Barack stayed in Hawaii. She worked very hard at her anthropology thesis, yet kept it going for years because she was indecisive and didn't narrow it down to a specific subject.

Barack Obama's high school years are depicted by Maraniss in great detail. It is quite interesting to see the future president's personality slowly emerge, affirming the traits we can now see in the adult. Maraniss describes him as a slacker and details his marijuana habit. In short, Obama inhaled. A lot. All the potheads with whom he associated were sons of “good families” (as one would expect in such a prestigious school), but Obama lied about this entourage in his book, describing them as lowlife scum. Was this to establish street cred? Punahou can hardly be described as a tough neighborhood. Similarly, Barack paints himself as a bitter, alienated, resentful teenager, but in interviews with Maraniss, Barack's former pothead friends remember him as a cheerful, positive student. He is even described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate. These are the kind of dialectic tricks that are taught and practiced by radicals. Did Davis coach him?

Barack started to play tennis but instead turned to basketball because it was a "black sport." He was an unremarkable player in the high school basketball team, which Obama explains in his book by playing the race card and claiming the white coach preferred white players. Not true, says Maraniss, who devotes nine pages to Obama's basketball team, contradicting this claim. One wishes the author had been so thorough in investigating some other, much more damning, of Obama's whoppers.

Oxy

After graduating from Punahou, Barack attended Occidental College near Pasadena, California, from 1979 to 1981. It is not clear why he selected "Oxy," although Maraniss tells us it was notorious for being an easy liberal arts college with a drug, booze, and sex culture. Maraniss doesn't mention its leftwing faculty, probably another attractive factor for a politicized Obama.

At Oxy, Obama drank heavily and used drugs. A few anecdotes show him embarrassingly uninhibited at parties. He was already addicted to cigarettes. He tried unsuccessfully to enter the college's basketball team. His roommate and several of his friends were upper-crust Pakistanis. Among these Muslims, he apparently went by the name Hussein. These friends tell Maraniss they had, back at Oxy, a first glimpse of Obama's enormous ambition. Despite this, he grew even more of a slacker in his second year. He coasted through easy humanities classes and was able to get decent grades in spite of his drinking and drug use. He was an ordinary student, except maybe for his Afro.

Obama is described as a good high school debater. His style, however, was that of the "trick debater". He didn't bother with facts or refutations, only with destabilizing his adversary and controlling the debate.

Ann went back to Indonesia, working for USAID. She divorced Lolo, getting custody of daughter Maya. She had a comfortable life style: she lived in a four-bedroom house and was served by two full-time live-in domestics. (Isn't that capitalistic oppression of impoverished indigenes?) Her mother was by then a bank vice president in Hawaii and was providing some support for Obama. Ann was described as charming, compassionate, and understanding, but she didn't seem to extend her love of mankind to her own son. She never mentioned him to Indonesian friends and colleagues.

At the time, Obama was listening to Bob Marley. He was turning into a "Marleyxist"; that is, he adopted oversimplified, mass-marketed "messages" lamenting a black oppression that he had never experienced. Maraniss shows him searching for meaning, belonging, home, and above all, a family. He gravitated toward real Marxists on campus, such as those in the Democratic Socialistic Alliance, whose leader encouraged him to define himself primarily as black. (What is it with white Leftists and race?)

Alas, Obama wasn't acting like the typical disenfranchised black. For example, he was frequently hitting on women, and every one of them was white. In addition, because of his white mother and white maternal family, he was afraid to pass for a sellout. He overcompensated by always trying to be seen with "Marxist professors," "feminists," and "black activists" (as Maraniss describes the crowd he associated with.) He was hoping for blackness to rub off on him; he got redness instead. Some African Americans on campus called him "an Oreo."

He should have known that you cannot please extremists, so there is no point in trying. Unfortunately, that rejection only strengthened his resolve to affirm his blackness at all cost. And — at the time, at least — this meant separating himself from general American society, feeling alienated by it, and getting into fights against institutions not because they were hurtful, but simply because they were American institutions. This was probably one of the defining moments of young Obama.

Another revealing anecdote comes when Obama wrote a fiction story for the college's literary student magazine, and the editor came in person tell him the story had been rejected. Obama's reaction: "You don't get it. You're stupid." It was a condescending, thin-skinned attitude he would often display later in life.

In 1981, Obama applied for transfer to Columbia. He wrote that life on the Oxy campus was too easy, too isolated from the world. New York promised a hard, competitive life, closer to the "black experience."

That summer, before going to New York, he visited his mom in Indonesia (with a round-the-world, 16-stop ticket thanks to her contacts with the Ford Foundation). Obama admired his mother's work at USAID but, maybe because of his leftist alienation, despised US foreign aid and policies. (That didn't keep him from returning to the US.) After Indonesia, he visited Pakistani friends from Oxy, staying in upper-class families living in nice houses served by many domestics. His friend Chandoo, "still in his leftist period," made a point of making Obama meet very poor, black peasants, descendants of African slaves brought by the Arabs.

The Columbia dark years

Obama enrolled at Columbia in the fall as a political science major. Maraniss admits he doesn't have as much documentation on years 1981–1985 as on the previous period of Obama's life. Obama keeps most of this time under wraps. This doesn't prevent Maraniss from producing an impressively detailed account.

Rather than affirming his black identity, as he had planned, Obama didn't make a single African-American friend on campus or in New York City. He stayed with white and Pakistani roommates and dated white women. Maraniss explains away the paucity of people who can remember Obama at Columbia as follows: students hated the campus and avoided each other.

At the time, NYC was an especially dirty, crime-ridden city. The police didn't dare pursue criminals into Morningside Park, just north of Central Park and close to the Columbia campus. Obama, as a black, felt safe from the mostly African-American muggers. But he was now ashamed of his white background and was concealing the fact that his mother was white. Yet, when Maraniss interviewed Columbia students from that time, they didn't describe the campus atmosphere as sharply divided, racially. Obama did attend a Jesse Jackson rally in Harlem with a Pakistani roommate, and both left "unimpressed by Jackson." Obama, in essence, shunned black professors and black students.

Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what “community organizating” means; after many pages, Maraniss finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop."

In the summer of 1982, Ann flew in from Indonesia with Maya and visited Obama in New York, staying with a wealthy friend in a Park Avenue apartment. Obama scolded his mom for enjoying "petit bourgeois" tourism, such as visiting the Statue of Liberty and the Metropolitan Museum. He went so far as to write in his memoir that his mother, who one evening enjoyed a movie depicting poor black Brazilians, had fantasies of childlike blacks, fantasies she had inherited from her stultifying white childhood.

That summer, for a couple of months, Obama dated Alex, a (white) classmate from Oxy who was spending the summer in NYC. After she left, they exchanged passionate letters, in which Obama already showed a consummate art of literary malarkey. Of course, impressing girls with pseudo-cultural drivel is a time-honored masculine device. From an excerpt of one of his rambling letters, reproduced by Maraniss, readers can get a foretaste of the empty, bombastic speeches of the future president.

Interestingly, during this time at Columbia, Obama asked a Pakistani friend if he saw him as a future president. But in general, Obama was very reserved and secretive. For instance, when he got a phone call informing him that Obama Sr. had died in a car accident, he didn't talk about it with anyone, only mentioning it to Alex, months later.

Obama didn't leave a great impression at Columbia. Most of his professors don't remember him taking their class, with the exception of a discussion seminar in which he came out as a smooth talker. He did study hard and graduated after two years with a good GPA. His four years of college had cost about $50,000, half from scholarship, the rest mostly from his bank-VP grandmother.

Then he started looking for a job in . . . community organizing — not an ordinary route for a young graduate. Most people didn't know then, and still don't now, what the term means. Maraniss is slow at spilling the beans, but after many pages, he finally admits that it means agitation and propaganda, the good old Leninist "agitprop." It means enrolling people, often by deceiving them, into highly politicized campaigns for a certain result, while secretly using the campaign as a springboard for completely different purposes, such as conveying a certain message in the media or influencing wider policies. One common tool is arousing public feeling, stirring up discussion, and then controlling the debate. It is highly unlikely that Obama chose to apply for such a job without the advice of one of his far-Left mentors.

Agitprop is what you do to an enemy. It is a warfare tool, not a civilized political discussion. Using this technique against US citizens means that you consider them as fodder for an ideological battle. It shows a deep contempt for the citizens, who are mere pawns in a conflict that they aren't meant to understand. It is both telling and frightening that Obama's first foray into politics took this route.

Obama possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life.

Good agitprop positions are hard to find. While looking for an "organizing" job, Obama survived with temp jobs in unrelated fields. He broke with Alex, whom he had seen only a few times in two years. At a 1983 Christmas party, he met Genevieve, a progressive liberal girl from Australia who had studied anthropology. Genevieve's stepfather was from a family of "establishment Democrats with deep liberal connections."

Meeting the enemy

In the summer of 1983, Obama found a job at a small Manhattan company called Business International — probably through Columbia's placement office, explains Maraniss. The company published reports about the business and financial climate of foreign countries to guide potential investors. As a copywriter and editor, Obama was an entry-level employee. Some coworkers saw him as "aloof, with an arrogance that bordered on condescension" — a trait that he never managed to get under control. He was less than enthusiastic about his position. To Genevieve, he described the job "as working for the enemy." In his memoirs, he called it being "[l]ike a spy behind enemy lines." Nevertheless, he greatly magnifies his own role: "I had my own office, my own secretary, money in the bank," he writes, adding that he was interviewing international financiers in a shiny office where he saw his reflection on polished doors. His former colleagues, interviewed by Maraniss, scoff at the notion. As a lowly backroom data clerk, the closest Obama got to wealthy financiers was calling foreign banks' information desks. The shiniest surface in the office was the screen of the Wang word processor. Yet, Maraniss diligently forgives Obama for adding "embellishments" to his supposedly truthful book.

The author tells us that Obama grew disillusioned with radical leftism. Maraniss goes so far as writing that he "turned away from the rhetoric of the left, doubting its practicality." Gasp, shock, horror! In order to turn away from it, Obama had to have embraced it in the first place, and we hadn't even been told! But who, oh, who could have indoctrinated him, one wonders? Surely not his leftist mother, his Marxist teachers, his communist mentor? We forgive Maraniss for withholding this critical piece of information, since by that point in his book, even the most gullible yokel has started reading between the lines.

But there is still a problem. While Maraniss affirms that Obama abandoned leftist rhetoric, our president gave us many outrageous examples of it in the last four years.So Maraniss' assertion is questionable. And worse, what is the author's motivation for such a bald-faced, er, statement? Is it because Maraniss is getting frightened by his own revelations? Is it an attempt to reassure the reader, who is shown a facet of Obama that his supporters would rather hide?

And what a facet it is: Business International was Obama's first permanent honest job in the private sector, and the ideological scales on his eyes are so thick that he sees his placid employer as an "enemy." This was truly a bad omen for America's small businesses. But readers probably thought it was just, I dunno . . . leftist rhetoric?

In 1984, Obama started coldly distancing himself from his Pakistani friends. Another interesting aspect of Obama shows up when Maraniss describes his relationship with Genevieve: Obama craved love, affection, attention, but didn't return it. Narcissism again.

That fall, Genevieve took a teaching job at a New York public school. Quite unsurprisingly, she started drinking a lot — alas, many a public school teacher career turns into a race between retirement and liver damage. In December, Obama left B.I. without admitting to his boss that he was looking to go into agitprop. This and many other details reveal a long-anchored habit of dissimulation, an attention to secrecy about his personal life, that remains to this day a troubling trait of his personality.

The Chicago debutante

In January 1985, Obama joined the New York Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit devoted to "community organizing." His turf was the Harlem campus of the City University. His girlfriend grew irritated with his coldness, his reserve, and his lack of empathy — readers who know narcissists will instantly relate. She left him in May. Obama, meanwhile, had sent a resume to a small Chicago-based "organizing" outfit called Development Communities Project (DCP), which needed someone — a black man — to work the Chicago South Side. Chicago looked like a place of opportunity to Obama, given the election of its first black mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983.

The founder of DCP, one Jerry Kellman, was an adept of Saul Alinsky. Kellman interviewed Obama very deeply and recognized that this candidate possessed the most important quality of an activist: anger and resentment against the American society, in spite of a cocooned life. Kellman thought him naive and politically unsophisticated, and expected Chicago to beat it out of him. Obama joined DCP and Kellman became his mentor.

While many think of Alinsky as a master of lies and duplicity, Kellman found him too direct. Kellman was apparently an advocate of entryism, a political tactic mostly employed by Troskyites. Entryism favors flexibility, dissimulation, fake agreement, and placement of secret accomplices in important positions.

When he describes Obama moving to Chicago, Maraniss finally admits that community organizing is agitprop. The basic technique is the deep one-to-one interview in which the agitator, I mean organizer, gets a more or less random person to talk about his life, his community, his concerns, his interests. The organizer listens, but filters, retaining mostly the parts that can be attached to the narrative and support the cause du jour. He then writes a summary report. Not coincidentally, this technique is also used by handling officers of a foreign intelligence service who want to recruit an asset, that is, a willing or unwilling citizen whom the handler will use and then often abandon.

Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood.

Obama interviewed many people and wrote many reports, mastering the asset interview technique. He also cultivated the art of pleasing people. Nevertheless, his street cred left a lot to be desired. He and Kellman sometimes faced outright racism from the South Side black activists. When Obama tried to ally with activist preachers, he got rejected as an outsider, a pawn of the Jews and the Catholics. Kellman felt Obama was hampered by his hesitant attitude, his refusal of confrontation. Later, in conversations with other DCP agitators, Obama didn't mince words about the "hypocritical aspects of prevalent black attitudes." He thought that the black community neglected education, needed more accountability, and was too prompt to victimhood. This is a paradox, because a lot of agitprop slogans unleashed in the South Side revolved around black exploitation and hardship at the hands of a racist society.

To his credit, Obama didn't adhere to the black victim credo. It is a tragedy that he decided to toe the victimhood line after his election: he could have made a huge difference in the life of millions of blacks. Was he afraid of being rejected by African-Americans, and being called an Oreo again?

In Dreams from My Father, Obama magnifies his role at DCP and gives himself credit for getting the Chicago Housing Authority to remove asbestos from certain buildings. Maraniss writes that "at the least, [Obama's] memoirs did not tell the complete story." In other words, yet another embellishment. In 1986, Obama started dating a (white) graduate student at the University of Chicago who had majored in anthropology. Maraniss calls our attention on the pattern here, suggesting that the string of girlfriends versed in anthropology acted as mother substitutes.

On one of the boundaries of Obama's assigned district lay the Trinity United Church of Christ, led by Jeremiah Wright. Obama joined in October 1987, when Wright was already famous. Nowhere does Maraniss so much as suggest that Wright was inflammatory. As we know, Wright is such a country-hating, race-baiting embarrassment that Obama had to repudiate him, and the media immediately threw Wright into a memory hole, never to be mentioned again. It is sad to see Maraniss whitewash Wright's extremism and describe him merely as a colorful pastor.

After a few years, Obama was feeling the limits of his work. Seeing Chicago politicians in action had given him a glimpse of real power, prestige, and charisma. He realized that he couldn't satisfy his enormous ambition by being a mere agitator, especially when his hopes of ascension were being blocked by frustrating apathy and infighting. Politics was the drug, and the gateway was being a lawyer. Obama applied to law schools and was accepted at Harvard in 1988. He kept his plans secret for a while before announcing to DCP that he was leaving.

Maraniss doesn't shed any light on two critical questions: how was Obama admitted after a long academic hiatus? Or was the Harvard admission board simply chafing at the bit to admit a black activist? We know from his self-written biographical notices that at least until 2004, Obama presented himself as born in Kenya. Was "diversity" a factor in his admission? And how was the considerable tuition paid? We aren't told. Maraniss prefers to devote the last pages of the book to a vacation in Kenya that Obama took before starting law school. The book ends, disappointingly, before Obama’s law school years and career, and of course before his Senate election.

Turning the last page, the reader is left with a curious impression. One can almost picture an office full of archive boxes that the author painstakingly accumulated during his ample research. One can hear the shuffling noise of material being considered, then reluctantly rejected for space reasons. And in a corner, one can sense several boxes on which a tarp has been thrown, their contents never to be disclosed. The howls and the treason accusations were unfair, after all. Maraniss knows exactly how far he can go.


Editor's Note: Review of "Barack Obama: The Story," by David Maraniss. Simon & Schuster, 2012, 672 pages.



Share This


Ron Paul: The Books

 | 

Two prominent libertarian authors, Walter Block and Brian Doherty, have just published books about the same important subject: Ron Paul.

Liberty thought it would be a good idea to ask each author to review the other. No one knew how this would turn out — but here are the results. Stephen Cox

* * *

Ron Paul’s Revolution: The Man and the Movement He Inspired, by Brian Doherty. HarperCollins, 2012, 294 pages.

Reviewed by Walter E. Block

This is a magnificent book. It is riveting, hard to put down, informative. I experienced much of the Ron Paul phenomenon myself, up close and personal, yet I learned a great deal from Doherty’s explication. In another life, he must have been a safari guide to the deepest jungles, or an inspired travel guide to foreign lands, or a gifted sociologist. He takes us on a trip through the libertarian movement as brought to us by Dr. Paul as no one else has been able to do.

If you are a Ron Paul fan, or are interested in his foray into Republican and Libertarian politics, or even hate the man and want to be informed about him, this is the book to get. Its main drawback is that it was released on May 15, which means that Doherty must have finished writing it early in the year (he covers the Iowa caucus in its last few pages); but so much has happened since then, and without this author to put all these recent occurrences together for us, it just isn’t the same. This means that if Ron Paul becomes the next president of the US and appoints me czar of anything, I shall order Doherty to write a sequel to this important book of his.

Our author takes us on a historical tour of Ron Pauliana from his early days, to his medical career, to his beginnings in politics, his struggles as the Dr. No congressman, and his three campaigns for the presidency — one for the Libertarian Party, and two for the Republicans. But this book is far more than a biography. One of its many strengths is Doherty’s incisive knowledge of the libertarian movement in all its esoterica.

Others are his numerous vignettes of the people who have given of themselves, lost jobs and alienated friends and family members, in their support of Paul. Doherty also offers candid assessments of Ron Paul himself; we get not only the palpable love that Doherty feels for Paul, but also some of Paul's warts; e.g., he refuses to take lessons from professional speakers, he keeps his religious faith to himself, and he almost absolutely refuses to tailor his message to his audience (of course without violating his principles — what kind of a politician is that?) — things I didn’t fully appreciate even though I, too, am something of an intimate of Paul.

Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he described the dramatic Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11.

Doherty is not a professional economist. Yet his insights into the gold standard, budgets, the deficit, the debt, the fallacies of Keynesianism, the Austrian business cycle theory, the Fed, inflation, the Ponzi scheme of Social Security, the difficulties with socialized medicine, and much more — are clear and true. He is a journalist, not a libertarian theorist, and he is also insightful in his treatment of the niceties of legalizing drugs, the distinction between crony and real capitalism, the strengths and weaknesses of various “movement” organizations and leaders, "voluntaryism," anarcho-capitalism, and a host of other often complicated issues.

The dramatic highlight for me in this book was our author’s depiction of the Giuliani-Paul dustup about 9/11. I witnessed this myself, firsthand. And I read what was said about it, in the aftermath. Yet Doherty had me at the edge of my seat, practically panting with glee, as he once again described this dramatic event. Doherty is nothing if not a magnificent storyteller, and this gift of his pervades the book.

This is a strange review for me to write, for at roughly the same time that his book about Paul was released, so was mine. Doherty and I agreed to review each others’ books, and this is my contribution to the agreement. Although Doherty and I share a love for Ron Paul, our books are very different. I don’t interview anyone; Doherty's book is chock-full of interviews. In contrast to Doherty's, mine shares no personal experiences with Paul and Paulians. Mine is not at all historical. I do not give any tour of the libertarian movement, as he does. Instead, my book is in part an attempt to garner publicity for Paul. I wrote articles that later became chapters in the book about whom he might pick for Vice President and whom for Supreme Court, not so much because I thought there was a clear and present need for such speculations, but more as an attempt to promote his quest for the presidency. In the book, I feature groups such as Jews for Ron Paul, to combat charges that he was anti-Semitic, anti-Israel. I offer a few “Open Letters to Ron Paul,” where I have the temerity to offer him advice on, among other things, how best to deal with interviewers who simply will not allow him to speak.

Another part of my book features my sometimes, I admit it, pretty vicious attacks on people who “done wrong” to Ron Paul. These chapters are not so much aimed at liberals or conservatives, although I do take on a few of them. I can (sort of) forgive them their trespasses. What do they know about anything important after all? No, my ire was aroused to the boiling point by unwarranted criticisms emanating from libertarians, several with impeccable credentials in this philosophy. They, it seems to me, should have known better.

Let me close this review with two very minor criticisms of the Doherty book. For one thing, he (along with practically everyone else) characterizes the war of 1861 in the US as a “Civil War.” But ’twas not a civil war. That term pertains to the case in which one party wishes to take over the entire country at the expense of its opponent. The wars in Spain in 1936 and in Russia in 1917 were true civil wars. While the North in 1861 did indeed wish to rule the entire nation, the South did not. It only wished to secede. So a more accurate characterization would be, the War to Prevent Southern Secession, or the War Between the States, or the War of Northern Aggression.

Second, Doherty (p. 254) claims that what enraged Ayn Rand about the publication in the Freeman of Milton Friedman and George Stigler’s article, “Roofs or Ceilings” was that Friedman “was willing to grant the good intentions of his intellectual adversaries.” No, she was angry at Friedman and Stigler because of “a paragraph on page 10, which seems to suggest the authors agree with the goal of equalizing income.” Rand (very properly in my own view) called them “the two reds” (Snow, 2012). In the view of Skousen, 1998: “Ayn Rand labeled the pamphlet ‘collectivist propaganda’ and ‘the most pernicious thing ever issued by an avowedly conservative organization’ because the economists favored lifting rent controls on practical, humanitarian grounds, not in defense of ‘the inalienable right of landlords and property owners.’” Miss Rand objected to Friedman-Stigler on both of the grounds just stated, and I concur with her on each.

But these are minor blemishes in an otherwise magnificent book. I loved reading it, and so will you, if you have even the slightest interest in Ron Paul and liberty.

References:
Skousen, Mark. 1998. “Vienna and Chicago: A Tale of Two Schools.”
http://www.thefreemanonline.org/features/vienna-and-chicago-a-tale-of-two-schools/
Snow, Nicholas. 2011. “Making Sense of the Controversy.” February 22;
http://www.fee.org/from-the-archives/making-sense-of-the-controversy/

* * *

Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty, by Walter Block. Ishi Press International, 2012, 392 pages)

Reviewed by Brian Doherty

Libertarian economist Walter Block really, really likes Ron Paul, and thinks Paul ought to be (and thought when he wrote this book that he would be) the next president of the United States. As the title indicates, Ron Paul for President in 2012: Yes to Ron Paul and Liberty is a book of express, and strongly worded, advocacy. Block grants at one point that, well, libertarians can maintain their cred as true friends of liberty merely by not stabbing Paul in the back. But his general tone sells the message that anything other than pure adoration and belief in Paul’s eventual victory qualifies as such stabbing, and he writes that he sees support for Paul as “a sort of litmus test for libertarianism.” Anyone who does not share and express Block’s own thoughts and feelings regarding Ron Paul with precisely the same, or nearly the same, strength and commitment seems to be, in Block’s view, an objective enemy of libertarianism, and generally “despicable” (a favorite Block word for people or articles he thinks are anti-Paul).

Block’s new book is a collection of his articles and blog posts, most of which appeared at the website LewRockwell.com, and were written mostly over the course of Paul’s 2011–12 campaign. As Block writes in the book’s introduction, “Each and every last one of these chapters is an attempt . . . to expand and expound upon his [Paul's] views, to publicize them, to promote his candidacy, to defend it against attacks from within and without the libertarian movement.”

Block is a professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans by vocation, and by avocation the “Jewish mother” of what he sometimes calls the Austro-libertarian movement, the hardcore pushers of a Rothbardian plumbline of Austrian economics and anarchistic libertarianism. Here, this Jewish mother’s mission is to tell libertarians, and the world, that they need to push for Paul. Although Paul is not 100% by Block’s own standards — even Block admits the non-anarchist Congressman Paul is only a 97, and further admits to disagreeing with Paul on immigration and abortion — Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever. Block believes that “the Texas congressman has acquainted more people with libertarianism, and converted them to this philosophy, then all of the other [libertarian thought leaders] put together.”

Block is well placed to judge these matters regarding the libertarian movement. He’s a grandmaster of modern libertarianism himself, fighting in the trenches of academic and popular writings on Austrian and libertarian issues for over four decades, since he was converted to Austrian economics at Murray Rothbard’s feet. He’s the author of the libertarian classic Defending the Undefendable, which rigorously argues for the legitimacy of such professions as the blackmailer, ticket scalper, slumlord, scab, and employer of child labor, professions which disgust many but which Block points out aggress against no one and provide real economic value and should not be interfered with by the state. That book’s purpose is not to be shocking, per se, but to be rigorously intelligent in identifying the legal and moral meanings of the modern libertarian project, and Block performs the purpose brilliantly. As F.A. Hayek, not nearly as hardcore as Block himself, said of the book: “Some may find it too strong a medicine, but it will still do them good even if they hate it. A real understanding of economics demands that one disabuses oneself of many dear prejudices and illusions. Popular fallacies in economics frequently express themselves in unfounded prejudices against other occupations, and in showing the falsity of these stereotypes Block is doing a real service, although he will not make himself more popular with the majority."

Block finds Paul’s rise in public prominence in his 2008 and 2012 campaigns the greatest thing that’s happened to the libertarian cause in, well, ever.

Block tries to write, here as in all his popular writings, with a light hand. His version of lightness, though, often manifests itself as a very New Yorker-ish (not the magazine — a stereotypical New Yorker) heavy sarcasm, with bursts of manic silliness. But his point is serious, even when made with bludgeoning irony. The book contains defenses and explanation of Paul’s stances on discrimination law, environmental protection, the dangers of the Federal Reserve, and ending the drug war, among other issues. Block advises Paul, from afar, about how to conduct himself during debates, while wisely allowing that, given Paul’s tremendous success, he’s obviously already doing most things right: “It is unlikely that [his success] is in spite of his presentation style.” Block also indulges in some Paul fannish fun, such as skylarking about possible Supreme Court nominees or vice presidential picks for the congressman.

Since this book collects pretty much everything Block has written in the past four years that mentions Paul at all, it is a bit repetitive, and it sometimes drifts a bit into more general libertarian controversies, such as Block’s daring defense of accepting money and jobs from the government. Block believes that as long as you stand against statist policies, “the more money you take from the coffers of the state, the better libertarian you are.”

The book also contains Block debating or attacking other libertarians for falling short of Paulist standards; instances, he believes, are Randy Barnett’s pro-Iraq War stance, and Wendy McElroy’s disdain for any major-party political leader for the libertarian cause. Block often provides line-by-line eviscerations of other people’s writings that he found mistaken or insufficiently respectful to Paul, whether from libertarian or nonlibertarian sources. (Block regards one of my Reason colleagues expressing on TV the opinion that there was no way Paul would win the presidency — and with a look on her face that he found objectionable, to boot — as a firable offence. He regards an organization that would not do such firing as unworthy of the libertarian label or libertarian support. Reason, of course,did not fire her.)

Block may be read by some as too hero-worshipping of Paul, and unrealistically optimistic about his chances. (Block, for example, seems to think the probability of Paul’s victory can be calculated merely by assuming that every single GOP candidate has the exact same odds of winning.) But Block is objective enough to admit that despite his admittedly great success as a proselytizer for the cause, Paul is “not a leading theoretician, not a leading economist . . . not a leading intellectual” of the movement. So what is he? I think Block would agree with my assessment, as author of my own book about Paul and someone who has followed his career with interest and support since 1988, that Paul is a staunch student and fan of Mises and Rothbard who has learned and can transmit their lessons well, who found himself in the position — ironically through a major-party run for president — of selling radically anti-political libertarian ideas with greater efficiency and success than anyone else has managed for a very long while. Block is correct in thinking that Paul has been uniquely successful at his task, and most interestingly by finding a huge mass of normal Americans who never thought of themselves as libertarians before, or as anything specifically political at all.

Understanding what Paul did and said since 2007 ought to be of great interest to libertarians or students of libertarianism, or just students of American politics, and Block gathers a useful collection of information and arguments about the Paul movement as it happened, touching on many of the controversies that surrounded Paul, both within and without libertarianism. If one is a Paul fan seeking a grab-bag of commentary and explanations that is unabashedly pro-Paul — something difficult to find in the modern media environment — then he or she will at least have fun with this book, and likely learn a lot about some of the more complicated issues Block addresses, such as strict property-right libertarian environmentalism, and how to figure out, amid the maddening empirical complications of modern foreign policy issues, who is and who is not an initial aggressor, as opposed to simply a retaliator.

Readers not already 100% sold on Paul are likely to feel Block’s suspicion and even contempt radiating at them. But 10, 20, or 30 years from now, when people look back on what the Paul movement may have meant for American libertarianism, this book will be a valuable document of the excitement and manic energy that Paul’s presence inspired in many a libertarian, old and new.




Share This


Ron Paul and the Future

 | 

Four years ago, when Rep. Ron Paul suspended his campaign for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, he would not endorse the party’s nominee, was not invited to the party’s convention, and held a counter-convention of his own. By all appearances, he’s not going to do that this year.

At Antiwar.com, Justin Raimondo urged Paul to run as an independent, “because a third party candidacy will leave a legacy, a lasting monument to your campaign and the movement it created.” I can’t see a lasting monument in it, or the sense. I note that Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

In 2008, I wrote in Liberty that Paul ought to endorse the party’s nominee, John McCain. Paul wouldn’t have to campaign for McCain, I said, and he could remind people how he was different from McCain, but to preserve his influence in the party he’d have to endorse McCain as preferable to Obama. Well, he didn’t. Paul endorsed Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin, a pastor and radio talk show host whom few Americans had heard of, and who received 0.15% of the general election vote.

Paul’s forces are continuing to push in the caucus states for convention delegates, which confirms that Paul expects to attend the convention as a loyal Republican.

This year Paul turns 77. He is not running to keep his seat in Congress. His career as an elected politician is at an end. But since January 2011 he has had a son, Rand Paul, in the Senate. There is talk of the junior senator from Kentucky being Romney’s vice-presidential choice and more talk of him running for president in four years, or eight. Either way, for Ron Paul, having a 49-year-old son in the Senate changes the calculus about party loyalty and his movement.

Again, I say: endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s. It means there is a Republican label on you and your supporters. And that is important, especially regarding them.

Is an endorsement a betrayal?

What was the point of the Paul campaign? To put Ron Paul in the White House? That was never possible. In public, Paul had to pretend that it was, because those are the American rules, and his supporters have been pretending it even harder. But it was a fairy tale. Ron Paul’s purpose has been to advance the cause of liberty, sound money, and a non-imperial foreign policy. He could do this even if he fought and lost, depending on how he did it. He was introducing new ideas (or old ones) into political discourse, creating a new faction that aimed to redirect the mainstream of one of the two great national parties.

That is not a defeatist notion. It may be a task with a lasting monument, though it is too early to say.

A political leader changes the thought of a party by persuading people to embrace new ideas. To do that, he needs the media’s attention, and in politics, equal attention is not given an outsider. It has to be earned by such things as polls, the size and behavior of crowds, money raised and, ultimately, by electoral results.

Endorse the nominee. It doesn’t mean you agree with everything the nominee says. It means that in a field of two, you prefer your team’s candidate to the other one’s.

Paul achieved none of these things in 1988 as the nominee of the Libertarian Party. He was nobody, and he went home with 0.47% of the vote. But in 2008, in the Republican Party’s primary campaigns, he did unexpectedly well, measured by straw polls, crowd behavior, and campaign donations. Unfortunately, the media pegged his support as narrow-but-deep (they were right) and mostly ignored him. He took 5.56% of the Republican vote — one vote in 20.

This year they still slighted him, though less than before. And he received 10.86% — one vote in almost nine. His support was still narrow-but-deep, but wider in almost every state. He was not the top votegetter in any of them, but he came close in Maine and garnered more than 20% of Republican support in six caucus states: Maine, 36%, North Dakota, 28%, Minnesota, 27%, Washington, 25%, Alaska, 24%, and Iowa, 21% — and in three primary states: Vermont, 25%, Rhode Island, 24% and New Hampshire, 23% (not counting Virginia, 40%, where his only opponent was Romney).

Paul’s support is not typical for Republican politicians. He is from south Texas, but seems to do best in states on the Canadian border. Most of his best states are Democrat “blue” rather than Republican “red.” He was the oldest candidate in the race, but exit polls showed in state after state that he had the youngest supporters. In New Hampshire, a Fox News exit poll showed Paul winning 46% of Republican voters 18 to 29 years of age.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top. Some believe that Ron Paul is the only man who can save America, and that anyone who opposes him is evil. They don’t see themselves as joining a party; they aim to take it over. In the unfamiliar turf of parliamentary procedure, they are quick to cry foul and sometimes are right. At the moment, their strategy in the caucus states is to outstay the Romney supporters and snatch the national delegates away from them.

And that makes for nastiness.

This is from a Politico story by James Hohmann, May 14:

Those close to [Ron Paul] say he’s become worried about a series of chaotic state GOP conventions in recent weeks that threaten to undermine the long-term viability of the movement he’s spent decades building. In the past few days alone, several incidents cast the campaign in an unfavorable light: Mitt Romney’s son Josh was booed off the stage by Paul backers in Arizona on Saturday, and Romney surrogates Tim Pawlenty and Gov. Mary Fallin received similarly rude treatment in Oklahoma.

Booing is the public stuff. I know a political operative who crossed the Paul forces and received death threats — so many, he said, that he turned off his phone for two weeks.

Enthusiasm can become something else. (For more examples, google “Ron Paul supporters are”.)

Given the strength — and sometimes the immaturity — of his supporters, what is Paul to do? Endorse Romney or not, he will soon be a non-candidate and a non-congressman.

Enthusiasm among the young is a special political asset, but with a liability: the zeal of believers can go over the top.

What then? One poll asked Paul supporters whom they would vote for in November. The answer: Obama, 35%; Romney, 31%; Gary Johnson, 16%. The Paul movement splinters.

How they vote in November might change if Paul made an endorsement; and anyway, how they think is the more important thing in the long run. If a large number of the young ones went into one political party and stayed there, they might change that party — and that could be the lasting monument.

All this is something for Ron Paul to think about as he ponders whether to endorse, what to do with his 100-plus delegates, and what to say if the party gives him a chance to address the national convention.




Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2017 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.