The Libertarian Party Vote

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Three days after the national election, Gary Johnson's total vote is 1,139,562, which is 0.9%, or less than the difference between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Google's Politics & Elections web page has Johnson's state percentages as follows:

3.5 NM
2.9 MT
2.5 AK
2.2 WY
2.0 ME

1.9 IN
1.8 KS
1.6 ND
1.6 SD
1.6 MO

1.5 AR
1.4 ID
1.4 NE
1.3 CO
1.3 AZ

1.2 OR
1.2 UT
1.2 VT
1.2 NH
1.2 MN

1.2 GA
1.1 NV
1.1 TX
1.1 IL
1.1 MD

1.0 CA
1.0 WA
1.0 MA
1.0 RI
1.0 NC

0.9 LA
0.9 PA
0.9 OH
0.9 HI
0.9 DE

0.9 WV
0.9 KY
0.8 IA
0.8 CT
0.8 VA

0.8 TN
0.8 SC
0.7 WI
0.7 NY
0.6 NJ

0.6 AL
0.5 MS
0.5 FL
0.0 OK (not on ballot)
0.0 MI (not on ballot)

The high percentage is in New Mexico, where Johnson was governor for two terms. The next four states are 2% to 2.9%. All are wide-open-spaces states: Montana, Alaska, Wyoming and Maine. Johnson's worst states were in the deep South — Alabama, Mississippi, Florida — and in the urban East: New York and New Jersey.

The correlation with "red" and "blue" states is fairly weak. Vermont is the "bluest" state in the union, and Utah is the "reddest." Johnson's share in each was 1.2%.

Gary Johnson did not affect the outcome of the election or the electoral vote. In none of the battleground states won by Obama — Colorado, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Virginia, Wisconsin or Florida — would the Johnson vote have flipped the state to Romney, if Romney had won all of it.

In the "battleground" states that decided the election — and in which Johnson could be a spoiler — his share was in the lower two-thirds of the distribution, ranging from 1.3% in Colorado to 0.5% in Florida. This cannot be proved, but probably a state’s being a "battleground" depressed the Johnson vote by a few tenths of a percentage point of the total vote.




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The Fog of Cover Your Ass

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The White House spent almost two weeks in clumsy and confusing attempts to blame an obscure, anti-Muslim video for the attack on the American Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi, Libya. By the time it finally admitted that terrorism was the cause, a much larger, immensely more damning, problem emerged: almost daily, reports from security officials and intelligence sources on the ground in Libya began to suggest deep incompetence and negligence in the loftiest offices of Washington DC. The new questions, which focused on security lapses leading up to the attack, were answered with equally delusive attempts at escaping responsibility, as the White House resorted to blame-shifting (we didn't know, we weren't told), stonewalling (wait until our investigation is complete, long after the election), and feigned indignation (that the tragedy could be politicized).

And there is also, of course, "the fog of war," invoked to absolve any national security malfeasance that may have occurred in the chaotic, terrorist hotbed of Benghazi. “Fog” was supposed to excuse the administration's clownish laxity during the attack and to explain the repeated denials of requests for enhanced security in the months leading up to it. But the repeated refusals (by the Department of Defense and the CIA) of military support during the attack are even more troublesome. Absolution for failing to help Americans under siege is obtainable, but absolution for failing even to try, despite the fog of war, should not come easy.

The attack, which lasted over seven hours, began around 3:40 pm ET. Contrary to White House claims of nebulous intelligence information, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring an audio feed of the attack (in real time, from its inception), and email alerts of the attack began arriving at 4:05 pm ET (at, among other places, the White House Situation Room). CIA Director David Petraeus was no doubt immediately alerted by the Benghazi CIA safe house. President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET. The first of two unarmed Predator drones arrived in Benghazi at 5:11 ET.

President Obama's national security team was being inundated (again in real time), with phone calls, emails, radio transmissions, and video from Benghazi. In a recent CNN article, “What really happened in Benghazi?”, William Bennett posed the most gravely consequential question: "Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?" Significant military resources were located within one to two hours of Benghazi, some in the city itself. None was dispatched. Bennett's article was aptly subtitled, "The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.”

Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied.

The gunfire that rang out in the Situation Room was also heard by former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was stationed at the CIA safe house about a mile from the Mission. Woods frantically requested backup from the CIA and asked permission to assist the Americans under attack. The request for backup was denied. He was twice told to "stand down."

Disobeying the orders, Woods and his five-man team left for the Mission where they rescued several people and returned to the safe house with the body of Ambassador Stevens’ colleague, Sean Smith. Woods again requested military backup and was again denied. He was soon joined by Glen Doherty, also a former Navy SEAL, in a heroic defense of the safe house. Both were killed by a mortar shell four hours later, nearly seven hours after the attack on the Mission began.

As the truth about Benghazi security lapses leaked into public knowledge, Secretary of State Clinton was first to blame the fog of war. To her credit, she was also the first to show a little backbone. Amid the growing perception that both the White House and State Department lacked concern for the safety of diplomats, Mrs. Clinton bravely stepped forward to shift blame away from the White House, saying, "I'm in charge of the state department's 60,000-plus people . . . the president and the vice-president wouldn't be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals . . ."

Describing an "intense, long ordeal" for State Department staffers as they struggled to find out what was happening, Clinton said the buck stopped with her and not the White House. Ironically, she expressed this concern in an October 15 CNN interview, her first since the attack over a month before, while she was attending a conference on women and entrepreneurship in Lima, Peru — at a time when Barack Obama was attending a fundraiser in San Francisco. The empathy didn't shine through the fog; the buck failed to stop at the State Department.

Initially, David Petraeus appeared to be toeing the Obama line of blaming video-incited demonstrators for the Benghazi attack. On September 13, the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center stated that the attack was executed by Al Qaeda or Al Qaeda-affiliated militias. The very next day, incredibly, Petraeus described it as being tied to a demonstration — one he knew did not occur. However, in the case of the safe house attack, he would later state, through a CIA spokesperson, that the CIA had nothing to do with the decision to deny backup requests. Call it the fog of war, but this assertion sent the buck wafting back towards its rightful stop (the president). If Petraeus didn't refuse support, who else had the authority to do so?

On the day of the attack, numerous US military aircraft, including fighter jets and Specter AC-130 gunships, were stationed within an hour's flight of Benghazi. A Marine contingent and two separate Tier One Special Operations forces, including Delta Force operators, were less than two hours away. And there were other, much closer capabilities in the region: armed drones that monitor chemical weapon sites, F-18's, AC-130 aircraft, and helicopters. Indeed, there were British security forces stationed in Benghazi who were more than willing to assist. According to Fox News, the British were frustrated that they were not summoned. Said one, “We have more people on the ground here than the Americans and I just don't know why we didn't get the call."

Had these forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved. Yet Leon Panetta had the forces all stand down. Within the fog of war, he said, “the basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

But he did have "real-time information." As we now know, Obama's national security team was notified within minutes of the consulate attack — an attack that began in late afternoon, Washington time, when all team members were available. And he had a large window of opportunity in which to insert military forces highly trained in counterterrorism and rescue operations. Panetta also knew, early on, that the threat was not a mob of demonstrators that would soon tire and disperse; it was terrorists — very well organized, armed, and trained — who would execute their attack throughout the night until their objective was achieved.

Had forces been dispatched at any time from immediately after the first shots at the Mission to as long as four or five hours later, it is likely that American lives would have been saved.

We are left to wonder what really went on in the White House situation room that day, the ominous anniversary of 9/11. How did Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus assess the events of Benghazi? What rescue plans did they consider? Which of them concocted the anti-Muslim video narrative? What recommendations did they offer President Obama? And although such questions are important, the overriding question is Obama’s own role. As commander-in-chief, he, and only he, could have made the decision to withhold the military forces. But, as the story unfolds, it seems that nothing gutsy or courageous happened — only a fretful, indecisive, seven-hour wait for the window of opportunity to close. No military forces were sent to rescue the Americans stranded in Benghazi. Not early. Not late. Not a single aircraft. Not a single unit. Not even an attempt.

Alas, there will be no dramatic Situation Room pictures (such as those of the bin Laden raid, which saturated the media for weeks) of President Obama surrounded by his national security team, making the tough decisions. The following morning, in the Rose Garden, Mr. Obama decided not to explain his failure, in his own words, to "make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to." After a brief statement eulogizing the four Americans who died in Benghazi, he decided to fly to Las Vegas for a political fundraiser.

Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus stood by, hapless and indecisive, as other Americans died. Ty Woods, unlike his superiors in Washington, did not hesitate. He risked, then sacrificed, his life to save others. Marine and Special Operations units nearby would have done the same. But what should be done when Americans are being killed by terrorists only hours away from American forces (minutes away from allied forces) that could possibly rescue them? There is no doubt that any decision to place military forces in harm’s way is fraught with risk. There is also the risk of failure and the fear of political fallout. Then, of course, there is morality and honor. Finally, however, there is the fog of war, which will cover the asses of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, and David Petraeus, the people who didn't even try.




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The Politics of Yes

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President Barack Obama’s victory was secured by a politics of yes. Telling voters yes is essential to victory since most voters do not like to be told no. The key to political victory is figuring out how to tell the most people yes and the fewest people no. The president secured a second term by successfully employing this strategy.

There are two groups of voters that gave him a second term: women and Latino voters. Women voters do not want to be told no when it comes to their bodies. What put women voters in the president’s camp was such social issues as abortion. As long as abortion is put in terms of women’s health and rights, Republicans will not be able to capture a large enough portion of independent women voters in swing states to win the White House. The Republicans have three options: (1) adopt a pro-choice stance, (2) let the issue fade into the background so that it no longer plays a pivotal role, (3) reframe the debate over abortion from a woman’s health issue to a fetal health issue.

The first option will not, and perhaps should not, happen. Option number three will be a difficult maneuver and may prove too nuanced to change anyone’s mind. This leaves option number two as the only good option for capturing the votes of women who voted for President Obama because of the Republican stance on abortion. At a minimum, though, Republicans need to do a better job of keeping people like Richard Mourdock of Indiana and Todd Akin of Missouri from making inane comments on the topic.

Latino voters, either in fact or in rhetoric, were told yes by Democrats and no by Republicans. Whether it was Arizona’s controversial immigration law SB 1070 or Mitt Romney’s policy of self-deportation, Latino voters saw the Republican Party telling them, “We don’t want you here.” Rick Perry was crushed by the Right during the primary season for his decision as Texas governor to support a bill that would offer in-state tuition to some undocumented students. In other words, when a Republican tried to say yes to the Latino community, the base of the Republican Party turned against him.

Latino voters understood the Republican Party to be telling them no, which is why they went with the president by a 75-23 margin nationally. In an up for grabs Colorado they went his way by a margin of 87 to 10; in Ohio by 82 to 17. Just as with women voters, the GOP needs to find a way to appeal to Latino voters by either changing its stance on controversial issues, emphasizing new issues that may appeal to Latino voters, or reframing the existing debate. The most effective and consistent strategy would be for Republicans to find issues about which their ideas align with the Latino-voting population and push those to the center of the debate.

The evidence is clear; voters want to be told yes. Colorado voters want to be told that, yes, they may smoke what they want, while Maine and Maryland voters want to be told that, yes, they may marry whomever they choose. Victory in 2012 went to the party that told more people yes and fewer people no. The point is not which party has policies that are better for the country, but it is about which party makes voters feel as if they were being told yes.

For those who care about the quality of the proposals this is problematic in that there is no assessment of what is good but only what is politically expedient. Some ideas that are good are not expedient. This is an inherent problem with popular government. James Madison, the author of The Federalist No. 10, knew this to be true, which is why he argued for a republican form of government rather than a democracy: only within a republic where power is divided horizontally and vertically can the capricious nature of the electorate be tempered. Perhaps the safeguards have eroded over time or they were insufficient to begin with, but it appears that Madison's “factions” have found a welcome home within the American political process.

Nobody wants to hear that it is in the nation's best interest, or in the best interest of liberty, to let an industry go bankrupt, to let housing prices fall, or to tell retired people that their financial stability is not the government's responsibility. What most voters want to hear, according to what happened on November 6, is that when we need help we should ask the government and the government should always pronounce a resounding yes!




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The Election and the Future

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It’s not that conservatism isn’t a governing philosophy, it’s that lunacy isn’t a governing philosophy.

 — Joe Scarborough

The election of 2012 is over and Obama and the Democrats have given Romney and the Republicans a sound thrashing. After the Republican sweep in the 2010 Congressional elections, this analyst wondered whether 2012 would be a repeat of 1980 (when the challenger swept out a weak incumbent) or 2004 (when a weak incumbent fended off a weak challenger). Once the Republican field took shape, I felt certain we would witness a repeat of 2004.

I was wrong. Despite a weak economy and the shadow of Benghazi hanging over his administration, Obama won handily. He won an absolute majority of the popular vote, and garnered almost 3 million more votes than Romney. His electoral vote count will probably reach 332, a decline from 2008 to be sure, but still impressive. Democratic gains in the Senate were equally impressive. With Democrats in 23 of the 33 Senate seats up for grabs, there was every expectation that the Republicans would gain at least four seats, giving them control of the Senate. Instead Republicans lost ground, and were defeated in senatorial contests in the red states of Indiana, Missouri, and Montana.

The Republicans have no one but themselves to blame. Mitt Romney ran possibly the worst presidential campaign in our history. He tried to pander and lie his way to the White House, and the electorate called him on it. All politicians pander and lie. Mitt was the first to do nothing but. The better Romney came through in his concession speech — the first and only honorable act of his campaign. The man clearly lacks an inner core of character and belief, and the nation is well off without him in the top job.

Voters were also wise enough to reject Republican loonies such as Todd Aiken (the “legitimate rape” candidate) and Richard Mourdock (who maintained that a pregnancy resulting from rape is God’s will). One Republican shibboleth after another went down in disgrace on Tuesday. There was no voter fraud — indeed, the only electoral fraud perpetrated during this cycle consisted of Republican legislative moves to suppress voter turnout. The voters didn’t buy the contention that 47% of their fellow citizens — including veterans and serving soldiers, sailors, and airmen — are parasites. Gay marriage was endorsed by voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington, and yet the sky did not fall. It is now clear that full equality for gays and lesbians can only be delayed, not denied.

It is difficult to see how the far right of the party can reconcile itself to moderation. Pragmatists win elections, but fanatics prefer to go down in flames.

Even on Tuesday night there were rumblings from Tea Partiers that the defeat was caused by the Republican establishment’s determination to foist a moderate upon them. This is an illusion that the far right of the party will continue to cling to, perhaps to its dying breath. It is quite clear that had Mike Huckabee run in 2012, he would’ve won the nomination. It is equally clear that Obama would have beaten him, and by an even wider margin. The fact is, despite mass unemployment and huge budget deficits, only a truly moderate Republican — fiscally conservative, socially liberal — could have beaten Obama. The real Mitt Romney — the Massachusetts moderate of ten years ago — could’ve won this election. But that Romney would never have gotten the nomination. This is the dilemma the Republican Party must solve if it is to remain a force nationally.

The country has changed. Whites of European descent no longer dominate our politics, at least when it comes to electing presidents. Romney got 60% of the white vote and still lost. Had Romney been able to garner the same percentage of the Hispanic vote as McCain in 2008, he would’ve been elected. Yet he failed to clear even that low bar. Hispanics, young people, and women are trending not so much for the Democrats, but rather against the far right that now dominates the Republican Party. The not-so-subtle playing of the race card (Sarah Palin’s “shuck and jive” comment; John Sununu’s “learn to be an American” diatribe) fell flat with an increasingly nonwhite, female, and tolerant electorate. White males no longer constitute a big enough bloc to win national elections. The Republican Party must recognize this, or die.

Prospects for 2013

Obama’s victory and the hard blows suffered by the Tea Party ensure that a budget deal will be struck in 2013, probably along the lines proposed by Obama in the summer of 2011. That is, tax increases as well as spending cuts will be enacted. The Republicans are desperate to prevent sequestration, as the defense cuts will hurt their home base in the South disproportionately. The Tea Party caucus will not be able to exercise a veto on the House Republicans as a whole, given that the 2012 election results represent a repudiation of its ideology. A compromise will be reached, unless Obama doubles down yet again on revenues. The need on both sides for a deal is so great that something will almost certainly get done. Whether it will be the best deal for the nation or a band-aid solution remains, of course, to be seen.

In terms of foreign policy, Obama’s reelection causes the prospect of war with Iran to recede somewhat. Time is in fact on the side of the US and Israel, rather than Iran. Should Iran persist in its present course, its economy will collapse before it can obtain a nuclear delivery system capable of striking its neighbors. The Obama administration realizes this. The John Boltons of the world, who would’ve been empowered by a Romney victory, don’t.

This is not to say that Obama’s victory represents morning in America. The US faces almost insurmountable problems — economic, fiscal (any likely budget deal aside), and in terms of foreign policy (we seem to be addicted to a world policy that we can no longer afford to carry on). The $2 trillion American businesses have been keeping on the sidelines will be put in play over the next few years, albeit with less enthusiasm than would have been the case had Romney prevailed. But even this will not guarantee that an economy buffeted by debt, globalization, and structural problems in education and healthcare will recover its place as the dynamo of the world.

Prospects for 2016

The Republican Party must become more moderate if it is to have a chance of recapturing the White House in 2016. It is difficult to see, however, how the far right of the party can reconcile itself to such a move. Pragmatists win elections, but fanatics prefer to go down in flames. The problem is complicated by the fact that the far right is itself divided between libertarians and social conservatives. Presidential contenders from the right wing of the party in 2016 will probably include Rick Santorum (who finished second to Romney in the primaries), Paul Ryan, and Rand Paul (whose libertarianism makes him the most interesting of the three). Each of these men is capable of winning the Republican nomination, but none of them is likely to win a national election. New Jersey governor Chris Christie and Florida senator Marco Rubio both possess a more broad-based appeal, but neither will be seasoned enough for a successful presidential run in 2016. Christie, of course, would find the primaries hard going after his embrace of President Obama during Hurricane Sandy. The possibility exists that an intramural brawl could wreck the Republican Party for 2016 and beyond.

The one candidate who could unite the Republicans in 2016 is Jeb Bush. The nomination is probably his for the taking, if he wants it. A Bush-Rubio or Bush-Christie ticket would be a formidable one, particularly as the George W. Bush administration fades from the national consciousness. A battle of the titans, Jeb versus Hillary, would be a spectacle beyond even the 2008 campaign. If the Democrats succeed in muddling through the next four years, it’s hard to see how Hillary could be beaten; the gender gap would be just too much for Jeb to overcome. That these two might be contesting for the right to preside over a nation and empire in decline probably would not deter them. The cheers of the crowd will drown out the sound of creaking floodgates.




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Victories Against the War on Drugs

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Washington and Colorado have become the first states to pass laws legalizing marijuana. In the election just ended, Washington's Initiative 502 and Colorado's Amendment 64 each are passing by about 55% of the vote. A similar measure in Oregon is failing, with only 45% of the vote. Massachusetts became the 17th medical marijuana state by passing Question 3, with 63% support.

Why Washington and Colorado? Was it because these were the two states in which Libertarian nominee John Hospers made the ballot in 1972? Probably not.

Washington and Colorado were among the earliest medical marijuana states, with ballot measures passing in 1998 in Washington and in 2000 in Colorado. They were not the first, however. California was first, with a ballot measure for medical marijuana in 1996. California voters were offered a legalization measure in 2010, and they rejected it.

Each case comes with specific reasons, and I can speak only for those in Washington, where I live. Medical marijuana has come out of the closet here, with open "dispensaries" all over Seattle. Police shut them down in Spokane and some other cities, but in liberal Seattle they thrive. We have a "Hempfest" here — a huge public music-and-weed celebration, every August. In the middle of the last decade, Seattle voters approved a measure making marijuana possession the lowest priority crime, and the new city attorney, Pete Holmes, stopped prosecuting simple possession cases in 2010.

Still, legalization was a battle — though not so much with the supporters of prohibition. Two more radical efforts to legalize, in 2010 and 2011, didn't get enough signatures to make the ballot. These measures would have repealed all state marijuana laws affecting people over age 18 and replaced them with nothing. The sponsors said the measures were bulletproof to federal challenge, because they created no law. They simply erased. But to Seattle liberals, having no regulation of the private marijuana market was too radical, and the sponsors could raise almost no money.

Then came the mainstream effort for I-502. It was not full legalization. It legalized possession of one ounce for adults over 21, continued the ban on private growing, and ordered the state to set up a system of licensing commercial growers, distributors and marijuana shops. The measure was backed by City Attorney Holmes, a Democrat; the former George W. Bush-appointed US Attorney in Seattle, John McKay, a Republican; travel entrepreneur Rick Steves, who has written extensively about Amsterdam; and the ACLU of Washington. The effort raised lots of money, got on the ballot, and was cheered on by the state's largest newspaper, the Seattle Times.

Mainstream politicians, however, were wary of it: Gov. Christine Gregoire, Democrat, opposed it, as did the Democrat and Republican candidates to replace her — because the measure conflicts with federal law.

Legalization was a battle — though not so much with the supporters of prohibition.

Initiative 502's most vocal enemies were the sponsors of the more radical measures of the two years before. Their beef was that 502 creates a "per se" standard of intoxication of 5 nanograms of active THC per milliliter of blood. They noted that the Colorado initiative did not have this. They said the standard was unscientific, and would cause medical marijuana patients to lose their right to drive. These opponents had support in the medical marijuana community, part of which was against marijuana prohibition but for a "no" on 502.

The more mainstream supporters of 502 argued that the 5 ng/ml standard was not the main issue, and that legalization was. Vote for legalization, they argued, and if 5 ng/ml is the wrong standard, we'll fix it later.

The conservatives' argument against 502 was that smoking marijuana is bad, and that legalizing it for over-21 adults would encourage more people, especially more teens, to smoke it. They didn't spend any money on ads. And they lost.

The Colorado and Washington initiatives both appear to conflict with federal law. Now we shall see what the federal government does about it.




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The Good and the Bad of this Election

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In an effort to purge myself of this horrible election, I will try to state some ideas that seem obvious (to me). Like other obvious ideas, they may not be true, but here they are. Some of them are sadder than others. One of them doesn’t seem sad at all. I’ll start with that one.

Hillary Clinton is now much less likely to become president. Four years from now, the Democratic nominee will have four more years of abject failures to defend, and Clinton has managed to stick herself so firmly to those failures that I don’t think she can ever get herself unstuck.

But isn’t it likely that the economy will improve by then? Not if Obama can prevent it. It’s true, of course, that money wants to be invested, and that some of it may escape being forcibly invested in government and be willing to rear its head in Obamaland and actually buy (and pay for) a house, or start a business. So the economy may “tick up” slightly. But Obama and his friends will keep doing their best to keep the rich rich and everyone else on permanent “assistance.” There will be more welfare, more food stamps, more bailouts, more government employees with more government pensions, more “green” industries that somehow go bankrupt, only to be replaced by others, funded in the same way. Obama’s goal is to make all this permanent, and he is succeeding very well. That’s not good for the economy.

Even in this election, most voters appeared to realize that. Many voted for Obama anyway, because he is black, because their parents were Democrats, because they are Irish Catholics, because they were educated to hate all Republicans, and so forth. But a few more voters on the margin would have turned him out of office.

The Republican Party will be back. This was not a good year for Republican candidates — by which I mean that many of them just weren’t very good. Romney was no one’s first choice, and the first choices of various Republican constituencies (including Newt Gingrich’s constituency of one) were much worse. Twice (2010 and now 2012) the GOP has thrown away an open invitation to take the Senate. It managed to miss some of the easiest targets imaginable — Nevada, Missouri, Indiana. I doubt that even the Republicans will make the same kind of mistakes a third time. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the two major parties are not organizations of principle or even of geography. They may seem so at any given moment, but actually they are enormous vacuum cleaners, roving the landscape in quest of any available vote. Despite their errors, the Republicans of 2012 operated a vacuum cleaner with impressive power. They’ll do better after four more years of the most incompetent president since John Tyler.

The Libertarian Party will also be back, and in exactly the same way it always comes back. At the moment, national totals are unavailable, but the vote here in California demonstrates the chronic weakness of the LP. California is a state with a ton of libertarians, the party had an attractive presidential nominee, and Obama was bound to carry the state, thus eliminating the “why waste your vote on the Libertarians?” argument. Nevertheless, the LP got only 1% of the vote.

The strength of the Democrats is also their weakness, and it is tremendous, in both ways. You can see this in my own state and city. The state, in which all branches of government are firmly controlled by Democrats, who are in turn firmly controlled by labor unions, is (not surprisingly) broke. It is broke because of the money it pays its employees and “invests” in their projects. It is also one of the highest-tax states in the nation. In this election, the major issue on the ballot was a giant “temporary” increase in taxes “for the schools” — actually for the teachers’ pension fund. Even the proponents of this measure expected it to fail. It passed, fairly easily, because of its support by the teachers’ union. In my city, one of the most conservative large cities in the country, a Democratic former congressman who is detested by everyone who ever met him edged out an attractive fiscal conservative and social liberal in a bitter campaign for the mayoralty. Unions again. Very easily passed, even in these times of serious depression in the state and city, was a ridiculous proposal for the local school district to borrow $2.8 billion to perform the kind of repairs that any sane person would have included in the normal budget. Unions a third time.In the immediate vicinity of my town, two veteran Republican congressmen appear to have been defeated by Democratic competitors. Unions a fourth time. Public employee unions. Statewide, a referendum to curtail unions’ ability to spend workers’ money on politics was easily defeated. But the drunker you are — and these people are, indeed, drunk with power — the sooner you’re going to end up in the ditch. Or, to vary the metaphor, the larger the parasite, the sooner it will devour its host. In this case, one has reason to hope, it will devour only the host’s wallet, leaving the host free to shake the parasite off.

Now look at the national scene. How was Obama “dragged across the finish line,” as Charles Krauthammer put it? Part of it was successful appeals to African American voters to support one of their own — nothing surprising. Part of it was the use of amnesty for illegal immigrants to appeal to Mexican American voters — again, nothing surprising. A much larger part was demagoguery based on issues of race and class and even religion, a campaign of lies against Romney and all Republicans that was almost too vile to contemplate but that apparently had some effect. A still larger part was simple bribes: Ohio and Michigan bribed by the bailout of the auto industry, old people bribed by pension promises, working people bribed by virtually-no-interest housing loans, and virtually everyone bribed by national borrowing without paying back. Because these are bribes and not investments, they gather everyone except members of government labor unions and certain politically connected rich people into the same economic spiral — and the spiral points relentlessly to the drain. Money is finite. Even the ability to borrow money is finite. Support for the Democratic Party’s current program will also prove to be finite.

Where exactly the program and the coalition of the bribed will break down, when exactly Peter will angrily decline to keep paying for Paul, and Paul will angrily demand that he keep doing so — that can’t be predicted. But I believe the breakdown is coming soon. I also believe that under these conditions,

It is easier than ever before to argue for reason and liberty. I suggest we now continue with that engaging and delightful task.




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Election Day, 1849

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On the afternoon of October 3, 1849, a young printer discovered a man wallowing in a gutter outside Gunner's Hall, an Irish tavern in Baltimore. The man was disheveled and semi-conscious, dressed in soiled clothes that were not his own, and clinging to a malacca cane. The stricken man was Edgar Allan Poe. He was taken to a local hospital, where he remained virtually delirious until his death four days later at the age of 40. One of the most important writers of the 19th century, Poe basically invented the short story and made several publishers rich men. But he struggled his entire life with alcoholism and poverty, never earning more than $300 a year.

Literary historians have long speculated how Poe came to be dressed in a stranger's clothes that day. Poe was poor, but he was always fastidious about his attire. Had he sold his trademark black suit to buy liquor or food? Had he been robbed? No one will ever know for sure.

Recent speculation, however, has turned to a theory that is quite timely considering this election day, in what appears to be the tightest and most contentious presidential race in history: Poe may have been trading votes for drinks. October 3, 1849 was a local election day. "Vote early and often" is a cynical phrase that is often attributed to Tammany Hall and the Chicago political machine, but it did not originate there. Unscrupulous politicians from the East coast to the Midwest would often offer five dollars and a beer to anyone who would vote for them, using the names of deceased residents to vote multiple times. To prevent recognition at the polling place, these repeaters would be induced to change their clothes. Out of money and craving alcohol, Poe would have been an easy mark, and that would explain why he was wearing the stranger's clothes.

On this election day, how many people are acting for themselves, and how many are wearing (symbolically) a stranger’s clothes?




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The Debates: An Autopsy

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In the last version of this column, promises were made that the presidential debates would be noticed at some time in the future. These promises will be fulfilled.

Indeed, the fulfillment is already on its way: the debates were noticed in my very last sentence. So there. If I were running for public office, I could now inform you that the issue has been addressed, and it is time to move on. The American people are no longer interested in debates. They are interested in jobs.

So that is what I came to talk to you about today. Word Watch has a ten-point program to grow the economy.

Point One: Reduce the size of government.
Point Two: Reduce the size of government.
Point Three: Reduce the size of government.
Point Four . . . .

How’s that? If Word Watch were running for public office, that is what Word Watch would say.

But Word Watch is not running for office, so it will take the politically unprecedented step of fulfilling its promise. It will dissect the presidential and vice presidential debates.

The debates were chiefly significant for showing that Obama wasn’t the great speaker that people had always been told he was, and that maybe they had thought he was — while hitting the channel changer as soon as he reached the third sentence on his teleprompter. The debates also showed that Romney wasn’t a particularly bad speaker or a particularly bad person. As Michael Barone commented on October 27, they even demonstrated that Romney was more articulate than Obama.

To borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

I’m not putting Romney’s skills too high; as you know, this column has never considered it hard to beat Obama at the word game. After all, even Joe the Plumber did it. Compared to old-time politicians, Obama is basically nothing. He doesn’t know any more words than they did, and his grammar isn’t any better. His range of allusions is much more limited than theirs (they could quote Shakespeare and the Bible, while he appears to live in a world without any books at all); and he doesn’t know any good stories. He is as stiff as a high school principal who has attended Toastmasters on two separate and distinct Thursday evenings, and his self-importance is untiring. It doesn’t take much to overtake Obama in the oratory department.

Nevertheless, Romney did it. Don’t ask me to cite examples of his verbal brilliance; there weren’t any. But given the competition, they weren’t needed. When, in the second and third presidential debates, Obama “revived,” “woke up,” or “agreed to participate” — however you want to put it — he did even more to show what he is: snarky, snippy, evasive, demagogic, unwarrantably superior, bored or angry with everyone except his slavish adorers.

Both candidates spoke in ways that reveal their refusal to think about words in any except the most brutally instrumental manner — by which I mean considering words only as tools for turning out the vote. Beyond that goal, there was no attempt to enlighten or even to entertain, no attempt to show who one is or what, exactly, one thinks. In that sense, to borrow a Randian way of looking at things, both candidates showed themselves curiously selfless. They weren’t interested enough in their own ideas even to represent them clearly.

For instance, neither of them had any suspicion that “we need to grow the economy” or “I have a plan to grow the economy” might be an empty substitute for some real meaning. They swathed their vast, vague plans in a grossly inappropriate image of the economy as a natural object like a radish or a squash, some little object that you can grow. No reflective person uses language like that; only lazy minds choose the default setting, assuming that other lazy minds will relate to whatever clichés happen to waft their way.

Obama, of course, prides himself on his ability to communicate with the rubes. So he mentioned folks and workin’ people as often as he could, and he recited such phrases as “educating our workers” and “retraining our workers.” “Goodness,” said Jed Leland, responding to Citizen Kane’s campaign speeches about the downtrodden working people, “you talk as if you owned them.” If Obama knew the impression his words really create, he wouldn’t use them. But he doesn’t know it. He doesn’t even know that. And his self-knowledge is even feebler than his knowledge of the world. Again, it is the hollow man who lusts for power.

Of course, the candidates’ words were hardly news. They were so familiar that Charles Krauthammer characterized the last debate as the “national soporific,” the national “Ambien.” He’s a doctor, and he ought to know. I would say the same thing about the other debates, too, including the vice presidential one. That was interesting if you enjoy sitting in a bar and listening while an ancient blowhard recycles all his familiar comments about himself, the workin’ people, and the greatness of Harry S. Truman. The only thing that interested me about Biden’s uncouth performance was his pretended embodiment of the “blue-collar America” I grew up with. Some working man — the guy was a senator for 36years! But he does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line. This was a type that was never very popular among real working people, and its popularity with the Democratic Party elite, none of whom ever worked a day in their lives, shows you something bad about American political culture.

So much for the nauseating debates. Their salient feature was the cynicism they manifested, and aroused. Everyone who talked about them focused solely on their (for want of a lower word) rhetorical effects, having completely discounted the idea that anything of substance might actually emerge. The talk was always about how Obama will deflect criticism or how favorably Romney will be perceived, never for so much as ten seconds about any thoughts that either candidate might convey. After the last debate, all the conservatives who had insisted that Romney could succeed only if he went for Obama’s throat, especially about Libya, went on television to praise his statesmanlike restraint. They thought it had a positive impact on the audience.

Maybe they were right. But they magnified the already overwhelming cynicism that surrounded these events. The commentators all (rightly) assumed that the debates were a publicity stunt, and were apparently content with that. Dick Morris, holding forth on the “O’Reilly Show,” admitted to squirming as he watched one of the affairs, but his conclusion was: “The important thing in this debate was that women did not think he [Romney] was a warmonger. . . . It was a skillful debate on Romney’s part.” That may be true — but only because neither candidate was expected to provide as much real instruction as you get from your senile uncle, discussing his adventures as a young man, delivering auto parts in and around Cincinnati.

Biden does a great imitation of the sneering, ass-scratching, proud-to-be-ignorant loudmouth who makes life miserable for the other guys on the assembly line.

There’s a certain comfort in discovering that it wasn’t just the politicos who refused to take the debates seriously. As far as I could tell, nobody did. Since the debates weren’t serious, that’s a good thing. What I regret, even more than the lack of intellectual seriousness, is the lack of words — real words, interesting words, memorable words, words that could actually engage a normal person’s mind, rather than prompting that person to speculate about the impression they would make on someone of abnormally low intelligence.

It was not always thus. I’ve been reading Robert Douthat Meade’s old biography of Judah P. Benjamin, the Confederate statesman. Meade was a competent writer, and Benjamin was a colorful character, so the book is always fun. But in the present context, what’s remarkable is how interesting words used to be, even when they emerged without a hint of preparation or intention to wow the mentally deficient. I’ll share one sample with you.

When Benjamin was a US senator from Louisiana, he got into an angry debate with Jefferson Davis, then a senator from Mississippi, over the details of a military appropriation. It was an impromptu quarrel that began when Davis, in a bad mood, answered an inquiry from Benjamin in a flippant way. This exchange followed:

Benjamin: It is very easy for the Senator from Mississippi to give a sneering reply to what was certainly a very respectful inquiry.

Davis: I consider it is an attempt to misrepresent a very plain remark.

Benjamin: The Senator is mistaken, and has no right to state any such thing. His manner is not agreeable at all.

Davis: If the Senator happens to find it disagreeable, I hope he will keep it to himself.

Benjamin: When directed to me, I will not keep it to myself; I will repel it instanter.

Davis: You have got it, sir.

Benjamin: That is enough, sir.

If you’re like me, you care nothing about the subject of this dispute, but you enjoy the language. You even want to know what happened next.

So here it is: Benjamin sent Davis a letter challenging him to a duel — a gesture at once more serious and more interesting than any of the silly grimaces, chats with friendly folks, and public visits to fast-food joints that we got from this year’s political antagonists. And Davis responded in an interesting way: he tore up Benjamin’s challenge, telling the messenger, “I will make this all right at once. I have been wholly wrong.” He publicly apologized, and Benjamin handsomely accepted his apology. Three years later, Davis appointed Benjamin to his cabinet, and he became the second most important personality in the Confederate government.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not advocating a revival of the Confederacy. I am advocating a revival of the English language.




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Small Earthquake in Obamaland, Not Enough Secrets Revealed

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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.



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Yahoo! Blimp Crash Lands in Ohio

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My home page is Yahoo! There are reasons for this, some of them good, but all of them dull. I won’t bother you with them. I simply want to notice that the recent college graduates, college dropouts, high school students, and GED pursuers who select and headline the featured articles that run on such digital substitutes for newspapers are even more grossly bigoted than the New York Times.

And that’s saying something.

Here is a selection of recent Yahoo! News headlines:

“Romney on ‘Apology Tour’”
“Did Romney Play It Too Safe?”
“Obama Rattles Romney”
“Romney Blimp Crash-Lands”

Reporting on the most hotly contested “battleground state,” at the moment when it had become still more hotly contested, Yahoo ran this as a headline: “Mitt Romney Still Hasn't Given Up on Ohio.” If you clicked on the headline, you would see this at the beginning of the article: “Seeking middle-class and women voters, Romney intones ‘change’ mantra in Ohio."Can anyone imagine such a site featuring an article in which Obama intoned a “change” mantra?

The old journalistic rule was “dog bites man — not news; man bites dog — news.” The digital clones have it the other way around. No one expected Romney to give up on Ohio, but that’s the headline: he didn’t give up. Meanwhile, Yahoo! found no room for headlines about the shockingly daft response of the Obama administration to the massacre in Libya, or to anything else that might bring the administration into question. There was space, however, for a headline about a Democratic senator in quest of reelection: “Mother of Mo. Sen. McCaskill Dies at Age 84.” Yes, that is the news the nation must know.

There’s no limit to this crap. On the day when tropical storm Sandy struck the east coast, a Yahoo! headline read, “People Named Sandy More Likely to Give to Obama.”




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