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Obama and the Integrity Gap: Rootless Ambition

Chapter two of seven

II. Barack Obama: The Greasy Pole

Note on sources: You can follow the links here, as I’ve linked to sources for nearly all the factual assertions, and mark additional sources with an asterisk *. Where appropriate I’ve indicated sources whose credibility I was uncertain of, but have generally tried to avoid citing much in the way of rumor. Fairly late in the game in assembling this post, I picked up David Freddoso’s book The Case Against Barack Obama, which examines a lot of these same issues in more depth and with copious footnotes. I’m indebted to Freddoso’s book for pointing me to additional sources in a handful of places, and for stories I’d missed like the Stroger saga, although in most cases I’ve cited additional web-based sources besides the book. I’d recommend the book and I refer the reader where possible to stories Freddoso has written up at more length.

Barack Obama talks a good game about being a reformer, a good government, “new politics” guy. But somehow his priorities never extended to actually doing anything that would rock the boat in Chicago politics or get in the way of his climb up the greasy pole of the Chicago machine. Instead, his rise has depended on the exchange of favors with crooked patrons and extremist friends and on the forebearance of the machine.

You will often hear Obama’s defenders argue that his ties to this or that extremist or corrupt figure is an isolated aberration, an example of “guilt by association”; that the various favors he dispensed with public money and private charitable foundation funds are nothing unusual in politics. But when you look at Obama’s record and biography taken together, what you see is that the favors, the extremists and the machine ties are all inextricably intertwined, and that far from being isolated incidents, Obama’s modus operandi of mutual back-scratching with radicals and crooks extends to nearly every aspect of his life and career – his family, his faith, his home, his jobs and education, his significant election victories and legislative “accomplishments,” his closest advisors and most important mentors, the money and organization that made up his campaigns.A. Rootless Ambition

“He’s always wanted to be President,” Valerie Jarrett, who has been a family friend for years, ever since she hired Michelle Obama to work in Mayor Daley’s office, says [of Obama]….”He didn’t always admit it, but oh, absolutely. The first time he said it to me, he said, ‘I just think I have some special qualities and wouldn’t it be a shame to waste them.’ I think it was during the early part of his U.S. senatorial campaign. He said, ‘You know, I just think I have something.’”

-The New Yorker

Michelle’s brother… recounted one of the first times [in the early 1990s] Michelle brought Barack to a party… When Craig asked about his career plans, Barack replied, “I think I’d like to teach at some point in time, and maybe even run for public office.” Craig assumed Barack wanted to run for a post like city alderman, but Barack let him know that his sights were set higher. “He said no, at some point he’d like to run for the U.S. Senate,” Craig recalled. “And then he said, ‘Possibly even run for president at some point.’

--Liza Mundy, “Michelle: A Biography”

(1) The Man From Nowhere

In Part I, I noted that Sarah Palin’s integrity finds its foundation in her apolitical roots, her background, upbringing and family life as far outside of politics in general and national politics in particular as you can get. But with Barack Obama, the opposite is true: Obama really has no roots outside of politics and his political worldview, apparently few close friends outside of politics, no real hometown, and unlike John McCain (who was raised as a Navy brat) no real continuity as he moved from place to place. He had an itinerant upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia and a nomadic college career in Los Angeles and New York, and wrote – affectingly – in his 1995 memoir about his search for identity. “That whole first year seemed like one long lie,” he wrote of his freshman year at Occidental College.

Obama’s mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, after her short-lived marriages to Obama’s father (a Harvard-trained Kenyan student of economics) and stepfather (an Indonesian student), worked as an anthropologist in Indonesia, even leaving Barack behind in Hawaii as a teen to return to Indonesia, while he attended an elite private school, and was raised by his maternal grandparents, Stanley and Madelyn Dunham; it was Stanley who had served in World War II. Obama’s birth father Barack Obama Sr., with whom he had little contact, was a product of Kenyan socialism, albeit something of a skeptic of the Kenyan socialist project. * His stepfather, Lolo Soetero, who seems to have been a fairly lax Muslim, had apparently been sponsored to the U.S. on a student visa issued by the Sukarno regime, and had it revoked in 1967 when the regime fell (Sukarno was a quasi-Marxist leader somewhat typical of the Third World in the 1960s – he once received the “Lenin Prize” from the Soviet Union – but was deposed in 1967 and replaced by right-wing dictator Suharto), and when Obama was living in Indonesia, his stepfather worked for a U.S. oil company. Additional information from verifiable, non-crackpot sources about the political and social worldview of Obama’s mother and stepfather is hard to come by; the Chicago Tribune’s profile of her is probably the best we will get, while things like Spengler’s inflammatory Asia Times profile (which I rely on here only for his educated speculation about Soetero’s visa) rest on a lot of speculation with uncertain basis in fact. Indeed, liberal blogger Jeralyn Merritt has argued that even Obama’s knowledge of his own family history seems to depend heavily on what his campaign staff tells him.

One thing we do know is that while various efforts have been made to read a lot into Obama’s brushes with Islam growing up, especially his years in Indonesia, Obama himself had no real religious faith; he attended both Muslim and Catholic schools in his youth, apparently with disinterest in the religious instruction he was provided, but by his own admission had fallen away from faith of all kind by the time he encountered Rev. Jeremiah Wright. As Obama wrote of his youthful experience with religion, “my mother viewed religion through the eyes of the anthropologist she would become; it was a phenomenon to be treated with a suitable respect, but with a suitable detatchment as well.” Like something bitter people cling to, one might say.

As a teen, “Obama felt like an outsider even in Hawaii’s racially diverse community, because the African American population in the Islands was, and remains, miniscule, creating in Obama a feeling of isolation.” And there were other symptoms of how he was, at that point in time, still something of a lost soul:

“I blew a few smoke rings, remembering those years,” he wrote. “Pot had helped, and booze; maybe a little blow when you could afford it. Not smack, though.”…In the book, Sen Obama recalls that he had “been headed” to the status of “junkie” or “pothead”, which he describes as “the final, fatal role of the young would-be black man”. He recalls smoking “reefer” in the backs of his friends’ vans, dorm rooms and “on the beach with a couple of Hawaiian kids who had dropped out of school”.

Amusingly, some friends from those days suggest that Obama may have exaggerated his drug use and alienation for effect: “He was known as a partier, as a guy looking for a good time, but not much more”. But almost any account of Obama’s early years finds him a young man not really sure where he belongs, and along the way he was imbibing some other unhealthy intellectual influences as well. Obama wrote in Dreams From My Father, his first memoir, about a major influence from his teen years, a man named Frank:

A careful reading of Obama’s first memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” reveals that his childhood mentor up to the age of 18 – a man he refers to only as “Frank” – was none other than the late communist Frank Marshall Davis, who fled Chicago after the FBI and Congress opened investigations into his “subversive,” “un-American activities.”

The Obama campaign has confirmed this:

[T]he Obama campaign’s attack on [Jerome] Corsi’s book … acknowledges on pages 9 and 10 of its report that the mysterious “Frank” in Obama’s 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, is in fact the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) member Frank Marshall Davis.

Davis would hang out and smoke pot with Obama’s grandfather and wrote a sexual autobiography that included he and his wife seducing a 13-year-old girl he refers to, creepily enough, as “Anne”. You can click the links for some sampling of Davis’ racist and Marxist words of …er, wisdom. More: *

Now, you can’t hold a man responsible for the family he was born into, or for his grandfather’s friends. Certainly it’s impressive by any measure how far Obama has come from where he started – part of his point in writing about his cocaine use, like George W. Bush’s drinking, is to show the road he chose to stop taking. But the best you can say about Obama’s roots and where they place him is that he arrived as a college student in Los Angeles and later Manhattan without the sort of support network and firm grounding that most Americans take for granted. Even after he started moving up the ladder of academia and community organizing, Obama remained an outsider wherever he went. For a decade between 1979 and 1989, he lived in four large, liberal cities, a single young man thousands of miles from his family with no faith and no real ties to the communities he lived in. At Columbia, for example, he lived with wealthy, drug-using Pakistanis and barely anyone remembers him. * As Charles Krauthammer has noted, Obama’s campaign has been decidedly short on personal testimonials from old friends.

Which raises the issue of what rushed in to fill the vaccum in Obama’s life in the years between 1979 and 1989. It wasn’t religion, it wasn’t family, it wasn’t community and it wasn’t even money – it was political activism.

(2) The Activist

“[Obama] always talked about the New Rochelle train, the trains that took commuters to and from New York City, and he didn’t want to be on one of those trains every day,” said Jerry Kellman, the community organizer who enticed Obama to Chicago from his Manhattan office job. “The image of a life, not a dynamic life, of going through the motions… that was scary to him.”

-Quoted in David Mendell’s Obama: From Promise to Power, p. 148-149

Given that Barack Obama doesn’t have much in the way of accomplishments or biography – see the timeline of his career here – the tales told about him at the Democratic Convention focused heavily on his first real decision as an adult, to walk away from more lucrative job opportunities in the private sector to become a “community organizer” in Chicago for less money, followed by the same decision to forego life as a big-firm lawyer to work at a plaintiffs’ firm doing civil rights work after law school. Certainly the basics of this story speak well of Obama’s interest in things other than money, but the truth is more complicated, and reflects as much as anything the fact that Obama’s early career was driven by his political ambitions – the same ambitions that would lead him over and over again in his brief career to make accomodations with so many unsavory people and projects.

As you can see from the line about the New Rochelle train, Obama never wanted a job in the private sector. As even the New York Times notes of Obama’s time after graduating college, “In his memoir, he says he had decided to become a community organizer but could not persuade anyone to hire him. So he found ‘more conventional work for a year’ to pay off his student loans.”

Obama got into the community organizing field in New York with NYPIRG (Obama in 2004: “I used to be a PIRG guy. You guys trained me well”), and as Megan McArdle has explained, the PIRGs are basically Ponzi schemes financed by exploiting their own workers; it doesn’t necessarily say good things that Obama was successful in this line of work. While this did indeed entail financial sacrifice compared to the private sector, as Jim Geraghty notes, Obama’s salary as a community organizer, while hardly princely, wasn’t even all that bad for a guy in his 20s with no dependents, no mortgage, and no real obligations:

[T]he man who hired Obama, Jerry Kellman, [is quoted] as saying that the $12,000 was Obama’s “training salary” for the first few months. “After three or four months, he was up to 20,000, and after three years he was probably making $35,000 or so.”In 1985, the year Obama began as a community organizer, that $20,000 would be the equivalent of $39,431.04 in 2007. His salary when he left Chicago[] to attend Harvard [L]aw School in 1988 would be the equivalent of $63,093.21 in 2007.

As it turns out, “[t]he Chicago-based Woods Fund provided Kellman with his original $25,000 to hire Obama. In turn, Obama would later serve on the Woods board” from 1993 to 2002; it was one of the boards Obama served on that brought him in contact with Bill Ayers, who was also on the Woods board. (In fact, in one of his community organizing roles, Obama served as Director of the Developing Communities Project from 1985 to 1988, part of a coalition of groups headed by Ayers at the time).

Obama, who did not even graduate with honors from Columbia, was nonetheless able to parlay his community organizing experience into the leg up he needed to get into Harvard Law School, with letters of recommendation from a left-wing Northwestern University professor and from Percy Sutton, a former Manhattan Borough President and 1977 contender for the Democratic nomination for New York City Mayor (Sutton has claimed in a TV interview that he did so at the insistence of “Khalid al-Mansour, principle adviser to radical Saudi Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal”):

“I was introduced to him by a friend who was raising money for him and the friends name was Dr. Khalid al Mansour from Texas. He is the principle adviser to one of the world’s richest men. He told me about Obama. He wrote to me about him and his introduction was ‘there is a young man that has applied to Harvard and I know that you have a few friends left there becasue you used to go up there to speak, would you please write a letter in support of him?’…I wrote a letter in support of him to my friends at Harvard saying to them I thought there was a genius that was going to be available and I sure hoped they would treat him kindly.”

(Via here, and read here about the Sutton family spokesman’s vague efforts to retract the interview *). Sutton, of course, was a respected mainstream political figure; less clear is how tightly the radical al-Mansour’s other connections were plugged in at Harvard as of 1989 – Prince al-Waleed would later become a great benfactor of Harvard (he’s the namesake of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard, established by a $20 million gift in 2005), and Saudi money was a longstanding fundraising priority of the Law School, which in 1991 established its Islamic Legal Studies Program, bolstered by the “King Fahd Chair for Islamic Shariah Studies [which] began with a $5 million dollar donation by the Saudi royal family in 1993.”

In any event, by the time Obama left Chicago for law school, he had his sights set firmly on political office:

In their conversations, he described politics–and winning political office–as the most important step toward achieving change. And, instead of seeing Harold Washington as buffeted by forces beyond his control, he now aspired to be Washington. “He was fascinated by Mayor Washington,” says Kruglik. “Harold Washington inspired him to think about becoming a politician.” Kruglik says that Obama wanted to follow in the mayor’s footsteps: Washington had gone to law school, later becoming a state senator, then a congressman, and finally Chicago’s mayor. “He told me that he was thinking of running for mayor some day, ” Kruglik says.

During law school, Obama “spent eight days in Los Angeles taking a national training course taught by [left-wing theorist Saul] Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation.” * (More on Alinsky and Obama’s community organizer days here, and on the Alinsky’s explicit advocacy of dissembling and moral relativism here). He spent his first summer after law school at a large law firm in Chicago, but Obama told the senior partner who hired him that he wasn’t interested in coming back to work full time because “he wanted to go into politics.” Instead, he went to work for a firm that got him directly involved in Chicago’s power politics:

Obama was part of a team of lawyers representing black voters and aldermen that forced Chicago to redraw ward boundaries that the City Council drew up after the 1990 census. They said the boundaries were discriminatory.After an appeals court ruled the map violated the federal Voting Rights Act, attorneys for both sides drew up a new set of ward boundaries.

Of course, even if it wasn’t his primary motivator, Obama was going to need money to do the things he wanted to do. And that’s where a stroke of outrageous good fortune came in: after the New York Times wrote up his election to head the Harvard Law Review in March 1990, a literary agent called him out of the blue and offered to get him a book deal. (You have to have some knowledge of the book business to know how bizarre it is for any non-famous person to get solicited to write a book with no manuscript, let alone a 28-year-old law student with no prior publications). Obama got a six figure book deal with a major publisher but was unable to complete the book. Undeterred, his agent landed him a second book deal with a $40,000 advance, and at some point he switched from the planned book on race relations to a memoir. Despite being given an office to work from at the University of Chicago, he still didn’t finish the thing until he took time off to go back to Indonesia and write, finally having Dreams From My Father published in time to launch his run for office in 1995; it somehow got reviewed by both the New York Times and the Boston Globe.

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