What did Barack Obama do in college?
That’s the question I had when reading “Now that we have dirt on everyone,” a recent piece by Jack Shafer, the media critic for Reuters. “Each day, the morning editions bring us additional sleaze, flip-flops, and embarrassments from the candidates’ pasts,” Shafer writes. “We learn about our candidates’ legislative histories, their leveraged buyout histories (that would be you, Mitt and Newt), their adventures on K Street (take a bow, Newt and Rick #2), the filth and fury discovered in their back pages (hello, Ron!), the casual racism of a parent (Rick #1), and their military resumes. … And if they’ve generated any sort of paper trail from tax liens, divorce proceedings, campaign-finance filings, or civil actions — or if there is a reusable disgrace from past campaigns — we read and re-read all about it, too.” Shafer’s point is that there is so much of this stuff, that ultimately it is ineffective. It just reveals that the candidates are flawed human beings, as we all are.
So why doesn’t anyone know what Barack Obama did in college? The answer is more complicated than you think. Obama did indeed become a socialist during his college years, but not the kind of socialist you might expect. It’s a fascinating story that the White House has buried and the media’s gatekeepers have dutifully ignored — including Shafer. (I mean, Jack Shafer is the guy who got monkeyfished. He’s not exactly going to pick up on something as complex as American socialism in the 1980s, when Obama was in college.)
One man who does understand those years, and Obama’s conversion to a particular form of socialism, is Stanley Kurtz. Kurtz is the author of the book “Radical-in-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism.” The book was published in 2010, and will be released in paperback in October, right before the election. If I were the publisher, I would get it out sooner.
Perhaps between now and the election Shafer and the rest of the media can find the time to read a copy of “Radical-in-Chief.” Kurtz’s book is shocking, but not because President Obama is a Stalinist who wants to roll tanks through the streets crushing the opposition of free people. Obama formed his political consciousness when socialism was split (as it always seems to be) between factions. One side advocated the violent overthrow of the America system. The other, led by a man named Michael Harrington, was more incrementalist. That’s the side Obama choose — socialism stealth, socialism lite. Its goal is to quietly infiltrate the Democratic Party through “community organizing,” and drag the DNC to the far left, thus causing a class conflict that will trigger revolution. From there the left would “fundamentally transform” America by slowly changing her institutions. One way the change would come is by spending so much money that there is an economic crisis that causes the system to collapse. Another is by slowly driving the objections of the human conscience out of the public square and underground. Thus the recent Justice Department litigation attempting to force religious institutions to hire people who disagree with their core missions.
One crucial point Kurtz makes: In one sense, there was nothing wrong with Obama’s socialism. Obama was 21 in 1983, when he attended his first Socialist Scholars Conference in New York, an event Kurtz claims radicalized Obama. Young people in college are idealistic. They’re drawn to socialism. It’s a phase that many of them — us — go through. Kurtz argues, however, that Obama never outgrew his socialism. The president may have sobered up a little bit, but not enough to completely disown the ideals of his youth. Thus the blackout, abetted by the media, of his college years. Revealing that Obama had converted to Marxism in college and then disowned it when he grew up would get no attention and mean nothing. But if Obama is a stealth socialist, taught by Alinskyites to downplay his real political philosophy — well, that might be a problem. And conservatives are often missing the target when they compare Obama to Bill Ayers or Jeremiah Wright. Obama is not a bomb-thrower. He just met a few on the barricades of Chicago’s Hyde Park left. Thus Politico can report with calm, clinical dispassion that Obama met with Bill Ayers in Chicago when he was young.
Kurtz’s book is stuffed with the kind of reporting the mainstream media did not do, and will not do this year. It is chilling to read how difficult it was to access basic records about Obama’s past. In 1981 Obama transferred to Columbia University from Occidental College in Los Angeles. The Columbia years “are more mysterious than any other portion in Obama’s history,” observes Kurtz. “In 2008 the Obama campaign refused to discuss his days at Columbia, declining either to released transcripts or to name friends.” They still refuse, even as the pasts of Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and other GOP candidates are dragged up. Kurtz digs through what remains of the record of three Socialist Scholars conferences Obama attended in 1983, 1984 and 1985, but he has to speculate as to what Obama did at the conferences because the president refuses to talk about it. Howard Kurtz notes that in his autobiography, “Dreams of My Father,” Obama offers up this:
Political discussions, the kind that at Occidental had once seemed so intense and purposeful, came to take on the flavor of the socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union or the African cultural fairs that took place in Harlem and Brooklyn during the summers — a few of the many diversion New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film or ice skating at Rockefeller Center.
This is like the bit by Robert Klein about padding your order when you buy condoms as a teenager, hoping the pharmacist won’t notice: “Yeah, gimme a toothbrush, candy bar, toilet paper, gum, stampsrubberspens, and a coke.” Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.
Now stop and ask yourself a question. Imagine if it were a conservative who had gone to a meeting of far-right activists when he was young — or had even worked for the Koch brothers. Actually, you don’t have to wonder, as Ron Paul’s old newsletters have been getting completely dissected in the last few weeks, and Mitt Romney’s protesting of the protesters during Vietnam was in The Daily Kos yesterday morning. The world knows that Pope Benedict was a member of the Hitler Youth when he was 15; of course, they don’t report that it was at the end of the war and he was enlisted against his will. For the media, Obama went from Hawaii to Harvard. Ignoring the Columbia years is like a biography of Ronald Reagan that leaves out Barry Goldwater.
In July 2008, Jack Shafer, then writing for Slate, wrote a piece about Obama called “The Untouchable.” Shafer wrote the following: “You’re welcome to believe otherwise, but I don’t think the press has gone in the tank for Barack Obama.” He then claimed that “as long ago as March, The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz demolished charges that the press was soft on Obama by cataloging the tough pieces published by reporters exhuming the candidate’s past: his financial relationship with friend and fundraiser Antoin ‘Tony’ Rezko, who is now a convicted felon; his friendship with former Weather Undergrounder William Ayers; his casting of 130 ‘present’ votes as an Illinois legislator; his nuclear energy compromise in the U.S. Senate, said to benefit a contributor; incendiary comments made by his pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright; and more.”
I’m not sure which Howard Kurtz piece Shafer read, but the one his piece links to says quite the opposite. Indeed, Kurtz’s piece is a catalogue of how the media has shied away from Obama. The following are verbatim quotes from the Post piece by Howard Kurtz:
Michelle Obama became talk-show fodder when she said on Feb. 18 that “for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country.” But for the following week, there was no mention of the flap in a Washington Post or New York Times news story, although the Los Angeles Times jumped on the controversy.
There was also little pickup when the Politico reported that a decade ago Obama visited Bernardine Dohrn and William Ayers, the 1960s radicals whose Weather Underground group was involved in two dozen bombings. And the issue of Obama’s dealings with Rezko all but vanished after a brief flurry until the run-up to his trial, which begins today.
Similarly, there was scant media mention of Louis Farrakhan’s support for Obama until Tim Russert challenged the senator to repudiate that support at last week’s MSNBC debate — making Russert the target of some liberal bloggers who say he went overboard on the issue.
Would [Hillary] Clinton have skated as easily if she were found to have visited radicals tied to violence? Or bought land from an indicted businessman, as in the Rezko case? Or if the pastor of her church had talked about “this racist United States of America,” as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, who heads Obama’s church, has?
That is hard to imagine. Clinton’s complaints about media imbalance are buttressed by a new study from the Center for Media and Public Affairs. From Dec. 16 through Feb. 19, it says, the three network newscasts aired reports that were 84 percent positive for Obama and 53 percent positive for Clinton. She scored higher on evaluations of policy and public performance, but that amounted to only 10 percent of the coverage.
At the end, Howard Kurtz drew this conclusion: “After a year in which Obama was hailed as the second coming of JFK, will his Teflon coating now be scratched?”
Did Shafer read the piece he linked to? Maybe not. I think in 2008 he and the rest of the Slate staff were busy greasing down Obama with sycophantic rhetorical Vaseline to make him that much more slippery.
So let there be no mistake. In the early 1980s, Barack Obama became a socialist. Not long after that, I became one myself and began reading The Nation, In These Times and the other lefty magazines the future president was reading. But unlike Obama, I grew out of it. (Ironically, Kurtz pinpoints a crucial date as April 1, 1983. April 1 is the birthday of Whittaker Chambers, another Columbia student who became a communist. But at least Chambers also had the good sense to ultimately renounce it.) Obama did indeed renounce socialism, but in a very strange way. In 2009 a reporter from The New York Times asked Obama if his domestic policies made him a socialist. Obama laughed and said, “The answer would be no.” Then, 90 minutes later, Obama called the reporter back. “It’s hard for me to believe that you were entirely serious about that socialist question,” he said. I ask you: If someone called you a Nazi, would you say no and then call them back later to emphasize your objection to the question?
But to answer the president’s question: No, the reporter was not being serious. If only the fourth estate were on this issue. If only they descended on Hyde Park the way they did on Wasilla to atomize Sarah Palin. They may find what Stanley Kurtz did: “Over the long term, Obama’s plans are designed to ensnare the country in a new socialism, a stealth socialism that masquerades as a traditional sense of American fair play, a soft but pernicious socialism similar to that currently strangling the economies of Europe.”
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.