‘Fundamental change’: Obama, his mentor, and the Democratic Party

Paul Kengor Professor, Grove City College
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We’ve heard plenty about radical Obama influences and associates like Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers, but what about Frank Marshall Davis?

As noted in a Daily Caller profile of my book on Davis, Frank Marshall Davis was a literal card-carrying member of Communist Party USA — number 47544. He was unflinchingly pro-Soviet. Beginning in the 1940s, when he joined the Communist Party, he wrote propaganda for Party-line newspapers in Chicago and Honolulu. And most remarkable, Davis, by the 1970s, met and mentored a future president of the United States — Barack Obama, a Democrat.

Here, I’d like to focus on that word Democrat, because it contains some fascinating irony.

Because of this book I’ve done, I’ll be attacked by Democrats. Yet, Democrats who actually pause to read the book will find something they didn’t expect: a sustained defense of the Democrats that Davis savaged in his columns. Beyond that, they’ll discover a Davis who would one day use and infiltrate the Democratic Party. It’s a remarkable story worthy of our attention and memory.

In his writings at the start of the Cold War, Frank Marshall Davis’s targets were chiefly anti-communist Democrats, especially Harry Truman. Davis’s newspaper, The Chicago Star, for which he was the founding editor-in-chief, trashed Truman with headlines like “White House to white hoods: KKK hails Truman’s policy as its own” and “TRUMAN KNIFES HOPE FOR PEACE.”

Why target Truman? Because Harry Truman stood in the way of Stalin’s takeover of Europe. And so, Davis’s most bitter foe, who he tarred and feathered in his writings, was not a Republican but a Democrat, and likewise for the leading members of Truman’s administration, from Secretary of State George Marshall to Attorney General Tom Clark.

George Marshall, of course, is an American icon — as is the Marshall Plan that bears his name. Nonetheless, Frank Marshall Davis, toeing the Soviet line — as was his sworn duty as a formal member of Communist Party USA — denounced the Marshall Plan as “imperialism” and “colonial slavery.” In an even more hideous accusation, Davis (like the Kremlin) accused U.S. officials of handing West Germany back to the Nazis. He called the Truman administration’s policy of de-Nazification “one of the big jokes of the 20th century.”

In all, said Frank Marshall Davis, this was a new form of fascism. It was Trumanism, a Democratic Party fascism. It was “fascism, American style,” with “the silent backing of President Truman, Democrat.”

As for the Democrats, they certainly took notice of Davis. Indeed, the Obama biographers that mention Davis portray him as a victim of McCarthyism; to the contrary, Joe McCarthy never came anywhere near Davis. It was Democrats who pursued Davis, especially anti-communist Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee. In those days, the Senate was filled with anti-communist Democrats like Senator John F. Kennedy (D-Mass.), Senator Pat McCarran (D-Nev.), and Senator Thomas Dodd (D-Conn.), father of Chris Dodd. Some of the best work investigating pro-Soviet activity by American communists was done by the Senate Judiciary Committee, led by James Eastland (D-Miss.).

When Frank Marshall Davis was called to Washington to testify on his pro-Soviet activities, it was by Democrats. It was a Democratic Senate that, in an official 1957 report titled “Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States,” publicly listed Davis as “an identified member of the Communist Party.”

And yet, after all of those battles with Democrats, Frank Marshall Davis hopped in bed with them — but only to use them, just as he and his fellow communists had long exploited the “progressive” label. In Hawaii, the Hawaiian Communist Party went underground, realizing it had no political viability. Davis and his comrades also oversaw the collapse of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party, which they had hijacked. So, Hawaii’s communists changed their tactics, concentrating instead on infiltrating the mainstream Democratic Party, even running their members in local elections to seize delegate positions. One of those who not only urged this tactic but was himself elected to a Democratic precinct was Frank Marshall Davis.

Davis’s declassified 600-page FBI file records this move. It reports that “members of the subversive element in Honolulu were concentrating their efforts on infiltration of the Democratic Party through control of Precinct Clubs and organizations.” These communist subversives were pushing “their candidates in these Precinct Club elections.” According to the report, on April 6, 1950, one such candidate, Frank Marshall Davis, was elected “assistant secretary and delegate” to the Territorial Democratic Convention in his particular Precinct Club — the Third Precinct of the Fifth District. Davis, in fact, attended that convention on April 30, 1950.

The infiltration of the Democratic Party was on.

And it would be as a “Democrat” that Davis would one day influence another Democrat: a future Democratic Party president — Barack Obama. It was the start of a long march to transform the Democratic Party from the party of Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy to the party of Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

Ironically, Frank Marshall Davis wrote of the need for “fundamental change” by “strong radicals” (July 6, 1946 column, Chicago Star). Here was the start of fundamentally changing the Democratic Party.

Finally, Davis’s turn to the Democrats reveals another interesting parallel to Obama. In my book, I quote at length the testimony of Dr. John Drew, who knew a young Obama at Occidental College. Drew was a leading campus Marxist organizer when Obama was introduced to him as “one of us” — that is, a fellow Marxist. Drew was struck by Obama’s dedicated belief in what Drew called the “Frank Marshall Davis fantasy” of “imminent revolution.”

Did Obama leave those Marxist roots? According to Stanley Kurtz, Obama in January 1996 formally joined the New Party, which envisioned a “progressive” Western European-style socialist state in America — a big deal in and of itself.

Well, if that was the case, Obama eventually left that party, too, migrating into the mainstream Democratic Party, where he could get elected and launch his “fundamental change” therein.

In short, then, Barack Obama’s possible path from Marxist to New Party to the Democratic Party is remarkably similar to his mentor’s path from Communist Party to the Progressive Party to the Democratic Party. Is that coincidental? Perhaps. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating parallel, and it again tells us not only much about Obama, and about his mentor, but about the modern Democratic Party.

Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and author of the new book, The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor.