A “Hollow” Man Who Was “Unwilling to Fight the Good Fight”
What on Earth motivated the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and law professor David J. Garrow to write an incredibly detailed 1078-page (1460 pages with endnotes and index included) biography of Barack Obama from conception through election to the White House? Not any great personal affinity for Obama on Garrow’s part, that’s for sure. Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama is no hagiography. On the last page of this remarkable tome, Garrow describes Obama at the end of his distinctly non-transformative and “failed presidency” as a man who had long ago had become a “vessel [that] was hollow at its core.”
Near the conclusion, Garrow notes how disappointed and betrayed many of Obama’s former friends felt by a president who “doesn’t feel indebted to people” (in the words of a former close assistant) and who spent inordinate time on the golf course and “celebrity hobnobbing” (1067). Garrow quotes one of Obama’s “long-time Hyde Park [Chicago] friend[s],” who offered a stark judgement: “Barack is a tragic figure: so much potential, such critical times, but such a failure to perform…like he is an empty shell…Maybe the flaw is hubris, deep and abiding hubris….” (1065). Garrow quotes the onetime and short-lived Obama backer Dr. Cornel West on how Obama “posed as a progressive and turned out to be a counterfeit. We ended up with a Wall Street presidency, a national security presidency…a brown-faced Clinton: another opportunist.”
The subject of Garrow’s meticulous history is a single-minded climber ready to toss others (including family members, lovers, and close friends) aside in service to an all-consuming quest for political power fueled by a belief in his own special “destiny.” (It is clear from Rising Star that Obama was set on a run for the presidency by age twenty-five.) Dozens of former Obama associates interviewed by Garrow report having been impressed, even blown away by the future president as a young man. But many others were put off by Obama’s sense of superiority and arrogance (“full of himself” by the recollection of one Harvard Law classmate [p. 337]) and by his often lecturing, professorial “know it all” presentation – and by his transparent hyper-ambition.
During his time at Harvard Law, fellow students invented “the Obamanometer” – a numerical measure of how long Obama would spend taking up class time with long-winded dialogue with the professor, often while claiming to speak on behalf of his fellow students.
Obama struck many on his way up as far too impressed with his own awesomeness. As one of his fellow black Illinois state senators commented to another veteran legislator as Obama began his eight-year career in the Illinois Senate in 1996, “Can you believe this guy’s some thirty years old [and] he’s already written a book about himself?” (p.600)
Progressives lobbyists found Obama “a disappointing legislator” during his time in the Illinois Senate. According to Al Sharp, executive director of Protestants for the Common Good, state senator Obama was “so very pragmatic” that “he,” in Garrow’s words, “was unwilling to fight to the good fight.” By Garrow’s account. “Legal aid veteran Linda Mills recalled that [state senator] Barack ‘sponsored a number of bills I wrote,’ but ‘I stopped seeking him out as a chief sponsor early on’ because Barack was ‘disengaged’ rather than actively pushing the bills. ‘He was never involved in the legislation,’ and on many days Barack was simply ‘unavailable. Golfing, playing basketball. He was just out to lunch so often’” (p.731)
An Ugly Offer: Money for Silence
I find a different story related in Rising Star just as disturbing. It comes from April of 2008, when then presidential candidate Obama was being compelled by the Hillary Clinton campaign to throw his onetime South Side Chicago “spiritual mentor” Reverend Jeremiah Wright under the bus because Obama’s association with the fiery Black and left-leaning pulpit master was costing him too many white votes. On April 12, 2008, Obama visited Wright, asking him not to do “any more public speaking until after the November election.” Wright refused. “Barack left empty-handed but before long Wright received an e-mail from Barack’s close friend Eric Whitaker, also a Trinity [church] member, offering Wright $150,000 ‘not to preach at all’ in the months ahead.” (p.1044). Wright refused.
How was that for progressive hope and change?
“A Work of Historical Fiction”
Young Obama tried to beat historians to the punch by writing a deceptive, self-serving account of his own first three and half decades gracing the planet with his “special qualities.” Garrow, to his credit, doesn’t fall for it. Rising Star takes the future president’s 1995 book Dreams From My FatherDreams and some of Obama’s later autobiographical reflections to task for: inventing a deep racial identity drama that never occurred during Obama’s early years in Hawaii, Indonesia, and Occidental College; incorrectly portraying Obama as a “difference-maker” on his high school basketball team; deceptively claiming that Obama had been an angry “thug” during high school; deleting the Community Party background of the Black “old poet” (“Frank,” as in longtime Communist Party activist Frank Davis) who gave Obama advice as a teenager in Honolulu; inaccurately claiming that Obama have received a “full scholarship” to Occidental; misrepresenting himself as a leader in the movement against South African apartheid at Occidental; exaggerating Obama’s involvement in anti-apartheid activism at Columbia University; covering up evidence of Obama’s enrollment in a Columbia course taught by a Marxist academic; absurdly mispresenting the nature of Obama’s work for the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) at the City University of New York; concocting a mythical and supposedly life-changing dialogue with a “black security guard” on Obama’s first trip from New York City to begin community organizing work on the far South Side of Chicago; falsely claiming that Obama converted to Christianity during his early years in Chicago; largely writing Obama’s white mother out of his autobiography, which spilled far more ink on a father (Barack Obama. Sr.) who played little role in his life; painting a “decidedly uncharitable portrait” of Obama’s loving white maternal grandfather (Stanley Dunham) who did so much to raise him; suggesting that Obama’s maternal white grandmother was a racist; unduly downplaying Obama’s supreme enjoyment of his years at Harvard Law School; and coldly condensing his three top pre-marital girlfriends (more on them below) “into a single woman whose appearance in the book was fleeting indeed.” Garrow judges Dreams “a work of historical fiction,” not a serious autobiography or memoir.
The Revenge of Sheila Jager: “His Deep-Seated Need to be Loved and Admired”
Rising Star might almost deserve the sub-title “The Revenge of Sheila Jager.” Like Garrow’s giant and classic 1986 biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rising Star gets very, very personal. Garrow reports the complaints of Obama’s three former girlfriends – Alex McNair, Genevieve Cook, and Sheila Jager. Each one recalls an Obama that was ultimately inaccessible and hopelessly self-involved. Ms. Jager, a partly white Asian-American University of Chicago anthropology graduate student when she met Obama, garners singular attention. She fell into a prolonged and ardent affair with then community organizer Obama during the late 1980s. But her long and tumultuous relationship with him was doomed by the color of her skin. Obama shared the passion but decided he could not marry her because his political ambitions in Chicago required a Black spouse.
Garrow recounts an ugly scene in the summer of 1987. A loud and long dispute developed one day at the Wisconsin summer home of a friend. From the morning onwards, a witness recalled, “they were back and forth, having sex, screaming yelling, having sex, screaming yelling.… That whole afternoon, they went back and forth between having sex and fighting,” with Jager yelling: “That’s wrong! That’s wrong! That’s not a reason.”
Near the end of his colossal volume, Garrow says that “no one alive brought deeper insight into the tragedy of Barack Obama than Sheila Jager.” He reproduces numerous quotations from Jager, now an Oberlin College anthropology professor. As a young woman, she was frustrated by young Obama’s lack of “courage.” Writing to Garrow in August of 2013, Jager saw that cowardice in his excessively “pragmatic,” disengaged, and “compromising” presidency:
“the seeds of his future failings were always present in Chicago. He made a series of calculated decisions when he began to map out his political life at the time and they involved some deep compromises. There is a familiar echo in the language he uses now to talk about the compromises he’s always forced to make and the way he explained his future to me back then, saying in effect I ‘wish’ I could do this, but ‘pragmatism and the reality of the world has forced me to do that.’ From the bailout out to NSA to Egypt, it is always the same. The problem is that ‘pragmatism’ can very much look like what works best for the moment. Hence, the constant criticism that there is no strategic vision behind his decisions. Perhaps this pragmatism and need to just ‘get along in the world’ (by accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it) stems from his deep-seated need to be loved and admired which has ultimately led him on the path to conformism and not down the path of greatness which I had hoped for him.” (1065)
The italics are Garrow’s. He added emphasis to the entire passage.
Or Maybe He Really Believed All that “Vacuous to Repressive Neoliberal” and “Pragmatism” Stuff
Garrow’s mammoth biography is a tour de force when it comes to personal critique, professional appraisal, and epic research and documentation. His mastery of the smallest details in Obama’s life and career and his ability to place those facts within a narrative that keeps the reader’s attention (no small feat at 1078 pages!) is remarkable. Rising Star falls short, however, on ideological appraisal. In early 1996, the brilliant left Black political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr. captured the stark moral and political limits of what would become the state and then national Obama phenomenon and indeed the Obama presidency. Writing of an unnamed Obama, Reed observed that:
“In Chicago…we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program – the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”
Garrow very incompletely quotes Reed’s reflection only to dismiss it as “an academic’s way of calling Barack an Uncle Tom.” That is an unfortunate judgement. Reed’s assessment was richly born-out by Obama’s subsequent political career. Like his politcio-ideological soul-brothers Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (and perhaps now Emmanuel Macron), Obama’s public life has been a wretched monument to the dark power of the neoliberal corporate-financial and imperial agendas behind the progressive pretense of façade of telegenic and silver-tongued professional class politicos.
Reed’s prescient verdict more than 12 years before Obama became president brings more insight to the Obama tragedy than Jager’s reflection five years into Obama’s presidency. Obama’s nauseating taste for supposedly (and deceptively) non-ideological “get things done” “pragmatism,” “compromise,” and “playing it safe” – for “accepting the world as it is instead of trying to change it” (Jager) – was not simply or merely a personality quirk or psychological flaw. It was also and far more significantly a longstanding way for “liberal” Democratic presidents and other politicos to appear “tough-minded” and stoutly determined to “getting things done” while they subordinate the fake-populist and progressive-sounding values they mouth to get elected to the harsh “deep state” facts of U.S. ruling class, imperial, and “national security” power. A “pragmatic,” supposedly non-ideological concern for policy effectiveness – “what can be accomplished in the real world” – has long given “liberal” presidents a manly way to justify governing in accord with the wishes of the nation’s ruling class and power elite.
Garrow and Jager might want to look at a forgotten political science classic, Bruce Miroff’s Pragmatic Illusions: The Presidential Politics of John F. Kennedy .) After detailing the supposedly progressive Kennedy’s cool-headed, Harvard-minted, and “best and brightest” service to the nation’s reigning corporate, imperial, and racial hierarchies, Miroff explained that:
“Most modern presidents have claimed the title of ‘pragmatist’ for themselves. Richard Nixon was just as concerned as John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson to announce that he was not wedded to dogma, and that his administration would follow a realistic and flexible course. It has chiefly been the liberal presidents, however, who have captured the pragmatic label…For liberal presidents – and for those who have advised them – the essential mark of pragmatism is its ‘tough-mindedness.’ Pragmatism is equated with strength and intellectual and moral strength that can accept a world stripped of illusions and can take the facts unadorned. Committed to liberal objectives, yet free from liberal sentimentality, the pragmatic liberal sees himself as grappling with brute and unpleasant facts of political reality in order to humanize and soften those facts…The great enemy for pragmatic liberals is ideology…An illusory objectivity is one of the pillars of pragmatic ‘tough-mindedness.’ The second pillar is readiness for power. Pragmatists are interested in what works; their prime criterion of value is success…[and] as a believer in concrete results, the pragmatist is ineluctably drawn to power. For it is power that gets things done most easily, that makes things work most successfully.” (Pragmatic Illusions, 283-84, emphasis added).
The classic neoliberal Bill Clinton embraced the pragmatic and non-ideological “get things done” façade for state capitalist and imperialist policy. So did the pioneering neoliberal Jimmy Carter and the great corporate liberals Lyndon Johnson, John F. Kenney and Franklin Roosevelt. Was this really or mainly because they were psychologically wounded? The deeper and more relevant reality is that they functioned atop a Superpower nation-state rule by unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, empire, and white supremacism. They were educated, socialized, seduced and indoctrinated – to understand in their bones that those de facto dictatorships must remain intact (Roosevelt boasted of having saved the profits system) and that liberal “reform” must always bend to the will of reigning institutions and doctrines of concentrated wealth, class, race, and power. Some or all of them may well have to believe and internalize the purportedly non-ideological ideology of wealth- and power-serving pragmatism. And Obama was either a true believer or one who cynically chose to impersonate one as the ticket to power quite early on.
A Fully Minted Neoliberal Early On
The irony here is that one can consult Rising Star to determine the basic underlying accuracy of Reed’s acerbic description. My foremost revelation from Rising Star is that Obama was fully formed as a fake-progressive neoliberal-capitalist actor well before he ever received his first big money campaign contribution. He’s headed down the same ideological path as the Clintons even before Bill Clinton walks into the Oval Office. Obama’s years in the corporate-funded foundation world, the great ruling and professional class finishing schools Columbia University Harvard Law, and the great neoliberal University of Chicago’s elite Law School were more than sufficient to mint him as a brilliant if “vacuous to repressive neoliberal.”
During his years at Harvard Law, Garrow notes, Obama took said the following at a Turner Broadcasting African American Summit for the 1990s:
“Whenever we blame society for everything, or blame white racism for everything, then inevitably we’re giving away our own power…if we can get start getting beyond some of these old divisions [of race, place, and class] and look at the possibilities of crafting pragmatic, practical strategies that are going to focus on what’s going to make it work and less about whether it fits into one ideological mold or another.”
These were classic neoliberal and ruling class themes.
Along with a healthy dose of market economics, this was the heavily ideological if nominally anti-ideological essence of much of Obama’s intellectual work at Harvard Law, where he and his good friend the former economist Rob Fisher were drawn to the courses of a libertarian professor and wrote oxymoronically about the progressive and democratic potential of “market forces.” Like other ruling class and professional class educational and ideological institutions of “higher education,” Harvard Law was and remains a great schoolhouse of precisely the kind of “pragmatism” which knows that no policies and visions can work that don’t bow to the holy power of the finance-led corporate and imperial state, ruling in the name of the market among other things.
Again, and again across Garrow’s many hundreds of pages on Obama’s community organizing and legislative career one hears about the future president’s classically neoliberal efforts to address poverty and joblessness by increasing the market value of poor and jobless folks’ “human capital” and “skill sets.” Never does one learn of any serious call on his part for the radical and democratic redistribution of wealth and power and the advance of a people’s political economy based on solidarity and the common good, not the profits of the investor class.
The main things Obama needed to add on to fulfill his “destiny” after Harvard Law were a political career in elected office, a great moment of national celebrity (his spectacular Keynote Address to the Democratic National Convention in August of 2004), elite financial sponsorship (including record-setting Wall Street backing in 2007 and 2008), and proper appreciation and articulation of U.S.-imperial Council on Foreign Relations ideology. All of this and more, including no small good fortune (including the awfulness of the George W. Bush administration and the 2007-08 Hillary Clinton campaign), followed and brought us to the great neoliberal “disappointment” that was the Obama presidency.
Curious Deletions: MacFaquhar, Marxists, and the Ruling Class Sponsors
There are some interesting deletions in Rising Star. It is odd that the meticulous Garrow never quotes a remarkable essay published by The New Yorker in the spring of 2007. In early May of that year, six months after Obama had declared his candidacy for the White House, the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar penned a memorable portrait of Obama titled “The Conciliator: Where is Barack Obama Coming From?” “In his view of history, in his respect for tradition, in his skepticism that the world can be changed any way but very, very slowly,” MacFarquhar wrote after extensive interviews with the candidate, “Obama is deeply conservative. There are moments when he sounds almost Burkean…It’s not just that he thinks revolutions are unlikely: he values continuity and stability for their own sake, sometimes even more than he values change for the good” (emphasis added).
MacFarquhar cited as an example of this reactionary sentiment Obama’s reluctance to embrace single-payer health insurance on the Canadian model, which he told her would “so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.” Obama told MacFarquhar that “we’ve got all these legacy systems in place, and managing the transition, as well as adjusting the culture to a different system, would be difficult to pull off. So we may need a system that’s not so disruptive that people feel like suddenly what they’ve known for most of their lives is thrown by the wayside.”
So what if large popular majorities in the U.S. had long favored the single-payer model? So what if single payer would let people keep the doctors of their choice, only throwing away the protection pay off to the private insurance mafia? So what if “the legacy systems” Obama defended included corporate insurance and pharmaceutical oligopolies that regularly threw millions of American lives by the wayside of market calculation, causing enormous disruptive harm and death for the populace?
Was this personal weakness and cowardice? The deeper reality is that Obama’s “deeply conservative” beliefs reflected an either calculated or heartfelt allegiance to neoliberal “free market” ideals and related pragmatic and “realistic” ruling- and elite professional-class values inculcated and absorbed at Harvard Law, in the corporate-captive foundation world, and through his many contacts in the elite business sector and the foreign policy establishment as he rose in the American System. Along with a bottomless commitment to the long American imperial project, those power-serving beliefs were written all over Obama’s conservative late 2006 campaign book The Audacity of Hope (Obama’s second book and his second book mainly about himself – see my critical review of it on Black Agenda Report in early 2007 here), whose right-wing and imperial content Garrow ignores. They also raised their head in the famous 2004 Democratic Convention Keynote Address (see my critical reflection on that oration at the time here) that did so much to make Obama an overnight national and even global celebrity – another document whose right-leaning ideological nature escapes Garrow’s attention.
Like Obama’s neoliberal and imperial ideology, the many left activists and writers (this reviewer included) who saw through Obama’s progressive pretense and warned others about it early on are basically missing in Rising Star. The list of Left commentators left out is long. It includes Bruce Dixon, Glen Ford, John Pilger, Noam Chomsky. Alexander Cockburn, Margaret Kimberly, Jeffrey St. Clair, Roger Hodge, Pam Martens, Ajamu Baraka, Doug Henwood, Juan Santos, Marc Lamont Hill, John R. MacArthur, and a host of others (Please see the sub-section titled “Insistent Left Warnings” on pages 176-177 in the sixth chapter, titled “We Were Warned,” of my 2010 book The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power [Paradigm, 2014], my second carefully researched Obama book not to make it into Garrow’s endnotes or bibliography).
Also largely missing – the other side of the coin of omission, so to speak – in Garrow’s sprawling acount is the elite corporate and financial class that made record-setting contributions to Obama’s rise with an understanding that Obama was very much on their side. How write a 1000-page plus account of Obama’s rise to power without at least once mentioning that august and unparalleled ruling class figure Robert Rubin, whose nod of approval was critical to Obama’s ascendancy? As Greg Palast noted, Rubin “opened the doors to finance industry vaults for Obama. Extraordinarily for a Democrat, Obama in 2008 raised three times as much from bankers as his Republican opponent.”
Rubin would also serve as a top informal Obama adviser and placed a number of his protégés in high-ranking positions in the Obama administration. Rubin’s Obama appointees included Timothy Geithner (Obama’s first treasury secretary), Peter Orszag (Obama’s first Office of Management and Budget director), and Larry Summers (first chief economic adviser).
Just as odd as his ignoring of MacFarquhar’s May 2007 essay is Garrow’s inattention to a remarkable report from Ken Silverstein’s six months before. “It’s not always clear what Obama’s financial backers want,” the progressive journalist Ken Silverstein noted in a Harpers’ Magazine report titled “Obama, Inc.” in November of 2006, “but it seems safe to conclude that his campaign contributors are not interested merely in clean government and political reform…On condition of anonymity,” Silverstein added, “one Washington lobbyist I spoke with was willing to point out the obvious: that big donors would not be helping out Obama if they didn’t see him as a ‘player.’ The lobbyist added: ‘What’s the dollar value of a starry-eyed idealist?’” Obama’s allegiance to the American business elite was evident from the get go. It was well understood by the K Street insiders that Silverstein interviewed in the fall of 2006.
His “dollar value” to Wall Street would become abundantly clear in early 2009, when he told a frightened group of Wall Street executives that “I’m not here to go after you. I’m protecting you…I’m going to shield you from congressional and public anger.” For the banking elite, who had destroyed untold millions of jobs, there was, as Garrow’s fellow Pulitzer Prize-winner Ron Sukind wrote, “Nothing to worry about. Whereas [President Franklin Delano] Roosevelt had [during the Great Depression] pushed for tough, viciously opposed reforms of Wall Street and famously said ‘I welcome their hate,’ Obama was saying ‘How can I help?’” As one leading banker told Suskind, “The sense of everyone after the meeting was relief. The president had us at a moment of real vulnerability. At that point, he could have ordered us to do just about anything and we would have rolled over. But he didn’t – he mostly wanted to help us out, to quell the mob.”
On Love and Admiration
As noted above, professor Jager told Garrow that the limits of Obama’s presidency stemmed from his longstanding “need to be loved and admired.” But surely that need would have been met to no small degree had Obama (like Roosevelt in 1935 and 1936) governed in at least partial accord with the progressive-sounding rhetoric he campaigned on in 2007 and 2008. Beyond the social, democratic, security and environmental benefits that would have been experienced by millions of Americans and world citizens under an actually progressive Obama presidency, such policy would have been good politics for both Obama and the Democratic Party. It might well have pre-empted the Tea Party rebellion and kept the orange-haired beast Donald Trump – a dodgy neo-fascistic legacy of Obama and the Clintons’ ruling- and professional-class Ivy League elitism – out of the White House. The bigger problem here was Obama’s love and admiration for the nation’s reigning wealth and power elite – or, perhaps, his reasonable calculation that the powers that be held a monopoly on the means of bestowing public love and admiration. Non-conformism to the ruling class carries no small cost in a media and politics culture owned by that class.
The Biggest Omission: Empire
The most glaring thing missing in Rising Star is any understanding of U.S, Senator and presidential candidate Obama’s imperial world view. His brazenly “American exceptionalist” and imperial mindset, straight out of the Council on Foreign Relations, was written all over Obama’s foreign policy speeches and writings (including large sections of The Audacity of Hope) in 2006, 2007, and 2008. I wrote about this at length in the fourth chapter (titled “How Antiwar? Obama, Iraq, and the Audacity of Empire”) in my 2008 book Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.
This significant omission but it is unsurprising given Garrow’s own apparent enmeshment in the American imperial mindset. Rising Star’s long epilogue includes John McCain-like criticisms of Obama for failing to launch military strikes on Syria and for being too allergic to “the use, or even the threat of force” in global affairs. Garrow even offers a lengthy critical quote on the need for “the next president” to be more “resolute” from the former leading imperialist defense secretary Robert Gates, who Garrow strangely describes as “the weightiest and most widely respected voice of all.”
“Problems Out There with the Situation of African-Americans in Society”
Obama first became something of a celebrity when he became the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review in February of 1990. “I wouldn’t want people to see my election,” Obama told the Associated Press, “as a symbol that there aren’t problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” (Garrow, Rising Star, p. 392). Note the carefully calibrated nature of Obama’s public commentary already at the age of 28: “problems out there with the situation of African-Americans in society” could just as easily refer to alleged Black personal and cultural failure (a persistent white-pleasing theme in the rising star’s political rhetoric) as it could to cultural and/or institutional and societal racism. Note also that while Obama’s election and re-election to the U.S. presidency brought few if any tangible material and policy gains to Black America (whose already terrible economic situation deteriorated significantly during his time in office), it functioned as something like the last nail in the coffin of many whites’ stark reluctance to acknowledge that the nation’s still deeply embedded racism any longer poses real barriers to Black advancement and equality in the U.S. “Are you kidding me?” I’ve heard countless whites say, “we elected a Black president! Stop talking about racism!” Never mind the persistence of deeply embedded racial inequality and oppression at the heart of the nation’s labor and housing markets, credit and investment systems, legal and criminal justice systems, its military and police state, and its educational and media systems – and the dogged tenacity of personal and cultural race prejudice among a considerable part of the white populace. In that and other ways, the tragedy of the Obama years has been greatest of all for those at the bottom of the nation’s steep social and economic wells.
King v. Obama
If I could ask Garrow one question beyond the personal matter of why my own heavily researched and annotated study of (and Left warning on) “rising star” Obama (Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics [Paradigm-Routledge, 2008]) is so egregiously missing in his bibliography and endnotes, it is this: what does Garrow think his previous epic biography subject Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. (who politely refused progressives’ effort to enlist him as a presidential candidate and whose bust sat behind Obama in the Oval Office), would have thought of the career of Garrow’s new epic biography subject, Barack Obama?
As Garrow knows, King in his final years inveighed eloquently against what he called “the triple evils that are interrelated,” essentially capitalism, racism, and militarism-imperialism. King came to the end of his martyred life with the belief that the real faults in American life lay not so much in “men” as in the oppressive institutions and social structures that reigned over them. He wrote that “the radical reconstruction of society itself” was “the real issue to be faced” beyond “superficial” matters. He had no interest, of course, in running for the White House of all things.
Obama took a very different path, one that enlisted him in service both to narcissistic self and to each of the very triple evils (and other ones as well) that King dedicated his life to resisting.
The Obama-King contrast continues into Obama’s post-presidential years. As Garrow showed in Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King. Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (William Morrow, 1986), the great Civil Rights leader and democratic socialist Dr. King sternly refused to cash in on his fame. Now that he out of the White House, Obama, by contrast, is cashing in. He’s raking in millions from the publishing industry and Wall Street and he’s back to his old “hobnobbing” ways with the rich and famous.
The reverend would be 88 years old if he had been blessed with longevity. My guess is that he would be less than pleased at the life and career of the nation’s first technically Black president.