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Remnick Takes Up Obama’'s Critics

Ronald Radosh

In the current issue of National Review, Jay Nordlinger has a noteworthy article about critics who charged him with being a racist after he wrote that he thought President Obama appeared to be arrogant in his State of the Union address. The word arrogant, he quickly found out, was now held to be “a racist codeword.”

Strangely, when liberals make comments about Obama that actually could be construed as racist code words, no one utters a peep and those guilty of offense are quickly let off the hook. Take Dan Rather, for example. As Nordlinger points out, Rather “described Obama as ‘very articulate’ — there they go again — but said ‘he couldn’t sell watermelons if you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic.’ Watermelons? Rather later said, ‘Anyone who knows me personally or knows my professional career would know that race was not on my mind.’ I’m sure that’s true. But would he give such a break to a conservative who committed a similar faux pas?”

Nordlinger hopes a day will come when race fades from the scene. But judging how crying racist is now a favorite form of attacking critics of Obama, it will not be for quite a while. Take again one of the most recent egregious forms of its use — that by New Yorker editor David Remnick in his new biography of Obama, The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama.

Remnick, as I pointed out in my last blog post, goes on the attack against Obama’s critics during the campaign. His most extensive and nasty comments are reserved for Jack Cashill, the blogger who penned the now famous article raising questions about whether Obama wrote his memoir Dreams from My Father, or if it might have been ghostwritten by Bill Ayers.

Cashill has solid bona fide academic credentials. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue University, and author of a respected book on American intellectuals, Hoodwinked. He also acknowledged from the start that “shy of a confession by those involved, I will not be able to prove conclusively that Obama did not write this book.” What he offered is an argument that readers were free to accept, reject or challenge. It is certainly valid to do the latter. I suspect he certainly expected that. At any rate, except for Rush Limbaugh and others on the political right, Cashill convinced very few that he was on to anything.

An exception was writer Christopher Andersen. As I reported earlier, the pop biography Andersen wrote, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage, included a tantalizing tidbit. After Obama got a new contract to write his book, Michelle Obama told Andersen that she suggested to her husband that he get advice “from his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers” who had a reputation for being a good writer. Andersen claimed that then Obama handed over his oral interviews with relatives, a draft of his manuscript and notes to Ayers. Andersen concluded, in much the same way as Cashill, that “in the end, Ayers’s contribution to Barack’s Dreams From My Father would be significant — so much so that the book’s language, oddly specific references, literary devices, and themes would bear a jarring similarity to Ayers’s own writing.”

Andersen’s claims came out after Remnick’s manuscript was being printed, sparing Remnick from having to comment on them. What is important though is how Remnick dealt with Cashill’s claims. He could, of course, have simply ignored them — especially since he acknowledges that few outside of the right took them seriously. But because Limbaugh endorsed them, Remnick could not resist using his pages to score another blast at Obama’s conservative opponents.

Since so many people had a sense of Obama from his own writings, Remnick argues, any challenge to his authorship “possessed a diabolical potency for those who wished him ill.” (This is certainly so. Friends of mine told me that they supported him from the get go because they had read Dreams From my Father.) Remnick writes: “It suggested that the man poised to become the first African-American President, one celebrated for his language and his eloquence, could not possibly be such a good writer.”

So what, precisely, does Remnick do to put an end to what he considers the dangerous and false claims made by Cashill? First, he calls him “a latter-day Derrida” who has penned a deconstructionist style attack on Obama. Next, he says his attempts “might well have remained a mere twinkling in the Web’s farthest lunatic orbit had not … more powerful voices hoped to give his theory wider currency.” This would be referring to Limbaugh, who used his radio show “to take up the Ayers-as-author theory.” Limbaugh said “there’s no evidence that [Obama] has any kind of writing talent.”

Readers of Remnick’s book will not have had the chance to read Cashill’s article, from which Limbaugh reached that judgement. It is based on the fact that as editor of Harvard Law Review, Obama obtained the position without ever having published anything in the journal. Nor had anyone ever seen examples of prior writing. Moreover, Cashill noted that a long period existed between Obama’s first contract, voided because he failed to turn in an acceptable manuscript, and a new contract which concluded with the now famous and acclaimed memoir.

In Monday, in a blog he posted, Cashill writes:

In late 1994, Obama finally submitted his manuscript for publication. Remnick expects the faithful to believe that a mediocre student who had nothing in print save for the occasional “muddled” essay, who blew a huge contract after more than two futile years, who wrote no legal articles, and who turned in bloated drafts when he did start writing, somehow found the time and inspiration during an absurdly busy period of his life to write what Time magazine would call “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.”

Now the above certainly does not prove that Obama did not write his own memoir. It does, however, raise valid issues about how he was able to so quickly develop such a strong literary voice for which there was no prior evidence. After all, how many years did John F. Kennedy’s defenders swear he wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning book Profiles in Courage, which we now know was ghosted by Ted Sorensen? For political reasons, his supporters had good cause to worry that Kennedy’s political future could have come to a halt had the truth been learned at the time.

At any rate, aside from snide comments, Remnick does nothing to take on Cashill’s actual arguments. Saying he is part of a “lunatic orbit” is not exactly any kind of a real answer. But he does more — and this time, Remnick uses the same attack launched on Nordlinger. He calls Cashill’s argument racist! First, he calls the claim that Obama had a ghost writer a “libel” that has a particularly “ugly pedigree.” It is this:

Writing elevated a slave from non-being, from commodity, to human status. … In Frederick Douglass’ narrative, his master, Mr.Auld says, “Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world … if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) to read, there would be no keeping him.”

And yet writers like Douglass had to call on white men to authenticate their texts, the better to disprove the antebellum Jack Cashills and Rush Limbaugh ready to declare fraud.

Remnick continues to argue that Douglass had to assure white readers that he wrote the book, by providing authentication from people such as William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips so that he would have the “seal of white endorsement.” Remnick writes:

Garrison vouched for Douglass’ literacy. The title, too, indicates a need to deny a sham. It is called the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself.

A century and a half later, thinking a degree of racial progress had been achieved, Barack Obama and his publisher had not thought to collect such endorsements. (my emphasis.)

That ends the chapter. Remnick, instead of showing how, why and where the questions raised by Cashill have no merit, simply asserts that like in the times of slavery, white critics today argue that Obama might not have written his book and needed a ghost writer to help him because they too are racist and believe that Obama or any other articulate, smart and educated African-American cannot write his own book!

Cashill’s arguments may indeed be wrong and not have merit. I emphasize this because I am not writing to endorse his theory. I am only arguing that Remnick does not even try to disprove or challenge him. Instead, he deals with him and Limbaugh by playing the race card in an absurd way.

Cashill is also correct when he writes in his American Thinkerblog:

The defense of Obama by Wills and Remnick should not surprise. As I discovered five years ago in the research for my book, Hoodwinked, America’s intellectual elite has been crafting and enabling intellectual fraud for nearly a century. “Not unnaturally,” I wrote, “people of influence in the cultural establishment are inclined to promote, praise, and protect those creative individuals who think as they do.” The protected, by the way, include people of all colors, genders, and orientations. The protectors usually vote, sound, and condescend just like [Gary] Wills and Remnick.

As one of the most quoted comments ever made about intellectuals go, they are the “herd of independent minds.”

All this should not be surprising. The New Yorker, along with The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, has become the epitome of acceptable liberalism and a chorus of cheer-leaders for Barack Obama. If David Remnick had reached any different conclusions about Obama’s critics than the one he did reach, that would have been the real surprise.

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