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Two books about Barack Obama
This is a tandem review of two books on the same subject by two very different authors with two different political viewpoint … who come to the same conclusion.
The first is Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama by David J. Garrow. Garrow is a biographer and historian, an unflinching liberal who approaches the subject of Obama with all of the piety and reverence one would expect from a person who even in this day and age proudly and without irony labels himself “Democrat.” Garrow has lofty academic credentials: he has a PhD, he’s written other books, and he’s the kind of guy who appears on PBS or on those CSPAN book shows filmed at book stores.
The other book is Unmasking Obama by Jack Cashill. Cashill is a Conservative and also a denizen of PBS and book shows on CSPAN. He likewise holds PhD with extensive academic credentials and an Emmy for a documentary he produced. Cashill approaches Obama as a critic of Obama’s tenure in the White House.
The books are quite different and yet arrive at the same conclusion—that President Obama was not who he claimed to be and, in fact, we do not really even know who he is now. Before the era of deep fakes, Obama made himself into a pretty convincing hologram—a man who was whatever he needed to be to get whatever he wanted at that moment. In other words, Obama saw the future in radical progressivism so he created himself to be somebody progressives would love. Barack Obama may never have believed in anything at all, except of course, the welfare and betterment of Barack Obama.
Garrow’s book is massive—it’s over 1,400 pages long and it goes into such excruciating detail on some points that you have to think only a narcissist like Obama would read it (and Obama did read the manuscript in advance, Garrow said). Rising Star takes the reader from Obama’s birth to the White House but stops there. That’s where Cashill’s book begins. And Cashill’s book is less biographical than a litany of offenses in mostly chronological order.
The details in Rising Star are sometimes overwhelming and unnecessary. For instance, Obama did his undergraduate work at Occidental College in Los Angeles (known as Oxy). But Garrow not only tells us in hundreds of pages about Oxy, it tells us the exact courses Obama took. And then it tells us the days the courses met. And since Garrow cannot leave well enough alone, it even tells us the times those courses met. It tells us the name of the snack bar at Oxy where Obama occasionally snacked. It tells us the names of lots of people in his dorm. In fact, it tells us stuff that no one in their right mind wants to know. I don’t even remember the names of the courses I took in college—why would I care to know all of the undergraduate courses Obama took?
The odd thing about Garrow is that he glosses over really interesting stuff. For instance, he announces that Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961. Regardless of where you stand on the “birther” question, the location of Obama’s birth has been a subject of some controversy. Yet Garrow never mentions that at all, not even a whisper. One would think that something like that would deserve some ink—I mean, after all, we know Obama’s college class schedule in detail. Why not mention a major and unprecedented controversy surrounding his birth location?
Another thing Garrow does not delve into at all is Obama’s paternity. He was named for Barack Hussein Obama, a Kenyan man studying in the United States around 1960. It does not mention that some have wondered whether he was not rather the son of Frank Marshall Davis, a hard-left poet and political activist, who was a friend of the family and bears a striking resemblance to Barack. Without taking sides, it is rather a biographical detail worth noting that some have challenged the paternity of Obama.
Garrow does expose some harsh details about Barack’s childhood, back when he was a cute little boy called Barry. Little Barry met Obama Senior only once and for a period of a few days. While Garrow and others state that the couple was married when little Barry entered the world, no record of a marriage was ever found. And even if Ann Dunham and Obama Senior had gotten married, things would have been complicated, because Obama Senior was already married to another woman. Ann Dunham did briefly take the surname Obama and she used that surname for her son Barry until she remarried to an Indonesian national named Lolo Soetoro. At this point, Barry took the new name of Barry Soetoro.
The little family lived in Indonesia where Lolo worked for the government, and Ann pursued her study of anthropology and worked for academic nonprofit organizations. Barry attended a local school where he registered as Barry Soetoro and listed his religion as Muslim. This was likely not a statement of religious conviction; Indonesia is a Muslim country and this may have been expected if not outright required.
Lolo and Ann had one child together, a girl named Maya. For a few years, Barry lived in Indonesia as part of real family. But when Ann and Lolo divorced, Ann sent Barry to Hawaii to live with her parents, while Ann took Barry’s half-sister Maya to stay with her. Indeed, Ann stayed with Maya for the rest of her childhood, while Barry was sent back to Hawaii.
In other words, young Barry was abandoned once by his father and again by his mother. Ann’s rejection of Barry had to sting even more because Ann clearly had no problems keeping her daughter. For the rest of his life, the man who would one day be President Obama saw his mother only fleetingly on her rare vacations or business trips to the United States.
Not only is this abandonment of what Garrow describes as a bright, happy little boy emotionally crushing to the reader, it reveals that Barry lived in a world that was anything but African-American. His mother was white; his stepfather was Indonesian; his grandparents were white. His contacts with actual African-Americans were few and far between. It is also interesting that once in Hawaii, he reverted back to the name Barry Obama. While still in elementary school, Barry had already gone through and buried one identity, Barry Soetoro, the kid from Indonesia.
On the other hand, Cashill’s book is about how the mainstream media ran cover for President Obama as he foisted one disaster after another on the country. Unmasking Obama is a short book (at least compared to Rising Star) full of zippy stories and infuriating scandals, chunked up in short chapters. It also takes a political position, namely that Obama’s Presidential scandals were facilitated by a compliant media that was more obedient than the old Soviet Pravda. The book talks about Michael Brown, Solyndra, Obama’s chummy relationship with Bill Ayres, his nutty church in Chicago, his alleged affairs, and lots of scandals you probably forgot.
So one book is reverential, the other book is highly critical, but both concluded with the same general thoughts.
Garrow, who appears to have interviewed every person in contact with Obama except Larry Sinclair, ends the book on a personal note, in bitter disappointment. He saw in Obama’s early years a promise of lofty activism, nobility of character, and high ideals which all disintegrated when Obama turned out to be just another power-player in D.C.
“The vessel was hollow at its core,” Garrow writes on the last page of the book, and he recognizes that Obama basically willed himself to be the man who would be President. “Eight years in the White House had revealed all too clearly that it is easy to forget who you once were if you have never really known who you are.” That’s the last line in the gigantic Garrow book.
I suspect Garrow began writing this book as a lovesick devotee of Saint Obama who, over the course of his research, had to expose the him as an opportunist, a narcissist, and a con man. Garrow never talks about the scandals that Cashill exposes, but he does find plenty of reason to see Obama as the flim-flam president. Take Obama’s detour into Chicago politics. It was as calculated as his decision to pay to go to Harvard for his law degree rather than except a full-ride scholarship from Northwestern. Obama moved to Chicago to shore up the kind of Black political activist street cred he would need to launch a campaign as a Black man running for President. He had not ties to Chicago at all, but he knew he needed them to get to the White House. It is doubtful he bought into any of this Chicago activist culture, or if he did, it was purely coincidental. He knew that he had a great shot at a political future by virtue of his race, so he went to Chicago to make the right intersectional connections. It was identity politics played by a grifter. He went into debt to go to Harvard, because that is the right alma mater for a President.
(If you don’t believe this, what has Obama done for Chicago since he left? The answer is nothing. Chicago was a stepping stone on his resume, nothing more.)
It’s the same reason that he married Michelle Robinson, according to Garrow. Barack Obama had a few serious love interests during his college years and Garrow has managed to scare up and inflict on the reader many love letters from these romances. But, alas, these women were not Black. Barack knew that his political future depended on marrying a Black woman, and not just any Black woman, but a Black progressive activist woman. In Chicago, Barack met Michelle and she fulfilled these needs—not his emotional needs perhaps, but his political needs and that was all he cared about. Everything with Obama was a calculation.
Michelle had ties to the Black Chicago political machine and was friends with Sarita Jackson, the daughter of Jesse Jackson. She was liberal as hell, bright, articulate, and willing to play a supportive if not exactly submissive wife. Their marriage was not much of a romance, but it turned out to be a durable partnership.
To a true-believer like Garrow, finding out that Barack Obama was a feckless narcissist came as a great awakening. It’s always fun to see a liberal take a whole handful of red pills all at once.
Cashill, on the other hand, saw Barack Obama as an ardent and vocal leftist, but not so big of a communist that he wouldn’t buy himself various large mansions. Obama forged relationships with radicals, communists, leftists, and progressive activists, whom he used to advance his agenda, which was amassing power, then abusing that power, and, when possible, taking a profit.
For instance, Cashill describes Obama’s famous flip-flop on gay marriage, saying he was always pro-homosexuality—indeed, his interest in homosexuality was perhaps not entirely academic—but he knew that the influence of the church on Black America made Black voters disapprove of same-sex marriage. That’s why Obama came out vocally against gay marriage in 2008—it was not what he believed, it was what he believed he needed to say to get elected. When he reversed position a few years later, even Time magazine called him out, writing that he “misled Americans for his own political benefit.”
To lie about a deeply held personal conviction and one that is important to constituents is not just a deception, it is a way of draining one’s own soul. Obama was the least Black man who ever lived in America, yet he appropriated a strong and zealous African-American identity since that was expedient. Going to school at Oxy, Barry Obama was known as “the Hawaiian guy” and had little contact with the African-American students there. He was raised by white people. As a young man, his love interests were all white girls. In some ways, Obama is the Black version of Liz Warren, but Obama at least had one parent of the racial identity he claimed.
So Cashill’s book—which is way more fun to read—arrives at the same conclusion as Garrow’s book. Obama was an opportunist and a phony. He was a man who molded and shaped and acted the way he thought would most benefit him in the moment. You can only live and function like that if you are, as Garrow put it, “a hollow vessel.”
The big difference in the books is not the timelines (Rising Star is pre-Presidency, Unmasking Obama is post-Presidency) but the posture of the author. Cashill documents Obama as he always knew him to be. Garrow notes mournfully that Obama is not who he thought he was.