Due to my immersion in the 1960 World Series, and other, less enjoyable projects, I still haven’t finished Radical-in-Chief, Stanley Kurtz’s political biography of Barack Obama. I’m getting there, though, and I recommend that our readers consider doing the same.
Early in the book, Kurtz reminds us of this passage from Obama’s autobiography Dreams From My Father:
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 diversions New York had to offer, like going to a foreign film or ice-skating at Rockefeller Center.
To many readers, this phrasing must have seemed quite clever from a literary point of view — confirmation, if any were needed, of the author’s precociousness. To highly politically conscious readers, the passage must have seemed equally clever. Obama, who was then gearing up for his first political campaign, signaled to the leftist Hyde Park crowd that he was a man of the left, without signaling to others that he was threatening. In addition, Kurtz speculates (plausibly) that Obama may have been concerned that evidence of his attendance at socialist conferences would surface, and thus attempted preemptively to remove its sting by characterizing his involvement as a “diversion.”
In any event, Kurtz demonstrates that Obama’s effort to make light of his involvement with socialism is a deception. For one thing, Obama has acknowledged that this period was one of extraordinary intellectual intensity for him. It was, in his words, a time of “solitude and isolation.” When his mother and sister visited him, they “made fun of me because I was so monk-like.” Surrounded by books, he was in “the period when I grew as much as I have ever grown intellectually.”
It follows that during this period, “politcal debates” mattered at least as much to him as when he was at Occidental. And if Obama skated at Rockefeller Center during his “monk-like” period, surely it was not with the seriousness of purpose with which he engaged political ideas, including those espoused at all-day socialist conferences.
Indeed, Kurtz shows a connection between what was espoused at these conferences and Obama’s decision to become a “community organizer.” Going into his senior year at Columbia, Obama seemed on course to work in the field of international relations, his major. He was particularly focused on nuclear disarmament, writing both his thesis and a major piece for a campus newsmagazine on this subject. And eventually, to accumulate money to tide him over as a community organizer, he took a job with an outfit that helped companies with foreign operations understand overseas markets.
But in the second half of his senior year, Obama resolved to become a community organizer. What inspired that choice?
According to Kurtz, the inspiration likely came from his involvement in the socialist movement. In fact, the importance of community organizing was a major theme at the socialist conference Obama attended at Cooper Union. For example, an all-star panel on “Social Movements” was devoted to community organizing.
One of the panelists, Peter Dreier characterized such work as developing “socialist incubators.” The idea was to combine diverse community organizations into a national grassroots movement to “democratize control of major social, economic, and political institutions.” (emphasis added) In this vision, a grassroots movement for such public control would gradually overcome American cultural resistance to state-run enterprises.
This would only happen, though, if the “socialist incubators” developed by community organizers moved into the political arena. Thus, Dreier’s vision pointed not only to Obama’s first important career — community organizer — but also his second — political candidate.
Finally, black liberation theology was also featured at the conference, and Obama’s attendance may well have started him on the path to Reverend Wright. At a panel on “Race & Class in Marxism,” a young Cornel West spoke. During this period West was an assistant professor at the Union Theological Seminary. There he co-taught a course with James Cone, Wright’s mentor, on “Black Theology and Marxist Thought.”
West had told Michael Harrington, the dean of American socialists, that he wished to “legitimate socialist alternatives” in social discourse, while also infusing the African-American church with socialist analysis and ideas. This, almost certainly, is what West talked about during the panel on “Race & Class in Marxism.” If Obama was at that session — and how could he have resisted — the eloquent and impressive Prof. West would have made far more of an impression on young Obama than ice skating or a foreign film.
I hope this summary of a small portion of Radical-in-Chief provides readers with a sense of Kurtz’s project. For me, his book is as irresistible as the Cooper Union socialist event was for Barack Obama during the period when he says he grew as much as he ever has intellectually.