Writing a wrong

This book may be wide of the mark but it has an audience

Muted Barack Obama

The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics And The Cult Of Personality
By Jerome R. Corsi
New York, Threshold Editions, 2008

Reviewed by Michael L. Ondaatje

Barack Obama’s image is everywhere these days–and why wouldn’t it be? In November 2008, Americans elected a president who by virtue of his race could have been legally owned by the first 16 presidents of the United States.

One hundred and forty-six years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation ending slavery, and 46 years after Martin Luther King shared his dream of a future healed by racial equality, a black man sits confidently as the symbol of a new America.

If a turning point is a moment in history when significant change takes place, then Obama’s elevation to the pinnacle of US power must surely rank among the most extraordinary turning points in American history.

But the new president has had little time to savour his remarkable success. Having inherited the most adverse set of circumstances since Franklin Roosevelt became president in 1933, Obama has been busy trying to salvage the global financial system and rebuild America’s international reputation. After the disastrous Bush years, it seems that nothing less than a “fundamental reordering of national priorities” is underway.

Of course, hard-line conservatives have been fretting for some time that an Obama presidency would have radical consequences for the US and the world. During the 2008 political season, these forces mobilised, hell-bent on extinguishing the Illinois senator’s White House aspirations.

At an institutional level, FOX News’ role in the smear campaign against Obama has been well documented. But the dirty tricks of individual operatives who have long done the bidding of the Republican Party have received less attention. “Dirty tricks” is indeed an appropriate phrase to describe the right-wing crusade to destroy Obama’s reputation–a crusade that aimed to scare off swing voters seriously contemplating casting a ballot for the Democratic Party’s candidate.

Arguably the most influential individual statement of anti-Obamaism during the election campaign was Jerome R. Corsi’s controversial tract, The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics And The Cult Of Personality. Convinced of the urgency of the times, Corsi promised a “meticulously researched, fact-based” account of Obama’s life–compete with 600 footnotes–to show why an Obama presidency would lead the US in a “costly and self-destructive direction”, and constitute an “abomination”.

Not only would the nation be “militarily weakened” and “economically diminished”, Corsi insisted its “internal conflicts could well become more sharpened and more abrasive from four years of Obama leadership”.

Upon reading these words, I was left wondering why the author didn’t write a similar book four years earlier about George W.’s first term. After all, in contrast to Obama, the name Bush sits rather easily alongside the phrases “militarily weakened” and “economically diminished”, such that it is now synonymous with the idiom “American Decline”.

How, then, does Corsi substantiate his claims that Obama is politically ill-equipped and morally unfit for the presidency while simultaneously refusing to criticise his dismal White House predecessor?

The simple answer is that Corsi doesn’t substantiate his claims; he merely substitutes politically-driven insinuations for historical accuracy and maligns and impugns the former Illinois senator with a chain of unsubstantiated assumptions.

The charges levelled against Obama are too numerous to catalogue here in full, but some especially absurd claims qualify for special mention.

Obama is accused, for instance, of being a “radical socialist” because (among other things) he supports universal health care, is a Democrat and may have been influenced by Franz Fanon at university. Obama is also labelled “anti-white” because he has read about Malcolm X; “elitist” because he attended Harvard; and “anti-American” because he’s been spotted, on occasion, not sporting a flag lapel pin.

Also concerning, according to Corsi–quoting another conservative pundit–is that Obama’s Dreams From My Father resembles a “dimestore Mein Kampf”; not to mention the fact that Obama “will be the first president in our history to have an extended family in another country”.

Americans before last year’s election were presumably meant to be distressed, even alarmed, by the information Corsi was presenting.

And many Americans were alarmed: recall the chants of “Arab,” “Muslim” and “kill him” at Republican Party rallies. A racial moderate and long-time advocate of a shared civic culture was somehow recast by hard-line conservatives as an American-hating black extremist whose Marxist allegiances and foreign loyalties would seriously jeopardise the nation’s future.

In the end, of course, a majority of Americans rejected this poppycock; but it’s worth asking questions of people like Corsi who appear to make a living by deliberately peddling political untruths.

Who, then, is Jerome R. Corsi and what were his credentials to write a book about Barack Obama? The first thing to say here is that this Harvard graduate is no intellectual. He is a long-time partisan conservative renowned for spreading conspiracy theories to destroy the careers of influential figures in the Democratic Party.

Corsi is perhaps most widely known for his 2004 book, Unfit For Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, which argued–in time for the 2004 election–that Kerry’s decorated military career was little more than a fiction invented by liberal propagandists. The book climbed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list, but Corsi was subsequently exposed for having fabricated and misrepresented information in order to present Kerry in the worst possible light.

Not one to be deterred, however, in 2005 he published Atomic Iran, accusing Democratic Party politicians of secretly assisting the Iranian leadership with their nuclear weapons program.

Corsi, then, is an extremist but, as the success of Unfit For Command suggests, he is an extremist with an audience who, every now and then, is able to exert undue influence on American politics. Not even his reputation for intellectual dishonesty could prevent The Obama Nation from selling well; and with over 600 footnotes, the book was proudly promoted by publisher, Threshold Editions, as the definitive source on Obama. One of the many problems with such a description of Corsi’s book is that a sizeable number of his sources are characteristically unreliable–links to unknown and extremist bloggers or, in many cases, to his own blogs.

Seemingly blind to these methodological inadequacies, the head of Threshold Editions, Marilyn Matalin, has continued to defend the book as a “good piece of scholarship”. But here again there’s a critical subtext: Matalin is a former Republican Party strategist who worked for Dick Cheney.

Corsi is seemingly attuned to the Karl Rove strategy that if you tell a lie often enough, it becomes true. His central objective in writing was to discredit Obama and “save” the American people from a consensus-seeking politician who, absurdly enough, he sees as an extremist.

The final sentence of the book reads, “If he sticks to the issues, McCain will defeat Barack Obama”. As with virtually every other judgement offered in The Obama Nation, Corsi was wrong.

Dr Michael L. Ondaatje teaches American history at the University of Newcastle. He is currently writing a book about Barack Obama for UWA Press.