James Taranto: South Side Veterans for Truth





Last week we wrote that " 'community organizer' is to Barack Obama what 'war hero' was to John Kerry." We didn't know the half of it.


Kerry staked his claim to the presidency on the pretense that he was a war hero, notwithstanding his showy repudiation decades earlier of the war and his fellow veterans. According to a new exposé in the liberal New Republic, Obama, before embarking on a career in politics, similarly, albeit quietly, repudiated "community organizing," only to re-embrace it decades later, apparently out of political expediency.


TNR's John Judis tracked down Jerry Kellman, who in 1985 "hired Obama to organize residents of Chicago's South Side." Kellman describes a conversation the two "community organizers" had at a conference on "social justice" in October 1987:


"[Obama] wanted to marry and have children, and to have a stable income," Kellman recalls.

But Obama was also worried about something else. He told Kellman that he feared community organizing would never allow him "to make major changes in poverty or discrimination." To do that, he said, "you either had to be an elected official or be influential with elected officials." In other words, Obama believed that his chosen profession was getting him nowhere, or at least not far enough. . . .

And so, Obama told Kellman, he had decided to leave community organizing and go to law school.

Another way of putting this might be that Obama left community organizing because he wanted a job in which he had actual responsibilities (and, of course, earned more money).


But Obama did not decide only that "community organizing" was not for him. Judis reports the future senator took part in a September 1989 symposium in which he "rejected the guiding principles of community organizing: the elevation of self-interest over moral vision; the disdain for charismatic leaders and their movements; and the suspicion of politics itself." Later, Obama "would begin to construct a political identity for himself that was not simply different from his identity as a community organizer--but was, in fact, its very opposite."


Judis offers the closest thing we've heard to a job description for "community organizers." What they do, he writes, is "unite people of different backgrounds around common goals and use their collective strength to wring concessions from the powers that be." To help illuminate this rather vague description, Judis also enumerates some of the tasks Obama and his colleagues undertook.


Before Obama's arrival in Chicago, Kellman and his "partner," Mike Kruglik, set out "to revive the region's manufacturing base--and preserve what remained of its steel industry--by working with unions and church groups to pressure companies and the city; but those hopes were quickly dashed." Apparently the presence of "community organizers" is not a strong selling point for companies making location decisions. Go figure.


Obama set his sights lower, but still missed the mark. He "got community members to demand a job center that would provide job referrals, but there were few jobs to distribute." Then "he tried to create what he called a 'second-level consumer economy' . . . consisting of shops, restaurants, and theaters. This, too, went nowhere."


These efforts at economic development having failed, Obama "began to focus on providing social services for Altgeld Gardens," a government-owned and -operated apartment complex:


"We didn't yet have the power to change state welfare policy, or create local jobs, or bring substantially more money into the schools," [Obama] wrote. "But what we could do was begin to improve basic services at Altgeld--get the toilets fixed, the heaters working, the windows repaired." Obama helped the residents wage a successful campaign to get the Chicago Housing Authority to promise to remove asbestos from the units; but, after an initial burst of activity, the city failed to keep its promise. (As of last year, some residences still had not been cleared of asbestos.)

It is both funny and scary that one of America's major political parties would offer this record of sheer futility as its nominee's chief qualification to be president of the United States. Even more striking, though, is how alien the world in which Obama operated was by comparison with the world in which normal Americans live....


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