Joseph Palermo: Review of David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama
Freddoso cites as "evidence" emails he received from random people when they heard he was writing a book on Obama, and arbitrary posts from the comments section of the Obama campaign's web site. He quotes a "letter to the editor" from an obscure newspaper, and he cites Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" and "The O'Reilly Factor" as well as Chris Matthews. He cites a blogger from Jamaica, the charlatan Jonah Goldberg, the Harvard Crimson, and writers from the National Review, which give the book an "echo chamber" quality. There are numerous factual errors in the book that Media Matters.org has already documented.
Throughout the book, Freddoso repeats a Republican talking point that we've heard from David Brooks and others: "Obama presents not ideas but feelings. He is the candidate of emotivism. Obamian passion is based on the persona that his followers have created for Obama in their own minds. Many don't know who the man really is." (pp. 66-67) His account is full of apocryphal stories; grotesque generalizations; geeky attempts at "humor"; anecdotal evidence; rumors and innuendo; cutesy plays on words; and the thickheaded reliance on the myth of the "liberal media."
But the major flaw in the book is that there is no historical context. Freddoso makes no attempt to explain to readers how American politics produced the Obama phenomenon in the first place. By decontextualizing Obama's popularity, Freddoso is free to argue that Obama's appeal is solely the result of "celebrity" and other intangible qualities, which mirrors John McCain's recent Paris Hilton attack ad. For Freddoso, the last eight years (and the 12 years of Republican control of Congress) didn't even happen. He misses the groundswell of opposition the Bush-Cheney-Rove era has produced. He willfully ignores that one of the reasons why Obama is so popular stems from the fact that President Bush and the Republicans are so UNpopular, and that Americans are longing for new leadership. Obama emerged on the scene from the wreckage of the Bush Administration to offer the nation hope. Freddoso keeps it a mystery why people are excited about the change in direction Obama promises. Most people think having a president who can speak English and not embarrass himself or lie every time he opens his mouth would be a positive new development. Not Freddoso and his ilk. (At least Freddoso is willing to admit "even Republicans are hesitant to defend" Bush at this point (p. 55), and "President Bush has proven a big disappointment.") (p. 74)
Another impression I got from the book is that Freddoso does not understand that Obama, as an African American, might see the world in slightly different terms than he does. I think his contacts with black people must be limited to like-minded colloquies with Kenneth Blackwell-type conservatives and other ideological soul mates. He seems "shocked" to hear African-American voices expressing displeasure with certain aspects of the American dream. He needs to read more Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. and less Shelby Steele, Clarence Thomas, and Ward Connerly.
Freddoso tries hard to make the case via guilt by association that Obama is a corrupt politician. He rehashes the Antoin Rezko stuff taking most of his material from Chicago newspapers. After pages and pages of innuendo that Obama conspired with Rezko in some fashion, he never explains why the Bush-appointed U.S. Attorney in the region didn't indict him or even ask him to testify at Rezko's trial if the two men were such close associates. Political indictments were a dime a dozen in Bush's Justice Department -- just ask former Alabama Governor Don Siegelman or his nemesis Karl Rove. Freddoso juxtaposes unsubstantiated charges to give the impression of a vast criminal conspiracy reminiscent of the Right's hyperventilating during the Clinton years about the "Whitewater" land deal. But "where's the beef?" Freddoso also trudges through worn-out Reverend Wright material again hitting all the sour notes, and he dedicates almost an entire chapter to the former Weatherman, Bill Ayres. It's all old "news."
In one laughable section at the end of the book entitled, "Obama: Timeline of a (Brief) Political Life," Freddoso compiles relevant names, dates, and events:
"Aug. 4, 1961 -- Obama born in Hawaii.
Feb. 16, 1970 -- Weatherman terrorist bombing in San Francisco kills one.
Mar. 6, 1970 -- Unsuccessful Weatherman bombing in Detroit.
Jun. 12, 1972 -- Saul Alinsky dies.
Oct. 18, 1974 -- Larry Grothwahl testifies before a Senate subcommittee on William Ayres's involvement in bomb plots. . . . " (p. 237)
Even though Obama was 9 years old in 1970 it seems he still cannot escape guilt by association with a short-lived and ill-fated radical group from the 1960s.
According to Freddoso, everything Obama did while serving in the Illinois State Senate, no matter how routine -- passing legislation that benefited his constituents, wheeling and dealing with other Senators and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley to get grants and other appropriations passed, putting together private-public partnerships to rejuvenate blighted neighborhoods -- are all part of a grand conspiracy with sinister motives and a hidden corrupt agenda. This kind of thing could have been written about any politician in America (especially Republican politicians). He criminalizes the quotidian operations of legislators and relentlessly pounds Obama from the Right AND from the Left. He purposely doesn't try to contextualize anything. Only someone from the Right could get away with this kind of tripe, and get a lot of money and TV appearances in the process. Great for Fredo. Not so great for American political discourse.
For Freddoso, Obama embodies "the hard-core radicalism of the 1960s era and Chicago's Machine politics," (p. xi) and "[h]e is simply another liberal Democratic politician who will divide America along the same lines as it has been divided for decades." (p. xii) That last line is astonishing because it was Karl Rove, Freddoso's ideological soul mate, who won the last two presidential elections by pitting rich against poor, white against black, straight against gay, old against young, native-born against immigrant, "patriot" against "traitor," and the religious against the secular. And Fredo is fretting over the possibility that Obama might "divide" the country?
Freddoso whines about what he sees as Obama's Teflon coating: "Barack Obama is not to be criticized. He is above that sort of thing. He is immune to criticism." (p. 71) But he makes no attempt to explain Rev. Wright, Pfleger, Ayres, Rezko, "bittergate," flag pins, fist bumps, and most recently tire gauges and Paris Hilton, along with Obama being called "presumptuous" a "terrorist" a "secret Muslim" and an "elitist." These media-fueled controversies with Obama at the center beg the question: If Obama is "immune" to criticism then where did all this derogatory stuff come from?
"It's not that Barack Obama is a bad person," Freddoso continues. "It's just that he's like all the rest of them. Not a reformer. Not a Messiah. Just like all the rest of them in Washington. And just like all the other liberals, too." (p. 233) That is an interesting statement given that Freddoso's political party ran "Washington" from 1995 to 2007 in the House of Representatives, and from 2001 to 2009 in the White House. In fact, the Republicans ran the House, the Senate, and the Presidency from 2003 to 2007, so any problems Freddoso has with "Washington" can be placed right on the doorstep of the Republican National Committee. He should cut out the middleman and email his complaints directly to the RNC.
Freddoso offers a tiny bit of backhanded praise to Obama for exposing the Clintons in the Democratic primaries and creating a "new point of agreement between liberals and conservatives: that the Clintons are a dangerous and cutthroat pair that will do absolutely anything to win and cling to power." (p. 69) This passage comes after a gratuitous paragraph of vitriol aimed at Bill Clinton, apropos to nothing, where he reminds his conservative readership of Clinton's "hoarding of political enemies' FBI files," "firing the White House travel office," "philandering," "lies under oath," and "last-minute pardons." (p. 68) But Freddoso goes on to lambaste Obama for distancing himself from the centrist Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) "as if it were a molten porcupine." (p. 233) This criticism contradicts Freddoso's earlier assault on Clinton because Clinton was the personification of the DLC. Fredo despises Clinton but sticks up for the DLC when Obama turns his back on it; an organization Clinton was instrumental in forming. Curious.
One of the funniest parts of the book is when Freddoso gets melodramatic with some bullet points toward the end summarizing a few of the nefarious reasons why Obama would be unacceptable as president. Here are a few of the outrages Obama has committed:
"Obama co-sponsored a bill in 1997 that required certain municipalities to create affordable housing funds using revenues from bonds. Among other things, the funds were to be used to preserve existing buildings and to subsidize construction of new ones."
"In 2001, Obama co-sponsored and passed legislation that increased such developers' state subsidies by creating an 'affordable housing tax credit.' In other words, if you donated land or money to a state-approved affordable housing project, you got half of the value back in tax credits, which could be carried forward to future tax years."
"In 2003, Obama co-sponsored the Illinois Housing Initiative Act of 2003, which required the governor to develop a plan for more low-income housing. The bill also would have 'provide[d] for funding for housing construction and rehabilitation and supportive services." (pp. 217-218)
Although it certainly was not Freddoso's intent, his litany of Obama's actions in support of low-income housing seems a pragmatic approach to transforming dilapidated "projects" into mixed-income development zones. Obama's housing initiatives resemble the public-private partnership that Robert F. Kennedy dedicated himself to as the junior Senator from New York: the Bedford-Stuyvesant Renewal and Rehabilitation Corporation, which was controlled by the local community, and the Bed-Sty Development and Services Corporation, which included private investors from outside the community. Freddoso's venom aimed at Obama's efforts to include the private sector in urban redevelopment projects is puzzling coming from someone who prides himself for being a "conservative." I thought they liked the private sector.
In Freddoso's climactic peroration one can almost hear the Star-Spangled Banner swelling in the background: "What sort of nominations does such a man make as president? What kind of diplomacy does he pursue, given that so much of diplomacy consists in reading, understanding, and judging others' intentions and character? This is why these ties deserve scrutiny. If Barack Obama becomes president, his good judgment, or lack thereof, will affect the entire country." (p. 234)
I suppose Freddoso's aim was to alert his readers to the danger Obama poses with a flourish of memorable rhetoric. But his concluding paragraph falls flat. His journalism profs at Columbia should have helped him hone his style. Even I wanted a better ending.
And after eight years of George W. Bush -- I think we can risk a Barack Obama presidency.
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Chris Peck - 10/9/2008
Thank you...and I commend you for being able to make it to the third paragraph.
R.R. Hamilton - 9/2/2008
Good questions. I'll take the second one first because it's the easiest.
"[W]hat fire did Reagan survive before he got the Republican nod?"
The Repubs have the habit of nominating "the guy who's next in line". By 1980 Reagan had been a two-term governor of the nation's largest state, had run for the nomination in 1968 (as a "Stop Nixon" candidate) and most famously against his party's sitting president in 1976 (and very narrowly lost). By 1980, therefore, he had "been through the fire" and it was "his turn". You can contrast the 1976 insurgent Reagan campaign with those of, say, Pat Robertson in 1988 or Pat Buchanan in 1992. In the latter cases, neither had ever held elective office before -- they had not "been through the fire" of a general election campaign. By 1996, the Repubs were reduced to nominating Bob Dole, because ... it was "his turn".
The Democrats have -- for all my life -- been trying to recreate the 1960 campaign. (The 1932 campaign did have a Northerner leading the ticket, but it was marred for being supported by the Ku Klux Klan.) In 1960, JFK defeated party stalwarts Adlai Stevenson and Lyndon Johnson -- that is, politicians who had "paid more dues" than JFK had.
True, the Dems will often nominate, like the Repubs, the "tried and true" candidate, but what Dems seem to really want is "the outsider". It's why they chose McGovern over Humphrey in '72 and Carter over Muskie in '76.
As for Gore, he was "prettier" than Bradley. The women's vote put him over in the Dem primaries -- just as it did for Bush over McCain in the Repub primaries. And Kerry? Can we say "JFK, senator from Mass"?
Jim Good - 8/30/2008
How do you explain the last two candidates to win the Democratic nomination for president? Seems to me Kerry and Gore were pretty thoroughly vetted. And what fire did Reagan survive before he got the Republican nod?
David M Ward - 8/26/2008
I got as far as the third paragraph before I stopped reading. I read this blog so I can get some reasoned comments, not the rants of a partisan.
R.R. Hamilton - 8/26/2008
FWIW, I won't be voting for either McCain or Obama, but here are some observations.
The Repubs and Dems have completely different nominating styles -- especially in regards to "vetting". The Repubs almost always nominate the candidate who has "been through the fire and come out with his chin up." The Dems seem to think they should be congratulated for "having the courage to nominate someone completely new". The problem with the Dems approach is that it more resembles the "vetting" appropriate for picking players for a "shirts-vs.-skins" basketball game than it does for President of the United States.
There's a reason that after the revelations about Obama's minister and terrorist friend he went on to suffer a string of humiliating defeats at the ballot box -- so bad that he lost the popular vote and had to be carried over the finish line by super delegates. Most of McCain's skeletons have been out of the closet for years. The Keating Five? Heard about it. His temper? Heard about that, too. His wife's inherited wealth? Yawn. His flip-flops on issues? Well-known. Because of the Republican nominating style, usually the best "shocker" the Dems can produce on a Repub candidate is in the nature of a 24-year-old drunk driving arrest.
As I said, Dems seem to think they should be congratulated for not vetting, as though it would be "ungentlemanly" to look behind the curtain. The ethos seems to be that "everyone has dirt in their past" and so it's unfair to look for it. If McCain beats Obama in November (and I couldn't care less), the Dems will probably blame "racism" but, really, they should blame themselves for refusing to properly vet a "fresh face".
Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 8/25/2008
Freddoso was on to something when he said Obama's claim to fame would be that he dispatched the Clintons to oblivion. (Perhaps that is not what he said, but I am saying so). That will probably be his greatest achievement, and it is certainly one for which we all should be profoundly grateful.