Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from V & V, a web site of the Center for Vision & Values. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007). His latest book is The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007).
America's Fundamental Transformation
Timing is everything in politics. For four years, I angered conservatives by insisting Barack Obama would get reelected. I figured that an electorate willing to elect a man with ideas and a record that far to the left in 2008 would do so again. I began changing my view, however, after the first presidential debate. Over the last three or four weeks, I became confident that Mitt Romney would defeat Obama.
Fortunately for Obama, two forces intervened to rescue him. One was the mainstream media, which ensured that Benghazi, Hurricane Sandy, and the increase in the unemployment rate wouldn't be used to undermine Obama. As for Hurricane Sandy, Obama flew in for a photo-op and then immediately returned to campaigning. If George W. Bush were president, a relentless media would have ensured that Bush didn't return to the campaign trail.
The second force was David Axelrod and the campaign machine. I stand in awe at what they pulled off. They managed to push considerably more Democrats than Republicans to the polls (38-32 percent margin), closer to the 2008 turnout that favored Obama than the 2010 mid-term turnout that favored Republicans. Because they did, the predictions of an easy Romney victory by the likes of Dick Morris, Michael Barone, George Will, and Newt Gingrich (and myself) were dead wrong. We were certain that pollsters were oversampling Democrats. The pro-Republican, pro-Romney, and anti-Obama enthusiasm we were seeing was extremely intense. It was inconceivable to us that it could be overcome by a higher Democrat turnout. Somehow, however, it was, obliterating Romney's five-point victory among independents. It erased Romney's 50-49 percent edge in the final polls by Gallup and Rasmussen.
I stand in stunned disbelief. David Axelrod, you are a miracle worker.
How much of a miracle worker? Consider:
The American people reelected a man who presided over one of the worst four-year economic records in American history. By every objective measurement, the economy is far worse than four years ago: 47 million on food stamps (up from 32 million); all-time record deficits and debt (dwarfing the Bush numbers); chronic unemployment; a prolonged non-recovering recovery; 636,000 homeless; a doubling of gas prices; and on and on.
For historical perspective, consider this: No president since FDR in 1940 won reelection with an unemployment rate above 7.1 percent. And for FDR, that number was a huge improvement from four years earlier.
How did Obama and his team overcome this? The answer: they successfully blamed it on George W. Bush, with Bill Clinton aiding and abetting the process. There were no limits to how much they blamed Bush, and how much it worked. The Democratic base swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.
Sadly, other things worked as well, and none are good for this country. The framing of Republicans as conducting a "war on women" because they don't favor forced taxpayer funding of abortion, Planned Parenthood, and contraception worked. The insistence that government-provided contraception is a new "entitlement" worked. The demonization of the Tea Party - a movement spontaneously created by Obama's wild spending - worked.
For that matter, Obama got away with the extraordinarily wasteful $800 billon "stimulus" package that didn't stimulate and buried us fiscally. He even got away with the HHS mandate that constitutes the greatest threat to religious liberty (particularly against the Catholic Church) in at least a century.
In terms of social policy, the electorate has given the green light to a president who is redefining marriage and promoting forced funding of abortion and contraception and embryo destruction - at the expense of religious liberty.
Moreover, the president's unceasing class-warfare rhetoric was rewarded by the electorate, as were his attacks on profits, the private sector, the wealthy, banking and investment, and the oil and natural gas industry. The Obama energy policy is advanced. Mitt Romney would have unleashed a boom for America's domestic energy industry. That is now gone. That is a tragedy, the levels of which we will not be able to appreciate.
And what about Romney? I had my reservations, but America rejected a genuinely decent man who had the best business background of anyone who would have ever assumed the Oval Office. He was the perfect person for the perfect time.
In short, what we saw on November 6, 2012 was a breathtaking display of political survival by Barack Obama, the first president to be re-elected with a lower number of Electoral College votes and popular vote. What we also witnessed was the final step in the fundamental transformation of America that Barack Obama promised four years ago.
Our First "Red Diaper Baby" President?
All the pieces fit, so why do historians and biographers ignore the question?
As president, Barack Obama is many things - many unprecedented things. There's the commendable: the truly historic achievement (with apologies to Bill Clinton) of being the first black president. There's the dubious: the lamentable distinction (christened by Newt Gingrich) of being the first "food stamp president."
But here's an intriguing, provocative thought: Is Barack Obama our first "Red Diaper Baby" president? That would be unprecedented.
Now, before deeming the question over-the-top, out-of-bounds, and unnecessarily incendiary, hear me out:
I come at this question as a Cold War historian and as the guy who wrote the book on Obama's mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, a hardcore Communist (The Communist, Threshold Editions/Mercury Ink). And the thought is not my own. It was posed to me last week by an emailer, and I'm surprised the thought never once crossed my Cold Warrior mind, particularly given the daily questions that I field about Obama's past, the Communists in Obama's past, and even whether Obama himself is a Communist. I've heard them all. I've considered those questions from every angle, and yet, this one never occurred to me.
Moreover, a critical clarification: If Barack Obama is a Red Diaper Baby, it doesn't mean he's a Communist. I've met many conservative anti-communists who were born and raised Red Diaper Babies, only to flee their parents' politics like the plague. They contact me, "Hi, professor Kengor, my name is [fill in the blank] and I'm the classic Red Diaper Baby. Let me tell you my story, . . ."
There have been studies and books (some by university presses) on Red Diaper Babies. One of them, Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, an edited volume by Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, includes chapter contributions from the likes of Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame. Bernstein is not a Communist.
So, the question of Obama?s red diapers was just posed to me. I discussed it with Ron Radosh, a fellow historian of the Cold War and Communism. Radosh himself, in his youth, was a Communist. He wrote a terrific memoir called Commies. Radosh knew Red Diaper Babies by the nursery-load, and he understands the phenomenon not only personally but historically and as a scholar.
"I and everyone else who uses the term 'Red Diaper Baby,'" says Radosh, defining his terms, "do so to define anyone whose parents were either CPUSA members or fellow-travelers, and who therefore grew up in the milieu of the Party and its front groups." Radosh, a professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York, adds: "Obama fits that definition."
Indeed, Obama seems to fit that definition. Consider:
Barack Obama's mother and father met in a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii in the fall of 1960. Their choice of study was a reflection of political interests. As one sympathetic biographer, Sally Jacobs, said of Barack senior, "Obama had an abiding interest in the Soviet Union."
Jacobs has published the preeminent biographical work on the senior Obama. Among those she quotes is Naranhkiri Tith, a prominent Cambodian who became professor of international economics at the prestigious Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Tith was a classmate of Barack senior at the University of Hawaii. The two had frequent, spirited debates over subjects like Communism, an ideology that would ravage Tith's native Cambodia, where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge slaughtered 1-2 million out of population of 5-7 million in just four years.
"Obama and I were on opposite poles," says Tith.
I did not believe Communism could save the world. It was too good to be true and I gave examples of what I had seen. Obama senior was the opposite. He was always glorying about how Communism had liberated Africa and Cuba. He had no idea what Communism was all about. For him, Communism was going to save the world. Capitalism was going to collapse.
The senior Obama found a more receptive audience in Ann Dunham, Obama's mother. A radical leftist, Dunham questioned the American way. As Sally Jacobs put it, Dunham was given to questions like: "What was so good about democracy? What's so bad about Communism? And why was capitalism so great?"
It appears that Obama's mother was, at the least, a fellow traveler.
Of course, young Obama spent much time with his mother but virtually no time with Barack senior, which brings me to another source: Frank Marshall Davis.
In the fall of 1970, a nine-year-old Obama was introduced to Frank Marshall Davis by Obama's grandfather, Stanley Dunham, who himself was on the far left. Dunham connected the two because his grandson was lacking a black-male role model. Dunham chose a curious pick as a mentor for his grandson. As I've noted in a lengthy profile for The American Spectator, Davis was a literal, card-carrying member of Communist Party USA (card number 47544). He edited and wrote for Party-line publications such as the Chicago Star and the Honolulu Record. Davis did outrageous pro-Soviet propaganda work. In December 1956, the Democrats who ran the Senate Judiciary Committee summoned Davis to Washington to testify on his activities. He pleaded the Fifth Amendment. Even more remarkable, Frank Marshall Davis's political antics were so radical that the FBI placed him on the federal government's Security Index, which meant that he could be immediately detained or arrested in the event of a national emergency, such as a war breaking out between the United States and USSR.
Young Obama met with Davis far more often than he met with the senior Obama. I've been told by one source that they met weekly, a claim I cannot substantiate. We know they met often, and in lengthy, late-night sessions. David Maraniss, whose source may be Obama himself, contends that Davis and Obama met upwards of 15 times, a conservative estimate that nonetheless would be 15 times the number of times that young Obama met his Kenyan father.
To sum up: Between Obama's mother, grandfather, Kenyan father, and Frank Marshall Davis, those are some pretty extreme political influences. Some of them were interested in Communism, sympathetic to Communism, fellow travelers, or even downright Communist Party members. For a young Obama - who I actually feel bad for - this would seem to meet the standards of a Red Diaper Baby environment. And as I lay out in my book, citing especially the testimony of Dr. John Drew, who states that he knew Obama at Occidental College as a fellow Marxist, these political pilgrims produced a kindred spirit who left Hawaii for the wider world in 1979. Today he sits in the Oval Office.
I can hear liberals now: So, if Obama is our first Red Diaper Baby president, but not currently a closet card-carrying Communist, why does this matter? That's nonsense, the typical liberal red herring. Of course, it matters.
It matters just as any biography of any president or leader matters. None of us (liberals included) would ignore the ideological upbringing of any other president. This information gets to the core of the intellectual and political development of President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, the man in charge of the mightiest economic engine in history. This man is the product of many radical influences that helped forge him into what he is today. If that man was raised a Red Diaper Baby, then it had some form of meaningful impact that's worthy of our consideration. Let's discuss it like adults.
Communism on Parade? High School Marches to Marx and Lenin
"What do you think of this?" So began a phone call from Todd Starnes of FoxNews radio. Starnes asked me for a comment on a shocking story: A band at a high school near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania performed a halftime show titled, "St. Petersburg 1917," a musical commemoration of the Bolshevik Revolution, replete with hammers and sickles, military uniforms, and red flags.
"No way," I responded. "Are you sure this wasn't a joke, a parody?"
It wasn't. And parents of the students aren't laughing.
The superintendent of the school genuinely pleaded innocence. "It's a representation of the time period in history, called 'St. Petersburg 1917,'" she said.
I am truly sorry that somebody took the performance in that manner. I am. . . . If anything is being celebrated it's the music. . . . I'm just very sorry that it wasn't looked at as just a history lesson.
Well, as a history lesson, I give it a giant, red "F."
To be fair to the superintendent, she sincerely doesn't seem to understand what's so bad about this incident, and why it's in bad taste. In fact, therein is the basic problem: We have failed to teach the horrors of the Bolshevik Revolution specifically and of Communism generally.
Those horrors include over 100 million corpses generated by Communist governments, starting with the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 - that is, "St. Petersburg 1917." For perspective, 100 million is twice the combined deaths of World War I and II, the two deadliest conflicts in history. Even then, 100 million dead, which is the estimate provided by the seminal Harvard University Press work, The Black Book of Communism, is a conservative figure. The latest research claims that Mao Tse-Tung was responsible for the deaths of at least 70 million in China, and Joseph Stalin alone may well have killed 60 million in the USSR.
And yet, far too many Americans are ignorant of this catastrophe, especially younger Americans. I know. I've been observing it carefully for years. I could give a thousand examples, but here are just a few:
One former student of mine, John, told me about his first assignment as a teaching assistant in a high-school history class. He offered to cover some of the lectures on the 1930s Soviet Union. His supervising teacher agreed. So, John methodically covered the famine in the Ukraine, Stalin's purges, the Hitler-Stalin Pact.
John was pleased at how the students were electrified, hands in the air, many questions - clearly learning these hideous things for the first time. Yet, he also noticed the dirty looks from his supervisor. Later, the teacher testily reprimanded him: "Look, John, I want you to ease up on the Red-baiting and Commie-bashing. Besides, these students are going to get a decidedly different view on Communism from me." She promised to teach "a softer side of Communism."
Another student of mine, Sean, told me of the elite Christian private school he attended, where the newly hired teacher, fresh out of a major university, told the students he was a "Christian Communist," and that anyone who is a Christian should be a Communist.
Another student told me of a teacher who "convinced the entire class" that Marxism was a "wonderful" but "misunderstood" idea that simply had not been tried correctly. "He absolutely brainwashed us," she told me bitterly.
These are merely three anecdotal examples.
What's true for high schools is even worse at the university level. I lecture around the country, sponsored by groups like the Young America's Foundation and Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I'm often requested to give a talk titled, "Why Communism Is Bad." When I read passages directly from the Communist Manifesto, or when I cite authoritative sources on the maimed and dead, the students are aghast, eyes wide open. Rarely are their professors in attendance.
Those same professors, incidentally, write the textbooks used by high schools. Several years ago, I did a comprehensive, two-year study on "World History" and "Civics" texts. The study looked at roughly 20 texts used in public schools. Their treatment of Communism is scandalous. The greatest abuse is the sins of omission. I could not find a single text that listed figures on the dead under Communist governments. These omissions were not repeated for historical abuses like the Inquisition, the Crusades, slavery, or the internment of Japanese Americans. "Right-wing" dictators like Cuba's Batista and Chile's Pinochet were treated far more harshly than Fidel Castro, who generated many more victims and was still in power.
I could go on and on.
In short, we now have an entire generation of Americans born after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and USSR. They didn't live through the mass repression and carnage that was Soviet Communism. They need to learn about it, just as my generation learned the evils of Nazism. Unfortunately, they are not. And so, we shouldn't be surprised when they merrily march to the triumphal sounds of the Bolshevik Revolution.
On Libya Three Decades Ago: We Should Remember Reagan's Resolve
(Co-written with Judge Bill Clark)
Ronald Reagan clashed with Libya and its dictator Moammar Gadhafi for the first time over 30 years ago. The details of that encounter must be revisited - particularly President Reagan's sense of resolve and clarity of purpose - as once again America grapples with the anti-American sentiment and attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in the Middle East.
One of us (Clark) was there in Washington in the 1980s, serving as acting secretary of state, in the absence of Secretary of State Al Haig, when the news hit regarding Gadhafi's latest antics. Clark was in constant communication with Reagan and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. All had been close friends, colleagues and confidants dating back to California in the 1960s, when Clark was Governor Reagan's chief of staff.
The crux of the crisis was, as usual, Gadhafi himself. The location was the Gulf of Sidra, off the North African coast in the Mediterranean, an area of obvious strategic importance. Gadhafi had already persisted in making himself a nuisance to the civilized world. In the late 1970s, he issued a direct challenge to the United States.
Each year, the American Sixth Fleet conducted extensive naval exercises in these waters. This was acceptable action in international waters, appropriate maneuvers for battle-readiness, particularly for the nation that led NATO. U.S. actions went on without dispute or provocation. That changed when Gadhafi unilaterally extended Libya's presence beyond its historic 12-mile coastal limit into a much wider swath that went 100-200 miles from Tripoli to Benghazi, deep into the Gulf of Sidra. He was attempting to establish it as a Libyan lake, off limits to America and the West.
The Carter administration chose not to challenge Gadhafi, rescheduling and relocating U.S. exercises, ordering the Navy to stay clear of Gadhafi's muscle-flexing. In 1981, however, a new president and new team - new principals with new principles - came to Washington. Ronald Reagan made clear he would not let America be bullied. Reagan and Weinberger announced that exercises would take place, as scheduled, just outside Libya's 12-mile coastal limit.
More than that, the Joint Chiefs of Staff established new rules of engagement for the U.S. fleet, which Reagan quickly approved. The rules stated that if U.S. forces were fired upon, they could fire back immediately, without seeking layers of approval. "Anytime we send an American anywhere in the world where he or she can be shot at," declared Reagan, "they have the right to shoot back."
Reagan went further. During a National Security Council briefing, the admiral in charge asked precisely how far U.S. aircraft would be permitted to retaliate against Libyan aircraft. Reagan answered: "All the way into their hangar," into Libya itself.
Reagan understood that a bully continues bullying until he's punched in the nose. That moment came with early morning exercises in August 1981, led by the USS Nimitz. The Libyan air force set course, with a large number of aircraft, including Soviet MiGs. After a series of confrontations, two Libyan fighter jets locked on two American F-14 Tomcats escorting our ships, firing air-to-air missiles. The American pilots wasted no time making good use of the Reagan-approved rules, firing back with heat-seeking missiles. No need remained to follow the Libyan jets all the way to their hangars; they went down in the Mediterranean.
This demonstration cooled off Gadhafi, though it did not end his mischief. He continued his terrorist activities, operating not defiantly in the open but covertly, pursuing an extensive hit list, including Clark as one of the principal targets. His killing of innocent civilians in countries deemed threats to his regime eventually prompted the Reagan administration to order U.S. aircraft to Libya in April 1986. Targets in Tripoli and Benghazi were of a military and personal nature. Some of the nearly 100 bombs delivered on Gadhafi's homeland landed at Splendid Gate, Gadhafi's barracks, injuring his family members. Gadhafi, sleeping in a tent outside the compound, barely missed injury but did receive a rude awakening.
Consistently, President Reagan held firm against protests from the international community, from France, and from American liberals insisting that the Gulf of Sidra would be another Gulf of Tonkin: "Vietnam" all over again.
America has a terribly difficult job with the present crisis in Libya and throughout the Middle East. To be clear, we're not advocating military action. We don't want war. We believe the lessons of the Reagan years - and those immediately prior - speak for themselves, namely: The Middle East situation demands a sense of direction, clarity, and confident purpose. Uncertainty suggests weakness. The Washington rule stands the test of time: The principles never change - only the principals. *