Sunday Book Review: “The Communist,” a biography of Barack Obama’s mentor

book cover kengor communist

Mentors matter. For better or worse, there are people who, in our formative years, influence the way we see the world and how we act to shape it in our adult life. And if the mentored individual becomes a powerful person –President of the United States, for example– then the mentor’s influence affects our lives, too, making it worth our while to know something about this person.

This is the thesis behind Paul Kengor’s “The Communist,” a political biography of Frank Marshall Davis, who Kengor contends was a hugely influential mentor to President Barack Obama. That Davis was also, as Kengor shows, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party – USA (CPUSA), a doctrinaire Stalinist and defender of all things Soviet, and a hater of the Western world, should make us curious about what influence, if any, he had on young Barack Obama.

Kengor traces Davis’ life from his birth in Arkansas City, Kansas, in 1905 to his death in Hawaii in 1987. Along the way, we see the incidents that lead Frank to reject “the American Way.” Living under Jim Crow and in fear of White racist violence (at age five he was nearly lynched by White school children), it’s not hard to see what lead Frank to reject what he saw as fake democracy and exploitative capitalism in favor of an ideology that promised, however falsely, fairness, justice, and and racial equality. Indeed, Kengor admits that he, a conservative Catholic historian, can’t help but feel sympathy for his subject, even while rejecting and condemning Davis’ devotion to a murderous ideology.

The lion’s share is devoted to Frank’s work as an columnist for various newspapers in Atlanta, Chicago, and Honolulu. With extensive quotes from Frank’s own writings, many of which had lain forgotten in archives until recent years, he demonstrates Frank’s devotion to the Soviet Union, his adoration of Stalin, and his propaganda spinning in service of Moscow’s ends.

He also chronicles Davis’ hatred for the colonial powers, Britain and Churchill especially, and for the Democratic Party in the United States. This makes sense when one recalls Frank’s devotion to Soviet communism and the firm stance taken against that menace by Truman and other leading Democrats of the day. Kengor shows that charges of “McCarthyism,” made when Frank came under investigation by the Democrat-controlled Congress and repeated by his liberal and progressive defenders until his death, were ludicrous: not only had he spent his professional career defending and praising the Soviet Union (and Mao’s China and communist Viet Nam), but his CPUSA membership number was part of his FBI file, and the Senator who lead his questioning before Congress was the same man who ended Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting. “McCarthyism” was a smoke-screen, a distraction thrown in the faces of critics for one purpose: to deflect from the fact that Davis (and others) really were Communists.

Davis moved to Hawaii from Chicago, where he had known and worked with relatives of both Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod, close advisers to Obama. (These relatives were also either Communists or highly sympathetic to Stalin’s USSR.) In Hawaii, he edited and wrote for the Honolulu Record, a paper funded by the Soviet-aligned International Longshore and Warehouse Union. It was after this, in retirement, that Frank was introduced to young Barack Obama, who had been brought to Frank by Obama’s White grandfather, who wanted a Black mentor or father figure for the future president, whose own father had run out on him.

It is here that Kengor reaches the question that most interests the reader: How much influence did CPUSA-member Frank Marshall Davis have over Barack Obama, the teen who would grow up to be President of the United States?

The answer Kengor gives is “quite a bit,” but the exact influence of Davis’ mentorship on President Obama’s career and policies is left for the reader to decide. Through an examination of Obama’s writings –his memoir “Dreams from my Father” and some poetry he wrote in college– Kengor concludes that Davis was very important influence on Obama’s youth, perhaps the most significant. As for his policies as president, Kengor shows parallels between policies Frank demanded, such as universal health care, first proposed by Senator Claude Pepper in the 1940s (Pepper’s top aide was, it turned out, a paid Soviet agent), and those programs Obama has pursued. Even in targets for disdain, Obama shows Frank’s influence. For example, Frank despised Winston Churchill, and one of Obama’s first acts in office was to remove a bust of the Prime Minister, a gift from Britain, from the Oval Office. While Kengor never says outright that Obama is pursuing Frank’s goals, the parallels, at least in domestic affairs, are striking. And given that Obama, as Kengor points out, has never shown a moment of “conversion,” of rejecting the Far Left and moving toward the Center, it’s fair to assume that whatever Frank taught Obama, he still at least finds much of it agreeable.

Stylistically, “The Communist” is written in a casual, almost chatty manner that does not detract from the seriousness of its subject. The book is well-documented (it has to be, given the rabid reaction one could expect from the Left), and Kengor is fair to his subject. There is nothing sensationalistic or scandal-mongering about the book, and it avoids the lurid rumors about Frank’s sex-life to concentrate on his politics.

Paul Kengor’s “The Communist” fills an important gap in our knowledge of the education of Barack Obama, of the early, important influences on his life and thought. Taken in combination with Kurtz’s “Radical in Chief” (reviewed here) which covers Obama’s career and involvement with Socialism and Socialists from college to the presidency, we have a good, two-volume political biography of the man who would come to lead (and take over much of) the largest economy in human history.

Highly recommended.

AFTERTHOUGHT: Reading this book has reminded me yet again of what a miserable job the mainstream media did vetting Obama prior to the 2008 election. None of the material Kengor cites would have been all that difficult to find for a dedicated researcher. Sadly, they chose to devote their time to shielding him from scrutiny, instead, while covering the things that mattered to them the most, such as Sarah Palin’s tanning bed and wardrobe. Their dereliction is inexcusable.

(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)

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