Paul Kengor is author of The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, the Untold Story. Why is President Obama’s mentor worth a briefing now? He talks about this and the president’s record in the White House with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The Democratic convention didn’t look like a Communist reunion, did it? Why bring up Frank Marshall Davis now?
PAUL KENGOR: It actually looked like a Planned Parenthood reunion. There was, however, the classic class-warfare rhetoric that reminded me — as Barack Obama’s rhetoric always does — of the incessant class-warfare rhetoric of Frank Marshall Davis. The bashing of Wall Street, the rich, the wealthy, “profits,” big oil, corporate executives. All of these were constant themes of Frank Marshall Davis and his comrades. When Obama took his swipe at Republican tax cuts in his convention speech, that was right out of the pages of the Chicago Star — the Communist Party USA publication that Frank Marshall Davis edited from 1946 to 1948. I’m reminded of a Star article from January 1947, titled “GOP would ‘spare rich’ with 20% tax cut plan,” which excoriated Republican tax cuts that “benefit millionaires” and “hurt the poor.”
I might also add that the 2012 Obama campaign slogan of “Forward!” is also on the cover of the May 1, 1948, copy of the Chicago Star that I’m staring at right now. Davis liked that slogan, just as he also liked the slogan “Change.” In fact, Davis’s kickoff op-ed launching the Star, published in the July 6, 1946, edition, touted the importance of advancing “fundamental change” in America. That reminds me of another Obama slogan.
Can I say that Barack Obama learned all of this from Frank Marshall Davis? No, I can’t. But these and many other similarities sure are striking. And that’s just one of the reasons Frank Marshall Davis is so relevant right now.
You don’t ignore your president’s mentors.
LOPEZ: Is your implication that Barack Obama — the president of the United States — is a “Communist” too?
KENGOR: No, it isn’t. I’m very careful about that. To the degree that Davis might have influenced Obama’s policies and ideology, I believe that it was in helping to push Obama generally to the left. In that sense, Davis is another among several radical influences on Obama, albeit a very significant one during a crucial formative period in young Obama’s life — throughout his adolescence. He influenced Obama from the time Obama was nine years old (they met in the fall of 1970) until Obama left Hawaii for Occidental College in the fall of 1979. In Dreams from My Father, Obama shares the parting words of advice he received from Frank Marshall Davis before leaving for college. It was a classic Davis diatribe trashing “the American way.” These were words identical to what I read from Davis in the Chicago Star in the 1940s.
That said, in the book I do carefully consider the possibility that Obama was a Marxist when he entered Occidental College. I interview at great length an eyewitness named John Drew, who was introduced to Obama at Occidental as a fellow Marxist. Drew, who is completely credible, swears this is true and details it exhaustively. I have no reason to doubt Drew. If Obama was a Marxist at that point, I believe (as does John Drew) that Davis would have been the primary explanatory factor.
Needless to say, this would not, by extension, make Obama a Marxist today. It would, however, expose a critical period in our current president’s ideological and intellectual development. That’s why guys like Frank Marshall Davis matter, and merit our attention. The political Left knows this; they just refuse to admit it. If Mitt Romney had a mentor this far to the right, the Left would be all over it. If Mitt Romney had a mentor who was pro-Nazi or even a John Bircher, do you think the liberal media would be ignoring him?
LOPEZ: Have you seen Davis in Obama-administration policy?
KENGOR: I see similarities, for sure. In addition to what I noted earlier, consider these similarities: Frank Marshall Davis advocated wealth redistribution from greedy “corporations” to “health insurance” and “public works projects.” He favored taxpayer funding of universal health care. He supported government stimulus to rescue America from another Great Depression, or what he warned was a looming repeat of the Depression. He wanted to prevent “huge funds” from finding their way into the “pockets” of “Wall Street.” He favored nationalization and singled out General Motors for government action. In fact, he despised General Motors. Frank Marshall Davis would have fully supported Obama’s action with General Motors. No question. He saw the Catholic Church as an obstacle to his policies, plans, and vision for the state. At the same time, Davis argued that Christians should support his ideas and enthusiastically sought the support of the “social justice” religious Left for various causes and campaigns — and they often did just that. The religious Left were easy suckers for the various (concealed) Communist campaigns that Davis and his friends were pushing.
Here are some more examples:
Frank Marshall Davis did not view America as exceptional. To the contrary, he constantly ridiculed “the American way.” In foreign policy, Davis favored the Russians at the expense of countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. He insisted that American foreign policy was about “big profits” for big oil. And get this: He despised Winston Churchill.
Are these similarities to Obama all mere coincidences? Perhaps. But they’re remarkable coincidences.
LOPEZ: You don’t really make a Churchill-bust connection, do you?
KENGOR: Frank Marshall Davis would have removed the bust of Winston Churchill from the Oval Office. No question. That would have been one of the first things he did. He loathed Churchill. Does Obama not like Churchill, and, if not, does he not like Churchill because of Frank Marshall Davis? Again, I can’t say so definitively. But again, the similarity is remarkable.
Obama met with Davis often. When they met, it was during long get-togethers late into the night. Davis usually drank during those encounters. He was very political. His politics were very vocal and angry. He despised Churchill because Churchill was anti-Communist and pro-colonial. I can easily picture a young Obama listening to extended Davis diatribes against Churchill.
LOPEZ: What are the most egregious mischaracterizations of Frank Marshall Davis?
KENGOR: I’m appalled by liberals’ portraying him as this merry civil-rights crusader hounded by Joe McCarthy. That’s utter nonsense. McCarthy never came anywhere near Davis. It was the Democrats who called him to Washington to testify on his “Soviet activities.”
LOPEZ: How is this all related to Dupes, your most recent book before this one?
KENGOR: Liberals are dupes for Frank Marshall Davis. Liberals are covering for Davis because Davis was a mentor to Obama. They will go to great lengths to cover for Davis, even framing him as anything but a Communist, which is ludicrous. No one doubts Davis was a Communist. We printed Davis’s Communist Party USA number on the cover of the book — 47544.
In order to protect Obama, liberals, ironically, are using precisely the same lines of defense that Davis and other Communists used in the 1940s. For instance, liberals today claim that Davis was simply advocating civil rights and, because of that, white-hooded racists and fascists pursued him. That’s outrageously false. Davis himself used that defense, though the men he framed as white-hooded racists and fascists were actually Democrats like Harry Truman, if you can believe that. Why attack Truman? Because Truman was opposing Stalin’s Soviet Union, which Davis and other Communist Party USA members literally swore an oath to defend.
And yet, here today, liberals are using those same phony lines to defend Davis. They don’t note or even realize that it was Democrats like Truman whom Davis was castigating. Instead, they simply blame Joe McCarthy and the Republicans. They are once again dupes to the Communist line.
LOPEZ: Why is the questioning of Frank Marshall Davis before the Senate Judiciary Committee notable? Is it of any relevance to understanding the current president?
KENGOR: Davis did so much pro-Soviet agitation that he was noticed in Washington. In fact, it was the Democrat-run House Committee on Un-American Activities that first flagged his Communist-related work in the early 1940s, when Davis had worked with the likes of Robert Taylor and Vernon Jarrett, the grandfather and future father-in-law respectively of Valerie Jarrett. (For the record, Davis also worked in Communist causes with Harry Canter and David Canter, who would go on to mentor a young David Axelrod in the 1970s. I know, it’s incredible, but I assure you it’s true. I document it very carefully in the book.)
Frank Marshall Davis’s pro-Soviet work got so bad that in December 1956 the Democrat-run Senate Judiciary Committee called him to Washington to testify. He pleaded the Fifth Amendment. No matter, the next year, the Democratic Senate produced an official report titled “Scope of Soviet Activity in the United States,” which publicly listed Davis as “an identified member of the Communist Party.”
I should also add that Davis was considered such a potential threat 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.
How relevant is this to Obama today? Well, with this kind of an influence in his background, I can tell you as a matter of undeniable fact that Obama would have trouble getting a security clearance for an entry-level federal job. Think about that.
And the Washington Post wants to tell us about Mitt Romney’s supposed bullying in high school? Well, how about Obama in high school having a mentor who was considered so radical that the federal government called him to Washington to testify on his Soviet activities and even placed him on the Security Index?
LOPEZ: Why did the Catholic Church “deserve a good scourging,” as you put it, in the mind of Frank Marshall Davis?
KENGOR: Davis broke from religion at a young age, becoming an agnostic or atheist, probably an atheist. He always viewed religion, however, as a kind of useful crutch — or “social centers,” as he put it — for many Americans, specifically black Americans.
He did, however, see the Catholic Church as a major obstacle to his vision for the state. Frank Marshall Davis’s worldview was a Communist one. He pushed the federal government to adopt socialist policies, with more and more power concentrated in Washington. He wanted the United States to go the way of the Soviet Union. And Davis understood that the one institution standing in the way most strongly was the Roman Catholic Church. “The Catholic hierarchy,” he sneered, had launched a “holy war against Communism.” Indeed it had — and deservedly so. But Frank Marshall Davis, President Obama’s mentor, fully disagreed, and he would target the Church as an obstacle to his plans to fundamentally change America.
He described anti-Communists like Francis Cardinal Spellman as “hate evangelists” and modern-day “Pontius Pilates” because of their alleged sins of opposing Communism and Stalin’s Soviet Union. He wrote: “We’ve got to make the plain people realize that those hate evangelists preaching war against Russia are their enemies, and that peace, freedom, and democracy can come only from forcing official America to work in harmony with the Soviet Union.”
Frank Marshall Davis portrayed Communism and the Soviet Union as friendly to Christianity. In a September 29, 1949, column for the Honolulu Record, the Communist Party publication for Hawaii, Davis imagined Judgment Day, where anti-Communist Christians would be called to account for their transgressions. And the Catholic Church especially deserved a good scourging. “The Christian churches, and the Catholic church in particular,” preached Barack Obama’s mentor, “are making a grievous error in their shortsighted belief that the major enemy of Christianity is Communism.” Not only was Soviet Russia not anti-religious, said Davis, but it had saved the world from Hitler’s “anti-Christian paganism.” Really, Christians worldwide should pay homage to Stalin. Instead, they were blinded by their anti-Communist bigotry.
Davis argued that genuine Christians should be Communists or socialists.
Here, as in so many of these cases, Davis, not unlike Barack Obama, was a man of the far left making a bid for the support of the “social justice” religious left — support he usually got. And when the Catholic Church did not accommodate his plans and policies for the state, Frank Marshall Davis, like Barack Obama, simply told the Church that it was wrong and didn’t bend. Imagine that.
LOPEZ: If you could ask Barack Obama one question, what would it be and why?
KENGOR: I would like to know the exact influence that Davis had on Obama. Was Obama really a Communist when he entered Occidental College, as his former classmate, John Drew, claims and details quite conclusively — and, if so, did Davis provide that influence? Stanley Kurtz has shown that Obama actually joined the socialist New Party in the 1990s. That doesn’t surprise me.
Well, if those things are true, and if Barack Obama ultimately repudiated Communism and socialism, then when did he do so, and why? Where was the break? When did his conversion happen? We all have conversions. Very few of us still believe what we believed as freshmen in college. My last book, Dupes, was dedicated to Herb Romerstein, the greatest living expert on Communism in America. Herb had been a Communist in college. He changed. We know about the change. Herb has spoken about it at length. Look at my political hero, Ronald Reagan. Reagan in the 1940s had been a liberal dupe, suckered by Communists. They fooled Reagan into joining actually Communist front groups. Reagan changed — and he wrote about it often, talked about it often. Look at Whittaker Chambers. Look at the last president, George W. Bush. He was an open book in discussing his life change.
Most people who have these conversions talk about them. Obama has never detailed any such change, even with two memoirs written before he was president. Why can’t he and we have a candid conversation about his political, intellectual, and ideological development? What’s his fear? Gee, many conservatives already call him a Communist and socialist. Well, if he genuinely left the far left, why not silence them by explaining the how and why? Other presidents gave long interviews on such things.
I could easily accept the possibility that Obama was once a Marxist and then slowly evolved toward socialism or even modern-day liberalism — if that’s what happened. But his sycophantic media won’t even dare have that conversation. It’s an outrage. Never have we known so little about the background of our president. This is a willful, self-imposed ignorance by our media elite.
LOPEZ: What’s the most important takeaway from your book that you’d like every voter to consider this fall?
KENGOR: Our mentors matter. And more broadly, the crimes of Communists matter. Consider: There were hundreds of thousands of American Communists like Frank Marshall Davis who agitated for the Soviet Union and international Communism. They were incredibly wrong. They chose the wrong side of history, a horrendously bloody side that left a wake of over 100 million corpses from the streets of the Bolshevik Revolution to the base of the Berlin Wall — double the combined dead of the century’s two world wars. And they never apologized. Quite the contrary, they cursed their accusers for daring to charge (correctly) that they were Communists whose ideology threatened the American way and the greater world and all of humanity. They took their denials to the grave, and still today liberals continue to cover for them and curse their accusers.
And now, alas, we have the unprecedented case of a man like Frank Marshall Davis managing to influence someone as influential as the current president of the United States of America — i.e., the leader of the free world and driver of the mightiest political/economic engine in history.
Such figures do not mean that our current president is a closet member of Communist Party USA, but they do matter in the political, intellectual, and ideological development of our president. Such figures should not be ignored.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.