Politics & Policy

Comrade Barbara

A California congresswoman's new book reveals a lot.

The Congressional Black Caucus’s recent trip to Cuba was utterly expected. That didn’t make it any easier to stomach, especially when Rep. Barbara Lee (D., People’s Republic of Berkeley) described her meeting with mass-murderer Fidel Castro as “quite a moment to behold.”

What exactly is wrong with her? Plowing through the congresswoman’s new book, Renegade for Peace & Justice, one feels empowered not just to ask that question but to answer it. For starters, Lee is egotistical, yet unaware of how naïve she seems — still in the thrall of just about every discredited personality and idea the Left has produced in the last 50 years, and utterly convinced of her own righteousness.

These tendencies don’t quite explain Lee’s fondness for Castro, though, because her book is full of references to her Christianity. The second chapter is about being “centered on faith and trying to do God’s will.” (Well, that’s at least a reasonable summary. The book’s organization is maddening. It’s not an obvious memoir or straight collection of essays, it has no clear linear progression, and the chapters aren’t given titles, though each one has a loose theme.)

Being a Christian in Castro’s Cuba was reason enough to be rounded up and shot. A few years back, Paquito D’Rivera, the Cuban jazz great, was quoted in The New Republic denouncing Hollywood’s Che Guevara romanticism, noting that his cousin had spent some time in a Cuban prison run by Castro’s revolutionary right-hand man “precisely for being a Christian.” And further, “he recounts to me with infinite bitterness how he could hear from his cell in the early hours of dawn the executions, without trial or process of law, of the many who died shouting, ‘Long live Christ the King!’”

Lee’s fondness for the brutal dictator probably stems from the fact that he helped her good friend, Black Panther leader Huey Newton. Accused of killing an underage prostitute, assault, and tax evasion, Newton went to Cuba for three years in the mid-1970s rather than stand trial.

In chapter three, Lee speaks of her own involvement with the Black Panthers. Lee tells us how, when she was on the staff of former congressman (and current Oakland mayor) Ron Dellums, she twice visited Newton in Cuban exile. What was Huey Newton really like? Sure, Newton may have done jail time for shooting a cop, but according to Lee, “Despite his roughness, my mother really liked him.” While Lee (sort of) concedes later in the chapter that Newton was probably a cocaine addict, her hero worship of the Panthers is nonetheless blatant.

Here’s her bizarre way of illustrating Panther co-founder Bobby Seale’s affection for her: “When I first met him, he impressed me as being very nice — a leader always willing to give positive feedback to me and the other ‘comrades’ in the party. I was known as ‘Comrade Barbara’ at the time. We were and remain close.” Bear in mind that this little tidbit about the comrades in the Black Panthers comes two pages after Lee dutifully claims the Black Panthers’ Ten Point Program is wrongly accused of being “heavily influenced by Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto.”

While certainly there’s no shortage of noble intentions and even a number of good deeds associated with the Black Panthers, it’s pretty much beyond dispute that the organization quickly became a criminal enterprise. Lee does not appear to have come to terms with this one bit. Rather, she spends the last half of the chapter explaining that anything bad that the Panthers might have done was really a frame-up by the FBI.

Take the case of Betty Van Tanner, a secretary at a Panther-run school. Van Tanner and a large sum of cash disappeared; her body was found six weeks later with the head bashed in. It’s widely suspected the Panthers killed her, and the incident was instrumental in David Horowitz’s break with the Left. Then the editor of the left-wing Ramparts magazine, Horowitz was deeply involved with the Panthers and helped get Van Tanner her job at the school. While the incident remains unresolved, Horowitz lays out in his book Radical Son a painstakingly detailed case that the Panthers killed her.

Lee, however, dismisses the idea out of hand: “This kind of tactic had been seen before and was known to have been used by the government’s anti-Panther COINTELPRO group,” she writes, referring to the infamous FBI counterintelligence program that serves as a perennial left-wing bogeyman. According to Lee, it’s an established fact that the FBI ran around killing people and blaming it on the Black Panthers.

It’s also telling what Lee decided not to write about — including one of the most dramatic episodes of her public career. The book contains exactly one reference to Grenada, and a self-serving one at that: “This was not the first or last time I had put my faith and destiny into the hands of the Lord, and over the years I have had to trust in him many times like in the 1980s when I was traveling in Grenada amid assassination attempts of government officials.”

What was Lee doing in Grenada? She traveled in 1983, shortly before the U.S. invaded the small country. Prior to the invasion, which rescued a group of American medical students and deposed the country’s Marxist regime, the Grenadan government had raised suspicions — they were building a large airfield with Cuban personnel. Lee, as part of Representative Dellums’s staff, visited the country primarily for the purpose of showing that the airfield couldn’t possibly be used for military purposes.

After the U.S. invaded, much was learned from the documents seized, according to an article by John Fund in the Wall Street Journal. “Barbara Lee is here presently and has brought with her a report on the international airport done by Ron Dellums,” captured documents describing a government document read. “They have requested that we look at the document and suggest any changes we deem necessary. They will be willing to make changes.”

The documents go on to discuss Soviet and Cuban military uses for the airfield, and one document was a letter from a Dellums staffer to the island’s Marxist leader. The letter explained that the congressman was “really hooked on you and Grenada and doesn’t want anything to happen to building the Revo and making it strong.” In her book, Lee writes lovingly of Dellums.

The book addresses Lee’s coming to terms with personal problems — she had a troubled childhood, and was in an abusive relationship when she started working with the Panthers — but otherwise it is self-serving. Lee repeatedly pats herself on the back for voting, alone, against the use of force in response to 9/11. She also incessantly drops names: In the introduction she describes in some detail her personal relationships with Rosa Parks, Bono, and Gloria Steinem; pays tribute to Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.; notes the Dalai Lama’s alleged influence on her; and explicitly equates herself with Parks and Esther from the Old Testament.

Even the book’s subtitle — “Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks for Me” – presumes way too much. But perhaps the reason Lee has made dozens of trips to Cuba is that outside of her Berkeley congressional district, the oppressive Communist dictatorship is the closest place to home where she can be said to speak for anybody.

Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.


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