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Under the Influence

by Ronald Radosh

The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, by Paul Kengor (Mercury Ink, 400 pp., $27)

In the 2008 campaign, the media, generally speaking, showed a remarkable lack of interest in some of the background of the man who ended up winning the presidency. In this important new book, author Paul Kengor points to one person in particular who had a singular influence on our current president, a man who was his mentor while he attended high school in Hawaii and with whom he was in contact during his college years as well.

That individual, named only as “Frank” in Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father, was a fairly well-known black intellectual and poet named Frank Marshall Davis. There was a reason Barack Obama did not use Frank’s full name, even though, when he wrote his memoir, he was years away from running for the presidency. Davis, as Kengor proves with a massive amount of irrefutable evidence, was a hardline member of the Communist Party of the United States, and editor of and columnist for its Chicago newspaper, the Chicago Star, in the late 1940s. In the memoir, the character “Frank” and Jeremiah Wright are mentioned more often than anyone outside of Obama’s immediate family. He is one of the people Obama mentions at each major step of his life.

As Kengor argues, if one is writing a biography of a major figure, one first looks to that person’s mentors as a key to understanding where the individual comes from: How did the mentor influence his understanding of the world? Kengor writes that Davis “almost surely helps explain how America’s current president developed into a man of the left early on in life. . . . At the very least, he surely sheds light on how Obama was on the farthest reaches of the left when arriving at Occidental College.”

And yet, the few biographers who have written about Obama either ignore Davis entirely, minimize his role in Obama’s life, or try to argue that, in fact, Davis didn’t have much influence on Obama at all. Kengor, in the very last chapter of his book, points out that by the time of the 2008 campaign, “Obama knew that he needed safe distance from Frank, all the while understanding that Frank had been too important and formative in his life to be ignored.”

When conservatives first made the news known about who the mysterious Frank in Obama’s memoir really was, liberal journalists and biographers did all they could to hide his identity or minimize his importance. Major writers, including David Maraniss, David Remnick, and Jon Meacham, were guilty, defending him either as a civil-rights advocate or as a victim of McCarthyite smears. Meacham wrote that it was Davis’s “political activism, especially his writings on civil-rights and labor issues,” that led him to be denounced by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

None of these celebrated authors told their readers that Davis was a firm, orthodox Stalinist who centered his attacks during the early Cold War years not on conservatives or Joe McCarthy supporters, but on the “fascist” and supposed warmonger Harry Truman. Remnick described Davis as “one of the more interesting men in Honolulu” who befriended Obama, and noted what he called his “distinguished career as columnist and editor in the world of the black press.” To call someone whose political writings were all hackneyed diatribes echoing the Moscow line of the moment “distinguished” seems rather strange. We’re talking about a man who wrote, “I admire Russia for wiping out an economic system which permitted a handful of rich to exploit and beat gold from the millions of people who had to live a hand-to-mouth existence. . . . I honor the Red nation.” In another editorial, Davis wrote that “the forces supporting racism and attacks on Negroes are the same forces seeking to wreck the new Poland, Yugoslavia, and China and who want to get tough with Russia.”

It is of course possible — and this is what many of Obama’s supporters argue — that although Davis may have been important to Obama, he had little influence on the current president’s politics. Kengor argues persuasively that the opposite is more likely the truth, and that it is foolish to believe that, “during those long evenings of talk and drink,” Davis “never taught any politics to the wide-eyed Obama, or ruminated aloud with no effect whatsoever on the impressionable young man . . . brought there (by a leftist grandfather) to be mentored in the first place.” The sad truth is that journalists and writers who have had access to the president never asked him about what political and ideological influence Davis might have had on him.

Those who have looked carefully at Obama’s political career and rise to prominence in Chicago have all noted that many of his early political supporters came out of an Old Left and pro-Communist milieu. Kengor connects the dots and reveals just how important the people in those circles were to the young Obama’s political world in Chicago. The mentor to David Axelrod was David Canter, who, with his father, Harry, came from the ranks of the CPUSA. Valerie Jarrett, still the most important adviser to our president, was the daughter-in-law of Vernon Jarrett, and is the granddaughter of Robert Taylor — both of whom worked with Frank Marshall Davis in various CPUSA front groups.

In the course of this book, Kengor shows that many of Davis’s early causes find echoes in those taken today by Obama and his administration. Davis demonized business leaders, demanded taxpayer funding of free, universal health care and the nationalization of General Motors, and proclaimed a largely negative view of America’s role in the world and a desire to apologize for the country’s great sins.

At times, Kengor exaggerates Davis’s importance as a figure in the Communist Party in the 1940s. He suggests the possibility that the Soviets might have sought to engage Davis in espionage activities — Kengor calls him “a natural recruit to do a job like photograph shorelines for foreign intelligence” — but there’s no actual evidence that they did. Later, he speculates that Moscow saw every CPUSA member as a “potential recruit” and says he suspects that Davis “would have been at least considered for recruitment.” Actually, the Soviets recruited people who could give them industrial, scientific, and military information, not open propagandists who tried to get the public to see things Moscow’s way. That type of individual, especially a highly public black Party activist, would have been the least likely person for the KGB to approach.

Kengor recounts that columnist and radio-news personality Johannes Steel “secured an exclusive interview with the Soviet foreign minister,” Vyacheslav Molotov, who told Steel that the U.S. should not intervene in the Greek Civil War. Kengor argues that this showed Davis’s clout, since it was “quite remarkable” that a man Kengor calls one of Davis’s “regular reporters” could “get an exclusive interview” with Stalin’s foreign minister. From this, Kengor argues that Davis “had a direct line to the Soviet Central Committee.” In fact, however, Steel was a syndicated columnist whose regular articles appeared in the (then left-liberal) New York Post, of which he was foreign editor. That paper — not Davis’s Chicago paper — was Steel’s employer, and Davis’s paper was obviously just reprinting his column from the Post. It is hardly surprising that the Soviets would grant an interview to the well-known fellow-traveling reporter who also had a radio program, and who actually had hidden ties with the KGB.

Such missteps, fortunately, are very few. Kengor has given us a thorough examination of the extremist Communist views of Frank Marshall Davis — a man whose experience of racism in America’s past led him, as it did his friend Paul Robeson, to turn toward Communism and the Soviet Union as the hope for America’s future. The book illustrates along the way why so many smart black Americans took that same journey and put their hopes in collectivism and totalitarianism. One can hope that it will provoke some in our mainstream media to look anew at this early mentor of Barack Obama, and begin to ask their own questions about what influence he had on the president.

Mr. Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, a columnist for PJ Media, and the author of Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left.

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