Peaceful, Gradualist ... and Radical?
In the shaping of his perspective as a conservative political commentator, Stanley Kurtz credits his Jewish upbringing and studies of Jewish history and the Tanakh in college. Kurtz engaged historical sources directly as he researched the controversial book he published this fall, “Radical-In-Chief: Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism” (Threshold Editions), which spent a week at No. 33 on The New York Times extended bestseller list.
“I’m non-practicing, but of course I’m proud of my Jewish upbringing and heritage,” wrote in an e-mail interview. “Judaism interests you in history. When I was in college, I took a number of courses on Jewish history and the Bible. I discovered there that you could write a surprisingly sophisticated paper by choosing a very small passage from the Bible, and then reading what ten Biblical commentaries had to say about it. By comparing, and contrasting, you could reach a semi-scholarly level, even as an undergraduate. My teachers loved it, and I was hooked.”
Kurtz completed a doctorate in the anthropology of religion at Harvard University, following undergraduate studies at Haverford College. Now he’s a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a think tank in Washington D.C., which also is home to Catholic theologian George Weigel and other conservative writers as well as former elected officials and political appointees.
“As political correctness took over the American academy, I rebelled and became a critic of the new wave,” Kurtz told MitzVote. “I was inspired in that by Allan Bloom’s book, ‘The Closing of the American Mind.’ That led me to a career as a journalist and commentator. When I began to research my book on Obama, I used my scholarly techniques.”
To research Obama’s personal history, Kurtz made use of libraries in Chicago, Obama’s adopted hometown, and compared differing accounts of events in the life of the young politician who became the 44th president of the United States. Kurtz explored archives at the Chicago Historical Society, and at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which housed the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an education foundation that Obama helped run. Kurtz also accessed records of the Democratic Socialists of America at New York University, and the Harold Washington Archives and Collections at the Chicago Public Library. “This allowed me to see behind Obama’s own account of his life in [his book] “Dreams from My Father,” said Kurtz.
The White House has yet to comment on the book. When Kurtz was researching it during the 2008 election and appeared on the Milt Rosenberg Show on WGN-AM in Chicago to discuss it, the show was besieged with pro-Obama callers whose volume of calls shut down the show’s call-in phone lines.
Some reviewers, like David Weigel writing recently in Slate, have been critical of Kurtz’s book, which claims that Obama is a socialist. “Is the president still a Marxist if he cuts taxes?” Weigel asked in his review.
Kurtz is precise in his answers, eschewing the overblown rhetoric of the talk show radio right to make his case, and takes umbrage at such critiques.
“Again and again, I compared the archival record to what Obama and his associates had said about his past, and discovered that neither Obama, nor his associates, were to be trusted in their accounts,” said Kurtz.
For example, Kurtz reports that the campaign manager for Obama’s first campaign for the State Senate in Illinois claimed in an interview in 2008 that Obama had never sought the endorsement of the New Party, a third party, run by the activist group ACORN and the Democratic Socialists of America. “But I found archival documents that show that [the campaign manager] was seeking the New Party endorsement on behalf of Obama,” said Kurtz. “I also found plenty of documents saying that Obama was a member of the New Party. So by searching through the record of the past, I called into question the claims of Obama and his associates.”
The reason that this historical evidence matters today for the U.S., Kurtz said, is that Obama has governed differently than his biggest supporters believed he would two or three years ago. Kurtz views the president as a pragmatic socialist, one who wants to achieve redistribution of wealth through a gradualist strategy, not like something out of 1917 in St. Petersburg.
Obama, Kurtz’s research shows, is clearly not like the members of the New Left of the 1960s who advocated violence against the institutions of the U.S. and fantasized about grabbing the means of production. Obama has adopted a peaceful, gradualist socialist strategy throughout his career, said Kurtz.
“The subtitle of the book is ‘Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism,’” said Kurtz. “The history of post-sixties socialism in American has not been told up until now.”
That history runs through the profession of community organizing, and Obama’s organizing mentors and colleagues, like Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Prof. Bill Ayers, were some of the most influential socialists in America, he asserts. “It’s just that they believed in keeping their socialism secret,” said Kurtz.
Not being able to describe Obama’s political beliefs accurately has been a significant problem for critics of the administration for two years now. Kurtz hopes his book is a corrective to the debate, and helps inform participants in the debate more fully.
“Obama says he’s just making a few practical changes to shore up the system. But it looks to me like he’s trying to lock the country into a basic transformation toward European style-socialism that will be difficult to undo,” said Kurtz, referring to the health care reform and the Wall Street reform acts, passed earlier this year. “Knowing the truth about Obama’s intentions is important for the decision the country will have to make in 2012.”