Swiftboating Obama

The same man who succeeded in “Swiftboating” John Kerry in 2004 is now trying to do the same to Barack Obama. But will the charges stick?

Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. Jerome R. Corsi's cleverly titled The Obama Nation: Leftist Politics and the Cult of Personality, which has been edited by Mary Matalin and already received front-page coverage in the New York Times, depicts an unfamiliar Obama-an unsmiling, brooding picture of him with his index finger propped against his right temple, plotting to subvert America. At least that's what Corsi tries to show in his lengthy survey of Obama's personal life and political rise.

Corsi, who helped Swiftboat Senator John Kerry during the 2004 election in the bestseller Unfit for Command, is aiming for a repeat performance. At a moment when conservative fortunes are, to put it mildly, listing, he seeks to unleash a mighty wind of indignation at Obama's supposed concealment of his radical views. His new book falls into the camp of a venerable genre-the right-wing conspiracy tract, which dates, at least in its modern incarnation, back to the 1930s, when writers such as Elizabeth Dilling declared that an enormous Red network was being covered up by traitorous liberals. Now that the cold war is over-unless Senator John "we are all Georgians now" McCain succeeds in reviving it-Islam has replaced communism as the bogeyman of the Right.

Like the best conspiracy tracts, Corsi's work strives for an evenhanded, scholarly tone-his "Ph.D" is flourished on the cover itself-and offers a lengthy recounting of his career, including the fact that he once wrote an article in a journal published by Yale University and earned his doctorate at Harvard. This isn't supposed to be the work of a crackpot, but the sober findings of an independent researcher who, as he mournfully repeats, has had no choice but to reach certain dire conclusions. It requires "considerable effort," he informs us, to decipher Obama's evasions and "We are forced to pit fragments of truth presented later in the book" against unpleasant realities. But why forced? Who did the forcing? Corsi does not say.

In essence, Corsi wishes to present Obama as an unreconstructed left-wing radical, who has emerged full-blown from the embryo of the 1960s, intent on undermining American national security at the country's greatest moment of peril. He does this by suggesting that at each step of his career, Obama has sedulously misrepresented and lied about his past, whether it is his father's drunkenness and socialist leanings or his own proclivity for drugs and alcohol, which Corsi says he has never firmly renounced. According to Corsi,

A young man of mixed race identifies more with his African blood, rejecting his white mother and his African father, both of whom have abandoned him, as well as rejecting the white grandparents who have sacrificed economically to raise him, as he struggles to fit into an elite prep school, where radical anticolonial political philosophy, drugs, and an older socialist mentor help him find his identity as an African-American, in the heritage of his Muslim father.

Corsi goes on to weave a tapestry of accusations, including a socialist conspiracy in Kenya, links between Obama's former-real estate pal Tony Rezko and Saddam Hussein called "Rezko's Saddam Hussein Connection," and lengthy attacks on Obama's advisors, such as General Merrill "Tony" McPeak, a retired U.S. Air Force chief of staff under President Clinton and currently cochairman of Obama's presidential campaign committee, for being anti-Israel. Oh, I almost forgot: Corsi also indicts Obama for being a secret smoker.

Corsi's tract itself, however, has the whiff of desperation. In 2004 Kerry blundered by trying to elide his own record of opposition to the war by playing up his (genuine) record as a war hero. Obama, by contrast, is not embracing his old radical chums. On the contrary, he has shown no hesitation in dumping them overboard should they threaten his aspirations. In other words, he's an opportunist or, if you like, a ruthless politician, as Ryan Lizza recently detailed in the New Yorker. No doubt Obama has reveled in the notion that he can transcend politics, which is itself a political strategy, albeit one that has been working. The funny thing is that some of Corsi's allegations aren't off base. Obama clearly has tried to polish up his past, but here Corsi relies on Washington Post writers Richard Cohen and Michael Dobbs for the goods. Corsi's book reaffirms the old line that what's interesting in it isn't new and what's new isn't interesting. Still, McCain has begun to go down the Corsi path, but Obama has, in my view, astutely remained on cruise control, refusing to engage, which is the best way he can counter the charge of holding extremist views.

Most likely the Democrats are headed for a sweeping victory this fall, while the Republicans will be forced to regroup. But even if the political climate for conservatives becomes more daunting, the market for books like Corsi's could enjoy a distinct uptick during an Obama presidency. In essence, Corsi offers a vulgarized version of the chest-thumping, alarmism and militarism that has characterized the Bush years. It will be interesting, then, to see if conservatives adopt more sober assessments or continue down the road they have been following under Bush.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.