That David Maraniss, the Washington Post‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, biographer, and historian, covered some serious ground in putting together his magnum opus on President Barack Obama’s life (to about 1990) is beyond dispute.
That Maraniss didn’t flinch in regard to some less savory aspects of Obama’s life (his drug use and other youthful indiscretions, his penchant for biographical fabrication, etc.) is also apparent in these finely crafted pages.
Barack Obama: The Story indeed uniquely and singularly chronicles the forces that shaped the first black president of the United States and lays out why Obama thinks and acts as he does. Much like the author’s classic study of Bill Clinton, First in His Class, this latest work from Maraniss promises to become a seminal book that will redefine a president.
But with all of his years of research, you would think that Maraniss might have some significant things to say regarding Frank Marshall Davis, the (literally) card-carrying communist who mentored young Barack Obama.
Professor Paul Kengor sure did. In fact, he hoped Maraniss would have covered some similar ground detailed in Kengor’s new book on Davis, The Communist. But Kengor, as he notes in a piece he penned for The American Thinker, was often disappointed with Maraniss’ treatment of Davis:
Maraniss introduces Davis on page 270, describing him as a “black journalist, poet, civil right activist, political leftist, jazz expert, and self-described ‘confirmed non-conformist’ who wore a gold earring in his pierced right ear and had been under surveillance by the Honolulu bureau of the FBI because of his associations with the Communist Party.” All of this is accurate, and Maraniss, to his credit, at least mentions the CPUSA “associations.” In that respect, Maraniss does a better job than the likes of David Remnick, whose treatment of Davis was terrible. (In The Communist, I detail Remnick’s sins of omission at length.)
Nonetheless, Maraniss completely understates and ignores Davis’s communist work. Davis, after all, didn’t merely have CPUSA associations, but was an actual party member. More than that, he did outrageous pro-Soviet, pro-Stalin propaganda work, and he utterly demonized icons ranging from Harry Truman and George Marshall to Winston Churchill.
Moreover, Maraniss describes Davis happily as “one of the most colorful figures in Honolulu,” who “became a character in Obama’s memoir,” a character who allowed Obama to “accentuate his journey toward blackness” (pages 270 and 305).
The word mentor isn’t used by Maraniss, even as Maraniss acknowledges that Davis was connected to Obama by Obama’s grandfather, Stan (for the purpose of mentoring)…
Next, Maraniss includes some significant new material on Frank Marshall Davis, which I wish I had prior to when my book on Davis went to press.
Most prominent, Maraniss writes that “Obama later estimated that he saw Davis ‘ten to fifteen times’” during their years together in Hawaii…Maraniss doesn’t provide his source, but I’m assuming the source is Obama himself, whom Maraniss interviewed for his book. I haven’t seen that figure cited anywhere else. Already, in my early interviews for my book before its official release, I’ve been asked how often Obama met with Davis. My answer has been that I didn’t know, and that I could document only the occasions that Obama documented in Dreams from My Father…
Maraniss also notes that when Obama in Dreams from My Father said that Davis must have been “pushing eighty” when they first met, this is another case of Obama’s now-infamous “literary license.” Indeed it is. Davis would have known Obama from his mid- to late 60s into his mid-70s, when Davis was still a political radical and still a member of at least one of the worst communist front-groups, the American Committee for Protection of the Foreign Born.
And finally, another crucial piece of information provided by Maraniss is his confirmation that Frank Marshall Davis became “a subject of some of his [Obama's] teenage poetry.” That’s a significant fact. As Jack Cashill has noted in his book Deconstructing Obama, and as I detail in my book, Obama in 1981 at Occidental College published a poem called “Pop.” That fact was reported by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. Mead, however, argued that the subject, “Pop,” was Obama’s grandfather, Stan. To the contrary, as a careful read of the poem shows, “Pop” was clearly Frank Marshall Davis. I will not quote the poem here, but the fact that it was Davis, and given its warm details about Davis, clearly indicates not merely Davis’s mentorship but his deep, abiding influence on Obama’s life.
Maraniss acknowledges that “Pop” is Davis (pages 382-4). More than that, he adds a further confirming detail that I didn’t know: “The younger hippies who lived around Davis and acquaintances in the bars on Smith Street often called him Pop or Pops.”
Ah, there you go. Case closed. Obama’s enigmatic “Pop” is Frank Marshall Davis. That’s very revealing…
And therein is the central liability in David Maraniss’s treatment of Frank Marshall Davis, even given the noteworthy new material he provided. His failures with Davis are symptomatic of his overall failure to deal with Obama’s politically radical past. In this, unfortunately, Maraniss is not alone. He is yet another liberal Obama biographer who has left the vetting to us conservatives — so we can be attacked as Neanderthal McCarthyites, or worse. So be it. Someone needs to do the mainstream media’s job.
Maraniss hasn’t been pleased with what he’s characterized as right-wing “cherry picking” of every negative point he brings to light in Barack Obama: The Story and pundits using them for political gain during an election year. Check out Maraniss on CNN making this very case…and Will Cain of The Blaze firing back: “I think it raises some serious questions about what the role of a memoir is. Is it truth telling, or is it, as you said, some kind of ability to massage and make composite characters?”
Maraniss did offer an explanation for his decidedly kid-gloves approach to Davis’ impact on Obama—not only in Barack Obama: The Story but also in earlier writings—which Kengor details in a recent piece he wrote for The Blaze:
Personally, I like Maraniss. I’ve used his work in my writings, research, and in courses at Grove City College. I respect him. So does Cliff Kincaid, who has compiled and posted a lot of research on Frank Marshall Davis. In 2008, Kincaid emailed Maraniss regarding his article and neglect of Davis. Maraniss is a gentleman, and had the courtesy to respond. He justified his omission of Davis by telling Kincaid that he believed Davis’s role had been “hyped,” overstated, including “by Obama himself.”
This is a strange statement. Apparently, even Obama’s own words (many of them) on Davis’s influence can be dismissed by reporters who do not want to touch this subject. I’m certain that Maraniss, like David Remnick and Jon Meacham and other Obama biographers, is afraid to deal with Davis’s communism because of the criticism it would bring from fellow journalists. If these liberal journalists (I like all three of them) touch the likes of Davis’s scary political past, they’ll be brutalized by their liberal colleagues for hurting Barack Obama. Given the liberal/progressive circles that these journalists frequent, they are right to be afraid.
Again, Maraniss’ treatment of Davis in Barack Obama: The Story doesn’t sully his rich, comprehensive reporting and vast, detailed narrative, but it does call into question the reasons why biographers omit certain narrative elements and not others.