The newest book by Dr. Paul Kengor, professor of political science at Grove City College, is “The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obamas Mentor.” It’s a biography of the man who, more than any other, mentored and (as this book shows) powerfully influenced the current president of the United States.
Full disclosure: The author is both my colleague and my friend. I respect him, myself and our country far too much to pull any punches in reviewing this important book. Let me, then, start with the book’s faults: Kengor doesn’t know how to use the pluperfect tense, his arithmetic is quirky (e.g., July is six, not seven, months after January, 20 percent is one-fifth, not one-fourth), and he occasionally uses adjectives with suboptimal nuances.
That said, those are minor quibbles—the proverbial gnats compared to the camels that comprise the real substance of a book. In all the important areas, “The Communist” excels. It is put together the way a good biography should be. The research is thorough and impeccable; the narrative is fluent and engaging; the book is clearly and logically organized; most importantly, Kengor enlivens his book by providing interesting background information and context. Unlike previous authors who wrote about Davis, Kengor read hundreds of Frank Marshall Davis’s long-buried newspaper columns that were found by Spyridon Mitsotakis, to whom “The Communist” is dedicated.
One might surmise that Kengor, a conservative, would have nothing sympathetic to say about Davis, a card-carrying Communist, but that would be incorrect. True, Kengor is no admirer of card-carrying Communists who propagandized, lied and slavishly served the brutal, genocidal regime of Joseph Stalin and his successors, yet Kengor treats Davis with genuine compassion when retelling the cruel injustices that Davis suffered. Kengor also commends Davis’s work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit.
Before starting to read the book, I had hoped that Kengor would point out that some black Americans were so embittered by their unjust and unconscionable mistreatment by white America that it drove them into the arms of communists. Indeed, some blacks were misled by the ideals of racial equality espoused (though not realized) by communists, but Kengor’s research includes a surprising find: Blacks comprised a smaller percentage of the membership of the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) than of the population at large.
Kengor relates some high-profile cases of famous black Communists, such as the brilliant novelist Richard Wright, who abandoned and disavowed communism after learning what atrocities were being committed in its name. Davis, however, was too far gone, too consumed by hate and resentment to ever forsake communism. Lenin himself had stated in his address to the commissars of education in 1923 that “Hatred is the basis of communism,” and Davis’ burning hatred for his native country anchored him firmly in the communist camp.
“The Communist” has tremendous educational potential. Today’s students may have only passing familiarity with such terms as “McCarthyism” and “red-baiting,” and many older Americans have a distorted understanding of a period that we lived through as a result of Communists’ “Big Lie” tactic. With the benefit of reams of formerly classified Soviet and FBI records that have been unsealed since the end of the Cold War two decades ago, Kengor shows unequivocally that—Golly, Martha, there really were card-carrying Communists in the United States. Moreover, those Communists cynically exploited worthy causes like civil rights in their ceaseless efforts to weaken U.S. opposition to the spread of communism at home and around the globe.
This book provides convincing evidence that the strident voices on the progressive/liberal left that for decades accused anyone investigating organized Communist activity in the U.S. of “witch hunts” turned out to be lies intended to defend the indefensible. Now, instead of wasting time trying to deceive the public by denying that communists were communists, may we please have an honest debate about whether to adopt various Big Government policies?
Another strength of “The Communist” is that it contains lots of fascinating and insightful tidbits, including Nancy Pelosi’s starry-eyed adulation of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) chief Walter Bridges (and a member of the Central Committee of the CPUSA) and the strong ties of Obama insiders Valerie Jarrett and David Axelrod to the some of the same American communists who were allies and collaborators of Frank Marshall Davis. Kengor repeatedly cites examples of how progressives, liberals and communists often have made common cause.
It will be interesting to see how those on the left respond to this book. My guess is that they will either ignore it, bash Kengor for publishing inconvenient facts, or claim that Davis’s indisputable communism doesn’t matter. I think it does matter. Often, it seems that Obama is wearing a “What Would Frank Do?” bracelet. Obama’s closeness to his departed mentor leads him, like a general fighting the last war, to adopt policies that seem designed to punish America for past sins—often committed decades and generations ago—rather than lifting us higher.
For decades, many liberals and progressives defended and shielded communists (as “The Communist” shows)—either because they approved of what communist dictatorships did, or because they believed so strongly in communism’s professed ideals that they were willing to overlook the crimes committed in its name. Kengor’s book is timely, because the main issue for today’s progressives is similar: Are the ideals professed in Barack Obama’s rhetoric so noble that Obama should be re-elected, even though his policies have run against economic success and have slowed economic recovery? Does America need a leader who is to the left of the late Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping—whose pro-prosperity policy was to give people the freedom to get as rich as they could?
Will the ghost of Frank Marshall Davis, whose life Paul Kengor has so masterfully reconstructed in “The Communist,” continue to haunt America through his ideological godson, the president? We’ll find out in November.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. A version of this column originally appeared on Forbes.com.