Writer’s Note: In upcoming posts, I will be reading and reflecting on David J. Garrow’s massive new Obama biography, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama, published today by William Morrow. I need to offer two caveats at the outset: as of this writing I have not yet read the book, and I know David Garrow personally.
Although we haven’t spoken in years, Garrow and I became friends in the later 1990s when I was a graduate student and he was a professor at Emory University. I was also at the time a Democratic state lobbyist, nonprofit director, and community organizer. We socialized: he is a gracious host. I took no classes from him, but I read his books and his scholarly articles, and his door was always open to me.
David Garrow taught me a great deal about what it takes to be a historian and academician, and he was generous with his time. While I have changed my views on much of the politics we once shared, I have not changed my opinion of the value of his work.
But, apparently, the New York Times has done so.
In 1986, Garrow published Bearing the Cross, a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. The book was controversial but well-received. Garrow won accolades despite refusing to shy away from some of the more salacious parts of King’s life story – a decision that enabled him to delve more deeply into the FBI’s pursuit of King.
Bearing the Cross earned Garrow a Pulitzer Prize, a slew of other commendations, and that most prestigious of literary golden rings: a front-page review in the New York Times Sunday Book Review section, written by then-deputy Washington editor Howell Raines.
Rather than dismiss Garrow for telling the story of Martin Luther King’s troubling sexual proclivities, Raines engaged Garrow’s telling of them. In the Times book review, Raines wrote, “Mr. Garrow does not let the sensational side of his story distract him from the central task of any King biographer”:
Through tireless interviewing, through skillful use of the Freedom of Information Act, and, not least, through his principled refusal to submit to F.B.I. entreaties to suppress details of the bureau’s spying on King, Mr. Garrow has provided the fundament of fact on which future King biographies must rest, both in regard to King’s public and private lives.
Garrow, Raines observed a bit ruefully, also did not shy away from the subject of communist influence on King in the person of Stanley D. Levison, nor King’s own deepening radicalization. And while conservative experts on domestic communism in the United States don’t view Garrow’s account of communist influence on King to be fully transparent, I see that as a subject Garrow did broach then and has addressed since that time (I am far more familiar with communist influences in the left since the mid-1980s, and this is a subject I will return to).
In his 1986 review, Raines recognized that Garrow’s strength as a historian was for “amassing facts” rather than psychoanalyzing or even often analyzing them. This is a valuable historical service, doubly so when writing about public figures who are either demonized or sanctified by the media.
About Garrow’s portrayal of King, Raines concluded:
King’s associates have feared for years that full disclosure of his private life would dim the aura of his memory. But this impulse to sanctify King, to put a veil over his private life and to sanitize the increasingly radical politics of his final years, is misguided. Books like this one are needed for an understanding of the dramatic scope of an important American life.
Despite the knee-jerk defensiveness over communism, this was a grown-up review by a grown-up author whose own work on the King era might fall into the very category of “sanitizing” that he acknowledged was a mistake.
Fast forward to 2017. All such nuance is gone now. Just as the leftist-politics-soaked university of today is not even an intellectual shadow of the leftist-default university of 1986, the New York Times of today is not an intellectual shadow of the New York Times of 1986. And Michiko Kakutani, the Times book critic who throws a tantrum at Garrow’s current book (there is no other way of putting it), is no Howell Raines.
Raines is a scholar of the civil rights era. Kakutani, as far as anyone can tell, is mainly a critic of things like MFA writer’s programs and Harry Potter books. And while that might arguably make her an expert on much of the zeitgeist of the Obama presidency, there was a time when the New York Times set a higher bar for its book reviewers.
They don’t anymore. After Garrow’s Obama biography turned out to contain material that challenges the Obama hagiography, Kakutani not only rails against it: she cringingly denounces Garrow for sounding “like a Republican attack ad.”
But Garrow, a Bernie Sanders supporter, is criticizing Obama from the left, not the right. On “Tucker Carlson Tonight” yesterday (May 8), Garrow stated clearly: “as a Progressive Democrat, I’m disturbed and perplexed that [Obama] has changed so dramatically over the last 15 years.”
Apparently, to Kakutani, any criticism of Obama is so bad that it must be labeled “Republican.”
The rest of the review is just as wrong-headed. Thirty years ago, Howell Raines understood that Garrow’s exhaustive research methodology provides documentation and resources for other historians. In contrast, Kakutani whines that Garrow interviewed too many people and provides too many footnotes.
Bizarrely, she also complains that Garrow foregrounds the political landscape of Chicago politics “before Obama arrived to work there,” as if Chicago politics should only be considered a worthy subject if Obama is actually present on the ground. She then complains about Garrow stopping his narrative when Obama arrives at the White House, although about the latter, she admits, as if this is dawning slowly on her as she types into the New York Times instantaneous typing machine: “Perhaps, as the title ‘Rising Star’ indicates, this book is meant to focus only on Obama’s early years. . .”
The full quote manages to squeeze in a third complaint:
Perhaps, as the title ‘Rising Star’ indicates, this book is meant to focus only on Obama’s early years, but in that case, the epilogue – with the snarky title of “The President Did Not Attend, as He Was Golfing” – seems even more inexplicable.
Whereas the rest of the book is written in dry, largely uninflected prose, the epilogue – which almost reads like a Republican attack ad – devolves into a condescending diatribe unworthy of a serious historian.
Ms. Kakutani seems to have not heard of the tradition of ending a long historical manuscript with a separate, subjective epilogue. Nor does she like footnotes. Instead of such things, she longs for something she cryptically names “a powerful narrative through line.”
I checked the spelling on that twice.
Kakutani, who is speaking for the Times with this review, additionally wishes Garrow were more like “Robert A. Caro and Ron Chernow,” because these men reportedly offer a “resonant narrative” — “in which momentous historical events are deftly recreated.”
Piffle. What she really wants is a book that sounds like she feels about Obama. This is dumbed-down stuff, indeed.
In just 30 years, we’ve gone from Howell Raines praising Garrow for resisting the “impulse to sanctify King, to put a veil over his private life and to sanitize the increasingly radical politics of his final years” to Michiko Kakutani openly criticizing Garrow for not ‘sanctifying’ and ‘veiling’ Obama’s life. This is not a lateral move.
Conservative readers should be interested in Garrow’s book precisely because it is a critique from the Left (and I will take Garrow’s word that it is over Ms. Kakutani’s “Republic attack ad” accusation). What a progressive historian thinks about Obama’s early promise – and subsequent failure to deliver on progressive promises – should be far more illuminating than more hagiography by the journalists and fiction writers who created the Obama hagiography in the first place.
That group begins with Obama himself, though shamefully, it didn’t end with him. And I suspect that, although our politics have diverged, Garrow and I might still agree that promoting a presidential candidate on the basis of his autobiography instead of researching the man behind the autobiography is the main thing people will remember about media coverage of the election of Obama not long from now.
Confronted with something that challenges her worldview rather than reinforcing it, Kakutani recommends that her readers practice willful ignorance of Garrow’s book. She actually suggests that readers should choose to avoid Garrow’s fact-checking of the Obama hagiography in favor of one more wallow in the hagiography itself. “[G]o back to Obama’s own eloquent memoir,” she urges them.
That would be the memoir where the future president invents fictional characters out of real people who were actually interviewed by David Garrow.
To recommend that readers choose the fictional version of Obama’s life over the real one is something more than merely dumbing history down. It is sinister.
On to the book.