I recently finished reading Paul Kengor’s important new book The Communist: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, which I’m reviewing for a forthcoming issue of National Review. One of the points that Kengor raises is the question of how important a mentor is for any young person, especially when his relation to the individual he is mentoring takes place during the impressionable high school and early college years. Kengor argues that contrary to what mainstream journalists have claimed, Davis was a most influential figure in Obama’s life and a man who obviously led Obama to the very left-wing stance he took when he entered college.
Did Obama ever have a real conversion experience, and consciously move away from the type of politics that Davis espoused? The truth is that we don’t know, since our president has never been upfront about it at all. Many people, of course, have moved from communism to either social democracy, liberalism, or conservatism. The late Irving Howe departed from Trotskyism to become a social-democrat; Whittaker Chambers moved from communism to a deep religious conservatism; in our own time, my friend David Horowitz moved from the ranks of the communist left to become a major conservative intellectual and activist.
Readers of my own memoir, Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left, know that over many years, I too began a long move away from the left-wing milieu in which I grew up. One of the chapters in my book is about what I somewhat facetiously call “the Commie high school” that I attended from 1949-1955, the “progressive” Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Begun by Irwin, a disciple of the educational philosophy of John Dewey, the school became a virtual who’s who of the emerging Old and New Left from the 1930s through the 1970s. Its graduates include the Weather Underground’s Kathy Boudin; the Communist African-American leader Angela Davis; the late folksinger Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary; the former publisher and editor of The Nation, Victor Navasky; the wives of both Harry Belafonte and Pete Seeger; and the sons of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Michael and Robert Meeropol. The elementary school is named the Little Red Schoolhouse, and many of us called it “the little Red schoolhouse for little Reds.”
Recently, I was interviewed by a writer who is working on an official history of the institution. He asked me to take a guess as to how many of those who taught at the school when I attended were actually members of the CPUSA. I told him that all the teachers were either sympathizers or fellow travelers, but I could only say for certain that I knew two or three who were definitely members. I was shocked when he told me that, in fact, almost everyone teaching when I was there was an actual CP member, and that even the school’s principal was a communist (I thought of him as simply a left-leaning civil libertarian).
So the questions arise. What paths did the graduates of that era take? Have any of them changed and broken out of the left-wing box in which they were educated? Aside from myself, I know of only two others, Abby Thernstrom and Elliot Abrams. At the last class reunion I attended, almost all my classmates had the same views they held when they attended EI.