On disagreeing with a friend about Obama, with a coda on plagiarism

It always saddens me to disagree with a friend, especially when I hold the friend in high professional regard. I have great personal affection for Christopher Buckley, and I harbor unbounded admiration for his talents as a satirist. He is an immensely engaging chap -- a draught of champagne (the real stuff, not some domestic sparkler) on legs -- and a boon travel companion to boot. Someday, we may amaze the world with our co-authored travelogue/political thriller about our journeys in and around Nootka. But that is a saga for another occasion.

At the moment, I am feeling glum because Christo has broadcast a public endorsement of Barack Obama.

Why does this make me glum? Because Obama is the most left-wing, socialistically inclined presidential candidate (serious candidate) in the republic's history. Nothing Christo says in his endorsement gainsays this description, and I suspect that, were he pressed, he would probably agree with it. Ponder that! His disenchantment with the status quo is so profound -- a disenchantment that was bred in the policies of George W. Bush and metastasized to the candidacy of John McCain, for whom he once wrote speeches -- that it issues in this apostasy from the Republican side of the ledger. This is serious stuff!

Now, I have plenty of reservations about John McCain -- how do you spell McCain-Feingold, for example? -- but has he really changed fundamentally, as Christo says: has he somehow mutated from being "authentic" to being "inauthentic" over the course of this election cycle? If so, in what way? Christo murmurs about his angry temperament, his having been changed by Washington, etc. But I have to wonder whether the real problem is that McCain refuses to play according to the Democratic "narrative" and accept that his appointed role as "maverick" is to lose gracefully and then disappear.

Several things surprised me about Christo'seloquent declaration. The central surprise, of course, was his support of Obama. Since I am adamantly anti-socialist, I regard the prospect of an Obama administration with the gravest misgiving. The more I find out about him--including the more I discover the extent of what we cannot find out about him -- the more serious are my misgivings. Sure, I have plenty -- well, I have some -- friends who support Obama. And being a large-view, big-tent kind of guy I can, if I close my eyes and really concentrate, understand why they might think that a good thing to do. But Christopher Buckley!

Don't get me wrong. Let me repeat what long-time readers know: I have plenty of criticisms of John McCain. But, like Gwendolen in The Importance of Being Earnest when asked whether she had any doubts that Jack came to London only to see her, although I "have the gravest doubts upon the subject," "I intend to crush them" -- at least until after the election. Why? Because whatever criticisms I have of McCain are dwarfed by my criticisms of Obama.

Because of his family, because of his continuing connection with the center of elite conservative opinion in this country, Christo's endorsement is something special. I heard a rumor about it a week or so ago and wondered at first whether it might be one of those winking, tongue-in-cheek gambits satirists sometimes employ to get our attention. "Wow, Christopher Buckley, son of Wm. F. Buckley Jr., Republican speech writer, board member and regular contributor to National Review is supporting Obama! He's not serious, is he?" And then it would turn out that, no, he wasn't serious.

But inspecting his public declaration I conclude that he is very serious indeed.

There are several things about this document that engaged my attention. First, it is written with the effervescence and rhetorical brio we have come to associate with the work of C. Buckley. Quite apart from its political content, it's a snappy piece of writing. Kudos for that.

Unfortunately, part of what makes it such an accomplished piece is what saddens me -- at least, it is part of what saddens me. The text of the essay is a declaration of support of B. Obama: "a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect," according to Christo. But the sub-text is an effort to assign those of us who decline to offer our support for The One We've Been Waiting For a place in the limbo of right-wing cloud-cuckoodom. At a strategic moment, Christo quotes his father: "I’ve spent my entire life time separating the Right from the kooks.” You don't have to be a student of Quintilian to understand that sheep are being segregated from goats here, and those of us who have serious qualms about Obama are being mustered on the wrong side of that divide. A similar principle of exclusion is at work in his reference to "Rush Limbaugh and the others in the Right Wing Sanhedrin." The Sanhedrin was the ancient court that tried Jesus and found him wanting. Who is on trial here? Obama? McCain? Or, Dear Reader, is it you?

I was also sorry to find Christo associating himself with the idea that Sarah Palin is "an embarrassment, and a dangerous one at that." That was the line taken by Kathleen Parker on NRO recently, and it caused, as Christo notes, much wailing and gnashing of teeth among the conservative faithful. Christo seemed particularly moved by the rabidness of some of the responses. But I invite him to look at the sort of comments my posts here often generate --or, if I am too suspect a subject, at the sort of response that the work of the author of God and Man at Yale often generated. I do not know Ms Parker. I have no doubt Christo is right in describing her as "superb and very dishy." But was her assessment of Governor Palin correct?

Opinion about Palin's merits is sharply divided, even among conservatives. I acknowledge that she has performed poorly in some recent interviews. Nonetheless, I place myself firmly in the utterly besotted camp. In brief, I think she is the best thing to happen to conservatives since Ronald Reagan. I would feel far safer with her in the White House than I would were Joe Biden or Barack Obama presiding over the canapés at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Why? Well, I enumerated some reasons in a couple of posts last month (here and here.) As it happens, these pieces took off from Bill Buckley's famous mot about preferring to be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston telephone directory rather than the 2000 members of the Harvard faculty. Why would he have said that?

The usual response is "populism," with the adjective "misplaced" silently inserted as a prefix. But WFB was no populist. He was, rather, opposed to the liberal consensus, that smug covenant of elites that presumed to define the perquisites of virtue for the rest of us. In the famous editorial with which he opened the first issue of National Review, Bill noted that the magazine was "out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place." No one on the contemporary political scene is more "in place" than Barack Obama.

By the same token, what major political figure is more "out of place" than Sarah Palin? She is regularly castigated for being "populist." Her real offense, though, is a different pop: she is immensely, effortlessly, grandly popular -- and that, among those "in place" is unforgivable.

The Left hates Sarah Palin partly because of what she stands for, partly for who she is. Those on the Right who dislike her tend to affirm what she stands for, but are at one with the Left in disdaining who she is. I put it this way in the second of the posts I just mentioned:

[H]er real offense–the thing that has precipitated such visceral hatred of her among the Left–lies not in her party affiliation or even her particular policy prescriptions. No, the Left hates her for what she is, and I do not mean only things like the fact that she is pro-life, pro-hunting, and in favor of off-shore drilling. Those are merely the external coefficients of a view of life and the world that the Times, that “Harvard,” can barely understand, but that to the extent that they do understand they regard with a mixture of contempt and loathing. “Harvard,” I noted in the post mentioned above, and the “progressive” consensus it represents

is sophisticated about everything except its own naïveté. It champions cultural relativism–absolutely. It is suspicious when someone shows up peddling “the truth,” especially about moral matters; but it embraces its perspective on the world as inarguable. According to the gospel of “Harvard,” all right-thinking (i.e., left-leaning) people agree with the various positions set forth in the catechism of liberalism. To champion the various dogmas set forth in that catechism, says “Harvard,” is simply to exhibit one’s contact with reality. To dissent from them is to exhibit one’s ignorance, bad faith, or malevolence.

And that, as we’ve seen this last week or so, is how “Harvard,” a.k.a., liberal elite opinion, regards Sarah Palin: partly parochial, partly malevolent. She is not part of the enlightened confraternity from which we draw our leaders: our political leaders, our newspapers editors, our college professors and presidents, our socialites and news readers.

But here’s a question: why is someone like Joe Biden better equipped to be Vice President than Sarah Palin?

No one has come up with an answer I consider satisfactory to that last question.

While you are pondering what would make for a better response, let me return to Christo's declaration of support for Obama. As I mentioned, he discerns in Obama "a first-class temperament and a first-class intellect." Evidence of those excellences? Exhibit A (in fact, it is the only item on the roster) is Obama's literary talent, on view, as all the world knows, in his two memoirs. "I’ve read Obama’s books," Christo writes, "and they are first-rate. He is that rara avis, the politician who writes his own books."

I've read in those books -- I hadn't the stomach to finish them -- and I find them a prime example of inspirational babytalk: vacuousness raised by exhoration to the illusion of substance. But let's say I am wrong and Christo is correct in his literary assessment.  What sort of qualification would this be for high political office? Not much, I'd say.  But everyone has a tendency to overvalue his own speciality. There is no reason to suppose writers are less susceptible to this déformation professionelle than anyone else.

But here's a question. Is Barack Obama the rara avis Christo supposes? Or is he that more familiar creature, the vulgaris avis who pawns off other people's work as his own? Apparently, there is more than a little question about this. Does it matter? Politicians often sign their names to other people's work. It is an open secret that Profiles in Courage was written not by John F. Kennedy, whose name is on the copyright page, but rather by Ted Sorensen. Most of us don't think less of JFK for it. But since Christo singles out Obama's literary intelligence, it is worth delving into the question. Obama had never distinguished himself as a writer. Indeed, in his tenure as editor of the Harvard Law Review he wrote -- nothing. Not a single article.

As Jack Cashill observes in "Who Wrote Dreams From My Father?",

Prior to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing. Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."

The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all. Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf. To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour. It doesn't happen.

Cashill goes on to suggest that Dreams From My Father was ghostwritten and that the literary artist responsible was none other that Bill Ayers, the unrepentant sixties radical and enthusiast for Hugo Chavez who as late as September 11, 2001, lamented that, when it came to bombing things, he and his cronies "didn't do enough." (The idea that America is decent society, he said, "makes me want to puke.")

Is Cashill one of those right-wing "kooks" WFB warned about or a credible witness? I do not know. Read the piece and decide for yourself. He has certainly assembled an impressive mound of circumstantial evidence. He acknowledges that, given what we know for certain now, he cannot prove his contention. (Though could we not subject Dreams From My Father to the same sort of analysis that was used to discover the author of Primary Colors?) Cashill argues that there are really only two live possibilities: "one is that Obama experienced a near miraculous turnaround in his literary abilities; the second is that he had major editorial help, up to and including a ghostwriter."  Cashill believes "The weight of the evidence overwhelmingly favors the latter conclusion."

Obama has called Ayers "just a guy the neighborhood." Stanley Kurtz and Andrew McCarthy have put paid to that fib (see, for example, here and here). And Andy has a thoughtful piece on the significance of Christo's endorsement of Obama on the grounds of intelligence and literary talent:

Taking Christopher Buckley as a measure of what intelligent people who favor Obama are thinking, it's fair to say there's a lot riding on Obama's writing. I'd like to feel more confident that he wrote it: If he wins, Obama will be my president, and as I'm not a MoveOn Democrat who'd rather tear down my country than see a president I opposed succeed, I'd like to feel some of Christopher's hope for what that portends.

Me too, on all counts.

As I say, when it comes to passing off other people's work as their own, politicians often--not always, but often--get a free pass. It's OK to hire someone to write a speech for you and then pretend it's your speech. It's not, as Joe Biden discovered to his sorrow, OK to pilfer someone else's speech (which was itself possbily written by a third party) and pretend it is yours. When Obama announced that Biden was to be his running mate, I wrote a piece called "The Neophyte and the Plagiarist." Maybe it should have been titled "The Neophyte Plagiarist and the Experienced One"--if, that is, secretly employing a ghostwriter counts as plagiarism. Maybe it doesn't. In many cases, it is A-OK for a politician to hire a ghostwriter to write a book to which the politician will sign his own name. Would it be OK in Obama's case, when part of the point of Obama, was his honesty, his authenticity? And what if Cashill turns out to be correct and Dreams From My Father was written by Bill "the bomber" Ayers? What then? Would that tarnish his reputation as a man possessed of a "first-class temperament"? I'm looking forward to asking Christo on our next mission to Nootka.