A day or so ago a conservative website called SayAnythingBlog.com set off a firestorm with a blog post. It was posted by a conservative talk radio host named Rob Port, who with a group from the C-PAC convention took a tour of the White House. The original heading on the post screamed out: “Photo Evidence: Michelle Obama Keeps Socialist Books In The White House Library.”
Much to his consternation, what Port found when they stopped at the small room containing the White House Library were two books that he assumed were chosen by First Lady Michelle Obama, and that proved to him that she and the President were indeed socialists. What Port spotted on the bookshelf, and which he took pictures of, were two books, The American Socialist Movement:1897-1912, written by Ira Kipnis, and what he thought was an even more telling volume, The Social Basis of American Communism, by Nathan Glazer.
“Lookie what I found,” he wrote on the posted blog. Shocking! Two books which by themselves, he admitted, “wouldn’t be a big deal,” but in “the context of Anita Dunn saying Chairman Mao is her favorite political philosopher? In the context of the Mao ornament on the White House Christmas tree? In the context of Obama’s economic policies? Well, I’ll let you make your own call.” Among the over 300 comments was this rather typical one: “I wonder if the liberals who mock conservatives who refer to Obama as a socialist still find it funny?”
Almost immediately, the press went to town. The British Guardian promptly investigated, and quickly found that the two books had been picked by the First Lady — not the current one, but by Jackie Kennedy, during her husband’s presidency. In 1963 a Yale University Committee had chosen the books to represent different aspects of the American past.
Port quickly backed down, posting a blog update in which he wrote: “According to the Washington Post it was First Lady Jackie Kennedy who oversaw the placing of the books in the White House library, and they’ve been there since 1963. Apparently no administration since has changed the contents of the library. So the guide I was with didn’t give me the whole story. Either that, or we misunderstood one another.”
But he also added that this misunderstanding did not invalidate the fact that “the Chairman Mao Christmas ornament, the Obama adviser who idolizes Mao and the nationalizations of the banks, car companies and attempted nationalizations of student loans and health care are all, unfortunately, still very true.”
What Port’s comment reveals, however, is the rather simplistic view that his spotting of the books provided further proof of the White House’s secret socialist agenda. It also raises yet another point. These two volumes are considered early classics in the attempt of scholars to explain the growth in America at certain times of both vibrant socialist and communist movements and to understand why they ultimately failed.
Moreover, anyone should have known that Nathan Glazer is in fact one of our country’s most eminent political sociologists, a founding editor with Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell decades ago of The Public Interest, and a man of liberal sensibility who used to write frequently for the anti-Communist magazine The New Leader as well as Commentary. At the time, he was among the first generation dubbed neo-conservatives, which he defined as referring “to the growing caution and skepticism among a group of liberals about the effects of social programs” initiated during the Great Society years. About his anti-Communism, there was no doubt.
As for Kipnis, he was a traditional scholar of American socialism who wrote what became one of the very first studies — soon to be outdated — of the impact of American socialism. As later scholars showed, for long periods of time socialism was a rather mainstream movement in the prairies and farm areas in America’s heartland, and its following increased as many joined its ranks because of their opposition to World War I. There are many theories as to why the movement quickly dissipated and fell apart, but any historian of America’s past could not ignore its existence and influence.
For those reasons, the books chosen were indeed more than appropriate for a national library in the home of our chief executive. But what is the real issue is their very presence evidently sets off alarm bells among many contemporary conservatives, whose outlook — to put it mildly — is anti-intellectual. Indeed, their immediate negative response reminds one of the shame put on our nation when at the taxpayers’ expense in the 1950s, Roy Cohn and G. David Schine took a tour of American governmental libraries abroad, and compiled lists of “subversive” books they found on the shelves which they urged be removed. The image of Joe McCarthy’s top aide and his friend cavorting through Europe led to charges of “bookburning,” and even President Dwight D. Eisenhower later made a public statement condemning the antics of the duo and the harm they brought to our nation’s image as a bastion of freedom.
Port and those who supported his original finding now have egg on their face, and for good reason. Shouldn’t advocates of freedom not be afraid of ideas in books, even those with which they disagree? This is even more true when in this case, those commenting were completely unaware of the contents of these volumes. What does it say about the attitude of so many on the political right that finding such books in the White House sets them off on a crusade that fortunately was aborted before it could be carried on any longer?
It is time, I suggest, for conservatives to make criticism of policy when they find it lacking in substance or just plain wrong, and stop this rather silly game of gotcha based on a fallacious reading of history.