As president, Barack Obama is many things -- many unprecedented things. There's the commendable: the truly historic achievement (with apologies to Bill Clinton) of being the first black president. There's the dubious: the lamentable distinction (christened by Newt Gingrich) of being the first "food stamp president."
But here's an intriguing, provocative thought: Is Barack Obama our first "Red Diaper Baby" president? Gee, that would be unprecedented.
Now, before deeming the question over-the-top, out-of-bounds, and unnecessarily incendiary, hear me out:
I come at this question as a Cold War historian and as the guy who wrote the book on Obama's mentor, Frank Marshall Davis, a hardcore communist. And the thought is not my own. It was posed to me last week by an emailer, and I'm surprised the thought never once crossed my Cold Warrior mind, particularly given the daily questions that I field about Obama's past, the communists in Obama's past, and even whether Obama himself is a communist. I've heard them all. I've considered those questions from every angle, and yet, this one never occurred to me.
Moreover, a critical clarification: If Barack Obama is a Red Diaper Baby, it doesn't mean he's a communist. I've met many conservative anti-communists who were born and raised Red Diaper Babies, only to flee their parents' politics like the plague. They contact me, "Hi, professor Kengor, my name is [fill in the blank] and I'm the classic Red Diaper Baby. Let me tell you my story…."
There have been studies and books (some by university presses) on Red Diaper Babies. One of them, Red Diapers: Growing Up in the Communist Left, an edited volume by Judy Kaplan and Linn Shapiro, includes chapter contributions from the likes of Carl Bernstein, the Washington Post reporter of Watergate fame. Bernstein is not a communist.
So, the question of Obama's red diapers was just posed to me. I discussed it with Ron Radosh, a fellow historian of the Cold War and communism. Radosh himself, in his youth, was a communist. He wrote a terrific memoir called Commies. Radosh knew Red Diaper Babies by the nursery-load, and he understands the phenomenon not only personally but historically and as a scholar.
"I and everyone else who uses the term 'Red Diaper Baby,'" says Radosh, defining his terms, "do so to define anyone whose parents were either CPUSA members or fellow-travelers, and who therefore grew up in the milieu of the Party and its front groups." Radosh, a professor emeritus of history at the City University of New York, adds: "Obama fits that definition."
Indeed, Obama seems to fit that definition. Consider:
Barack Obama's mother and father met in a Russian language class at the University of Hawaii in the fall of 1960. Their choice of study was a reflection of political interests. As one sympathetic biographer, Sally Jacobs, said of Barack senior, "Obama had an abiding interest in the Soviet Union."
Jacobs has published the preeminent biographical work on the senior Obama. Among those she quotes is Naranhkiri Tith, a prominent Cambodian who became professor of international economics at the prestigious Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Tith was a classmate of Barack senior at the University of Hawaii. The two had frequent, spirited debates over subjects like communism, an ideology that would ravage Tith's native Cambodia, where Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge slaughtered 1-2 million out of population of 5-7 million in just four years.
"Obama and I were on opposite poles," says Tith. "I did not believe communism could save the world. It was too good to be true and I gave examples of what I had seen. Obama senior was the opposite. He was always glorying about how communism had liberated Africa and Cuba. He had no idea what communism was all about. For him, communism was going to save the world. Capitalism was going to collapse."
The senior Obama found a more receptive audience in Ann Dunham. A radical leftist, Dunham questioned the American way. As Sally Jacobs put it, Dunham was given to questions like: "What was so good about democracy? What's so bad about communism? And why was capitalism so great?"
It appears that Obama's mother was, at the least, a fellow traveler.
Of course, young Obama spent much time with his mother but virtually no time with Barack senior, which brings me to another source: Frank Marshall Davis.
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