The Myth of the “Manchurian President”

images-2Two of the most vociferous and reactionary figures in the anti-Obama movement have now joined forces to put together the latest attack on the President. Aaron Klein and Brenda Elliott are co-authors of  The Manchurian President, a book I would typically glance at and ignore but for the fact that it is being pounced upon by the Paleo-right wing as evidence for the hidden “communist” agenda of the President.

Of course, I have been someone who has not shied away from criticizing Obama and the Chicago-based milieu around him. And while there are distant links between some in that milieu and what once was a moderately influential Communist movement in this country there is no evidence whatsoever that Obama is even remotely influenced by actual Communist ideas today. By “Communist” here I mean the American stalinist movement that had a largish following in the 30s but had dwindled to irrelevance within a few decades. When it actually meant something, that stalinist milieu included people like the Steelworkers Union father of Chicago SEIU leader Tom Balanoff who challenged the corrupt leadership of that big industrial union.  But that milieu has long since deteriorated and has been replaced by narrow minded identity and interest group politics that makes Tammany Hall look relatively progressive. (To get an idea of how far the apple falls from the tree, read this thoughtful and sincere look at the SEIU operation Balanoff runs today, authored by an actual Communist.)

What types like Klein call “communist” is actually an authoritarian and bureaucratic approach to social and economic problems that has nothing in common with the heart and soul of a genuinely democratic and progressive left wing politics. There is nothing whatsoever in common with, on the one hand, the American left of Eugene Debs, of Michael Harrington, of the international democratic movements like Polish Solidarity and, on the other, the movements favored by the ilk around Obama such as Bill Ayers’ love affair with Hugo Chavez.

Of course, in order to try to smear that genuine democratic left the Kleins and Elliotts of the world do not hesitate whenever they can to suggest that authoritarian neo-stalinists like Ayers ARE the left, full stop.

This important distinction is irrelevant to the Kleins and Elliotts of the world who have another agenda. But making such a distinction is part of articulating an independent and democratic left viewpoint and so important on a wide range of issues, such as the financial collapse of the last several years, our continued illegal and immoral invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, our horrific continued use of illegal detentions on Guantanamo and who knows where else, our assassinations of insurgents through the use of predator drones….the list could go on.

Thus, to understand the Obama presidency and the milieu which got him there is a more complex process than just trying to red-bait Valerie Jarrett because her father-in-law wrote for a newspaper in the 1940s (!) that was sympathetic to the Communist Party. If political analysis were that simple we would live in a different era – oh, right, we did once live in that era, it was called the Cold War. But that ended more than two decades ago and in the meantime the nature of authoritarian politics has changed as well.

Let me suggest – again – one simple test of the proposition I am arguing for here.

According to Klein and Elliott, Bill Ayers and Barack Obama met in 1988 (at least so stated Klein on Hannity earlier this week) during an effort to reform Chicago schools. Although I have speculated that such a meeting might have taken place and that it might even be considered likely in light of Ayers’ willingness to appoint Obama as Chairman of the education reform foundation he founded called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge in 1995, I have said time and again there is NO public evidence anywhere for such speculation. (I have run an interview with the letter carrier for the Ayers family who recalls meeting Obama outside the home of the Ayers in the mid 80s but while I consider the interview credible, no independent confirmation has yet surfaced. In fact, while the interview actually suggests a close relationship between Obama and the Ayers’ family, it actually makes it less likely that Obama’s first meeting with Ayers took place in 1988 in a school reform campaign, as Klein and Elliott contend was the case.)

And Klein and Elliott provide no new evidence here and the evidence they do cite does not demonstrate what they say is the case.

For example, they cite a report prepared in 1991 by Mary O’Connell for Designs for Change, a Chicago school reform advocacy group that was a critical player in the 1988 reform process, to establish that Ayers and Obama met in 1988.

But the O’Connell report contains no such evidence.

What the O’Connell report does say is that in 1988 an group called Alliance for Better Chicago Schools, or ABCs, was formed under the leadership of a Chicago business lobby called Chicago United and that one of the membership groups in ABCs was Developing Communities Project, which at the time was headed up by Barack Obama. The report also says that in 1991 (not 1988) the contact person for ABCs was Bill Ayers.

A profile of Bill Ayers that ran in the Chicago Reader in 1990, which is also cited by Klein and Elliott but I think is stretched to fit their conclusion, describes Ayers’ participation in meetings of the ABCs group but leaves unstated when he began participating. It suggests indirectly, I believe, that his role in ABCs only began after the passage of the reform act in 1988, and thus likely after Obama had left for Harvard Law School. I asked its author Ben Joravsky in an email exchange in 2008 whether he could recall whether anyone told him when Ayers began attending the ABCs sessions and he said they did not. In his article, Joravsky says “Few members of the school reform movement can say for certain when it was that they first met Ayers. It was as though one day they looked and he was there.”  But that goes unmentioned by Klein and Elliott.

Frankly it beggars belief to conclude that someone as notorious as Bill Ayers, and someone who was brand new to the heated education reform process of the time, could have played a leadership role in ABCs during the run-up to the legislation when it had the backing of the mayor and leading civic figures, as opposed to later when the organization had withered to being a weak outside monitor of school reform.

In Manchurian President the authors also imply that in 1988 Chicago United, which took the lead in forming ABCs, was headed up by Thomas Ayers, father of Bill, and a longstanding and powerful member of the Chicago liberal establishment. While Tom Ayers had indeed taken a leading role in forming Chicago United in 1968 (!) by 1988 he was 73 years old and from the available evidence it seems his leadership role had long passed on to others. There is no public record I am aware of that suggests Tom Ayers was still the head of Chicago United in 1988, that he played any role at all in forming ABCs, that he had any role in recruiting Barack Obama to ABCs, or that his son Bill was either in ABCs at that time or met Barack Obama at ABCs meetings at that time.

What we do know is that Ayers came back to Chicago in 1987 as a junior professor and at first joined in supporting the teachers strike of that year but then soon joined the anti-union reform effort led by ABCs and other community organizations. That anti-union reform effort led to the creation of local school councils as a watch dog over teachers and principals.

This form of “local control” was a longstanding favorite policy of Ayers and others in and around the SDS and new Left. Members of that movement went so far, in fact, with this idea that they opposed a teachers union strike in New York in 1968 including scabbing on the teachers by crossing their picket lines to teach. Fast forward twenty years and Ayers once again was hot for the idea of “local control” even over the opposition of the unions, Operation PUSH and the Urban League.

Far from being a leftist idea, local control was the brain child of conservative thinkers who then and now think the teachers unions are the problem with education. They try to manipulate poor and desperate parents of minority students into scapegoating the unions instead of confronting the real and deep structural problems that actually create the serious educational deficits found in our inner cities and across many (white) rural areas today.

No wonder the Heritage Foundation was willing to sympathetically report on the Chicago reforms backed by Ayers. The politics of Ayers and Obama in 1988 in fact opened the door to the choice and voucher politics of the market ideologues in education policy today.

While there remains no proof that Obama first met Ayers in 1988, Obama does admit and the public record confirms that his DCP was a strong supporter of the local control experiment, one of the few black organizations to join the ABCs group. Thus, what is important about this history today is that it indicates the sympathy that Barack Obama had then for such authoritarian and anti-teacher ideas.

His recent support for the mass firing of Rhode Island teachers, his appointment of Arne Duncan, the keynote appearance of Bill Ayers at a pro-identity politics multicultural education conference in D.C. where Duncan was also a keynote speaker – these indicate the continuing sympathy of Obama for the reactionary and authoritarian approach of the 1988 period and indeed the approach of the controversial Chicago Annenberg Challenge in the mid 1990s. (Even the pro-School Board and establishment figure Arnold Weber opposed the Ayers approach to spending Annenberg money – Obama stepped in and got Ayers the money he wanted.)

Obama’s support for race-based approaches to problems that cannot be solved on racial lines alone, as indicated for example in his appointment of figures like Van Jones or nominations to the bench of Sonia Sotomayor and Goodwin Liu, suggest a lineage back to his original foray into race-based politics in the Chicago School Wars, as they were called in the late 80s and 1990s. Obama was not afraid then to stand against the black majority in Chicago when he led the DCP into the ABCs and their failed local control effort nor was he afraid to ally himself with Bill Ayers in the leadership of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge against the Daley Administration and the teachers union.

But this distinction between the authoritarian anti-union and anti-democratic local control ideology of Obama and Ayers and what could be a genuinely democratic approach to school reform is a nuance that is too significant for Klein and Elliott to recognize. They are hell bent on proving that there is a secret about Obama that harks back to the spies of the Cold War, to the manipulation of naive American leftists by stalinist hacks in the Communist Party and Moscow – thus they stretch the minimal public record into a phoney “gotcha” moment about Ayers and Obama.

There are times when the remark “Nothing to see here, move along” can be used without irony. This is one of them.

1 Comment


  1. I am currenty reading the Manchurian President and unlike many readers, I do so with a laptop computer to fact check the information within the book. I will agree with most of what your saying as I cannot find evidence to counter what you have stated above. However, one point that you did not touch on, and this is what concerns me about the President, is the fact that he lied to the American people when he said that Ayers “was a person who lived in his neighborhood.” Period. At the time he made the statement he knew it was not factual. He has never mentioned the facts of the CAC and his appointment to that group. It seems that there is a LOT more to Obama than he is willing to disclose even after promising to be open and transparent. This is just one of those cases.

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