If you want to remember how people used to talk about Barack Obama, go back to a TV clip from Oct. 23, 2008. Joe Biden sat gamely for a satellite interview with Barbara West, a local news anchor in Orlando, Fla. She wanted to get to the bottom of what Obama meant when he told sometime-plumber Joe Wurzelbacher that everyone benefits when you "spread the wealth around."
"You may recognize this famous quote," said West. " 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.' That's from Karl Marx. How is Sen. Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to spread the wealth around?
Biden squinted, looking for Ashton Kutcher out of the corner of his eye. "Are you joking? Is this a joke?
"Is that a real question?"
"That's a question."
Later, West asked Biden what he'd "say to the people who are concerned that Barack Obama will want to turn America into a socialist county, much like Sweden." Days away from being elected vice president, Biden snorted that he didn't "know anyone who thinks that, apart from the far right wing of the Republican Party." Interview over. Future interviews with West, canceled.
Two years on, how quaint does this sound? The people convinced that Obama wants to turn America into a socialist country now include the Republicans who will soon run the House of Representatives, and they did not shy away from saying this in their campaigns. At this point, a conservative who calls Obama a socialist is risking a primary challenge from the right; what is he, too wimpy to call the guy a fascist?
Maybe this is why Stanley Kurtz's political biography of Obama, Radical-in-Chief, has been received with such a shrug. He's given us a dense analysis of Obama and "the untold story of American Socialism," backed up by copious primary sources listed in 72 pages of endnotes. All that research meant that the book was beat to the "Why Conservatives Should Fear Obama" shelf by four Glenn Beck books (one of them a novel); No. 1 New York Times best-sellers by Michelle Malkin, David Limbaugh, and Dick Morris; and documentaries like Generation Zero—no shortage of material making the Obama-as-Swedenizing-strongman case. The discriminating reader who wants the "untold story" about Obama has already picked up The Manchurian Presidentor Dinesh D'Souza's fast-selling screed that sees an aspiring African strongman in the White House.
And this is sort of a shame. Kurtz actually hit the trail, dug into the archives at the Wisconsin Historical Society, the papers of Harold Washington, and the Chicago Defender, and apparently read every word written by the Hyde Park intelligentsia and politicos of the 1980s and '90s to find out just how much the young Barack Obama palled around with socialists. The answer: more than Obama has admitted. The score gets settled between Kurtz and Obama's fact-checking site, FightTheSmears, which originally called these stories crazy. Obama didn't really keep his distance from ACORN before it became politically toxic in the late aughts, and Project Vote, the registration drive he ran in 1992, definitely did some work with ACORN. Obama worked with Bill Ayers and Bill's less-terrorism-inclined brother John. He even attended socialist conferences in New York.
OK, the last fact isn't actually a Kurtz discovery. In Dreams From My Father, Obama mentions "socialist conferences I sometimes attended at Cooper Union." In 2007 and 2008, when the "Marxist Obama" attack was laughed out of any room bigger than an Orlando TV studio, reporters didn't make much of this. Kurtz makes so much of it that he attempts to figure out exactly which conferences Obama went to, such as the 1983 Cooper Union Socialist Scholars Conference, and to mind-meld with the 22-year-old student at pivotal times to figure out why, later, he became a community organizer. Based on the panels he might have gone to, Kurtz determines which ideas planted themselves in Obama's head, and why.