Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How an Ordinary Conservative Author Became an Extrordinary Partisan Hack

This is me quietly climbing on the long-passed bandwagon that met Dinesh D'Souza's article in Forbes in September, "How Obama Thinks". The piece, which posited that the president's politics come not from any tradition of American liberalism, but from his father's Kenyan anti-western, anti-colonialism (a theory which the great scholar Newt Gingrich hailed as great scholarship), has since been much fisked for its sloppiness, inaccuracy and insipidness, amongst other things. D'Souza's book, The Roots of Obama's Rage, which the article foreran, has recently been reviewed in the Weekly Standard as "The Roots of Lunacy".

I am less interested in the details of D'Souza's theory than in the style of his interpretation, and how it compares to his treatment of another president. Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader (1997) was D'Souza's first attempt at presidential scholarship, which I credit with being one of the first and best articulations of conservative revisionism of Reagan's presidency. Occasionally slapdash, but livley and engaging, the book sought to redress standard critical interpretations of Reagan from both left and right, elevating him as an American hero and great president who was yet an ordinary, flawed individual.

Reading the Forbes article, I was struck by the odd comparison between the author's two presidential studies. Both follow similar premises - no-one fully understands this leader's character, motives or methods, so I will provide a detached and thorough analysis that will fill in the gaps. The conlcusions are startlingly different. In Reagan's case, the mystery surrounding his presidency is the creation of his critics and their blindness to the effectiveness of his methods and sincerity of his beliefs. It is explained with a study of a character more complex, but ambtions and methods more coherent and straightforward, than have been appreciated. In short, his ordinariness is the answer. In Obama's case, a selection of policy choices and quotes present a mystery of intentions that can only be explained by revealing a secretly harboured but determined commitment to a foreign ideology. Obama must be understood as extraordinary.

D'Souza blames Reagan's critics for a wilful blindness to his successes, and for the invention of fantastic theories to explain his appeal - his confusion of Hollywood with reality, and his theatrical bedazzlement of America. He also provides some instructive comment on the judgement of presidents:
Since many of these pundits disapproved of Reagan's views from the outset, regarding his policies as wrongheaded and destructive, we cannot expect them to applaud his success in enacting his agenda. It is human nature to judge the effectiveness of a leader based on whether we approve of what he put into effect. Incredible resources have been invested by Reagan's opponents since the 1980s to descredit his record, which in a way is a tribute to his legacy.
I fear that The Roots of Obama's Rage will, for future historians, be judged similarly. And another:
A further problem in assessing greatness in leadership is that those who study the subject frequently apply biased, self-interested, or arbitrary criteria that render their evaluations incomplete or suspect.
This brings to mind the expectation, which D'Souza rearticulates, that Obama as president must conform to a standard of "exceptionalism" to lead America. D'Souza has always been a distinctly conservative voice, but where I enjoyed Illiberal Education as good polemic, and appreciated Ronald Reagan as nuanced hagiography, it does seem as if he has lost his self-reflection or mistrust of elaborate, self-serving, unifying theories.

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