May 9, 2008


One problem with Obama running on his biography is that he's systematically misled voters into imagining things about the implications of his life story that aren't true. He has a gift for telling people what they want to hear. But that comes with a second problem: one of those people is Barack Obama. He is weak at learning from his own biography, tending to draw lessons that are cliches from the conventional wisdom, no matter how obviously inapt they are.

Here, for example, is the emotional climax of Dreams from My Father, in which Barack Obama Jr. visits his father's and paternal grandfather's graves in Kenya (p. 429). His passionate reflections on his father strike me as heavily Oprah-influenced and bizarrely backward:

I dropped to the ground and swept my hand across the smooth yellow tile. Oh, Father, I cried. There was no shame in your confusion. Just as there had been no shame in your father’s before you. No shame in the fear, or in the fear of his father before him. There was only shame in the silence fear had produced. It was the silence that betrayed us. If it weren’t for that silence, your grandfather might have told your father that he could never escape himself, or re-create himself alone. Your father might have taught those same lessons to you. And you, the son, might have taught your father that this new world that was beckoning all of you involved more than just railroads and indoor toilets and irrigation ditches and gramophones, lifeless instruments that could be absorbed into the old ways. You might have told him that these instruments carried with them a dangerous power, that they demanded a different way of seeing the world. That this power could be absorbed only alongside a faith born out of hardship, a faith that wasn’t new, that wasn’t black or white or Christian or Muslim but that pulsed in the heart of the first African village and the first Kansas homestead-a faith in other people.

The silence killed your faith. And for lack of faith you clung to both too much and too little of your past. Too much of its rigidness, its suspicions, its male cruelties. Too little of the laughter in Granny’s voice, the pleasures of company while herding the goats, the murmur of the market, the stories around the fire. The loyalty that could make up for a lack of airplanes or rifles. Words of encouragement. An embrace. A strong, true love. For all your gifts-the quick mind, the powers of concentration, the charm-you could never forge yourself into a whole man by leaving those things behind….

This is the Daytime Television solution to all problems: Let's get together and talk about our feelings! It doesn't work all that often, and can easily make things worse (as the Jerry Springer show has demonstrated for years), but, who cares? It draws huge ratings because women like talking about feelings.

But, what in God's name is Obama Jr. talking about in regard to his father's faults: "shame," "fear," "silence"? Shamelessness, fearlessness, and won't-shutupness would be a more accurate description of Obama Sr. Here's a man who committed criminal bigamy twice in the U.S., who abandoned Barack Jr., who drove like Mr. Toad in The Wind in the Willows, and who could out-talk any man in the bar.

In the case of Barack Obama Sr., the son's assertion that "silence" was his verbose father's fundamental problem is particularly absurd, since, by all accounts, his drunken would-be Big Man father was All Talk, No Action -- not exactly, the strong, silent type.

Here is a recollection by Kenyan newspaper editor Philip Ochieng, an old "drinking buddy" of Obama Sr.:

Like his father, although charming, generous and extraordinarily clever, Obama Senior was also imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his brain and his wealth.

It was this kind of boasting that proved his undoing in the Kenyatta system – although, as he said, there was tribalism in it –and left him without a job, plunged him into prolonged poverty and dangerously wounded his ego.

Like me, he was excessively fond of Scotch. In his later years, he had fallen into the habit of going home drunk every night. This was what forced Ruth to sue for a divorce to marry another friend of mine, a Tanzanian.

Scotch, indeed, was what proved to be Obama Senior's final undoing. Driving a car always excited him excessively.

Obama Senior had had many extremely serious accidents. In time, both his legs had to be amputated and replaced with iron. But his pride was such that he could not tolerate "crawling like an insect" on the road. I was not surprised when I learned how he had finally died [in another drunken car accident.]

Now, there's nothing here about Obama Sr. that's not somewhere in Obama Jr.'s autobiography. Obama Jr. eventually got the full story on his father. (I quote Ochieng because he's a more concise writer.) But what lessons did he draw from his father's story? The two paragraphs I quoted from Obama above are his impassioned conclusions about his father, and they don't make any sense.

Similarly, Obama's Jr.'s contention that Obama Sr.'s downfall came from leaving African things behind is 180 degrees the reverse of the truth. He returned to Africa to play the Big Man, and there's nothing more African than that. His life was a caricature of all that is notorious about African politicians. Unfortunately, the Big Man pyramid is steep, with room for only a few, and he ultimately fell off.

Obama Sr. had a number of political problems, such as being a Luo under a Kikuyu president, Jomo Kenyatta. And he had initially staked out an ideological position to the left of the government's pro-capitalist economic policy, although it's hard to know how seriously ideology mattered in such a tribalist system. Yet, despite these disadvantages, he wouldn't tone down his Big Man act, bringing down upon him the wrath of the biggest Big Man of them all, Kenyatta.

According to his daughter Auma, Obama Sr. insisted on playing the Big Man until the end, handing out money he couldn't afford to give to relatives and hangers-on, and offering to drive everybody in the bar without a car home.

Moreover, rather than not having enough faith in other people, Obama Sr. had too much. He was a con man who conned himself into believing other people would believe his act. Lots of people did get suckered by him for awhile -- such as the four women by whom he had about eight children (one of them by his first wife might have been a cuckoo's egg), but eventually people figured him out.

So, what in the world, does Obama mean with all his talk of his father's "silence"?

Clearly, he wishes his father had talked more ... to him, rather than to his cronies.

This is also a major theme in Winston Churchill's autobiography -- his bitter regret that his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, rarely spoke to him before cracking up on a far grander scale than Obama Sr., resigning as Chancellor of the Exchequer to precipitate a crisis that would make him Prime Minister, failing, then slowly going mad from syphilis in Parliament.

But, Churchill didn't draw Oprahtastic conclusions from his personal pain.

Now, it could well be that Obama Jr. has actually drawn useful lessons from his father's failure -- he's abstemious *, cautious, and, while he talks a lot, he seldom says anything that anybody who disagrees with him can understand. Still, it would be nice to know a few more things about Obama, like: In this grand finale of your autobiography, were you just pulling our leg in an attempt to make the Oprah Book Club? Or do you really think like that?


* By the way, can we all now stop pressuring Obama to do shots of alcohol on the campaign trail to prove his regular guyness? Obama's father died in a drunken car crash, his half-brother David died in a motorcycle crash after a night of drinking, his half-brother Roy / Abongo converted to Islam to battle his alcoholism, and his grandfather Stanley was a barfly. There are some serious alcohol problems running in his family tree. If Obama doesn't want to drink, he knows best.

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer


Anonymous said...

Steve -- this enthusiasm for Obama, and his Oprah-esque "feelings" stuff, is indicative of what happens when a society is female dominated.

You end up with failed "Big Men" (which women btw love, look at Obama Sr) and nothing accomplished.

Very good insight into how Obama is like his father, all talk and no action.

Anonymous said...

I dunno, Obama strikes me as a pretty shrewd dude these days. "Dreams From My Father" was a young man's book.

Very good insight into how Obama is like his father, all talk and no action.

I think getting elected to the Senate and then knocking off Hillary for the nomination counts as something. What have you done lately, Mr. Action?

Anonymous said...

Anon --

Obama won only against Alan Keyes. That's like beating up Vern Troyer.

Hillary? Most Dems have hated her and the Clinton compromises to win and retain the Presidency. They want to march off the cliff like good Leftist Lemmings. If it hadn't been Obama it would have been Edwards.

Obama has accomplished nothing on his own -- he's been playing the Affirmative Action card, the "clean" to quote Joe Biden Black guy who can be semi-articulate with a teleprompter. Today he said he wants to be President of all 57 states. This isn't the first time either he got wrong how many states in the Union.

Obama hasn't done anything except talk -- no legislative accomplishments, no arm twisting to get his program passed, nothing. I loathe McCain but at least he's done something legislatively, even though McCain-Feingold is an unmitigated disaster and blatantly unconstitutional.

What Obama HAS done is vigorously vote "Present" on difficult issues. And play the "sensitive" version of the Big Man.

At Harvard Law Review, he wrote nothing. Likely because he was merely an Affirmative Action choice, and unqualified to write anything. He's not a scholar, nor a teacher, nor a legislator with a long record of passing legislation. He is a Black guy who can string (with a teleprompter) sentences together that seem "soaring" but he's lazier than GWB and dumber too by quite a margin.

[Rove in 2003 was worried about Howard Dean. Bush blew off his concerns saying he'd dealt with Dean as Governor, and knew him well. He predicted that Dean would self-destruct because Dean could not and would not control himself. Bush instead thought Kerry was the likely nominee.]

In short I am signally unimpressed with Obama, having had life handed to him as an upper middle class Black kid benefiting from Affirmative Action and a part of the Daley Machine.

Anonymous said...

Bashing Obama for affirmative action is getting a little old, testing99. I know this has been discussed before, but you simply cannot graduate from Harvard Law School magna cum laude (top 10% of the class) without being both extremely intelligent and hardworking.

Despite the distortions introduced by affirmative action for minorities and legacies, the vast majority of the class is selected on the basis of pure merit, especially the LSAT, which is heavily g-loaded. Even if Obama was admitted on the basis of affirmative action, which itself is far from clear, that he was able to graduate near the top of a class full of brilliant and motivated students speaks well of both his intelligence and his work ethic.

And no, you cannot graduate magna through simply selecting easy courses. Given the intense competition among HLS grads for prestigious clerkships and firm jobs, both of which require top grades even from Harvard, if it were as easy as that, more people would do it. Also keep in mind that most HLS courses are curved (reducing the relevance of the subject matter's inherent difficulty) and blind graded (reducing the effect of personal favoritism).

Of course, there are also the required 1L courses like Property, Civ Pro, Crim Law, and Torts that cannot be avoided (when Obama was at HLS, they required even more courses than they do now). If Obama didn't consistently get A/A-'s in those courses, he would never be able to graduate magna even if he got great grades in everything else.

Moreover, you argue that Obama is dumber than GWB (!) by quite a margin. If we assume that Bush's IQ is ~120, and that the average HLS student's IQ is 130+ (at least), if Obama were signficantly less intelligent than Bush, he would be *way* belove the average at HLS. It simply flies in the face of common sense that a student so intellectually deficient relative to his class could rise all the way to the top of it.

m said...

Steve- good stuff as usual but you always answer the obvious questions but forgot a big one in this in the hell did Obama SR. drive? Did he have one of those vans you can accelerate with your hands? If not, it's fairly obvious he would die in a car crash- he has two lead feet...

Anonymous said...

" simply cannot graduate from Harvard Law School magna cum laude (top 10% of the class) without being both extremely intelligent and hardworking."

Not true. I graduated from an Ivy League business school, and there were the requisite afirmative action students who were quite obviously below average. Not stupid, but obviously below average. Couldn't hold their own in a classroom discussion or lead a work group. Nevertheless, they were fawned over and heavily recruited for internships and jobs. The profs cut them a great deal of slack, both in the classroom and on test scores and grades. It was tacitly acknowledged that if affirmative actions students were minimally intelligent, they were to be rewarded out of all proportion to their skills. It was disgusting.


Darayvus said...

I dunno. Reading about the Cornell student protests in 1968, it seems to me that AA admittances were - at the time - geared toward getting disadvantaged black Americans through the door. Think Michelle Obama. The 1980s were long before Diversity; the buzzword was straight-up AA then.

Some half-white, half-Kenyan kid raised in Greater Polynesia would have been treated as a foreign student. Why, he didn't even have a loudmouth "Reverend" to vouch for him. Even now there is anger in the black community over universities' tendency to pad their quota with aristocratic Nigerians.

It's safe to say that BHO is free from the taint of AA. His wife on the other hand...

J said...

This is a very talented man who thinks in cliches from the conventional wisdom, no matter how obviously inapt they are. Leftist, romantic, idealist cliches. Maybe his unsolvable identity problems inhibit any deeper introspection. That ordinariness (and sticky wet sentimentalism) is the key to his success as public speaker. All the world secret services must be doing the same psychoanalisis that Steve is doing, interesting what they think.

Anonymous said...


I'm at HLS right now, and I cannot speak to what policies HBS or any other Ivy League business school has, but there is absolutely no evidence that the practices you describe occur at HLS.

As I explained above, most courses at HLS are both curved and blind graded; professors generally cannot know to whom they are assigning what grade. I'm not sure how widely known this is, but at HLS the grade you receive is usually based on your final exam alone. Class participation rarely counts, and there are usually no written assignments.

I don't know how business schools handle grading, but HLS professors do not have discretion to arbitrarily raise the grades of minority students, nor is there any evidence to suggest that they do.

Anonymous said...

"The profs cut them a great deal of slack, both in the classroom and on test scores and grades"

As a prof myself, this is why I much prefer blind marking of papers, so I don't have to worry whether I'm favouring particular students.

meep said...

The trouble is, law school papers are graded by blind grading. I =suppose= someone could have been sneaky and memorized what Obama's handwriting looked like to give him unfair grades, but on the whole law school grades are above board compared to business school.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous: Given the intense competition among HLS grads for prestigious clerkships and firm jobs, both of which require top grades even from Harvard, if it were as easy as that, more people would do it.

And yet, when he was finished with Harvard in 1991, what did the President of HLR do?

Obama worked as an associate attorney with Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland from 1993 to 2002. After 1996, he worked at the firm only during the summer, when the Illinois Senate was not in session. Obama worked on cases where the firm represented community organizers, pursued discrimination claims, and on voting rights cases. He also spent time on real estate transactions, filing incorporation papers and defending clients against minor lawsuits.

[BTW, does anyone know what Obama did in the year and a half (or two years) between graduating from Harvard (presumably in May or June of 1991) and going to work for Davis et al in 1993?]

It looks like "Davis et al" is now known as "Miner, Barnhill and Galland":

[BTW, does anyone know what happened to Davis? He wouldn't happen to be in jail, would he?]

They don't show up on any standard lists of the kinds of places from among which you would expect the President of HLR to choose his first job:

Crain's largest Chicago law firms
Vault Top 100 Law Firms 2007
Vault Top 100 Law Firms 2006
Vault Top 100 Law Firms 2005
Vault Top 100 Law Firms 2004
Internet Legal Research Group, America's Largest 250 Law Firms
American Lawyer, Rankings Per Lawyer, 1998-2007
American Lawyer, Global 100, 2007

In fact, if you read some of the pieces at the Chicago Sun Times, it looks as though Davis, Miner, Barnhill & Galland existed primarily to funnel massive amounts of money from the government to the bank accounts of criminals like Tony Rezko:

Obama and his Rezko ties
Contributing: Chris Fusco and Art Golab
April 23, 2007

Obama was an attorney with a small Chicago law firm -- Davis Miner Barnhill & Galland -- that helped Rezmar get more than $43 million in government funding to rehab 15 of their 30 apartment buildings for the poor.

Rezmar deals involving Davis Miner law firm
April 23, 2007

So it looks like the President of HLR returned to Chicago to become a professional race hustler and poverty pimp.

[Still wondering what he did in the 1991-1993 timeframe, though...]

Anonymous: It simply flies in the face of common sense that a student so intellectually deficient relative to his class could rise all the way to the top of it.

The story that I've been told [although I don't know whether this has ever been published anywhere - sorry] is that they had 15 or 20 ballots for President of HLR that year, and that BHOJr's name was finally put forward [at the very end] as a compromise candidate.

Anonymous said...

What is of surpassing oddness in this introspection is the importance of the quest for identity. Should not one who is of a liberal mindset actually encourage any uncertainty in identity since the opposite can lead to unseemly feelings of nationalism? Obama ought to revel in the fact that he is one step closer than most in attaining this cosmopolitan status and not feel any pangs of regret over any lost African authenticity. Why weep over his father's silences when these unspoken words were instrumental in forging Obama's worldly outlook?

Anonymous said...

All those tales of football players winning the championship Saturday night, murdering someone Sunday night, and being passing with honors on Monday morning...untrue.

Who ever heard of universities covering up for bad students?

It is technically impossible. Besides, no one in the pay of a university would have a motive to do such a thing. Shame on you if you believe such canards.

According to official university press releases, no student is ever favored above any other for extracurricular reasons. Universities blind-grade, grade on a curve, employ grading computers programmed by angels, and invariably adhere to strict rules about whom to give the floor in class discussions (you know: minority women first - then minority men - then majority women). The press releases are the reality and you're a bitter conspiracy theorist if you have ever observed differently.

Anonymous said...


The sarcasm is totally unnecessary. I'm not talking about football players, and I'm not talking about any school other than HLS, based on my personal observations of it and interactions with it. I don't have to read press releases, and your baseless suspicions obviously aren't worth much. There are no delinquent students here, and if there were, they certainly would not graduate in the top 10% of the class, an achievement impressive for anybody. Grades, in fact assigned blindly, are taken very seriously for all of the reasons I've already mentioned.

Anonymous said...

Anon, read "Brush With the Law-The True Story of Law School Today at Harvard and Stanford". It's the story of two guys who met when they both took jobs at the same law firm in LA, and they compared their experiences at the 2 premier laws schools in America. Bottom line-the Harvard guy spent the majority of his time boozing and gambling at Foxwoods Casino, and the Stanford guy spent his getting high and mountain biking. Both commented on how little work they did, and how they and their classmates gamed (read-cheated) the system. Not a ringing endorsement of our vaunted graduate schools!

And all the crap coming forward from the profs and students about blind grading, no evidence of AA, etc. is a riot! Elite universities have a vested interest in their grads being considered the best of the best, especially the one on the Charles River with the $38 billion endowment. They have to keep the bucks flowing in, as there are still a few parts of Boston and Cambridge that Harvard hasn't bought and made tax exempt, and the reputation is what keeps the money river flowing.

Wait, I see Anon claims to be at Harvard Law. I imagine this book is NOT on the LS reading list!


Anonymous said...

I went to a Top 5 law school at roughly the same time Obama was at HLS, and let me tell you about a little thing called "MAP", which stood for Minority Assistance Program. Basically, no stone was left unturned in the effort to retain (as opposed to admit) NAM students, to the point of giving them plenty of edges in spite of an ostensibly blind grading system: extra time to take the exam, and private tutoring sessions with the professor teaching the class (including writing exercises that could have the, ahem, oh so unintentional by-product of familiarizing the professor with the NAM student's writing style and handwriting), for example. NAMs were specifically instructed to not talk about MAP with white and Asian students, but things like that tend to get out anyway. Word around the school was that in extreme cases it did end up with the exam questions being given ahead of time to the NAM, and with (again totally inadvertent) slippage of the blind grading wall.

Anonymous said...

fun digression on the minutia of HLS's inner workings. On the main topic of Steve's article, I feel dumb, because it seems that the rest of you have some idea of what the heck Oby is talking about. Would more context help. What was ole Dad silent about, and his father before him?

I got no idea, though I'd guess its something about comprimising his African identity for modernism or something, which must be why his Dad abandoned Momma Obamma...or maybe not. Overall a really weird weepy creepy bit of froth for a presidential candidate.

I definately understand why he's Oprah's man though..."oh father, your silence Daddy...rosebud..."jeesh.

Anonymous said...


Obama's obsession with race is enough to explain his unconventional post law school job. I don't think becoming a professional race man is a good thing, but it doesn't contradict what I said, either. I don't have much to say about the law review, except that it's true that one shouldn't consider membership on it, or presidency of it, particularly strong evidence of either IQ or legal aptitude.


HLS doesn't have any such program. I doubt it did back in Obama's day either, although I don't know for sure.


It's true I haven't read that book. There obviously are people who manage to screw around and do okay or even pretty well. I would be very surprised, though, to hear that someone who spent as much time screwing around as those guys claim graduated magna. Where in the class did they graduate, and how exactly did they cheat the system?

And there really isn't any evidence of affirmative action in grading. Admissions, obviously. If you know (know, not suspect) something about grading at HLS that I don't, by all means share it.

Anonymous said...

I agree with regular joe - the whole quoted passage is creepy and incomprehensible. How else can it be described?

But then again our whole civilization has become creepy and incomprehensible so it's all kind of fitting.

Imagine the presidential candidates we will get in the future if things keep going the same way. Creepier, sleezier, and more incomprehensible. Such progress!

Anonymous said...

Anon., no criticism of the good teachers intended by me. Harvard doesn't field a college team of note, of course.

But have you heard of diversity initiatives? Are you familiar with "student disparity" and "the need for outreach"?

If you have heard of them, what do you think of these things?

Lastly, let me ask, who signs the paychecks over there? Do you mean to sit and inform a candid world that a word from above about a "failure to comply with diversity outreach initiatives" wouldn't have its usual magical effects there as it does elsewhere?

If so, I offer HLS not sarcasm, but respect and congratulations...but along with these, the squinty eye of skepticism.

Anonymous said...

But David, Harvard fields more varsity sports teams than any other college in American.

Fight Fiercely, as they say...

Anon, as I said, read the book. In the future, I would serve you well not to be so defensive about your school. It really doesn't matter what you're learning at HLS, as, upon graduation, you're set for life; no tribe takes care of their own like Harvard!

Noblesse oblige, you know...