It only took six months, but the mainstream media finally accomplished what no conservative media outlet ever could have: it sent a reporter into the Columbia library. In October 2008, Andrew McCarthy complained that it was impossible to learn anything about Obama’s heady days of Ayers-inspired radicalism at Columbia:
As [Ayers] so delicately told the Times, America makes him “want to puke” . . . Such statements should make Obama unelectable.
Time and again, conservatives have proven that Obama is Ayers is Alinsky is Annenberg is Hitler—all they were lacking was the actual proof. No more. Thanks to the Times, they now have the evidence they were always pretty sure existed. How did the Times get their hands on these hot documents? What did it do that McCarthy—a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of New York—could not?
It asked politely.
Question: May I use Columbia’s libraries if I am not a student, professor, or staff member at another academic institution?
Answer: If your public library does not have the specific title or material you need for your research, obtain a referral card from your public library. This card will give you a one-day pass to Columbia University Libraries.
All McCarthy had to do to stop a man he considered a monster from winning the White House was return to his old stomping grounds and ask a librarian for a day-pass to Columbia. All any conservative who wanted to stop a man they believed would destroy America had to do was to obtain a referral card from a public library. Instead, these intrepid citizen-journalists prattled on endlessly about the research other people declined to do; and now that someone did it, they are incorporating their lazy reliance on the mainstream media into another iteration of their tired jeremiad against it: “If only you had told me what I couldn’t have been bothered to discover myself last year,” they cry, “Obama might not be in Russia today sowing the seeds of our inevitable destruction.”
If you believed that a trip into the city and an afternoon in an archive would spare America four years of tyranny, would you do it? Would you fly into the city, rent a room, borrow a library card, request a day-pass under false pretenses, and spend an afternoon in an archive if you believed that doing so might save the world from nuclear destruction? Or would you whine because no one will silver-platter you a smoking gun?
We know what route the conservative punditry took, but who are we to begrudge them their moment of vindication? The Times finally got around to finding their smoking gun for them. They now have incontrovertible proof that Obama held, holds, and will forever harbor deeply radical thoughts; that he held, holds, and will forever adhere to an ideology hostile to American ideals and interests; that he held, holds, and will forever—but we should allow him the courtesy of hanging by his own rope:
The more sensitive among us struggle to extrapolate experiences of war from our everyday experience, discussing the latest mortality statistics from Guatemala, sensitizing ourselves to our parents’ wartime memories, or incorporating into our framewotrk a reality as depicted by a Mailer or a Coppola. But the taste of war—the sounds and chill, the dead bodies—are remote and far removed. We know that wars have occurred, will occur, are occurring, but bringing such experience down into our hearts, and taking continual, tangible steps to prevent war, becomes a difficult task.
I know one conservative who won’t be happy to see how rhetorically savvy Obama was as a senior. The pacing of the nested clauses, the balance of the alliteration, the oratorical flourishes of the parallelism—all the features of his later prose are in evidence long before Obama met Ayers. Other than that, we learn nothing new about Obama from this passage. He opposes the extrajudicial killing of noncombatants in Guatemala and believes that high culture can counter the effect of popular culture, such that The Naked and the Dead and Apocalypse Now work against First Blood by showing us the horror! the horror! of war. Neither position qualifies as a shocking revelation.
In fact, the only aspects of this well-timed find with which conservatives take issue are his “non-proliferation fetish” and the anti-militaristic rhetoric in which he couches it. They bemoan the senior’s support for “the dangerously delusional nuclear-freeze movement,” and they mock him for insisting that focusing on arms control to the exclusion of larger economic and political issues might be, in his words, “another instance of focusing on the symptoms of a problem instead of the disease itself.” These ideas, they suggest, are so far afield of the American mainstream that Obama is forced to quote a reggae singer to substantiate them—and as Jennifer Rubin points out, what the reggae singer doesn’t know could very well kill us:
[W]hat is naïve, of course, is to think that Iran and North Korea will be impressed by our disarmament efforts. No consideration is given, just as none was given by the nuclear freeze crowd a generation ago, to the possibility that disarmament will only embolden our adversaries and confuse our allies.
Their argument is that, then as now, Obama cannot recognize that being able to exterminate all life on Earth seven-hundred times over possesses a strategic advantage over only being able to do so seventy. Even absent a partner in our escalatory waltz, conservatives insist that pushing the decimal point one slot to the left of absurdity will embolden Iran and North Korea into—into—into what exactly? Defying international law? Refusing to crumble under international pressure? The young Obama understands what his opponents now do not:
Just because the status quo is more macho than its alternatives doesn’t mean it’s worth defending. In the same anti-masculinist vein, it’s not naïve to inform the Russians that there are still a couple of kinks in our missile defense system, because even if it ever successfully shot down anything, it was not designed to deter the Russians from attacking us:
More to the point, the so-called revelations from the article in the Columbia Sundial are only revelations to people who never read The Audacity of Hope, in which Obama addressed all of these issues, sometimes in a single paragraph:
The advent of nuclear weapons and “mutual assured destruction” rendered the risk of war between the United States and the Soviet Union fairly remote even before the Berlin Wall fell. Today, the world’s most powerful nations (including, to an ever-increasing extent, China)—and, just as important, the vast majority of the people who live within these nations—are largely committed to a common set of international rules governing trade, economic policy, and the legal and diplomatic resolution of disputes, even if broader notions of liberty and democracy aren’t widely observed within their own borders. The growing threat, then, comes primarily from those parts of the world on the margins of the global economy where the international “rules of the road” have not taken hold—the realm of weak or failing states, arbitrary rule, corruption, and chronic violence; lands in which an overwhelming majority of the population is poor, uneducated, and cut off from the global information grid; places where the rulers fear globalization will loosen their hold on power, undermine traditional cultures, or displace indigenous institutions.
In short, conservatives are using the “discovery” of this article to show Americans that, in opposing Reagan, Obama proves himself to be just another acolyte of the pacifistic hippie radicalism that almost lost us the Cold War. What I find remarkable is not that the political formula developed by Reagan worked at the time, but just how durable the narrative that he helped promote has proven to be. Despite a forty-year remove, the tumult of the sixties and the subsequent backlash continues to drive our political discourse. Partly it underscores how deeply felt the conflicts of the sixties must have been for the men and women who came of age at that time, and the degree to which the arguments of the era were understood not simply as political disputes but as individual choices that defined personal identity and moral standing.
Wait—who wrote those last three sentences?
Well, whoever it was, he was some sorta prescient.