On November 16, 1990, Barack Obama, then president of the Harvard Law Review, published a letter in the Harvard Law Record, an independent Harvard Law School newspaper, championing affirmative action.
Although a paragraph from this letter was excerpted in David Remnick’s biography of Obama, The Bridge, I had not seen the letter in its entirety before this week. Not surprisingly, it confirms everything I know about Barack Obama, the writer and thinker.
Obama was prompted to write by an earlier letter from a Mr. Jim Chen that criticized Harvard Law Review’s affirmative action policies. Specifically, Chen had argued that affirmative action stigmatized its presumed beneficiaries.
The response is classic Obama: patronizing, dishonest, syntactically muddled, and grammatically challenged. In the very first sentence Obama leads with his signature failing, one on full display in his earlier published work: his inability to make subject and predicate agree.
“Since the merits of the Law Review’s selection policy has been the subject of commentary for the last three issues,” wrote Obama, “I’d like to take the time to clarify exactly how our selection process works.”
If Obama were as smart as a fifth-grader, he would know, of course, that “merits… have.” Were there such a thing as a literary Darwin Award, Obama could have won it on this on one sentence alone. He had vindicated Chen in his first ten words.
Although the letter is less than a thousand words long, Obama repeats the subject-predicate error at least two more times. In one sentence, he seemingly cannot make up his mind as to which verb option is correct so he tries both: “Approximately half of this first batch is chosen… the other half are selected…”
Another distinctive Obama flaw is to allow a string of words to float in space. Please note the unanchored phrase in italics at the end of this sentence:
“No editors on the Review will ever know whether any given editor was selected on the basis of grades, writing competition, or affirmative action, and no editors who were selected with affirmative action in mind.” Huh?
The next lengthy sentence highlights a few superficial style flaws and a much deeper flaw in Obama’s political philosophy.
I would therefore agree with the suggestion that in the future, our concern in this area is most appropriately directed at any employer who would even insinuate that someone with Mr. Chen’s extraordinary record of academic success might be somehow unqualified for work in a corporate law firm, or that such success might be somehow undeserved.
Obama would finish his acclaimed memoir, Dreams from My Father, about four years later. Prior to Dreams, and for the nine years following, everything Obama wrote was, like the above sentence, an uninspired assemblage of words with a nearly random application of commas and tenses.
Unaided, Obama tends to the awkward, passive, and verbose. The phrase “our concern in this area is most appropriately directed at any employer” would more profitably read, “we should focus on the employer.” “Concern” is simply the wrong word.
Scarier than Obama’s style, however, is his thinking. A neophyte race-hustler after his three years in Chicago, Obama is keen to browbeat those who would “even insinuate” that affirmative action rewards the undeserving, results in inappropriate job placements, or stigmatizes its presumed beneficiaries.
In the case of Michelle Obama, affirmative action did all three. The partners at Sidley Austin learned this the hard way. In 1988, they hired her out of Harvard Law under the impression that the degree meant something. It did not. By 1991, Michelle was working in the public sector as an assistant to the mayor. By 1993, she had given up her law license.
Had the partners investigated Michelle’s background, they would have foreseen the disaster to come. Sympathetic biographer Liza Mundy writes, “Michelle frequently deplores the modern reliance on test scores, describing herself as a person who did not test well.”
She did not write well, either. Mundy charitably describes her senior thesis at Princeton as “dense and turgid.” The less charitable Christopher Hitchens observes, “To describe [the thesis] as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn’t written in any known language.”
Michelle had to have been as anxious at Harvard Law as Bart Simpson was at Genius School. Almost assuredly, the gap between her writing and that of her highly talented colleagues marked her as an affirmative action admission, and the profs finessed her through.
In a similar vein, Barack Obama was named an editor of the Harvard Law Review. Although his description of the Law Review’s selection process defies easy comprehension, apparently, after the best candidates are chosen, there remains “a pool of qualified candidates whose grades or writing competition scores do not significantly differ.” These sound like the kids at Lake Woebegone, all above average. Out of this pool, Obama continues, “the Selection Committee may take race or physical handicap into account.”
To his credit, Obama concedes that he “may have benefited from the Law Review’s affirmative action policy.” This did not strike him as unusual as he “undoubtedly benefited from affirmative action programs during my academic career.”
On the basis of his being elected president of Law Review – a popularity contest – Obama was awarded a six-figure contract to write a book. To this point, he had not shown a hint of promise as a writer, but Simon & Schuster, like Sidley Austin, took the Harvard credential seriously. It should not have. For three years Obama floundered as badly as Michelle had at Sidley Austin. Simon & Schuster finally pulled the contract.
Then Obama found his muse – right in the neighborhood, as it turns out! And promptly, without further ado, the awkward, passive, ungrammatical Obama, a man who had not written one inspired sentence in his whole life, published what Time Magazine called “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.”
To question the nature of that production, I have learned, is to risk the abuse promised to Mr. Chen’s theoretical employer. After all, who would challenge Obama’s obvious talent – or that of any affirmative action beneficiary – but those blinded by what Obama calls “deep-rooted ignorance and bias”?
What else could it be?