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The Amateur: Barack Obama In the White House by Edward Klein

August 25, 2012

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“This is a reporter’s book.” This is the first line of The Amateur.

That conceit lasts for all of three pages before we’re presented a scene that would raise the suspicions of any discerning reader: a 2011 conversation that supposedly happened between Bill and Hillary Clinton, amongst close friends, as they openly plot, in long quotes, how to take down Obama. The dialogue is unbelievable as anything anyone would actually say, particularly savvy politicians in the company of others. Yet it’s in quotes, which to a true “reporter” means it’s a direct quotation, verbatim. Was one of the Clintons’ close friends taking notes? Was someone bugged? This happens throughout the book. Direct quotes from meetings, dinners, and family events where Klein was not present. One quote is given from a meeting between Obama and a minister that happened in 1985.

A Problem With Sources

Real journalists feel a burden of proof. They present evidence to support a premise. They conduct research and then present that research with citations so it can be verified by skeptical readers. And herein Klein has a sizable issue. In addition to quoting conversations he was not privy to, he gives quotes, impressions and opinions from a host of anonymous sources.

The occasional anonymous source is understandable when accompanied by verifiable, rock-solid reporting. But in general, an anonymous source raises skepticism. And when the author displays such an obvious bias in the matter at hand, an anonymous source is hardly better than no source at all. Here are a handful of Klein’s sources:

“one of his [Barack’s] oldest Chicago acquaintances…”

“one of her [Michelle’s] friends…”

“an anonymous Hillary Clinton aide…”

“one of Obama’s severest black critics…”

“a member of the Kennedy clan…”

“a close family advisor…”

“one prominent Jewish leader…”

“according to friends…”

“one of Barack’s closest confidants…”

“someone who was very close to Oprah…”

“someone who was present…”

and my favorite, “a source for this book…”

By my cursory count, Klein cites 47 anonymous sources. That averages about one every five pages. That’s a problem. That’s a credibility issue.

Other reputable sources include one of Obama’s former physicians, a host of conservative thinkers and politicians, books such as Bernard Goldberg’s A Slobbering Love Affair: The True (and Pathetic) Story of the Torrid Romance between Barack Obama and the Mainstream Media and Ted Kennedy: The Dream That Never Died by Edward Klein. Yes, the author cites himself as expert on the matter at hand.

The are also a number of quotes which Klein misrepresents in the way he frames them, such as his portrayal of Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech on U.S. relations with the Islamic world. Here’s Klein’s framing:

Obama presented himself as a paragon of religious tolerance in contrast to the narrow-minded people “in my country [who] view Islam as inevitably hostile to human rights.” (He made no mention of how existing policies in the Arab world discriminated against women.)

He follows this with a quote from Daniel Pipes: “’Giveaway,’ indeed, defines the whole speech—inexpensive nods, tips of the hat, and salutations to win Muslim favor without initiating new approaches.”

Here is the full context of Obama’s quote:

The sweeping change brought by modernity and globalization led many Muslims to view the West as hostile to the traditions of Islam. Violent extremists have exploited these tensions in a small but potent minority of Muslims. The attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the continued efforts of these extremists to engage in violence against civilians has led some in my country to view Islam as inevitably hostile not only to America and Western countries, but also to human rights. This has bred more fear and mistrust.

So long as our relationship is defined by our differences, we will empower those who sow hatred rather than peace, and who promote conflict rather than the cooperation that can help all of our people achieve justice and prosperity. This cycle of suspicion and discord must end.

Obama later says, in contrast to Pipes’ claims of cow-towing to the Muslim world, “America is not – and never will be – at war with Islam. We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security.”

A major cause of today’s polarized political debate is the tactic of misrepresenting the position of the “other side.” Klein may not agree with the nuances of Obama’s position, but if he hopes to be taken seriously as a “reporter,” he’s obligated to correctly represent those nuances.

A less important abuse of quotations, but worth mentioning, is Klein’s somewhat random choice of epigraphs which open each chapter. Some are fine, even funny, but others are completely irrelevant. The most egregious of these is the Samuel Johnson quote, “That fellow seems to me to possess but one idea, and that is a wrong one.” Johnson obviously wasn’t referring to Obama, so what’s the point of including this quote other than to give the air of intellectual sharpness?

Epigraphs aside, Klein plays fast and loose with his source material throughout the book. So by journalistic standards alone, The Amateur is on shaky ground.

Overt Bias

“This is a reporter’s book.” This implies that the author is reporting on the world as it is. The word “reporter” harkens back to newspapers, where the pages were filled with news and the editorializing was left to the editorial page. Obviously, things have changed and the lines between news and opinion have blurred. So my next point of criticism is not that Ed Klein has a bias; it’s that if Klein is trying to convince someone who doesn’t already agree with him (and what else would be the point of writing this book?) that Obama is an amateur, he undercuts his argument by displaying his anti-Obama, anti-liberal bias. Actually, “bias” isn’t an accurate characterization—Klein’s writing shows a loathing of Obama, his agenda and everything he stands for.

Klein has no interest in giving his subjects an impartial treatment. Descriptions of Obama, his staff or anyone left-of-center are laced with disdain, often with unintended comic effect. Contrast his introduction of General James Jones with that of Samantha Power. Here’s Jones:

“No one had a more distinguished record of service to his country…The six-foot-four, plainspoken, retired four-star Marine Corps general was a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War…[includes two more military accomplishments]…and a trusted military advisor to both Democratic and Republican presidents.”

And Power, who runs the Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights, is a respected foreign policy expert (counted on Time’s 2004 list of top scientists and thinkers) and is a close advisor to the president:

 “A glamorous Harvard professor with a mane of lustrous red hair, Power hobnobbed with Hollywood stars and other liberal celebrities, and once posed in a teal gown and high heels for Men’s Vogue, which described her as a ‘Harvard grad boasting both a Pulitzer Prize and a mean jump shot (ask George Clooney).’”

Here’s a small, but not exhaustive, sampling of other characterizations from throughout the book:

“For a narcissist like Obama…” (why he was unhappy about his 2000 senate loss)

“Obama’s view of himself as a superior human being…” (why he didn’t wear a flag pin)

“Nancy Pelosi and her gaggle of left-wing Democrats…”

He refers to Obama’s staff as “…the inbred claque of Obamans.”

“The chattering classes on the East and West coasts…”

“Michelle’s impulsive, narcissistic nature…”

“…Michelle’s personality, which is acquisitive and materialistic by nature.”

“…a White House that was populated by a crew of cloistered leftwing amateurs.”

Klein is not “reporting” on these people. He’s portraying them as villains. There is no pretense of objectivity. He’s making a personal, emotional attack. One of anger and vitriol, not policy, action, or fact. What this leaves you with is an assumption that he will do whatever it takes to drive his point home. Again, this creates suspicion. Unnecessarily, I might add. It may help sell books, but it denigrates the case he’s trying to make.

Faulty Support Structure

For Klein’s to make his case that Obama is a failure because he is an amateur, he would have to present this premise (which he does clearly), then back it up with Obama’s bad decisions that exemplify this amateurism. Instead, what we get is a rehash of conservative talking points from the last four years, including everything from lapel pins to Jeremiah Wright, bowing to the Saudi king, the Catholic Church birth control controversy, the U.S. policy on the Arab Spring, Shirley Sherrod, the Gulf oil spill, etc. The list of topics vary in their validity as criticisms of Obama. Some of the topics should be, have been or are being debated. For example, whether or not the stimulus bill was a waste of money is a debatable topic (for a reasoned case that it worked, check out Michael Grunwald’s The New New Deal), but labeling the other side “amateur” simply because you disagree with their position is just name-calling. Very few of Klein’s criticisms actually support his claim of amateurism (though he forces the word into the conclusion of each chapter, as if just saying it makes it so).

In addition to his laundry list of well-trod criticisms, Klein spends a chapter each attacking three women who have power in the administration (Michelle Obama, Valerie Jarrett and Samantha Power) and two strangely tabloid chapters detailing the relationships between the Obamas and Oprah and the Obamas and the Kennedy clan. One can only assume he included these chapters for their juicy gossip, as they add nothing to his case.

The book is full of the typical right wing hot button words and phrases—European-style socialist welfare state, liberal media, liberal elite, Marxism, etc.—but it also includes some subtler more insidious claims that are implied if not always said outright. There’s a clear insinuation that Obama is anti-Semitic. That he is not a true Christian and may, in fact, be a closet Muslim. That he is not black enough. Conversely, that he has betrayed his white roots. Klein points out that at Harvard Obama lived “in a working-class neighborhood called Somerville, where he socialized almost exclusively with other African-Americans.” (i.e. he didn’t have a true Harvard experience, just a black one). These things have the feel of a wink-wink, an “I’m not saying it’s true, I’m just throwing it out there.” They’re the way a coward makes accusations.

In the last chapter, Klein drops all pretense that he’s a journalist and makes a straight-up pitch against Obama for president in 2012. He implores the reader to vote for…he doesn’t know who yet (apparently this book went to print before Romney’s nomination). But it doesn’t matter. Whoever it is will be better than Obama.

 

Conclusion

Klein’s lack of credible sources, his clear bias and his unsupported central premise result in a book that reads as if Klein knows he’s talking to audience that already agrees with him. He feels no burden of proof. It’s as if he’s a Red Sox fan talking to other Red Sox fans about how much the Yankees suck. There’s little reason to take anything he says seriously, which is unfortunate because there are legitimate criticisms to be made of Obama. One might even be able to tie some of those criticisms to a lack of experience, naiveté or self-assuredness. But that link needs to be made. It needs to be buttressed with evidence or, at the very least, cited sources. It is not here.

The premise that Klein puts forth—that Obama’s amateurism is the central cause of a whole host of catastrophic missteps—is not well supported. Rather, Klein made the choice to stuff the pages of The Amateur with a laundry list of criticisms, opinion, accusation and insinuation, fails to support many of them and then fails to link them together in a coherent argument. This is not a thoughtful book. It’s just more of the partisan hackery that shamefully passes as political thought in today’s polarized environment.

I expected substance. I expected thoughtful criticism supported by evidence and backed by sources. I feel naïve, duped, and amateurish for expecting more. Most of what’s said here could be heard on any conservative talk show. Aside from the forced repetition of the word “amateur,” there’s nothing new. The book strikes me as someone capitalizing on a polarized populace to make a buck on some partisan shadowboxing. The “amateur” idea is forced and poorly suited to wrap such a broad attack around. It feels like a clumsy attempt to brand his ideology or coin a catchphrase for the upcoming election.

That said, if you hate Obama and don’t get enough bloviating on tv or talk radio, this book may make you giddy. If you’re looking for a recap of GOP talking points over the last four years, they’re all here. Or if you just like the taste of the muck that collects at the bottom of our cesspool of political debate, grab a fork and dive in. But if you’re looking for insight, ideas about a new direction forward, intellectually honest reasoning or anything resembling a balanced look at the president, this isn’t it. It certainly isn’t “a reporter’s book.”

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason permalink
    August 30, 2012 12:56 pm

    “Main of lustrous red hair”? Apparently, he’s as much of an editor as he is a reporter.

    • bosilawhat permalink
      August 30, 2012 1:03 pm

      I’ll double check, Jason, but I think that’s probably my typo. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

  2. Columbia Prof [Emeritus] permalink
    November 11, 2012 8:00 pm

    I sit slack jawed that you would type this
    word count, and click publish, without
    pangs of self awareness interrupting.

    Your “review” is more partisan, more wholly
    ensconced in solicitous bias,
    than the worst of Klein’s passages.

    I’m sure you can’t see it…

    • November 11, 2012 8:04 pm

      It would be quite a feat to be more partisan or biased than this book (as I think my review clearly and accurately points out), but I appreciate the comment.

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