The Gospel Coalition

As an acquisitions editor for a book publishing company, one of the subjective tests I use when evaluating a book proposal is whether the author's writing pulls me along, or whether I have to push myself to keep reading. Andrew Ferguson, senior editor of The Weekly Standard, is certainly in the former category. His writing is sharp, funny, and seemingly effortless. A few years ago on vacation I bought his Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America and read it in one sitting---something I virtually never do (though perhaps that's because I live in the "land of Lincoln!").

One of the interesting things he has been doing over the past few years is reviewing books by and about President Obama. For example, in 2007 he reviewed  Obama's Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope. In 2010 he wrote a devastating review of Dinesh D'Souza's NYT-bestselling book, The Root of Obama's Rage. Now he has written a review of Edward Klein's recent, critical bestseller, The Amateur; David Maraniss's soon-to-be-released positive book, Barack Obama: The Story, and returns to Obama's own books and some of the possible fabulist elements.

I was most interested in his thoughts on Klein's book, since it seems to be especially popular among conservatives. Some conservatives never criticize fellow conservatives, and of course liberals do the same with those in their own camp. Ferguson models a good example, in my opinion, of being an ideologue without being unduly partisan. He's a thinker, not a hack. In other words, he is an equal opportunity offender against bad writing and thinking.

Here is his take on Klein's book:
Pure Obama-hatred was enough to shoot the book to the top of the Times bestseller list for the first three weeks after its release. . . . He knows how to swing the sledgehammer prose, combine a leap of logic with a baseless inference, pad the paragraphs with secondary material plucked from magazine articles you've already read, and render the most mundane details in the most scandalized tones.

Sure, "Michelle now likes to pretend that she plays no part in personnel decisions or in formulating policy." We've all heard that. And you believe it? "The facts tell quite a different story." Facts are stubborn things! In truth, "Michelle's aides meet regularly with the president's senior communications team and select public events that will maximize and reinforce the Obamas' joint message." Wait. It gets worse. Klein has made a source of "one of Barack's closest confidants." And here's what this confidant reveals: "Barack has always listened to what she has to say." A direct quote, from source's mouth to author's ear. I wonder if they met in a darkened garage.

Klein has a problem with his sources​---​or rather, the reader should have a problem with Klein's use of his sources, whoever they are. Blind quotes appear on nearly every page; there are blind quotes within blind quotes. The book cost him a year to research and write, he says proudly​---​"an exhilarating experience that took me to more than a half-dozen cities, either in person or by telephone or email." (I visited several cities by email just this morning.) And it's clear that all this dialing, emailing, dialing, emailing, bore little fruit. "I was at a dinner where Valerie [Jarrett] sat at our table for nearly 10 minutes," another anonymous source divulges. "And I wasn't particularly impressed." Now it can be told. The book's big revelation comes from the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. He claims, in an on-the-record interview with Klein, that in 2008 an unnamed friend of an unnamed friend of Obama sent Wright an email offering him $150,000 "not to preach at all until the November presidential election." Republicans may seethe, but it's odd that they would suddenly take the word of Jeremiah Wright, a publicity-seeking narcissist who says AIDS was invented by the government.

With such thin material, the only way to keep a book like The Amateur chugging along is with gallons of high-octane contempt. Yet because Klein provides so little to provoke fresh outrage​---​or to support the theme that Obama is "something new in American politics," a historically unprecedented threat to the Republic​---​readers will have to come to the book well-stocked with outrage of their own. They will be satisfied with sentences that begin with an appeal to phony-baloney authority ("According to those who know him best") and continue with assertions that no Obama intimate would make to Edward Klein, on or off the record: "inept in the arts of management .  .  . make[s] our economy less robust and our nation less safe .  .  ." and so on. And they'll admire his ability to fit his theme of Obama's villainy to any set of facts. After his election, for example, Obama didn't take a wise man's advice to disregard his old Chicago friends​---​a sign of Obama's weakness and amateurism, Klein says. A few pages later Obama and Valerie Jarrett are accused of ignoring their old Chicago friends​---​a sign of coldness and amateurism. Klein gets him  coming and going.

I find Ferguson's perspective here refreshing and instructive. When we think about "reading books critically," we often think about applying this to books that we are predisposed to find problematic. But as long as we are not pragmatists and utilitarians, we will care about the truth---not only in its conclusions but also in how one gets there.


Comments:

Tom

June 16, 2012 at 12:04 PM

The source of the email to Wright is not unnamed; it's Eric Whitaker. I am not trying to defend the Klein book--it's terrible--but Ferguson gets caught up in his own rhetoric as well.

Marisme

June 16, 2012 at 08:54 AM

RC ... JT's post was about reading critically, not about President Obama's policies. You used the comment section as a catalyst to severely criticize the President.

I am not responding to your critique of Obama. I just don't think it is an 'on point' response to the post - unless you thought that JT had the some intention.

rc sproul jr

June 16, 2012 at 03:43 PM

Marisme,

I thought I was agreeing with JT's assessment of Klein, and was actually suggesting that the President's critics generally speaking are not terribly careful in their thought, like the author of The Amateur. It's true enough that along the way I referred to the President as a "baby killer protecting big government taxing and spending statist." Didn't see this as a cheap shot but a fair, carefully worded assessment of the President. Now it would likely be a hijacking were we to engage in a debate over whether or not the assessment is fair, and would in turn likely not change anyone's mind. I guess criticizing the President's critics without embracing the President's policies is not enough to keep me from being charged with cheap shots. In short, I believe it was you that a. took the cheap shot, and b. hijacked the thread.

Barbara

June 16, 2012 at 02:40 PM

Marisme, your comment demonstrates another “good example of critical reading” (and one this is very astute).

Paul Hughes

June 15, 2012 at 08:57 PM

I absolutely agree with your overall take on the need to critique ourselves, not just support those spouting the party line, etc. But I was wondering about Mr. Ferguson's comment on Rev. Wright ... clicking to Amazon to look at the book, the first comment notes, that in, "2008 Obama crony Eric Whitaker" offered Rev. Wright the $150,000. Is this information not in the book as Ferguson says? Maybe because it's widely known who made the offer? However, again, I agree with your take, on honestly evaluating ourselves as carefully and critically (non-pejorative meaning) as we do others. Perhaps more so.

rc sproul jr

June 15, 2012 at 08:43 PM

Perhaps you'd be willing to be more specific Marisme. At whom did I take a cheap shot? And just how was this "shot" cheap? As for Justin, I don't doubt for a moment that he is the better man when it comes to being clever and creative. I'm quite confident he surpasses me in any number of virtues.

Marisme

June 15, 2012 at 07:37 PM

an opportunist's cheap shot, RC. At least, JT was more clever and creative in his pricking of political sensitivities.

rc sproul jr

June 15, 2012 at 02:30 PM

Kelin could just as well be reviewing talk radio, where far too many Christians find their talking points and their outrage du jours. Just as I am wont to say that the problem isn't late term, forced, partial birth, or sex selection, but abortion, in like manner the problem with the President is his rather ordinary, banal policies and convictions. To scream "Incompentent!! Alinsky!!! Wright!!!" is to miss the point- baby killer protecting big government taxing and spending statist. That's the point