Ever since Barack Obama burst onto the political stage in 2004, pundits have taken to calling the junior senator from Illinois a rock star. He inspires, they say, with his youth, intelligence, and soaring oratory. He transcends race.
This flattering picture, which makes even the senator blush, has seldom been challenged by political commentators or the public. And as of mid-March 2007, no one had tried in earnest to subvert the idea that, as president, Obama could help ease America’s racial tensions because his mother was white and his father was black.
But that’s exactly what Steve Sailer, a columnist for the anti-immigration site VDARE.com, tried to do in a piece he submitted to the American Conservative magazine, where, at the time, I was assistant editor. Using quotes from Obama’s 1995 autobiography, Dreams From My Father, Sailer portrayed the senator not as a unifying figure, but as an angry black nationalist who completely rejected his white racial heritage as a young man and might do the same as president.
“[T]here is the confusing contrast,” he wrote, “between the confident, suave master politician we see on television and the tormented narrator of Dreams, who is an updated Black Pride version of the old ‘tragic mulatto’ stereotype found in ‘Show Boat’ and ‘Imitation of Life.’ ” Sailer surmised that Obama “offers important testimony about the enduring glamour of anti-white anger.”
Even before I read the piece I knew I wouldn’t like it. TAC’s editor, who was pleased with Sailer’s work, had told me as much. But I found the piece so offensive when I first read it that I jumped out of my chair and rushed into the managing editor’s office to try to kill it on the spot. She and the editor promptly dismissed my objections. The piece is provocative, they said—it’s edgy. It’s racist, I said—and the magazine will be regarded as such for publishing it.
This editorial conflict over Sailer’s essay was an early warning of the emerging conservative response to Obama’s intimidating popularity. But it is also a telling moment in the brief, strange history of the American Conservative, a magazine that—like the conservative movement at large—is currently having something of an identity crisis.
At this point, I should mention that I’m a progressive. I didn’t even know TAC existed until a former colleague encouraged me to apply for an assistant editor position at the magazine last November, suggesting that it might be a good first step toward a career in journalism.
This wasn’t as ludicrous a suggestion as it might sound; TAC is like no other publication in the conservative universe. To provide a right-wing counterweight to the neoconservative voices dominating U.S. foreign policy after 9/11, the magazine was founded in 2002 by leading paleoconservative Pat Buchanan, former New York Post editorial page editor Scott McConnell, and the notorious Taki Theodoracopulos, a high-society columnist for London’s Spectator and heir to a large Greek shipping fortune.(In late March, millionaire California software developer and pro-immigration activist Ron Unz took over as publisher.) From its inaugural issue, dated October 7, 2002, it established itself as the only conservative publication to oppose the Iraq War. “What magazine published the most scathing attacks on President Bush and his Iraq invasion?” asked the Washington Post’s Peter Carlson in 2004. “If you guessed the ‘Nation’ or ‘Mother Jones’ or the ‘Progressive,’ you may be right ... But the correct answer just might be the ‘American Conservative.’”
This opposition to messianism in U.S. foreign policy, I discovered, was just one of many political views espoused by the magazine that most people would never associate with the contemporary right. Over the past few years, TAC has decried the growing American wealth gap, the Bush administration’s consolidation of power in the executive branch, and even the mistreatment of animals on America’s factory farms. Bush, Cheney, the Republican Congress, the Fox News Channel—these are not true conservatives, TAC’s editors were saying. We are.
An unlikely trio of editors, of which I was one, put the magazine together every two weeks in a small, drab Rosslyn office.We made an unlikely editorial team. TAC’s editor, Scott McConnell, is an heir to the Avon fortune whose stepfather played Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. He has veto power over just about every aspect of the editorial process, but seldom wields it, preferring to spend most days browsing newspapers and the blogs of the American Prospect’s Matthew Yglesias and the New America Foundation’s Steve Clemons. Scott is involved in the production cycle mostly by brainstorming feature pieces and writing short, snarky news items. He is skeptical of government, but also of religion. He advocates reduced immigration, but thinks aggressive environmental regulation to curb global warming might be a good idea. Each one of his conservative views seems to be countered by a liberal one. In fact, he strongly endorsed John Kerry in 2004 and may yet support Barack Obama if he faces a hawkish Republican in 2008.
This complicates Scott’s relationship with the magazine’s executive editor, Kara Hopkins, who is a more traditional conservative but herself not easily pigeonholed. As a Daughter of the American Revolution whose ancestors sailed to Plymouth Colony aboard the Mayflower, Kara is deeply patriotic and, like Scott, skeptical of government—sort of a modern, feminist Edmund Burke. She’s a devout Protestant, but she doesn’t wear her faith on her sleeve at the office. She considers abortion the sacrifice of innocent life, but feels the same way about the Iraq War, and she seems much more willing to rally with anti-warriors than pro-lifers. She dominates every aspect of the production cycle and is heavily involved in the magazine’s business side. TAC is essentially her magazine.
During my time at the magazine, Kara and I edited every article TAC published, sometimes staying hours after the others left the office to ensure that the prose sounded just right. She was a fine mentor. Our rapport was good because, like Scott, she loathes the Bush administration, didn’t care to discuss issues like abortion and gay marriage on which we could never agree, and usually spoke to me with an open mind and a sense of humor. We were never quite friends, but we were very well acquainted. Kara even told me on occasion how much she appreciated having a progressive voice to mix things up in a conservative office.
But there were moments in which she made me feel very insecure about my job. “Perhaps you should consider how good a fit this magazine is for you,” she told me after one of our political debates, in which she had become much more staunchly conservative than usual. Once, she mentioned to Scott that she might resign in protest of his growing interest in the left’s response to global warming and his waning interest in conservative icon Russell Kirk. If Kara had quit, Scott would have had to close shop. There would be no magazine without her.
But it was the Obama piece that revealed the office’s political divisions to be unworkable. The weekend after Kara and Scott dismissed my objections to Sailer’s essay, I read Dreams From My Father. I realized that, in addition to the racist associations he employs, Sailer frequently quotes Obama out of context and makes assertions about Obama’s racial identity that the book flatly contradicts.
For example, Sailer relates an anecdote from the book in which Obama’s white grandmother wants a ride to work because she had been threatened by a black panhandler while waiting for the bus the day before. Obama “is outraged—at his grandparents,” according to Sailer, who offers the story as further evidence of Obama’s anger toward his white family. But in the book the situation is far more nuanced than Sailer lets on. In fact, it’s Obama’s grandfather who’s outraged that his wife was scared because, in her words, “the fella was black.” Obama describes these words as “a fist in my stomach.” But he tells his grandfather that although his grandmother’s attitude bothered him, “Toot’s fears would … pass and we should give her a ride in the meantime.” Putting his hand on his grandfather’s shoulder, he says it’s all right, that he understands.
In a further attempt to document Obama’s alleged black nationalism, Sailer claims that “The happy ending to Dreams is that Obama’s hard-drinking half-brother Roy—‘Actually, now we call him Abongo, his Luo name, for two years ago he decided to reassert his African heritage’—converts to teetotaling Islam.” Roy does do these things, but the book’s happy ending is the wedding of Barack and Michelle, which brings Obama’s black and white relatives together in celebration on Chicago’s South Side—a poignant symbol with which to end a story about “race and inheritance.” Dreams is not at all about Obama’s “rejection of his white maternal family in favor of his unknown black paternal family,” as Sailer asserts. It’s about the loving bond Obama forms with the African paternal family he never knew, and how that not only helps him discover who he is, but also allows him to reconcile the tension between black and white he’d always felt within himself.
I arrived at the office on Monday prepared to make these points and many more—not as a progressive who admired Obama, but as an assistant editor responsible for fact-checking. I sent an e-mail to Kara requesting a meeting that was never answered. And when I went to her office with Obama’s book in hand, asking again whether we could discuss things, she called across the hall to Scott, who said, “Yeah, look, Alexander, this matter has already been decided. The piece is being published as it is.” I pointed out that I had read the book, and Sailer’s characterization of Obama was factually incorrect. “I have too many other things to worry about,” Scott said coldly. “Steve Sailer is a longtime friend of the magazine, and if you and he read a book differently, well, I’ll take his reading over yours any day.”
With that, Scott left. Kara sat silently looking down at her desk as I stood in the doorway, questions rushing into my head. What now? You can’t stay, right? You’ve lost too much respect for the editors, and this kind of thing is bound to happen again. Why work where your opinion is so expendable? Then again, what about money? Ah, that! But isn’t it time you took a chance? I cleaned out my desk that evening.
When Sailer’s article was published in TAC’s March 26 issue, people responded much as I had predicted. Andrew Sullivan called it “stimulating” but “callously insensitive.” Matthew Yglesias wrote, “I wonder if Sullivan got all the way to the end of Sailer’s essay, which I found ‘stimulating’ in all the worst ways ... We’re seriously supposed to worry that if Obama becomes president … he’ll sell us all down the river to become a corrupt East African big man? Really?”
After four and a half years of steadfastly opposing the Iraq War, the American Conservative was well positioned to increase its circulation not only among the increasing numbers of disaffected conservatives, but also among progressives and centrists. By publishing Sailer’s hit piece, however, TAC’s editors appear to have chosen a different path. “We have to show our readers that we’re a conservative magazine,” Kara often told me, “not the NationLite.” Indeed, they did.