Obama, The Amateur—Interview with Edward Klein

By: Roger Aronoff
Accuracy in Media

AIM Report

Edward Klein’s new book, The Amateur: Barack Obama in the White House, is a devastating portrait of America’s 44th president. The book is based on more than 200 interviews, many of them on the record. The title comes from remarks made by former President Bill Clinton back in August of 2011 at his home in Chappaqua, New York. Klein describes an ongoing conversation that went on for “days, if not for weeks,” in which Bill was pushing hard to convince Hillary Clinton to leave her post as Secretary of State to run against Obama in 2012. The conversation was in front of several close friends, at least one of whom obviously spoke to Klein. “The economy’s a mess, it’s dead flat,” Clinton told Hillary. “They don’t know what they’re doing. They govern in sound bites.”

Hillary brought up the issue of loyalty. Bill replied that “loyalty doesn’t exist in politics.” He said he has no relationship with the President whatsoever. “Obama doesn’t know how to be president. He doesn’t know how the world works. He’s incompetent.” Finally, Clinton stated, “Barack Obama is an amateur.”

While this has been denied by Clinton staffers, Klein defines this amateurism as “a president who is inept in the arts of management and governance, who doesn’t learn from his mistakes, and who therefore repeats policies that make our economy less robust and our nation less safe. We discover a man who blames all his problems on those with whom he disagrees (‘Washington,’ ‘Republicans,’ ‘the media’), who discards old friends and supporters when they are no longer useful (Democrats, African-Americans, Jews), and who is so thin skinned that he constantly complains about what people say and write about him. We come to know a strange kind of politician, one who derives no joy from the cut and thrust of politics, but who clings to the narcissistic life of the presidency.”

Klein says that “this portrait of Obama is radically at odds with the image of a centrist, pragmatic, post-partisan leader that his political handlers have tried to create. And it is a far cry from the Obama most Americans remember from four years ago.”

“How did he turn out to be the most divisive president in recent American history?” asks Klein. It is that question that is at the heart of this book.

Some of Obama’s critics don’t accept the notion that he is an amateur. Instead, they see him as clever and manipulative, a left-wing ideologue who knows exactly what he is doing. Klein certainly doesn’t dismiss that idea. “Based on my reporting,” writes Klein, “I concluded that Obama is actually in revolt against the values of the society he was elected to lead. Which is why he has refused to embrace American exceptionalism—the idea that Americans are a special people with a special destiny—and why he has railed at the capitalist system, demonized the wealthy, and embraced the Occupy Wall Street movement.”

Klein sees what he considers both aspects of Obama’s character: “Not only is Barack Obama an amateur, unable to function in the job of the Presidency,” he told Accuracy in Media, “but he is, at the same time, a creature of Chicago politics, and a very radical left-wing member of the Democratic Party who wants to use his time in office to engineer a transformation of our society, and make us a much more socialistic country. This is the toxic mix of incompetence and radicalism, and we’ve seen the results in many ways, most dramatically, perhaps, in the terrible economic fix that we find ourselves in today, thanks, in large part, to Obama’s boneheaded policies.”

Edward Klein has had a long, distinguished career as a journalist and author. He was editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine for more than a decade, and was the foreign editor for Newsweek. He has written numerous historical books, many of which have been bestsellers, including The Amateur, which at this writing has been number one on The New York Times bestseller list for four straight weeks. In an exclusive interview with Accuracy in Media, we discussed Klein’s politics, his years at The New York Times, and his research about President Obama.

What has received the most attention from Klein’s latest book is his interview with the controversial Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was the pastor of the church in Chicago that Obama attended for more than 20 years. Wright told Klein of an offer of money from the Obama camp in return for his silence during the 2008 campaign. Wright has changed his opinion of Obama, rather significantly, and was very willing to talk about it, knowing the tape recorder was rolling.

We also talked about Obama’s record on national security issues, and his relationship with the government of Israel and the Jewish community. Whatever one thinks of Obama, they will gain new insights upon reading this book. Klein has done an excellent job of reporting. Not surprisingly, The New York Times and Washington Post have both written about the book in unflattering terms, questioning the veracity of some of Klein’s reporting. The Post quotes a Hillary Clinton aide as calling Klein “a congenital liar.” The article says that Klein is reviled by the left and has not yet been embraced by the right. You can read excerpts from the interview below, or you can go online and read or listen to the complete interview here.

KLEIN: The New York Times, when I was there—which was almost 25 years ago now—was under the editorship of the late A.M. Rosenthal, and my editorship of the magazine, a—what I would call a “straight newspaper.” In other words, it was neither liberal nor conservative. It tried to be balanced and fair, and I think Abe Rosenthal did a fantastic job keeping it that way. Unfortunately, when he left, and others took over, the entire paper, including the magazine—which I left in 1987, 1988—started drifting to the Left, and now, of course, it’s all the way over to the Left. So my association with the magazine doesn’t, ipso facto, mean that I was some sort of a wild-eyed liberal while I was there.

KLEIN: I looked at [Obama], I said to myself, “Here is this African-American senator who comes out of nowhere, has accomplished nothing during his time in public life, who hypnotizes millions of Americans into voting for him, gets into the White House, and turns into something that we have never seen in the modern day, which is an amateur in the White House—someone who does not know how to do the actual day-to-day job of the Presidency. I thought that was not only a very good story, but also a very important story, because we need to avoid electing people like Barack Obama in the future. In order to do so, we need to see what the consequences of having elected not only an inexperienced guy—he was certainly inexperienced—but a guy who did not have the temperament to do the job—and, as we’ve seen, he hasn’t been able to do the job.

KLEIN: I think the most important indicator that I got was from both the Democratic and Republican sides in the Congress when I did a lot of reporting in Washington for this book, The Amateur, and discovered that it wasn’t only the Republicans who found it difficult to the point of impossible to work with him because there was no give on Obama’s side, but the Democrats themselves had no respect for this President. They didn’t think he had the executive leadership ability and skills that are required in a President. For instance, again and again people pointed out that Lyndon Johnson, who couldn’t give really a decent speech, or read well from the teleprompter, knew how to operate the levers of power in Washington, whereas Obama, who’s good on the podium in front of a teleprompter, who looks good with his neckties and so forth, hasn’t the first clue that politics requires the president to have personal relations with his colleagues in the equal branch of government, which is the Congress. In order to do that, he has to reach out and create these relationships. Barack Obama has been totally incapable of doing so.

KLEIN: I did tape-record this conversation with the Reverend Wright’s approval…The tape recorder sat on the table between us. He approved that. I think he understood, very clearly, that this was his opportunity to tell his side of the story, and get back at Barack Obama. I think he understood exactly what he was doing. On the one hand, he was trying to clear his name by claiming that he had been taken out of context, and he really didn’t mean the things that people had heard him say—which I found unconvincing, I must say. But, on the other hand, he also wanted to use the opportunity—and did so—to indicate that Barack Obama was no better than any other politician, and, in some ways, worse, because Obama didn’t even stop at using his best friends to offer Jeremiah Wright money to remain silent during the 2008 campaign.

KLEIN: I said, to the Reverend Wright—it’s on the tape, and by the way, I released the entire three hours, not just the edited snippets, but the whole thing, so it’s out in public for anyone to listen to—“Did you convert Barack Obama from Islam to Christianity?” I asked that question to the pastor who ministered to Obama for over 23 years, and his answer was, quote, “That’s hard to say.” Now, that’s quite a statement.

KLEIN: Once Obama became a national politician, he became like everybody else. Up until that point, Wright thought that Obama was a special politician…But he said he changed his mind about Obama after Obama became a national politician and started to behave just like every other politician.

ARONOFF: You write about how Brian Ross of ABC News broke what you called the “media’s gentlemen’s agreement” not to air the Jeremiah Wright videos during the 2008 campaign. Ross talked about how it aired on Good Morning America, but they wouldn’t put it on the evening news, and people at the network were quite annoyed with him. How does a “gentlemen’s agreement” like that occur? Is it spoken? Unspoken? How high up? What are we talking about here?

KLEIN: Roger, that’s a wonderful question. I wish I knew the answer. I’ve been asked that question in various forms ever since The Amateur was published, because everyone figures I would know the answer, since I was there at Newsweek, there at The New York Times, there at Vanity Fair, and all those publications, of course, are part of the mainstream media. These things are often done in informal wink-and-nod kinds of ways. It’s rare that somebody would come out and say, “Let’s not run Brian Ross’s videos of the Reverend Wright ranting and raving against America, against whites, against Jews, and against Israel, because we don’t want to embarrass Barack Obama. I can’t imagine any producer saying that. But I can imagine a producer saying, “These tapes are incendiary and one-sided, they’re unfair”—coming up with some lame excuse for not putting them on the evening show which everyone in the room would understand: Instead of his saying out and out, “We’re in the tank for Obama”—which they all are—he’s using code words. I think that happens most of the time. People in the mainstream media see a lot of each other at lunches, cocktail parties, dinners. They go on vacations in the same places, the Hamptons or Martha’s Vineyard. They have an opportunity to talk to each other, e-mail each other, and, you know, they make comments, snide comments about Republicans. I can’t tell you how often in recent days I’ve heard Democrats say to me that Mitt Romney is an idiot. Now, here’s a guy who went to Harvard Law School, Harvard Business School, top of his class, brilliant businessman, a successful governor—they said the same thing about Ronald Reagan, by the way, back in the 1970s and ’80s—all of which is typical of the kind of conversation that goes on among these people. It has its effect because if you want to remain part of the club, and don’t want to be shunned and excommunicated, then you go along with it.

KLEIN: Yet everyone in this group thinks they’re doing the right thing because they’re on the side of the poor and the oppressed, and they’re doing charitable work on behalf of people who need help. They think of themselves as very enlightened, whereas, in fact, they’re not doing their job—and their job is a very simple job, which is to tell the truth on all sides, and not pull any punches.

KLEIN: Other than the very snarky Janet Maslin review in The New York Times of my book, The Amateur, which was really not a review of the book at all, but an attack on me personally—there are all kinds of adjectives to describe me, such as “arrogant,” and things like that, “ideologue,” “invective,” what have you—the mainstream media has not largely, but entirely, ignored and avoided writing about this book, which has become quite a phenomenon. It has shot up to the number one spot on the Times’ list three weeks in a row, and it has done so without getting any attention at the morning shows on ABC, NBC, or CBS; the evening shows; any of the talk shows, such as The View or Live! with Kelly; or any of these places—but it has received a warm reception at Fox News Network, thanks to Roger Ailes, I must say. I’ve been on Hannity twice, on Fox and Friends, on Lou Dobbs. My friend Larry Kudlow over on CNBC has had me once but that’s an unusual break with the phalanx that’s been against me. But, you know, radio—thank God for radio in this country, because radio shows—I’ve done probably a hundred or more radio shows.

KLEIN: So people sometimes snigger when one talks about the mainstream media, as though, “Oh, come on, there is no, there’s no conspiracy among the mainstream media.” Well, there is! It’s as simple as that. I’ve experienced it. Other people have experienced it. Accuracy in Media, of course, has been on that case for a long, long time—doing God’s work. And if you hadn’t been, I mean, God knows where we would be today. So, it is possible to get out a message without the mainstream media, but it’s a sad, sad comment on our society that the most powerful organs of communication are in the control of people who censor any point of view other than their left-wing point of view.

KLEIN: The Clintons and the Obamas are the Hatfields and McCoys of the Democratic Party. They’ve been feuding now for several years—bitter feud, nothing but hatred on both sides. They come from two different wings of the Democratic party—Clinton from the center-Left, Obama from the far Left. They don’t agree on practically anything—well, they not only don’t agree but they hold grudges about what happened during the 2008 primary campaign, when Hillary and Obama went at each other. But as you just pointed out, Bill’s chief goal in life is to get Hillary elected president of the United States, and one of the main reasons he’s campaigning for Obama is to show that he’s a loyal Democrat, in order to be able to say in 2016, “I expect to be paid back for my loyalty by the Democratic machinery.” But Bill being Bill, he seems not to have been able to contain himself. His real feelings have kept popping up. And as we’ve read, even his own people, in his own camp, are appalled by these comments of his, which have been very detrimental to Obama—and you can imagine how the Obama people must feel, using this guy and then being abused by him.

ARONOFF: Now what do you make of this brochure from Obama’s literary agency that was brought to light recently by Breitbart’s website, that for 17 years, and through three or four changes, up through when Obama was a U.S. senator, it said he was born in Kenya—and the person from that firm, from that agency, said it was a “fact-checking error.” Have you looked at that?

KLEIN: Yes, of course. As you know, and as we all know, these biographies that are put out by literary agencies are not made out of thin air. They’re created by the subjects themselves. The authors provide the material for these biographies. The agencies have no way of writing the biographies without the author sending in his biography. So clearly, you can’t believe that this business about him being born in Kenya was a typographical error, or some kind of error. It clearly came from Obama himself. What are we to make of that? I, personally, make of it that he felt being perceived as a foreign-born person would make him more exotic and appealing as a writer in that atmosphere, and the kind of books that he was talking and thinking about writing, and that he was leading people to the assumption that he was an exchange student from Kenya the way his father had been.

KLEIN: There has been tension from day one between the Obama political team, in particular, and the military brass. There’s also been tension between some of the policy people, but a number of these policy people are, at the same time, political people. I mean, [Thomas] Donilon, for instance, who is now the National Security Advisor, was part of the Obama 2008 campaign. He, in fact, prompted Obama, and prepared him for the debates. So number one, to answer your question, the relationship between the Obama administration and the military is not a good one. There are a lot of nasty comments being made on both sides. Number two, General Jones was treated with contempt by the people around Obama. Even General Jones’s wife refers to the people around Obama as “A bunch of Chicago thugs.” Number three, I think that it is clear that the Obama foreign policy is run directly from Obama, not in the State Department, and not even from his experts…

KLEIN: Samantha Powers is a former Harvard professor who believes, and has written, that the United States is responsible for a lot of bad things in the world, and that we should go and apologize to the rest of the world. She has said so. She thinks that Willy Brandt getting down on his knees in front of the Holocaust Museum, or whatever, in Germany was the way the President should behave—and we’ve seen the President doing just that. She is in the National Security Council; she is one of his chief political advisors—very, very far left, and very anti-Israeli. Until his Israel policy blew up in his face, and he had to back off, Obama was following in Samantha Powers’ footsteps.

KLEIN: Dr. David Scheiner, who is an unreconstructed old Lefty and doesn’t make any bones about it, sat down with me and told me that, number one, he thinks that Obamacare is an abomination and isn’t going to work—it’s too big, it’s too expensive, it’s too complicated—and, number two, that Obama himself, whom he treated for over 20 years, was one of his most cold, distant patients, whom he could never get to know because he was a person who had very little human contact with other people. So when the inauguration came around, Obama invited his barber to the inauguration, but didn’t invite David Scheiner, his physician. The doctor said he was very hurt by that.

Dear Fellow Media Watchdogs:

While this AIM Report is based on a 45-minute interview with Edward Klein, the former editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine and foreign editor of Newsweek, another biography of Obama has just surfaced by The Washington Post’s David Maraniss, called Barack Obama, the Story. While it is meant to be a flattering portrait, it is being seen as a book that demonstrates the false narratives that Obama put in his so-called autobiography, Dreams from My Father, that he decided to write before he turned 30.

According to The Caucus, a blog in The New York Times, Maraniss defended Obama’s inaccuracies by arguing that he was “trying to see everything through a racial lens. That was the original purpose of that book.” Maraniss said, “I don’t think it’s a venal reason. I think it says more about a writer’s pressures to try to tell a story than anything about his larger character.”

One example was the story about the death of Obama’s step-grandfather, who was allegedly killed while fighting Dutch troops in Indonesia. Maraniss said this was “a concocted myth in almost all respects,” that he actually died trying to hang drapes. He writes this off as “the kind of family lore that is often exaggerated.” In an interview on CNN, Maraniss said he approached this as a historian and not a fact-checker, and that he knew conservatives would cherry pick the negative things about Obama, which was nearly reason enough for him to not write the book. But he did.

Another author, Jack Cashill, in his book, Deconstructing Obama, came to the conclusion that Dreams from My Father was most likely written by Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist. The evidence is quite strong, as I detailed in a column last year.

Further doubt was cast on Obama’s credibility with the revelation by Breitbart.com that a promotional booklet was produced by Obama’s literary agency back in 1991 that said he was born in Kenya. It stayed that way through three online versions, including while he was U.S. senator from Illinois beginning in 2004, until he decided to run for president, when his place of birth on his bio was changed to Hawaii. The agency said it was a fact-checking error, but that explanation was absurd on its face. The brochure reignited talk of Obama perhaps being born overseas, while others saw it as further evidence of Obama’s tendency to embellish and exaggerate his personal history.

In the meantime, Cashill has pointed out how he and others have raised questions about Obama’s literary credibility for several years. He said that until Maraniss “can bring himself to address the obvious question of authorship [of Dreams], he will be casting only the dimmest light on history’s greatest presidential mystery.”•

For Accuracy in Media
Roger Aronoff

Roger Aronoff is the Editor of Accuracy in Media, and can be contacted at roger.aronoff@aim.org.


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