Though often denigrated, polemic has a long and colorful history in America. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, which referred to kings as “crowned ruffians,” was as incendiary as it was popular during the Revolutionary era. Pamphlets charging the powerful with corruption and immorality could be vulgar and vicious, but they had one key virtue. By raising their subjects excessively, they focused attention on significant public issues.
Good polemic requires more than a knack for invective. To attack someone successfully, the polemicist must first establish his own credibility. This requirement is especially important now that readers can check facts and sources instantaneously. Another key to effective polemic is the ability to re-frame opposing arguments, which typically have some merit. “A talented polemicist,” journalist Lee Siegel maintained recently in The Wall Street Journal, “should win some converts from the opposition simply by making the case that his opponent’s argument isn’t crazed or pernicious, just radically incomplete.”
Jack Cashill’s literary output is largely polemical. He’s a weekly contributor to WorldNetDaily, a right-wing website founded by Joseph Farah in 1997. As recently as last year, the site reported that Barack Obama isn’t a natural-born American citizen and is therefore ineligible to serve as president. In 2009, Farah objected to President Obama’s speech at Buchenwald, the notorious German concentration camp. “We are here today because we know this work is not yet finished,” Obama said. Farah conceded that the context for this statement was confronting Holocaust deniers. But he also suspected that Obama was signaling to Muslims that he would continue their work, which, Farah implies, includes smiting the Jews. “So, I ask you,” Farah concluded, “am I really taking Obama’s words at Buchenwald out of context? Or am I the only one seeing them in context?”
Producing an average of one book per year since 2003, Cashill has found a modest audience. His publishers include WND Books and Thomas Nelson, both of which are connected to WorldNetDaily; the latter distributes its books through HarperCollins Christian Publishing. Cashill’s Deconstructing Obama (2011), which argues that Bill Ayers wrote Obama’s two bestselling memoirs, was published by Threshold Editions. A Simon & Schuster imprint whose editor-in-chief is former GOP operative Mary Matalin, Threshold made news last year when it withdrew The Embassy House, Dylan Davies’ book about his experience in Benghazi. That decision followed Davies’ appearance on CBS’s 60 Minutes. (CBS also owns Simon & Schuster.) When officials refuted Davies’ account, 60 Minutes correspondent Lara Logan apologized on air for inaccuracies in her story and took a leave of absence.
Cashill’s latest effort is published by Broadside, an imprint of HarperCollins whose mission includes “creating a forum for cutting-edge conservative ideas.” In 2010, Broadside head Adam Bellow said he intended to “uphold a standard of intellectual seriousness on the right.” Their books would be “serious, soberly argued, well researched, and make a respectable case—agree or disagree.”
Cashill’s purpose in You Lie! is to examine President Obama’s falsehoods — a category expanded to accommodate verbal gaffes, bad predictions, exaggerations, and unfulfilled pledges — since the beginning of Obama’s political career almost two decades ago. As Cashill notes, liberals have written similar books about conservatives in general (Joe Conason’s Big Lies) and President George W. Bush in particular (David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush). But Cashill goes one step further than his liberal counterparts. In effect, he bundles up the president’s purported lies and dubs that entire package Obama’s true self. Obama doesn’t simply lie from time to time; he is essentially a liar.
Nevertheless, most of the discussion in You Lie! doesn’t document clear-cut fabrications. Instead, Cashill rehearses talking points a casual viewer of Fox News would recognize immediately: overheated charges about Benghazi, the New Black Panther Party, the ATF’s Fast and Furious program, and so on. Under Republican leadership, the House of Representatives has investigated all of these charges ad nauseam, and the results are a banquet of nothingburgers.
On issues where the Obama administration (not always the president) might be culpable, Cashill flattens every complexity and nuance. Often his charges are supported poorly or not at all, and some of the lies are demonstrable truths. For example, Cashill claims that Obama lied when he said Warren Buffett paid a lower income tax rate than his secretary. Two paragraphs later, Cashill admits that Buffett paid a lower rate, but only because a greater percentage of his income came from capital gains. Cashill also claims that Obama lied when he said of Mitt Romney, “When you were asked what’s the biggest geopolitical threat facing America, you said Russia—not al Qaeda.” That statement was a lie not because it was untrue, Cashill explains, but because Romney never suggested that al Qaeda “was anything less than a serious threat.”
Cashill also challenges Obama’s remark that some of his economic policies would have made him a moderate Republican in the 1980s. Instead of refuting that remark, Cashill settles for a smear. “There was another Obama hiding in the shadows,” he notes ominously. “That Obama emerged in all his pinkish glory on an October 2008 afternoon in Holland, Ohio.” That’s when Obama told Samuel “Joe the Plumber” Wurzelbacher that he wanted “to make sure that everybody who is behind you, that they’ve got a chance, too.” Obama followed that comment with what Cashill calls “the unwittingly honest kicker,” which is as follows: “I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”
Cashill maintains that this “was not a comment a moderate Republican would have made in 1880, let alone 1980.” Again he offers no evidence, so I decided to look for some. I immediately found a quote from longtime Republican and FDIC chair Sheila Bair. “Having worked for Senate Republicans in the 1980s,” Bair wrote in a 2013 New York Times article, “I remember a time when Republicans stood up to special interests and purged the tax code of preferences for investment income and other special breaks.” My computer also told me that the top marginal tax rate in 1980 was 70 percent, and it was 91 percent under President Eisenhower. Today it’s 35 percent, and capital gains are taxed at only 15 percent. (In 1978, the maximum capital gains tax was reduced to 28 percent.) Finally, I found this quote in Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 State of the Union address: “The man of great wealth owes a peculiar obligation to the state because he derives special advantages from the mere existence of government.” Two years later, this GOP hero endorsed an income tax and an inheritance tax. In less than a minute of online searching, I found more relevant (and exculpatory) evidence than Cashill offers in two pages of fervid prose.
I checked out three other so-called lies. One was Obama’s comment that his mother spent the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies. False, says Cashill; her insurance company paid those bills. But Obama’s mother was refused disability insurance and therefore had to pay uncovered costs out of her pocket. The New York Times article Cashill cites includes that point, but he doesn’t mention it. Is it a stretch to imagine that Obama’s ailing mother used some of her precious time arguing about the denial of disability insurance?
Another Obama stretcher was his assurance that if Americans liked their health insurance plans, they could keep them under Obamacare. To dramatize his point, Cashill cites the case of Edie Sundby, who suffered from cancer and lost her coverage when her health insurer withdrew from the individual market in California. “Our individual business in California has always been relatively small and we currently serve less [sic] than 8,000 individual customers across the state,” the company said in a 2013 statement. “Over the years, it has become more difficult to administer these plans in a cost-effective way for our members in California.” Cashill never mentions the company’s stated reason for leaving the California market; rather, he attributes that departure to the advent of Obamacare. It’s one thing to say that satisfied customers could keep their insurance; it’s quite another to say that health insurance companies had to keep their sick customers. The gap between those two statements was one of the reasons for reforming health care in the first place.
Finally, there is Obama’s purported lie about climate change. “But the debate is settled,” Obama said. “Climate change is a fact.” Cashill reports that more than 30,000 scientists, 9,000 of them holding Ph.D.s, signed the Global Warming Petition, which challenges the evidence for climate change. Cashill doesn’t tell you that this petition includes a relatively small number of climate scientists. NASA, which might be a more authoritative source on this question, reports that “97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities.” The National Association of Scientists and Royal Society of London have issued similar findings. Cashill also would have us believe that Obama cherrypicked his evidence when he noted that the 12 warmest years in recorded history have all come in the last 15 years. There’s a cherrypicker here, but it’s not Obama.
Not everything in You Lie! is tendentious. Cashill rightly calls out President Obama for his unfulfilled promise to make transparency a touchstone of his administration. In fact, the administration has used the Espionage Act to prosecute leakers and whistleblowers more times than all other administrations combined. But we don’t need Cashill to break this news; more credible sources (including those on the left) have been reporting it for some time.
In short, Cashill doesn’t show that Obama’s positions are radically incomplete; instead, he proves that his own are narrowly partial. He also assumes a lazy, gullible, or similarly blinkered audience. I’m less concerned, however, about the quality of Cashill’s screed than the fact that HarperCollins, one of the five remaining major trade publishers in America, decided to publish it in the first place. There’s an embarrassingly large gap between this book’s intellectual seriousness and Adam Bellow’s announced standards. Founded in 1817 and now owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, this is the company that published Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age and other landmarks in American literature. One wonders what Twain, that connoisseur of American folly, would make of these “cutting-edge conservative ideas.”
Peter Richardson is the book review editor at The National Memo. His history of Ramparts magazine, A Bomb in Every Issue, was an Editors’ Choice at The New York Times and a Top Book of 2009 at Mother Jones. In 2013, he received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism. No Simple Highway, his cultural history of the Grateful Dead, is scheduled for January 2015.
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