Despite its place near the top of The New York Times’ nonfiction bestseller list, where it has been riding high for the past six weeks, Jerome Corsi’s "The Obama Nation" is not a reliable source of facts about Obama. Corsi cites opinion columns and unsourced, anonymous blogs as if they were evidence of factual claims. Where he does cite legitimate news sources, he frequently distorts the facts. In some cases, Corsi simply ignores readily accessible information when it conflicts with his arguments. Among the errors we found:
- Corsi claims that Obama "could claim to be a citizen of Kenya as well as of the United States." But the Kenyan Constitution specifically prohibits dual citizenship.
- Corsi falsely states that Obama, who has admitted to drug use as a teenager, "has yet to answer" questions about whether he stopped using drugs. In fact, Obama has answered that question twice, including once in the autobiography that Corsi reviews in his book.
- Corsi relies on claims from one of Obama’s "closest" childhood friends to "prove" that Obama once was a practicing Muslim, without revealing that the witness later said he couldn’t be certain about his claims and confessed to knowing Obama for only a few months.
- Corsi claims that despite Obama’s "rhetorically uplifting" speeches, the candidate has never detailed any specific plans. In fact, Obama’s Web site is full of detailed policy proposals.
Mary Matalin, the chief editor of the book’s publisher, told The New York Times that the book is not political, but rather, "a piece of scholarship, and a good one at that." The prominent display of Corsi’s academic title (he holds a Ph.D. in political science) seems clearly calculated to convey academic rigor. But as a scholarly work, "The Obama Nation" does not measure up. We judge it to be what a hack journalist might call a "paste-up job," gluing together snippets from here and there without much regard for their truthfulness or accuracy. Corsi promises in his preface "to fully document all arguments and contentions I make, extensively footnoting all references, so readers can determine for themselves the truth and validity of the factual claims." Some of Corsi’s claims do come complete with citations. But even a casual glance at Corsi’s lengthy endnotes reveals that his "sources" include obscure Internet postings (which are themselves completely unsourced) and opinion columns from various conservative publications. In fact, on four occasions, Corsi cites himself as a source. Where Corsi does cite news sources, he sometimes presents only those that are consistent with his case while ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit the picture he paints. A comprehensive review of all the false claims in Corsi’s book would itself be a book. Our review touches only on a few of the more blatant examples.
Even the best books sometimes contain errors that slip past both author and editor. But some of Corsi’s inaccuracies can be debunked with a simple Internet search. In one instance, he makes an assertion that is disproved by the Obama biography that Corsi claims to be reviewing. These are the kinds of errors that people with a Ph.D. from Harvard don’t usually make accidentally. For example, Corsi writes:
Corsi (page 103): Still Senator Barack Obama could claim to be a citizen of Kenya as well as of the United States. Obama can trace his heritage back to his mother, who was born in the United States and was an American citizen when he was born, and to his father, who was born in Kenya and was a Kenyan citizen when Obama was born.
Corsi manages two false claims in these two short sentences. First, as we’ve already written, Kenya prohibits dual citizenship for anyone over the age of 21. So while one could make the case that Obama held both U.S. and Kenyan citizenship as a child and a youth, it’s false to assert that he can claim dual citizenship now. Obama’s claim to Kenyan citizenship expired more than two decades ago, on Aug. 4, 1982, when he turned 21 years old. This is a bit of elementary research that Corsi either overlooked or chose to ignore.
Corsi also overlooks basic history when he says Obama’s father was a "Kenyan citizen" at the time of Obama’s birth. Kenya was not yet a nation; it was officially "Kenya Colony" of Britain from 1920 through 1963, at which time it became "The Republic of Kenya." Obama’s father was a British subject when his son was born in Honolulu on Aug. 4, 1961. Kenya won its independence from the United Kingdom on December 12, 1963 – when Obama was 2 years old.
Corsi offers two more nice examples of easy-to-disprove claims when writing of Obama’s early drug use. On page 76, Corsi states, "Why Obama chose to disclose he smoked marijuana and used cocaine at all remains a mystery." Actually, it’s no mystery at all, at least to anyone who does a basic Internet search. Ours turned up a Washington Post article that reported:
Washington Post (Jan. 3, 2007): In an interview during his Senate race two years ago, Obama said he admitted using drugs because he thought it was important for "young people who are already in circumstances that are far more difficult than mine to know that you can make mistakes and still recover."
Corsi then slyly insinuates – without offering any evidence – that Obama might have "dealt drugs" in addition to using them. And he falsely claims that Obama has "yet to answer" whether he continued using drugs during his law school days or afterward.
Corsi (page 77): Still, Obama has yet to answer questions whether he ever dealt drugs, or if he stopped using marijuana and cocaine completely in college, or whether his drug usage extended into his law school days or beyond.
But the State Journal-Register of Springfield, Ill., reports Obama as saying in 2003 that he hadn’t done drugs in more than 20 years, which means he wouldn’t have done drugs in law school. Obama finished his undergraduate degree in 1983 and attended law school from 1988 to 1991. And that’s the same answer that Obama gives in his autobiography, "Dreams from My Father," where he writes that shortly after his arrival as an undergraduate at Columbia University:
Obama ("Dreams," page 120): When Sadik lost his own lease, we moved in together. And after a few months of closer scrutiny, he began to realize that the city had indeed had an effect on me, although not the one he’d expected. I stopped getting high. I ran three miles a day and fasted on Sundays. For the first time in years, I applied myself to my studies and started keeping a journal of daily reflections and very bad poetry. Whenever Sadik tried to talk me into hitting a bar, I’d beg off with some tepid excuse, too much work or not enough cash.
So Obama has said at least twice that "he stopped using marijuana and cocaine completely in college," and one of those times is in the very book that Corsi is ostensibly reviewing.
Corsi ignores evidence that doesn’t fit his chosen thesis. In discussing the baseless notion that Obama was secretly a Muslim at some point in his life, for example, Corsi relies heavily on published interviews with Zulfan Adi, an Indonesian who claimed to be one of Obama’s closest childhood friends. Corsi writes:
Corsi (page 56): Adi said neighborhood Muslims worshipped in a nearby house. When the muezzin sounded the call to prayer, Adi remembered seeing Lolo [Obama's stepfather] and Barry [Obama] walk together to the makeshift mosque. "His mother often went to the church," Adi told the Times, "but Barry was a Muslim. I remember him wearing a sarong."
The "Times" is the Los Angeles Times, which did indeed report Adi’s claims in a March 16, 2007, article. What Corsi leaves out is that the Chicago Tribune followed up on Adi’s claims. When reporters for the Tribune interviewed Adi the following week, they received a much different response:
Chicago Tribune (March 25, 2007): Zulfan Adi, a former neighborhood playmate of Obama’s who has been cited in news reports as saying Obama regularly attended Friday prayers with Soetoro, told the Tribune he was not certain about that when pressed about his recollections. He only knew Obama for a few months, during 1970, when his family moved to the neighborhood.
The Tribune also reported that "interviews with dozens of former classmates, teachers, neighbors and friends show that Obama was not a regular practicing Muslim when he was in Indonesia." Corsi omits any reference to the Tribune article.
In fact, the entire third section of Corsi’s book – titled "The Candidate Is the Message" – is a study in how to ignore evidence that doesn’t fit. In one passage, Corsi complains:
Corsi (page 221): At the end of every rhetorically uplifting speech Obama gives about the future of hope, millions of listeners are still left pondering, "Now what exactly did he say?" If the politician is the message, as Axelrod and Obama have proclaimed, they can’t forever avoid telling us what precisely that message is.
Contrary to Corsi’s claim, Obama’s Web site is packed with details of what he proposes to do if elected. He lays out descriptions of his policy proposals, including tax cuts for most families and increases for those making more than $250,000 per year; a $150 billion, 10-year program to develop alternative energy sources and more efficient vehicles; a proposal to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops and another to create a public health insurance plan for those whose employers don’t offer health coverage. Whether or not one agrees with them, Obama has indeed presented detailed plans for dozens of policies. It’s hard to see how anyone writing a book on Obama could fail to acknowledge their existence.
Guilt By Association
A frequent Corsi tactic is to point to some link between Obama and various unsavory persons and to imply that Obama somehow shares in their unsavoriness. He devotes an entire chapter to violent uprisings in Kenya following a disputed presidential election in 2007. The link to Obama? During a visit to Kenya in 2006, Obama and his wife, Michelle, arranged to take an AIDS test to publicly demonstrate the test’s safety. While there, Obama spoke to the assembled crowd. Raila Odinga, one of the two candidates running for president, was on the stage when Obama spoke. Corsi concludes that the event constituted an endorsement of Odinga. He goes on to attribute all the violence in Kenya to an elaborate Odinga plot.
Corsi, however, offers no evidence that Obama actually did endorse Odinga. In fact, MSNBC reported that during that same trip, Obama also met with Mwai Kibaki, who was Odinga’s opponent in that election, as well as with opposition leader Uhuru Kenyatta. And Human Rights Watch reported that both Odinga and Kibaki (or their supporters, anyway) had a hand in the violence that followed the election.
Other chapters offer more of the same regarding Obama’s well-known connections to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, to former Weather Underground fugitive (and now longtime professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago) William Ayers, and Obama’s friend Tony Rezko, recently convicted in a celebrated corruption trial. Nowhere does Corsi demonstrate that Obama agrees with what Wright or Ayers have said or done, or that he broke any laws as Rezko did. Corsi completely ignores what Obama actually says about both Wright and Ayers. Nowhere in the book will be found Obama’s March 14 statement rejecting Wright, when Obama said, "I categorically denounce any statement that disparages our great country," or Obama’s April 16 comment on Ayers, whom he said "engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old." Nor does Corsi offer anything new connecting Obama to Rezko, a relationship we’ve addressed twice in earlier articles.
Attempting to discredit Obama because of an association with unsavory people rather than with actual proof that Obama shares their views is an instance of a logical fallacy that philosophers call guilt-by-association. Corsi uses the technique to fill chapters three through seven.
Corsi is a renowned conspiracy theorist who says that George Bush is attempting to create a North American Union (we looked at that here) and that there is evidence that the World Trade Center may have collapsed because it was seeded with explosives. More recently, Corsi claimed that Obama released a fake birth certificate. We’ve debunked that twice now. And, as our colleagues at PolitiFact.com found, many of the themes in "The Obama Nation" are reworked versions of bogus chain e-mail smears.
Logically, any argument should rise or fall on its own merits, not the reputation of the person making it. A logical fallacy – known as the "genetic fallacy" – occurs when someone rejects an argument based on its origins. The correctness of a claim should be judged by the relationship the claim has with the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, a practical rule of thumb for everyday living is to rely on sources that have proven themselves to be trustworthy, and to check even on those when an issue is in dispute.
In Corsi’s case, we judge that both his reputation and his latest book fall short when measured by the standards of good scholarship, or even of mediocre journalism.
–- by Joe Miller
"Frank Talk about Drug Use in Obama’s ‘Open Book’," The State Journal-Register (Springfield, IL). 16 November 2003.
The British Nationality Act, 1948. 1948. 24 August 2008.
"The Constitution of Kenya." 1963 (revised, 2001). The Parliament of Kenya. 24 August 2008.
Romano, Lois, "Effect of Obama’s Candor Remains to Be Seen." Washington Post. 3 January 2007.
Corsi, Jerome R. "The Obama Nation." Threshold Editions, 2008.
Obama, Barack. "Dreams from My Father." Three Rivers Press, 2004.