Rick MacArthur's Left-Right Attacks On Obama

09/25/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John (Rick) MacArthur was on Democracy Now Monday, talking about his forthcoming book, You Can't Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America (Melville House Publishing). Along the way, he smeared Barack Obama, repeating many of the false Republican talking points about Chicago and Obama's background. MacArthur, the publisher of Harper's magazine, reflects a disturbing trend on the left to destroy a pragmatic progressive like Obama rather than try to contribute to political change in this country.

According to MacArthur, our political system is unfair because "not everyone could get slated by the Cook County Democratic machine the way Barack Obama was on several occasions when he was an Illinois politician."

This is absolutely false. Obama was never "slated" by the Democratic machine. When Obama ran for US Senate in the 2004 primary, he beat Dan Hynes, the candidate of the Democratic machine and the son of a powerful Cook County politician.

I certainly believe that there's a Daley machine in Chicago. But it's not an all-powerful.entity, particularly not in state politics and especially not in the independent area of Hyde Park which Obama represented. To claim that Daley ordered Alice Palmer in 1995 to endorse a little-known lawyer like Obama with no Daley connection goes beyond any possible logic. Ironically, right-winger David Freddoso has an even more insane conspiracy theory, blaming Obama for conspiring with Daley to destroy Palmer supposedly because Daley saw her as a threat to run against him for Mayor. So which conspiracy theory is it? Did Mayor Daley conspire with Palmer to anoint Obama her successor, or conspire with Obama to get rid of Palmer? Of course, neither theory is even remotely plausible. The obvious reality is this: Palmer decided to run for Congress and picked Obama as an excellent candidate to endorse for her job. She did badly in her run for Congress, and decided at the last minute to try to keep her Senate seat, but Obama didn't want to give up his big chance for a political life, and so he challenged her flawed petitions. That's it, end of story, no conspiracy here at all.

Yet MacArthur claims, Obama "is sponsored by the political organization that epitomizes one-party rule in this country, the Cook County Democratic machine run by Richard Daley." Obama has never been "sponsored" by Daley. After Obama won the 2004 primary, Daley endorsed Obama, but it's hardly surprising that a mayor would support a hometown candidate, and it was totally inconsequential for Obama.

Nor is it true that Daley "doesn't allow people to run just because they feel like it." Daley is corrupt, but he doesn't actually have the power to prevent people from running for public office, and he is mostly indifferent about candidates for the state legislature.

But MacArthur treats Daley like he's some kind of all-powerful god in Chicago. According to MacArthur, "Barack Obama never took a position on the big box minimum wage bill, because that's not something that would have pleased his political sponsor, who is Mayor Daley." Of course, Obama never took a position on it because it was a city issue, not something for a US Senator to decide. Obama might have felt (correctly) that it was a dubious idea anyway. Increasing the national minimum wage is far more important than creating a separate minimum wage for a few big box stores that can avoid it by relocating in the suburbs.

The Democracy Now conversation then turned to another distorted line of attack against Obama:

AMY GOODMAN: The names of the largest contributors to the Obama campaign, the corporations that are most funding him?

RICK MacARTHUR: Well, you're looking at Lehman Brothers and Citigroup, which is Bob Rubin's--where Bob Rubin works. Goldman Sachs is his number one banking contributor, if you put all the bundlers together.

This is a totally false picture of the campaign financing system. No corporations give money to candidates. Instead, individuals who work at these corporations give money. MacArthur even complains that the people giving money to Clinton or Obama often came from the same top companies, although he never explains why it matters.

And even MacArthur admitted in an op-ed that Obama has raised money from people who may be hurt by his policies for more tax fairness: "So far, Obama has outraised John McCain among employees of hedge funds $822,000 to $348,000 -- this although John McCain wants to leave the capital-gains rate at 15 percent and opposes treating hedge-fund partner income as personal income."

It's rather amusing that John R. MacArthur, who is president of Harper's magazine because he convinced his grandfather's incredibly rich foundation to save the magazine in 1980, should be so suspicious of wealthy people giving money. MacArthur claims that "Obama spends so much time courting the rich," but the truth is that Obama's grassroots approach to fundraising has freed him somewhat, compared to past candidates, from the need to court the wealthy. No president has ever enacted such a massive tax cut for the poor and massive tax increase on the rich as Obama has proposed, but MacArthur considers it "just a few raindrops on a scorched earth of class bias."

MacArthur also condemns Obama for taking money from corporate lawyers even while he refuses donations from lobbyists, calling it "a difference without a distinction." Actually, there's a very important distinction: lobbyists are registered, which allows them to be excluded. Exactly how does MacArthur propose for Obama to identify "corporate lawyers" so that he can refuse their money? The ban on lobbyist money is mostly symbolic, but it is an important symbol.

Perhaps the worst lie MacArthur told in the interview about Obama is this: "he's also getting a lot of money from News Corporation. I mean, Rupert Murdoch hedges his bets very carefully, and he was very careful to split it down the middle between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama."

Once again, MacArthur is completely wrong. Rupert Murdoch has hosted a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, and twice donated her money personally. According to, Murdoch has never given any money to Obama. Is that MacArthur's notion of "split it down the middle"?

Murdoch also gave a $2300 donation to McCain in June. Is MacArthur stupid enough to imagine that Rupert Murdoch is breaking the law and ordering some of his employees to donate money to Barack Obama, the candidate Murdoch is opposing? Does MacArthur actually think that Obama would support Murdoch's stands because a few executives at News Corporation are giving Obama a minuscule proportion of his total fundraising?

Why does the left have a death wish for progressive politics? Why are Rick MacArthur and Amy Goodman repeating a series of right-wing lies and smears about Barack Obama? I confess that I don't understand why the Goodman and MacArthur feel the need to viciously attack the most progressive candidate of a major political party in American history. But if they're going to criticize Obama (and nobody is above critique), they should at least try to avoid repeating the worst right-wing lies about him.

I'd be happy to debate MacArthur about Obama on Democracy Now or any other show. We need to have an honest debate about progressive politics, not conservative attacks wrapped in the cloak of leftists.

Crossposted on DailyKos. John K. Wilson is the author of the book, Barack Obama: This Improbable Quest (watch his live call-in Sun. Sept. 7 at noon ET on C-SPAN2)