Who Wrote Dreams and Why It Matters
May 24, 2009
By Jack Cashill
While waiting for America's publishers to find their nerve, I had put my research into the authorship of Barack Obama's 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father on the back shelf. But then I heard Chris Matthews. The Hardball host was weighing in on the subject of Sarah Palin's new book deal. "Sarah Palin - now don't laugh - is writing a book," sneered Matthews. "Not just reading a book, writing a book."
"Actually in the word of the publisher she's "collaborating" on a book," Matthews continued. "What an embarrassment! It's one of these ‘I told you,' books that jocks do. You know she's already declared, I mean, why they do it like this? ‘She can't write, we got a collaborator for her.'"
I dedicate what follows to Matthews and those willfully blind souls like him. It is a work in progress, a collective one at that, aided and abetted by nearly a score of volunteer co-conspirators from Hawaii to Ohio to Israel to Australia. The thesis is simple enough: Barack Obama needed substantial help to write his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. Moreover, unlike Sarah Palin, Obama chose to conceal the identity of his collaborator and not without good reason. To admit that he needed a collaborator would have undercut his campaign for president and to reveal the name of that collaborator would have ended it.
My involvement in this occasionally harrowing literary adventure began in July 2008, entirely innocently. A friend sent me some short excerpts from Dreams and asked if they were as radical as they sounded. I bought the book, located the excerpts, and reported back that, in context, the excerpts were not particularly troubling.
But I did notice something else. The book was much too well written. I had seen enough of Obama's interviews to know that he did not speak with anywhere near the verbal sophistication on display in Dreams.
About six weeks later, for entirely unrelated reasons, I picked up a copy of Bill Ayers 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days. Ayers, I discovered, writes very well and very much like "Obama."
In mid-September, after considerable digging, I wrote a few speculative articles for American Thinker and other online journals and discovered that I was not alone in my suspicions.
Looking for some scientific verification, I consulted Patrick Juola of Duquesne, a leading authority in the field of literary forensics. Juola, however, advised me against relying on computer analysis on a subject this sensitive. "The accuracy just isn't there," he told me. He encouraged me instead "to do what you're already doing . . . good old-fashioned literary detective work." I took his advice.
The first question I had to resolve was whether the 33 year-old Barack Obama was capable of writing what Time Magazine has called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." The answer is almost assuredly "no."
In his bestselling study of success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell painstakingly lays out what he calls the "ten-thousand-hour rule." Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin to the effect that "ten thousand hours of practice [in any subject] is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert" and cites example after example to make his case.
Obama appears to have lopped about 9900 hours off that standard. In Dreams, he speaks of writing only the occasional journal entry and some "very bad poetry." He does not sell himself short on the poetry. From his undergraduate poem, "Underground":
Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance . . .
If possible, Obama's early prose showed less promise than his poetry. Although the Obama camp has been notoriously shy about releasing proof of Obama's assumed genius-SAT scores, LSAT scores, transcripts, theses-I was able to unearth three essays in print that predate Dreams.
In March 1983, Obama wrote an 1800-word article, "Breaking the War Mentality," for Columbia University's weekly news magazine, Sundial. Five years later, he wrote an essay titled "Why Organize," which was reprinted in a 1990 book called After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
In the Sundial article there are an appalling five sentences in which the subject noun does not agree with the verb. In some sentences, like the following, the punctuation and word selection are as random as the grammar: "The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM's energies alive."
Although "Why Organize" seems to be better edited, in neither of these two clunky essays does Obama turn a single phrase that is clever, concise, or even vaguely memorable. In 1990, he wrote an unsigned student case comment for the Harvard Law Review. The prose here, although reasonably well edited, is even more dull and leaden.
It was not Obama's style but his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990-more of a popularity than a literary contest-that netted him a roughly $125,000 advance for a proposed book. According to a 2006 article by liberal publisher Peter Osnos, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract when Obama could not deliver, despite a sojourn to Bali to help him write.
It was about this time that Bill Ayers entered the picture. "I met [Obama] sometime in the mid-1990s." he would later tell Salon. "And everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious. For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago."
Obama needed help, and Ayers had the means, the motive, and the ability to provide it. Unlike Obama, he has a well-established paper trail. He co-authored the 1974 tract, "Prairie Fire: The Politics of Revolutionary Anti-Imperialism, in which book, by the way, he misspells Frantz Fanon's first name as "Franz" just as Obama does in Dreams, and nearly twenty books thereafter as writer and editor.
Ayers, we know, provided an informal editing service for like-minded friends in the neighborhood. Aspiring radical Rashid Khalidi attests to this in the acknowledgements in his 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire. "Bill was particularly generous in letting me use his family's dining room table to do some writing for the project." Khalidi did not need the table. He had one of his own. He needed the help. Having no political ambitions, Khalidi was willing to acknowledge it.
Dreams was published in June 1995. That same year, Ayers was busy fueling the ambitions of his young protégé, first with an appointment to the chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant and later with a fundraiser in his Chicago home. Ayers admits that his "imagination ran out of steam." He thought he was launching a mayor that he could exploit, even control, not a president, who would move quickly beyond his grasp.
After Dreams was published in 1995, Obama's typewriter fell silent once again. He contributed not one signed word to any law journal or other publication of note until his unexceptional and conspicuously ghosted 2006 book, Audacity of Hope. Obama was not a writer. As his lame inaugural address proved, he still isn't.
It is possible that Obama actually met Ayers in New York in the early 1980s. In his brief New York sojourn, he often seems to be channeling the thoughts and experiences of the world weary Ayers who lived in New York the same years as Obama. "Like a tourist, I watched the range of human possibility on display," writes Obama in Dreams, "trying to trace out my future in the lives of the people I saw, looking for some opening through which I could re-enter."
Re-enter? This seems more the reflection of a soon to be ex-fugitive than that of a Columbia undergrad. It is in New York too that Obama feels himself living "behind enemy lines," the exact phrase that Ayers uses to describe his life in the underground.
The opening scene of Dreams takes place in the early 1980s in and around Obama's New York City apartment with its "slanting" floors. As the scene unfolds, Obama is making breakfast "with coffee on the stove and two eggs in the skillet." In Fugitive Days, Ayers inhabits an apartment with "sloping floors." He too cooks a lot -- his books are rich with often sensual food imagery -- and uses a "skillet," a southern regionalism.
Obama tells the reader that the buzzer downstairs did not work and that visitors had to call from a pay phone at the corner gas station. There, "A black Doberman the size of a wolf paced through the night in vigilant patrol, its jaws clamped around an empty beer bottle."
Fugitive Days opens at a pay phone. (Unless specified otherwise, all Ayers' references will be to Fugitive Days and Obama's to Dreams). Ayers spent much of his underground years waiting at pay phones. He writes about pay phones with the loving detail art critics reserve for Picassos. The vivid image of the Doberman almost assuredly comes from his experience. Obama had no reason to use that pay phone, if it even existed.
Obama shared his apartment with a roommate, who would scream "with impressive rage" at "white people" whose dogs pooped on their sidewalks. Adds Obama, ""We'd laugh at the faces of both master and beast, grim and unapologetic as they hunkered down to do the deed."
Both Ayers and Obama speak of "rage" the way that Eskimos do of snow -- in so many varieties, so often, that they feel the need to qualify it, here as "impressive rage," elsewhere in Dreams as "suppressed rage" or "coil of rage," and in Fugitive Days as "justifiable rage," "uncontrollable rage," "blind rage," "and, of course, "Days of Rage."
Another note of interest is that all of the distinctive words in the sentence above -- "master," "beast," "grim," "unapologetic," and "deed," as well as the phrase "hunkered down" -- appear in Fugitive Days.
In the opening pages, Obama makes an exception to his unlikely New York "solitude" for an elderly neighbor, a "stooped" gentleman who wore a "fedora." In Fugitive Days, it was Ayers' grandfather who is "stooped" and a helpful stranger who wears a "fedora."
One day, Obama's roommate finds his neighbor dead, "crumpled up on the third-floor landing, his eyes wide open, his limbs stiff and curled up like a baby's." Ayers tells of watching his mother die, "eyes half open, curled up and panting." In both cases, the eyes are "open" and the body is "curled up."
On the neighbor's mantelpiece, Obama reports seeing "the faded portrait of a woman with heavy eyebrows and a gentle smile." There are seven references to "eyebrows" in Dreams -- heavy ones, bushy ones, wispy ones, and six in Fugitive Days -- bushy ones, flaring ones, arched ones, black ones.
Who writes about eyebrows? In the lengthy excerpts that I have gathered from a half dozen other contemporary political memoirs -- 150,000 words in all -- there is no mention of "eyebrows" at all. Nor is there anyone or anything "stooped," "curled," "crumpled," "hunkered down," or wearing a "fedora."
At the climax of the opening sequence, Obama receives a phone call. It comes from an African aunt. "Listen, Barry, your father is dead," she tells him. Obama has a hard time understanding. "Can you hear me?" she repeats. "I say, your father is dead." The line is cut, and the conversation ends abruptly.
The opening sequence of Fugitive Days climaxes in nearly identical fashion. This phone call comes from Ayers' future wife, Bernadine Dohrn. "Diana is dead," says Dohrn of Ayers' lover Diana Oughton, killed in a bomb blast. Ayers has a hard time understanding. "Diana is dead," she "repeats slowly." Ayers drops the line, and the conversation ends abruptly.
At the conclusion of Dreams' opening scene, a stunned Obama "sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss." This passage features Obama's signature rhetorical flourish, the triple parallel without a joining conjunction. There are scores of such examples throughout Dreams, perhaps hundreds:
"...the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."
"Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else."
"...his eyes were closed, his head leaning against the back of his chair, his big wrinkled face like a carving stone."
As it happens, Ayers' signature rhetorical flourish, likely cribbed from Joseph Conrad, is the triple parallel without a joining conjunction. There are scores of such examples throughout Fugitive Days, perhaps hundreds:
"He inhabited an anarchic solitude-disconnected, smart,obsessive."
"We swarmed over and around that car, smashing windows, slashing tires, trashing lights and fenders-it seemed the only conceivable thing to do."
"...trees are shattered, doors ripped from their hinges, shorelines rearranged."
More intriguing still, Obama seems to borrow the one girlfriend in the oddly sexless Dreams from Ayers' experience. "There was a woman in New York that I loved," he tells his half-sister years after the fact. "She was white. She had dark hair, and specks of green in her eyes."
The woman of Obama's memory evokes images of Diana Oughton. As her FBI files attest, Oughton had brown hair and green eyes. The two women shared similar family backgrounds as well. In fact, they seemed to have grown up on the very same estate.
"The house was very old, her grandfather's house," Obama writes of his girlfriend's country home. "He had inherited it from his grandfather." According to a Time Magazine article written soon after her death, Oughton "brought Bill Ayers and other radicals" to the family homestead in Dwight, Illinois. The main house on the Oughton estate, a 20-room Victorian mansion, was built by Oughton's father's grandfather.
The carriage house, in which Oughton lived as a child, now serves as a public library. It may have already seemed like one when Ayers visited, an impression that finds its way into Obama's memory of a library "filled with old books and pictures of the famous people [the grandfather] had known-presidents, diplomats, industrialists."
"It was autumn, beautiful, with woods all around us," Obama writes of his visit to his girlfriend's country home, "and we paddled a canoe across this round, icy lake full of small gold leaves that collected along the shore." As can be seen from aerial photos even today, the Oughton estate also has a small lake and is surrounded by woods.
Curiously, Obama tells the story of this past love while cutting "two green peppers." In his 1997 book, A Kind And Just Parent, Ayers specifically links "green peppers" with "saltpeter" and other substances that scare young men with the threat of impotence. Go figure.
Ayers lived a considerably more adventurous life than Obama, beginning with his youthful days as a merchant seaman in the North Atlantic. "I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience," Ayers writes. Yet much of the nautical language that flows through Fugitive Days flows through Obama's earth-bound memoir.
Although there are only the briefest of literal sea experiences in Dreams, the following words appear in both Dreams and in Ayers' work: fog, mist, ships, seas, boats, oceans, calms, captains, charts, first mates, storms, streams, wind, waves, anchors, barges, horizons, ports, panoramas, moorings, tides, currents, and things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, and murky.
My own memoir on race, Sucker Punch, offers a useful control. It makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to any of the above words save "current" and "tides." Yet I have spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean and many a day on a boat.
Ayers equates the flow of water with that of language. "The debates swam above and around and through us," he writes. "The confrontation in the [Student Union] flowed like a swollen river in to the teach-in, carrying me along the cascading waters from room to room, hall to hall, bouncing off boulders."
In Dreams, Obama makes the very same equation. "I heard all our voices begin to run together, the sound of three generations tumbling over each other like the currents of a slow-moving stream," he writes, "my questions like rocks roiling the water, the breaks in memory separating the currents, but always the voices returning to that single course, a single story."
For the one and only time in his career, Obama writes in the language of postmodernism, a language the academic Ayers has mastered. Ayers describes Fugitive Days as "a memory book," one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. In Dreams, Obama admits, some characters are composites. Some appear out of precise chronology. Names have been changed.
Ayers seems consumed with lies, lying and what he calls "our constructed reality." The Obama of Dreams says much the same and in much the same language. "But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie," he writes, "something I'd constructed from the scraps of information I'd picked up from my mother."
That they both speak of "narratives," "traps," "contradictions," "intimacies," and "journeys" is not exceptional. That is standard postmodern patois. What is exceptional is their shared use of advanced postmodern slang -- the "fictions" into which they and others force their lives, the "grooves" into which they have fallen, the "poses" they assume, and even the "stitched together" nature of the lives they or their relatives lead.
More convincing still are those complex tropes in Dreams that appear, only slightly altered, in Ayers' books. In his 1993 book, To Teach, Ayers writes, "Education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens." "Training," on the other hand, "is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers."
In Dreams, these thoughts find colloquial expression in the person of "Frank," the real life poet, pornographer and Stalinist, Frank Marshall Davis. "Understand something, boy," Frank tells the college-bound Obama. "You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to get trained." Both authors make the point that "training" strips the individual of his racial identity.
In To Teach, Ayers recounts the story of an ambitious teacher who takes her students out to the streets of New York to learn about its culture and history. These students ask to see the nearby Hudson River. When they get to the river's edge, one student says, " Look, the river is flowing up." A second student says, "No, it has to flow south-down." Upon further research, the teacher discovers "that the Hudson River is a tidal river, that it flows both north and south, and they had visited the exact spot where the tide stops its northward push."
In Dreams, written two years later, Obama takes an unlikely detour to the exact spot on the parallel East River where the north-flowing tide meets the south-flowing river. There, improbably, a young black boy approaches this strange man and asks, "You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?" Obama tells the boy it "had to do with the tides."
For the literary left, the fact that Ayers helped Obama would be a less troubling revelation than that Obama needed help at all. They have built a foundational myth around his genius, a genius that can be located only in Dreams. The dark side of the Democrat genius mythology, of course, is the Republican dunce mythology of which Sarah Palin and George Bush are the most recent victims.
There is thus a logic to the left's willful blindness. Why the literary right has accepted this charade continues to baffle me.