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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Reading List: Deconstructing Obama

Cashill, Jack. Deconstructing Obama. New York: Threshold Editions, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-1111-3.
Barack Obama's 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father (henceforth Dreams), proved instrumental in his rise from an obscure Chicago lawyer and activist to the national stage and eventually the presidency. Almost universally praised for its literary merit, it establishes Obama's “unique personal narrative” which is a key component of his attraction to his many supporters. Amidst the buzz of the 2008 presidential campaign, the author decided to buy a copy of Dreams as an “airplane book”, and during the flight and in the days that followed, was astonished by what he was reading. The book was not just good, it was absolutely superb—the kind of work editors dream of having land on their desk. In fact, it was so good that Cashill, a veteran author and editor who has reviewed the portfolios of hundreds of aspiring writers, found it hard to believe that a first time writer, however smart, could produce such a work on his own. In the writing craft, it is well known that almost all authors should plan to throw away their first million words or equivalently invest on the order of 10,000 hours mastering their craft before producing a publishable book-length work, no less a bestselling masterpiece like Dreams. There was no evidence for such an investment or of natural talent in any of Obama's earlier (and meagre) publications: they are filled with clichés, clumsy in phrasing, and rife with grammatical problems such as agreement of subject and verb.

Further, it was well documented that Obama had defaulted upon his first advance for the book, changed the topic, and then secured a second advance from a different publisher, then finally, after complaining of suffering from writer's block, delivering a manuscript in late 1994. At the time he was said to be writing Dreams, he had a full time job at a Chicago law firm, was teaching classes at the University of Chicago, and had an active social life. All of this caused Cashill to suspect Obama had help with the book. Now, it's by no means uncommon for books by politicians to be largely or entirely the work of ghostwriters, who may work entirely behind the scenes, leaving the attribution of authorship entirely to their employers. But when Dreams was written, Obama was not a politician, but rather a lawyer and law school instructor still burdened by student loans. It is unlikely he could have summoned the financial resources nor had the reputation to engage a ghostwriter sufficiently talented to produce Dreams. Further, if the work is not Obama's, then he is a liar, for, speaking to a group of teachers in June 2008, he said, “I've written two books. I actually wrote them myself.”

These observations set the author, who has previously undertaken literary and intellectual detective work, on the trail of the origin of Dreams. He discovers that, just at the time the miraculous manuscript appeared, Obama had begun to work with unrepentant Weather Underground domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, who had reinvented himself as an “education reformer” in Chicago. At the time, Obama's ambition was to become mayor of Chicago, an office which would allow him to steer city funds into the coffers of Ayers's organisations in repayment of his contribution to Obama's political ascendancy (not to mention the potential blackmail threat an unacknowledged ghostwriter has over a principal who claims sole authorship). In any case, Dreams not only matches contemporary works by Ayers on many metrics used to test authorship, it is rich in nautical metaphors, many expressed in the same words as in Ayers's own work. Ayers once worked as a merchant seaman; Obama's only experience at sea was bodysurfing in Hawaii.

Cashill examines Dreams in fine-grained detail, both bolstering the argument that Ayers was the principal wordsmith behind the text, and also documenting how the narrative in the book is at variance with the few well-documented facts we have about Obama's life and career. He then proceeds to speculate upon Obama's parentage, love life before he met Michelle, and other aspects of the canonical Obama story. As regards Ayers as the author of Dreams, I consider the case as not proved beyond a reasonable doubt (that would require one of the principals in the matter speaking out and producing believable documentation), but to me the case here meets the standard of preponderance of evidence. The more speculative claims are intriguing but, in my opinion, do not rise to that level.

What is beyond dispute is just how little is known about the current occupant of the Oval Office, how slim the paper trail is of his origin and career, and how little interest the legacy media have expressed in investigating these details. There are obvious and thoroughly documented discrepancies between what is known for sure about Obama and the accounts in his two memoirs, and the difference in literary style between the two is, in itself, cause to call their authorship into question. When the facts about Obama begin to come out—and they will, the only question is when—if only a fraction of what is alleged in this well-researched and -argued book is true, it will be the final undoing of any credibility still retained by the legacy media.

The Kindle edition is superbly produced, with the table of contents, notes, and index all properly linked to the text.

Posted at March 10, 2011 23:46