In the run-up to the election, Jack Cashill framed a speculative argument that Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama’s Dreams from My Father. Cashill first ventured his thesis in “Who wrote Dreams From My Father?” Cashill cited Obama’s sophomoric stabs at poetry from his days at Occidental. Obama’s sophomoric poetry doesn’t provide much of a benchmark for Obama’s literary potential, and neither does Obama’s unsigned law review note.
Cashill noted the difficulty Obama experienced in producing his memoir. The difficulty prompted the publisher that commissioned it to abandon the book. “Then suddenly, somehow,” Cashill wrote, “the muse descended on Obama and transformed him from a struggling, unschooled amateur, with no paper trail beyond an unremarkable legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes, into a literary superstar.”
Cashill compared the texts of Dreams with that of Ayers’s infamous Fugitive Days to speculate that Ayers may have been Obama’s literary collaborator. Referring to Ayers in Fugitive Days, Cashill argued:
[H]e writes surprisingly well and very much like “Obama.” In fact, my first thought was that the two may have shared the same ghostwriter. Unlike Dreams, however, where the high style is intermittent, Fugitive Days is infused with the authorial voice in every sentence. What is more, when Ayers speaks, even off the cuff, he uses a cadence and vocabulary consistent with his memoir. One does not hear any of Dreams in Obama’s casual speech.
Ayers and Obama have a good deal in common. In the way of background, both grew up in comfortable white households and have struggled to find an identity as righteous black men ever since. Just as Obama resisted “the pure and heady breeze of privilege” to which he was exposed as a child, Ayers too resisted “white skin privilege” or at least tried to.
“I also thought I was black,” says Ayers only half-jokingly. As proof of his righteousness, Ayers named his first son “Malik” after the newly Islamic Malcolm X and the second son “Zayd” after Zayd Shakur, a Black Panther killed in a shootout that claimed the life of a New Jersey State Trooper.
Tellingly, Ayers, like Obama, began his career as a self-described “community organizer,” Ayers in inner-city Cleveland, Obama in inner-city Chicago. In short, Ayers was fully capable of crawling inside Obama’s head and relating in superior prose what the Dreams’ author calls a “rage at the white world [that] needed no object.”
Indeed, in Dreams, it is on the subject of black rage that Obama writes most eloquently. Phrases like “full of inarticulate resentments,” “unruly maleness,” “unadorned insistence on respect” and “withdrawal into a smaller and smaller coil of rage” lace the book.
In Fugitive Days, “rage” rules and in high style as well. Ayers tells of how his “rage got started” and how it evolved into an “uncontrollable rage — fierce frenzy of fire and lava.” Indeed, the Weathermen’s inaugural act of mass violence was the “Days of Rage” in 1969 Chicago.
As in Chicago, that rage led Ayers to a sentiment with which Obama was altogether familiar, “audacity!” Ayers writes, “I felt the warrior rising up inside of me — audacity and courage, righteousness, of course, and more audacity.” This is one of several references.
in my view, Cashill’s textual evidence was thin. If in fact Ayers had a substantial hand in Dreams, I think the evidence would be stronger than what Cashill presented. Among other factors, Cashill pointed to the two books’ adept use of nautical metaphors. Cashill found the “metaphoric thread” between the two books “just shy of conclusive.”
Based on a similar metaphoric thread — see the last section of “Guidelines for cross examination: Lessons from the cross examination of Hermann Goering” — Cashill could also make the case that John Hinderaker and I qualify for recognition as Obama’s secret collaborator. But then we weren’t “some guy[s] who lived in [Obama's] neighborhood” at the time he worked on the book.
Cashill concluded his intriguing column with the observations that “such speculation [could be put] to rest by producing some intermediary sign of impending greatness — a school paper, an article, a notebook, his Columbia thesis, his LSAT scores” and that “Obama guards these more zealously than Saddam did his nuclear secrets.”
Cashill has reiterated and elaborated on his thesis on several occasions since his original column. Most recently, while citing Cashill, Christopher Andersen provided additional evidence to support Cashill’s thesis in Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage. Ronald Radosh summarized Andersen’s contribution here.
Now comes Chicago blogger Anne Leary to report on her airport encounter with Ayers this past Monday. In her conversation with Ayers, Leary reports, Ayers stated: “I wrote Dreams From My Father.” Allahpundit considers the possibilities with appropriate skepticism here. (Leary also provides other links of interest in her updates.)
I don’t have any idea whether Bill Ayers said to Leary what Leary reports he said, but I don’t believe anything Bill Ayers says anyway. Taking Ayers’s word at face value is a bit like trusting the paradoxical assertion of Epimenides, the Cretan philosopher who famously declared that all Cretans are liars.
If Ayers has ever displayed a sense of humor, I’ve missed it, but Ayers appears to have been putting Leary on. Leary’s account suggests that Ayers was being facetious. “He went on to say,” Leary reports, “–and if you can prove it, we can split the royalties.” Good point.
Whoever is responsible for the text of Dreams is a serious writer with literary gifts. For an informed appreciation of the literary qualities of Dreams, see Andrew Ferguson’s “The literary Obama.” Ferguson denies that “anyone who reads it could doubt that Dreams from My Father is the work of a real writer; a young writer, it’s true, with a young writer’s mannerisms.” (Where Ferguson writes “young,” read “immature,” an adjective which would not rule out Ayers.)
Obama’s failure to display literary gifts in texts other than Dreams leads me to wonder whether he is responsible for the flair of Dreams. Would a gifted writer put up with the gaseous rhetoric of Obama’s cliche-ridden speeches? I doubt it.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that Ayers was Obama’s collaborator on Dreams. But if Obama had one, I think it’s fair to say that Ayers is a good candidate.
UPDATE: Tom Maguire thinks I give “no shrift” to Andersen’s book. I give it shrift, for the reason Tom states, consistent with Ronald Radosh’s post linked above. In his book Andersen offers important support for Cashill’s speculations, making them appear something of an inspired hunch. Nevertheless, as Jonah Goldberg suggests, I also think that Ayers is “jerking some chains.”
PAUL adds: It occurs to me that Obama had a strong incentive to produce something elegant, powerful, and original when he wrote Dreams from My Father. He was an unknown and this was his first big break. In subsequent works, his incentives are essentially the same as every politician’s, and it is almost unheard of for a politician to produce a book or speech with literary merit.
An examination of Obama’s college and law school writing is also likely to be unhelpful. Students have as little incentive as politicians to produce elegant, powerful, and original work.
The fact that Obama had an incentive to write a high-quality autobiography doesn’t mean he wrote one. The same incentive might have caused him to enlist help. My point is the more narrow one that a consideration of incentives undermines the value of comparing Dreams from My Father with other writings by Obama.
SCOTT adds: Duncan Jaenicke observes in the comments:
I am a professional ghostwriter; of my 12 books, 8 of them were ghosted. I see you are being very careful to not make a hard-and-fast conclusion, based on Cashill alone, about who wrote Dreams.
Give it up. The question of writing style is not a speculative one; any person’s writing style involved choice of vocabulary, grammar, style and even worldview. These things are even more individualized than, say, a speaker’s voice. When faced w/ the blank screen, the mind reaches into its inner resources and works in almost a miraculous way to produce prose, copy, text.
Put another way, when you telephone your best friend, there is a chance that someone else will pick up the phone (if your pal is in the shower, say), but when your friend answers, you “know” immediately it is him. Apply this way of knowing to one’s writing style, carefully studied. It’s a sure thing. Forget nuancing the question of who wrote Dreams, why not write about something more important re: Obama?
The Ayers encounter at the book show by Englund/NR was, I think, authentic–Ayers was telling the truth, and then decided to put in that twinkle in his eye at the end (the remark about him deserving the royalties) just to confuse the journalists, whom he hates.
BTW I have signed book deals where I, as the ghostwriter, DO get SOME of the royalties, so Ayers is not so far off base as he confessed to the truth.
We write about more important Obama-related matters all the time. I wrote about this one, not because it is important in itself, but because it is interesting.