Why UK's Daily Mail Got Cold Feet on 'Dreams' Fraud
More than three months after the release of my book Deconstructing Obama, I am still waiting for the first serious review in a print publication of consequence, mainstream or conservative.
The United Kingdom's Daily Mail -- more specifically its sister publication, The Mail on Sunday -- got very close to breaking the most consequential literary fraud of our time but got cold feet at the last minute for reasons that had almost nothing to do with my book.
I write this now not to chastise the Mail but to encourage its editors to pursue a story that remains as relevant as it did two months ago and to thank them for making good on the article they commissioned.
I will also explain what chilled their feet.
The Mail editors first contacted me at the end of March and asked me to write a 1500-word piece. They were helpful throughout and very encouraging. For those not familiar with the controversy, the first paragraph of my unpublished article, shaped with the Mail's editorial guidance, sums it up:
Did President Barack Obama write his best-selling, 1995 memoir Dreams from my Father? Or was this political masterpiece -- according to Time Magazine, the "best written-memoir ever produced by an American politician" -- actually penned by a ghostwriter, a former urban terrorist at that?
The Mail editors understood the potential political impact of what I was writing. "Obama's association with [Bill] Ayers, a man who made "unrepentant" a household word during the 2008 campaign, nearly derailed Obama's trip to the White House," I wrote. "A confirmation of this association today could undo Obama's ambitions for 2012."
There was much editorial back and forth. The editors helped me craft the piece around what they considered the most salient proofs in my book in light of the knowledge base of their audience. As I understood it, they intended to support my piece with editorial, likely of a pro-con style.
I wrote about Ayers's own only half-ironic admissions, Donald Trump's bold repetition of my thesis, as well as celebrity biographer Christopher Anderson's confirmation in his book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage. This 7-minute video synopsis sums up much of my argument.
After I submitted a 1500-word article, the editors asked for a thousand words more. This enabled me to explore at least briefly the textual similarities between Dreams and Ayers's writing that first caught my attention.
These include the 55 or so maritime allusions used by both Ayers and Obama; their shared "rage"; the matching Homeric structures of their respective memoirs; and their relentless postmodern talk of constructed realities, of narratives, of fictions, of interior struggles, of uncertain memories, of metaphorical journeys, of traps, of contradictions, of correctives, of rewritten personal histories. The pair also dabbled in advanced postmodern slang -- the "grooves" into which they have fallen, the "poses" they assume, and even the "stitched together" nature of their lives.
In their reading of my book, the Mail editors were struck by the focus on eyes and eyebrows both in Dreams and in Ayers's memoir Fugitive Days. Ayers, for instance, writes of "sparkling" eyes, "shining" eyes, "laughing" eyes, "twinkling" eyes, and people who are "wide-eyed" and "dark-eyed." As it happens, Obama also writes of "sparkling" eyes, "shining" eyes, "laughing" eyes, "twinkling" eyes, and uses the phrases "wide-eyed" and "dark-eyed."
Obama is the rare writer to fix on eyebrows -- heavy ones, bushy ones, wispy ones. There are seven references to "eyebrows" in Dreams. There are six references to eyebrows in Fugitive Days, an eyebrow-fixation that borders on fetish.
The editors asked me to explain computer-based literary forensics, and this I did too. As I noted, the most sophisticated study on this subject came from Chris Yavelow, a composer who has helped pioneer what he calls "computational corpus linguistics." His 27-page report compared Dreams with Fugitive Days on any number of variables: attributions, characters per word, syllables per word, sentence length, structure, flow, paragraph length, readability, verb use, modifiers, contractions, redundancies, clichés, and more.
Every variable Yavelow tested -- save, tellingly, for dialogue -- argued for shared authorship. On the subject of clichés, for instance, Yavelow noted that out of more than 3,000 clichés, the two memoirs used less than 7 percent and had 62 percent of them in common. "And, not only in common," Yavelow wrote, "but often in a nearly corresponding position on the distribution list."
Concluded Yavelow, "There is a strong possibility that the author of Fugitive Days ghost wrote Dreams From My Father using recordings of dialog (either tape recordings or notes). Alternatively, another scenario might be possible: Ayers might have served as a 'book doctor' for Obama and given extreme license to edit and rewrite."
I explained too that before Dreams was published, Obama had nothing in print save for two ungainly, amateurish articles. For the ten years after Dreams, he wrote only a pedestrian column in the neighborhood newspaper, the Hyde Park Herald. If he wrote a single inspired or imaginative sentence during those years, I was not able to find it.
In 2006, after receiving a lucrative advance, Obama produced The Audacity of Hope, a workmanlike book written in a style obviously different from Dreams. Knowing its genesis, a rebellious Ayers accurately, if a bit harshly, dismissed it as a "political hack book." It reads, in fact, like a strategic feint to the political center crafted with the presidency in mind and created by committee. No fewer than 24 people are listed in the acknowledgements section as having provided "invaluable suggestions" in its manufacture.
The New York Times' Michiko Kakutani had earlier observed that portions of Audacity sound like "outtakes from a stump speech," and she was righter than she knew. At least 38 passages from Obama speeches delivered in 2005 or 2006 appear virtually word for word as ordinary text in Audacity.
As I conceded to the Mail editors, however, shy of a serious confession by those involved, I would not be able to prove to the satisfaction of, say, Chris Matthews that Obama did not write Dreams or Audacity by himself.
Still, to credit Dreams to Obama alone, one must posit any number of near miraculous variables: he somehow found the time, learned nautical jargon, mastered postmodern jabberwocky, unleashed his heretofore hidden rage, and transformed himself from stumbling amateur to literary superstar without paper trail or even practice.
To credit Audacity to Obama alone, one has to posit several additional variables: after letting his talent lie fallow for a decade, he adopted a modified and less competent style and churned out nearly 50 pages a week despite his 12-hour days as a freshman senator. To suggest Ayers largely wrote Dreams takes no stretch of the imagination at all. To suggest Ayers wrote Audacity clearly insults him.
Up until April 27, the Mail editors thought the subject of Obama's counterfeit literary career worthy of a public airing. I suspect they still do. But it was on that date, after three years of playing an un-presidential game of hide-the-baloney, President Obama produced at least ersatz baloney, namely a birth certificate of uncertain legitimacy.
Although I had not written about the birth certificate, I got caught in the post-birth certificate cold front that swept out of Washington and chilled debate around the world.
For some very good reasons, editorial feet are beginning to thaw, at least a liitle. It is not too late for the Mail to stand up to the literary poseur in the White House, and God knows it is long past due for a conservative publication to do the same.