Breakthrough on the Authorship of Obama's 'Dreams'

Within days of my going public last September with the speculation that terrorist emeritus Bill Ayers helped Barack Obama write his acclaimed memoir, Dreams From My Father, I learned that I was not alone in that intuition.

Since then, I have received helpful contributions from serious people in at least five countries and any number of states and have integrated many of their observations into my ongoing narrative, summarized here.  If you are unfamiliar with this research, please read this before going forward. 

About a week ago, however, I heard from a new contributor.  I will refer to him as "Mr. West." Like most contributors, he prefers to remain anonymous.  The media punishment that Joe the Plumber received has much to do with this nearly universal reticence.

A week before that, I heard from another excellent contributor, Mr. Midwest.  Their collective contribution should dispel the doubts of all but the willfully blind that Ayers played a substantial role, likely the primary role, in the writing of Dreams.

As a reminder, there is no reliable computer science for determining authorship.  In assessing the value of the existing science, think polygraph, not DNA.  Polygraph-level scholarship may suffice for harmless speculation about the authorship of Midsummer's Night Dream, but not for Dreams From My Father.  Too much is at stake for the latter.

The experts in the field have told me to stick with old-fashioned literary detective work, and I have done just that.  Mr, Midwest has helped.  His most recent contribution is a good example of keen-eyed detection. 

Going forward, I will be referring to five books.  These include Ayers' 1993 To Teach, his 1997 A Kind and Just Parent (shorthand: Parent), his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days, and Obama's 1995 Dreams From My Father (Dreams). Casual critics of this research have repeated the canard that I attributed both Obama books, Dreams and the 2006 Audacity of Hope (Audacity), to Ayers.  I never have.  From the beginning, I have asserted that the two books appear to have two different authors, and so I will leave Audacity out of the equation until the end.

What Mr. Midwest noticed recently is that both Ayers in Parent and Obama in Dreams make reference to the poet Carl Sandburg.  In itself, this is not a grand revelation.  Let us call it a C-level match. Obama and Ayers seem to have shared the same library in any case.  Both talk of reading the books of Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Dubois and Frantz Fanon among others.  In fact, each misspells "Frantz" as "Franz."

Ayers and Obama, however, go beyond citing Sandburg.  Each quotes the opening line of his poem "Chicago."  From Dreams:

He poured himself more hot water. "What do you know about Chicago anyway?"

I thought a moment. "Hog butcher to the world," I said finally.

From Parent:

"At the turn of the century, Chicago had a population of a million people and was a young and muscular city - hub of commerce and industry, the first skyscraper city, home of the famous world exposition, "hog butcher to the world" - bursting with energy."

This I would call a B-level match.  What raises it up a notch to an A-level match is the fact that both misquote "Chicago," and they do so in exactly the same way.  The poem actually opens, "Hog butcher for the world."

Last week, the first email I received from Mr. West had in the message box "759 striking similarities between Dreams and Ayers' works."  This claim seemed so outsized I did not take it seriously.  When I was unable to open the documents, I emailed Mr. West back, asked him to reformat, and then forgot about the email.  He resent his documents a few days later.

This time I was able to open them and was promptly blown away.  Mr. West's analysis was systematic, comprehensive, and utterly, totally, damning.  Of the 759 matches, none were frivolous.  All were C-level or above, and I had no doubt of their authenticity.  I had been gathering many of them in my own reserve waiting for a book-length opportunity to make my case.  Mr. West had done the heavy lifting.  He even indexed his matches.  This represented months of works.  As I learned, he had been patiently gathering material since November when he first began building on my own research.

I read through all 759 matches and culled out those that I would consider B-Level or above.  There were 180 of these.  As a control, I tested them against my own 2006 book Sucker Punch, like Dreams and Fugitive Days a memoir that deals extensively with race.  In that I am closer to Ayers in age, race, education, family and cultural background than Obama is, our styles should have had more chance of matching.  They don't.  Of the 180 examples, I matched, strictly speaking, on six.  Even by the most generous standard, we matched on only sixteen.

Let me just cite a few matches between Ayers' work and Dreams that I found intriguing.  Rather astonishingly, as Mr. West points out, at least six of the characters in Dreams have the same names as characters in Ayers' books: Malik, Freddy, Tim, Coretta, Marcus, and "the old man." Many of the stories involving these characters in Dreams seem as contrived as their names.

In one instance, Obama reflects on his own first days as a ten year-old at his Hawaiian prep school, a transition complicated by the presence of "Coretta," the only other black student in the class.

When the other students accuse Obama of having a girlfriend, Obama shoves Coretta and insists that she leave him alone.  Although "his act of betrayal" buys him a reprieve from the other students, Obama understands that he "had been tested and found wanting."

Ayers relates a parallel story in Parent.  He tells of a useful reading assignment from the 1992 book, The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas, by black author Reginald McKnight.  The passage in question deals with the travails of Clint, the first black student in a newly integrated school, who repudiates Marvin, the only other black boy in the school.  Upon reflection, Clint thinks, "I was ashamed.  Ashamed for not defending Marvin and ashamed that Marvin even existed."

As Mr. Midwest pointed out in a recent missive, Ayers' interest in education bleeds into Dreams.  The tip-off once again is the contrived name, in this case "Asante Moran," likely an homage to the Afro-centric educator, Molefi Kete Asante.  Moran lectures Obama and his pal "Johnny" on the nature of public education.

"The first thing you have to realize," he said, looking at Johnnie and me in turn, "is that the public school system is not about educating black children. Never has been. Inner-city schools are about social control. Period."

"Social control" is an Ayers' bugaboo.  "The message to Black people was that at any moment and for any reason whatsoever your life or the lives of your loved ones could be randomly snuffed out," he writes in Fugitive Days.  "The intention was social control through random intimidation and unpredictable violence."

In Dreams, "Moran" elaborates on the fate of the black student,  "From day one, what's he learning about? Someone else's history.  Someone else's culture. Not only that, this culture he's supposed to learn is the same culture that's systematically rejected him, denied his humanity."

If this character were real, and Obama had actually met him, there would be no reason to phony up his name.  In fact, however, Moran is spouting exactly the same educational philosophy that Ayers does in To Teach. 

"Underneath it all," Ayers says of standard school textbooks, "the social studies and literature texts reflected and promoted white supremacy.  There were no pictures or photographs of African Americans . . . there was throughout an assumed superiority and smug celebration of the status quo." 

Both authors, by the way, use the phrase "beneath the surface" repeatedly.  And what they find beneath the surface, of course, is the disturbing truth about power disparities in the real America, which each refers to as an "imperial culture."  Speaking of which, both insist that "knowledge" is "power" and seem consumed by the uses or misuses of power.  Ayers, in fact, evokes the word "power" and its derivatives 75 times in Fugitive Days, Obama 83 times in Dreams.

More exotically, both authors evoke images of a "boy" riding on the backs of a "water buffalo" and prodding the beast not just with sticks, but with "bamboo sticks."  Ayers places his boy in Vietnam.  Obama puts his in Indonesia.

Both authors link Indonesia with Vietnam. In each case, clueless officials - plural -- with the "State Department" try to explain how the march of communism through "Indochina" will specifically imperil "Indonesia." The Ayers account, however, at least sounds vaguely real.  The Obama account sounds like an Ayers' memory imposed on Obama's mother.  She allegedly discussed these geo-political strategy sessions in Indonesia with her pre-teen son.

Ayers and his radical friends were obsessed with Vietnam.  It defined them and still does. To reflect their superior insight into that country, they have shown a tendency to use "Mekong Delta" as synecdoche, the part that indicates the whole.

In Fugitive Days, for instance, Ayers envisions "a patrol in the Mekong Delta" when he conjures up an image of Vietnam.  Ayers' wife, Bernadine Dohrn, pontificated about "a hamlet called My Lai" in a 1998 interview, but to flash her radical chops, she located it "in the middle of the Mekong Delta," which is in reality several hundred miles from My Lai.

Given Obama's age, "Mekong Delta" was not likely a part of his vocabulary, but that does not stop him from writing about "the angry young men in Soweto or Detroit or the Mekong Delta."  Ayers, of course, would also have had a much deeper connection than Obama to "Detroit," whose historic riot took place shortly before Obama's sixth birthday.  Ayers worked in Detroit the year after those same riots.

Returning to the exotic, in his Indonesian backyard Obama discovered two "birds of paradise" running wild as well as chickens, ducks, and a "yellow dog with a baleful howl."

In Fugitive Days, there is even more "howling" than there is in Dreams.  Ayers places his "birds of paradise" in Guatemala.  He places his ducks and dogs together in a Vietnamese village being swept by merciless Americans.  In Parent, he talks specifically about a "yellow dog."   And he uses the word "baleful" to describe an "eye" in Fugitive Days. For the record, "baleful" means "threatening harm."  I had to look it up.

Ayers is fixated with faces, especially eyes.  He writes of "sparkling" eyes, "shining" eyes, "laughing" eyes, "twinkling" eyes, eyes "like ice," and people who are "wide-eyed" and "dark-eyed." 

As it happens, Obama is also fixated with faces, especially eyes.  He also writes of "sparkling" eyes, "shining" eyes, "laughing" eyes, "twinkling" eyes, and uses the phrases "wide-eyed" and "dark-eyed." Obama adds "smoldering eyes," "smoldering" being a word that he and Ayers inject repeatedly. Obama also uses the highly distinctive phrase "like ice," in his case to describe the glinting of the stars.

If Ayers is fixated on eyes, about eyebrows he is positively fetishistic. There are six references to "eyebrows" in Fugitive Days -- bushy ones, flaring ones, arched ones, black ones and, stunningly, seven references in Dreams -- heavy ones, bushy ones, wispy ones.  It is the rare memoirist who talks about eyebrows at all.

On three occasions in Dreams, Obama speaks of people with "round" faces.  On four occasions in Fugitive Days, Ayers does the same.  Both speak of "grim-faced" people, people with "soft" faces, and, most unusually, people with "tight" faces. 

Both Ayers and Obama describe acquaintances who smile like a "Cheshire cat."  Some of their characters have a countenance -- grin, squint, or scowl -- that is "perpetual."  Others are "suppressing" their smiles or their grins.

To this point, I have just skimmed the 759 items in the bill of particulars in my case against Obama's literary genius.   Not familiar with the term "bill of particulars?"  Uncertain myself, I looked that one up too.  It means a list of written statements made by a party to a court proceeding.  Ayers and Obama each refer knowingly to a "bill of particulars." Doesn't everyone?

The answer, of course, is no.  In Audacity of Hope, Obama does not use this phrase or most of the distinctive words or combinations of words in Dreams.  In Audacity, for instance, there are virtually no descriptions of faces or eyes, and the few that the author does use are flat and clichéd -- like "brave face" or "sharp-eyed." In Dreams, seven different people "frown," twelve "grin," and six "squint."  In Audacity, no more than one person makes any of these gestures.

Mr. West independently came to the same conclusion that I did, namely that Ayers was not meaningfully involved in Audacity.  These two Obama books almost assuredly had different primary authors.   What should be transparent to any literary critic is that the author of Audacity lacked the style and skill of the author of Dreams.  There are a few pockets in Audacity that evoke the spirit of Dreams but without the same grace.

A likely suspect for these imitative passages, perhaps the whole of Audacity, is Obama's young speechwriter, Jon Favreau.  Favreau joined the Obama team in 2005, time enough to play that role.  The London Guardian reports that Favreau carries Dreams wherever he goes and can "conjure up his master's voice as if an accomplished impersonator."  If so, in Audacity he played the classic role of the ghostwriter -- one who absorbs his client's thoughts and relates them in a refined version of his client's voice.

Bill Ayers was no one's ghostwriter.  The now overwhelming evidence strongly suggests that he used the frame of Obama's life and finished it off with his own ideas, his own biases, his own experiences, his own passions, his own friends, even his own romances, all of this toned down just enough to keep Obama viable as a potential candidate. 

I would argue that Ayers played Cyrano to Obama's Christian.  His personal history was too ugly for him to woo Roxane/America himself.  But Obama -- "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," as Joe Biden reminded us -- could and did make America's heart melt.

See also:

Who Wrote Dreams From My Father?

Evidence Mounts: Ayers Co-Wrote Obama's Dreams

The Odd Story of Romance in Dreams from my Father

Who Wrote Dreams and Why It Matters
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