In previous articles on the subject of President Obama's writing skills, I have focused on his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, not his 2006 book, Audacity of Hope for one reason: Dreams, according to esteemed British author Jonathan Raban and others, captures Obama's "authentic voice."
On the strength of Dreams, Raban called Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln." Raban is in good company. "I was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to learn and turn a good phrase," said Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison of Dreams. "I was very impressed. This was not a normal political biography.''
Although Audacity has received respectful reviews, it has not gotten the raves Dreams has. The New York Times describes Audacity "as much more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech."
Still, despite the book's "flabby platitudes," the Times assures its readers that "enough of the narrative voice in this volume is recognizably similar to the one in Dreams From My Father." Without intending to, the Times likely captured the thinking behind the creation of Audacity.
If portions of Audacity sound like outtakes from stump speeches, it is because they are outtakes from stump speeches. This can be proved. What cannot be proved, but what seems likely, is that Obama included just "enough of the narrative voice" from Dreams to maintain continuity between the two books.
The question remains -- who provided that narrative voice? In the criticism of my last two American Thinker articles, only the Washington Post addressed the central issue, and it did so facetiously: "The book [Dreams] is beautifully written and yet, in Cashill's opinion, Obama is - and always was - a crappy (his word, not mine) writer."
Critics, please forget for a minute the parallel styles, words, phrases, images, and anecdotes shared by Dreams and Bill Ayers' books. Forget for a minute Bill Ayers. The three existing samples of Obama's prose before Dreams -- the 1983 article "Breaking the War Mentality," the 1988 article "Why Organize," and his unsigned 1990 Harvard Law Review case note -- are proof enough that Barack Obama is, in fact, a crappy writer.
Consider the following sentence from "Breaking The War Mentality," an article the 21 year-old Obama wrote for Columbia's weekly news magazine, Sundial, in March 1983:
The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are at the root of the problem, keep SAM's energies alive.
The noun, "belief," and the verb, "keep," don't agree -- one of an appalling five such noun-verb mismatches in the essay -- and the punctuation is fully random. More problematically, the word choice sucks all logic out of the sentence. In the previous paragraph, Obama had warned his readers about the "the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country."
In this paragraph, the reader is told that these same military institutions are "moribund" -- that is "nearly dead." How their debilitated state keeps the "energies" of the Students Against Militarism (SAM) "alive" is apparently left to the reader's imagination.
Obama is no untutored ghetto kid. He wrote this after eight years at Hawaii's best prep school and after four years at two good universities.
In my 25-year career in advertising and publishing I have had to review the portfolios of at least a thousand professional writers. I can tell within three paragraphs whether a writer deserves a second look. Based on any of his pre-Dreams samples, Obama would not have made the first cut. I never would have hired him. No one would have. He is simply a crappy writer.
I have also taught writing at enough levels and under enough different circumstances to know that even the best teacher cannot transform a crappy writer into a great writer. The best that the teacher can hope for is a semi-crappy writer who does not make too many grammatical errors.
Between Harvard and Dreams, Obama had no extra training. In a 2006 article, written while he was still seething, liberal publisher Peter Osnos tells the story of what did happen during those lost years.
According to Osnos, the New York Times did a profile of Obama when elected the first black leader of the Harvard Law Review. The article prompted literary agent Jane Dystel to have Obama submit a book proposal to an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The publisher liked the proposal and advanced him about $125,000. "Several years passed," Osnos writes, "and Obama was too busy finishing law school and embarking on his career to get the book done." Simon & Schuster then canceled the contract, and Obama likely had to pay at least some of it back.
Dystel then approached Times Book at Random House where Osnos was publisher, and he advanced Obama $40,000 more. The newly inspired Obama promptly turned in what Time Magazine has called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." Osnos believes Obama wrote the book himself, but he was in no position to know that. My publisher has to accept on faith that I am writing my own books. Even my agent does.
Obama's memoir was published in June 1995. In January of that same magical year, Ayers had chosen Obama, then a junior lawyer at a minor law firm, to chair the multi-million dollar Chicago Annenberg Challenge grants. In the fall of 1995, Ayers and his wife, Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn, launched Obama's ascent to political stardom with a fundraiser in their Chicago home.
Dreams sold modestly in 1995, and the rights to it eventually reverted to Random House's Crown Books Division, which made a killing on the book after Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
After being elected senator in November 2004, Obama replaced the now "furious" Dystel and her 15 percent cut with a powerful D.C. attorney who charged only by the hour. Some time before his swearing in as senator, Obama signed a two-book deal with Crown for somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 million. Although an Obama fan, Osnos was dismayed by Obama's "ruthlessness" and his "questionable judgment about using public service as a personal payday."
In October 2006, Audacity debuted to kind reviews and huge sales. Despite Obama's "unforgiving Senate schedule and periodic bouts of writer's block," he had been able to write a 216-page book without any acknowledged writing help in what was likely an 18-month window. This was the same writer who blew a $125,000 advance because he was unable to produce a book during "several" much less hectic years, the same writer who between his 1995 masterpiece and Audacity had written nothing deeper than a column for a community newsletter.
How did Obama do it? "I usually wrote at night after my Senate day was over, and after my family was asleep -- from 9:30 p.m. or so until 1 a.m," he told interviewer Daphne Durham of Amazon. "I would work off an outline -- certain themes or stories that I wanted to tell -- and get them down in longhand on a yellow pad. Then I'd edit while typing in what I'd written."
In fact, the legitimacy of this interview is as dubious as the legitimacy of the book. Obama's answer to Durham's question. "What inspires you", shows up word-for-word (70 words) in the promotional blurb for Audacity. The explanation was legitimate enough, however, for Time Magazine.
"His best writing time comes late at night when he's all alone, scribbling on yellow legal pads," wrote Jay Newton-Small two months before the November 2008 election. "This is how he wrote both of his two best selling books -- Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope -- staying up after Michelle and his two young daughters had long gone to bed, reveling in the late night quiet."
Little of this rings true. Obama's oldest daughter was born in 1998, three years after Dreams was published. The late night story line was likely contrived to explain how he could have written Audacity despite the "unforgiving" schedule of a new senator.
One of my more diligent correspondents, whom I call Mr. West, has been doing some intriguing analysis of Audacity. He had earlier sent me an indexed compendium of "759" distinctive words and phrases that appear in both Dreams and Bill Ayers' books.
Mr. West has since compared Dreams and Audacity. By a generous count, Audacity matches Dreams in only 140 of the 759 word selections. "Many of these were words were just used one time in Audacity and in a different context," writes Mr. West. He was surprised too by the words and phrases that he expected to find in Audacity but did not. His conclusion, "Ayers was absolutely not involved in Audacity."
Mr. West noted also that when Dreams-like words appear in Audacity, they suddenly emerge in clusters. In the passage that follows, words and phrases that appear in both Dreams and Audacity are in bold italics:
Slowly, the senior senator rose from his seat, a slender man with a still-thick snowy mane, watery blue eyes, and a sharp, prominent nose. For a moment he stood in silence, steadying himself with his cane, his head turned upward, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Then he began to speak, in somber, measured tones, a hint of the Appalachians like a knotty grain of wood beneath polished veneer. I don't recall the specifics of his speech, but I remember the broad themes, cascading out from the well of the Old Senate Chamber in a rising, Shakespearean rhythm
This is the kind of stretch that the Times rightly describes as "recognizably similar" to the "narrative voice" of Dreams. To my ear, however, it sounds forced and a little stilted and reads not so much like a passage from Dreams as an imitation of such a passage.
Mr. West also compared Audacity to various stump speeches made by Obama during the time Audacity was being written. The plagiarism here is inarguable. Mr. West lists 38 passages that appear virtually word for word in Obama speeches given in 2005 or 2006 and in Audacity.
The first example comes from a speech Obama gave on October 25, 2005, the second from Audacity.
. . . those who work in the field know what reforms really work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills. Longer hours and more days to give kids the time and attention they need to learn.
And in fact we already have hard evidence of reforms that work: a more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math, science, and literacy skills; longer hours and more days to give children the time and sustained attention they need to learn.
By 2006, Obama appears to have been reading speeches that have been lifted in full from the text of Audacity. The first example comes from a June 28, 2006 speech, the second from Audacity.
Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.
The single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans is not between men and women, or between those who reside in so-called red states and those who reside in blue states, but between those who attend church regularly and those who don't.'
Of course, all that this proves is that whoever wrote Obama's speeches wrote large sections of Audacity, perhaps all of it, and this is only an issue if someone other than Obama wrote his speeches.
As we are seeing, though, falsehoods have a way of compounding themselves. When Rachel Klayman of Crown pulled Dreams from the vaults and put it back in circulation, she unknowingly set in motion a series of fabrications, beginning with the foundational myth that Obama is a literary genius. To sustain that myth, Obama's enablers have to make us believe that he also wrote Audacity by himself as well as most of his speeches, staying up unto 1 A.M. each night to do so.
The emergence of Jon Favreau, whom Time Magazine calls a "wunderkind wordsmith," complicates this scenario. After a February 2009 speech to Congress, the Washington Post ran a photo of Obama holding the speech, on the first page of which was clearly printed, "Draft 2/24/09 12pm...Favreau/Rhodes." It even included Favreau's phone number.
According to Wikipedia, "Favreau was hired as Obama's speechwriter shortly after Obama's election to the United States Senate. Obama and Favreau grew close, and Obama has referred to him as his ‘mind reader.'" Obama thought highly enough of Favreau to make him his chief speechwriter for the presidential campaign. The London Guardian reports that Favreau carries Dreams wherever he goes and can "conjure up his master's voice as if an accomplished impersonator."
Of the thirty-eight speeches during Favreau's tenure that found their way into Audacity are we to believe that he wrote none of them? It is much more likely that he wrote all of them. Yes, Obama may have written his thoughts down in longhand, but why would he not have given those notes to his gifted young speechwriter to polish?
Here is what I believe happened. Obama knew he had a problem on his hands when Dreams was republished in 2004. He recruited Ayers to write the (post-modernist) preface to the 2004 edition, but once he was elected to the Senate they both knew that Ayers was poison. To achieve continuity, Ayers, I believe, wrote the prologue to Audacity. It is the best-written part of the book. From here, Favreau took over. An "accomplished impersonator," he labored to make extended passages of Audacity sound like Dreams. It was a good effort, but he simply does not write as well as Ayers does.
Those who think Ayers cannot write either have not read him or do not have the wherewithal to judge him. In a recent critique of us "Internet zanies," Republican bigwig Ken Blackwell (why the attacks from the right?) observes, "Bill Ayers' thoughts have all the leaden quality of most deadening Marxist screeds. Ayers' writing you can't pick up; Obama's you can't put down." No, Ken, Ayers writes very well indeed. Fugitive Days is a better book than Dreams.
To be sure, Obama does not mention Ayers in the acknowledgments section of Dreams. In a similar spirit he slights Favreau in Audacity. He merely thanks a number of his Senate staff, "including Pete Rouse, Karen Kornbluh, Mike Strautmanis, Jon Favreau, Mark Lippert, Joshua DuBois, and especially Robert Gibbs and Chris Lu" for reading the manuscript, but of course, "on their own time."
I imagine that Favreau made his contribution on his own time as well.