April 2, 2011
Simon & Schuster's Revenge
In 1993, thirty-three-year-old Barack Obama stiffed Poseidon Press, then an imprint of Simon & Schuster -- producing absolutely nothing for the publisher that in November 1990 had given the new graduate of Harvard Law School a $125,000 advance to write a book about race relations in America.
Eighteen years later, Simon & Schuster has achieved a modicum of revenge (intended or not) by contracting with literary and intellectual sleuth Jack Cashill to impose on Obama a little of the transparency he so disingenuously promised during the campaign of 2008.
Given Obama's approach to truth, the title of Cashill's sometimes impertinent sounding imposition -- Deconstructing Obama: The Life, Loves, and Letters of America's First Postmodern President -- suggests an appropriate methodology.
In this ever so readable and informative book, Cashill has taken great pains to corral probative evidence for two interesting matters: (1) the truth about who finally wrote Dreams From My Father, the essay-cum-memoir that Random House -- providing its own advance of $40,000 -- eventually published; and (2) very reasonable questions about the paternity of the current president of the United States.
It had not occurred to Cashill in the autumn of 2008 to wonder who wrote Dreams, until a friend's query about the political significance of some passages from the book led him to purchase a copy. As one who writes for a living, who teaches writing, who has been the book doctor to the publications of others and who is the author of a recent book, Hoodwinked, about literary and intellectual fraud, Cashill has antennae finely tuned to assess the writing quality of any text he reads. Of the thousand-plus portfolios of professional writers Cashill had read in his twenty-five-year career in advertising and publishing, "not a half dozen among them wrote as well as the author of" Dreams' "best passages."
Accusations denied by Obama in April 2008 that he and William Ayers had a significant relationship in the 1990s led Cashill to purchase Ayers' terrorist memoir, Fugitive Days. The writing was excellent, he noticed, and a couple of passages reminded the curious sleuth of Obama's Dreams. Unaware at the time of Ayers' considerable literary output, Cashill wondered if perhaps the two Chicago residents -- Ayers and Obama -- had seen and patronized the same ghost. But then he acquired two published articles by Obama: one, "Breaking the War Mentality," an essay from his senior year at Columbia (1983), and another, "Why Organize?" written five years later. Cashill provides several examples of unworthy sentences from the two Obama originals in which nouns and verbs do not even agree. The two essays make obvious that when Obama does his own writing, it is on a par with his golf; and anyone who has seen the president's swing on YouTube knows he should drag his clubs to the Tidal Basin and drown them.
One of the early tells that for Cashill appeared to tie Ayers' writing to Obama's was the considerable and deft salting of nautical metaphors that seasoned the logs of Fugitive Days and Dreams, as if both authors had drunk the same grog. And then Cashill learned that right out of college Ayers had spent a pre-terrorism year in the Merchant Marine. What even the dullest readers of Dreams and Fugitive Days could stipulate to was that both the young Honolulu landlubber and the old Chicago salt yawed consistently to port.
Because it is a common practice for politicians to utilize ghosts for their speeches and books (Ted Sorensen wrote Jack Kennedy's Profiles in Courage, Cashill reminds us), Obama's employment of a literary shade would be of little consequence had he not claimed so publicly to having written both Dreams for My Father and Audacity of Hope himself and had his proxy penman not turned out to be former (and unrepentant) Weather Underground communist radical and bomber William Ayers.
Unaware of Ayers' involvement, Time magazine's Joe Klein (author of Primary Colors) called Dreams "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." And British author Jonathan Raban named Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln." As Cashill writes, while Obama was pursuing the Democratic Party's nomination, "the literati had already embraced Obama as one of their own." The assumption that Obama had authored the books that appeared over his name snookered even the worldly-wise Christopher Buckley into voting for the man.
As the 2008 election neared, the mounting evidence made it increasingly clear that Obama had not authored his own memoir; and the Dreams account of the president's childhood appeared less and less reliable. Cashill had not approached the Obama corpus as a bitter birther who suspected Obama was born outside the United States. It was the careful exploration of Dreams -- especially the facts and timeline pertaining to his paternity -- that eventually led the sleuth to doubt that Barack Obama, Sr., the Kenyan graduate student after whom Ann Dunham's son was named, could be his father. And the chances seem awfully slim that the three were ever together as a family. "If Obama was born on August 4, 1961 ... Ann [Dunham Obama] was in Seattle two weeks later," writes Cashill, registered at the University of Washington for two evening classes that began August 19, 1961 -- "Anthropology 100, 'Introduction to the Study of Man,' and Political Science 201, 'Modern Government.'" That is just one of many problems with the story of Barry's early childhood provided in Dreams and contradicted at so many points by the family and friends of Obama's mother and putative father.
What adds to the pleasure of reading this very well written exposé is the manner of its presentation. Readers get to ride along with a masterful literary detective, watch him tag interesting items, and appreciate how he arranges them on the evidence table. To many readers, the initial clues that caught Cashill's attention may seem picayune or indicative of little or nothing. But as the evidence accumulates, it becomes obvious that it is the author's perfect pitch that enabled him to recognize the ruse.
Deconstructing Obama contains a lot of facts related to Obama that his acolytes have never found interesting. Just a few from the highlight reel:
Dreams does not contain a single sentence about campus life during the five years combined Obama spent at Columbia and Harvard -- nearly 17 percent of his life when the book was first proposed.Readers cannot learn from Dreams that as a twenty-year-old Obama took a trip to Pakistan, why, or on whose dime.Obama dropped the agent that acquired for him two advances (totaling $165,000) for the myth-making book, before his swearing in as senator in 2004 and the signing of a deal with Crown Books for a paperback version of Dreams and the production of Audacity of Hope.Since 2004, Obama's two books have earned him royalties of around $8.3 million. (Imagine the piece of that action his original agent missed out on!)Obama appears to have learned nothing about literary ethics while serving as a research assistant to plagiarizing Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe.Obama has admitted rather privately but explicitly that he was "someone who has undoubtedly benefitted from affirmative action programs during my academic career."
Christopher Hitchens was not impressed with Michelle Obama's Princeton thesis: "To describe [the thesis] as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be 'read' at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn't written in any known language."
Not only is Cashill's hunt inherently riveting, but the detective's sometimes cynical voice leads to impish, politically incorrect fun with language. Three examples: "Newsweek made Obama its cover boy under the heading 'The Color Purple.'" "Obama's fellow progressives, the party's base, understand that the long march through the institutions will have many strategic stalls." "As Obama would soon learn, the pastor [Jeremiah Wright] did not exactly cotton to a public spanking by a protégé."
For this reviewer, the most fascinating chapters in an engrossing book are the two -- "Gramps" and "Frank" -- that describe the radical, poet, and pornographer Frank Marshall Davis and his disturbingly close relationship to the pre-and post adolescent Barry Obama.
When Jack Cashill is finished deconstructing Barack Obama, we are left with a very different image from the one portrayed in Dreams and by the Obama presidential campaign. When our sleuth has put this puzzle together, the pieces accumulate to reveal an image -- but it is not the one on the box cover.
Cashill's book demonstrates that the president's 2008 campaign was not about the audacity of hope; it was about the audacity of Obama. His dogged detective work also demonstrates that in no previous American presidential election has the press so abysmally failed to meet its professional obligation. In no national election of memory was the vote so singularly based on such a dearth of data about the candidate who won.
If the fourth estate looked anything like America, the preliminary findings Cashill attempted to share with the press in October 2008 would have established Ayers publicly as the ghost of Obama's Dreams, and Sarah Palin most likely would be the first female vice president of the United States. Had the press done its own digging and reporting much earlier in the campaign of 2007-2008 for the Democratic Party nomination, Hillary Clinton would be the first pants-suited president of the United States.
Michelle Obama's assertions about Ayers' work on Dreams in Christopher Andersen's book, Barack and Michelle, puts a cap on the independent evidence that Obama lied about writing the memoir himself, and that he had another cock-crowing moment when he said Bill Ayers was just "a guy who lives in my neighborhood." Beyond working with Obama on Dreams, Obama's first political campaign was launched in 1995 at the home of William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn; and Ayers' maneuvering of Obama onto the $50 million Chicago Annenberg Challenge that same year indicates unavoidably that during the middle years of the Clinton presidency the two were thick as thieves.
Cashill's demonstration that misrepresentations unexamined by the press lead to fraud-based outcomes is the most disturbing part of the story. For a democratic republic, nothing is so sacrosanct as the right to vote; and that is why women's suffrage through the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were (and remain) such emotional and precious victories. When enabled by a complacent, cowardly, or complicit press, an audacious political hustler can disenfranchise the voters of an entire nation. The integrity of "by the people" is desecrated and voided no less by a candidate who succeeds in totally misrepresenting himself and his policies to voters than by the wholesale stuffing of ballot boxes.
Most unfortunately, the deconstruction of congenial myths is often received with the same enthusiasm as a stool specimen in the baptistery. While Jesus of the gospels said that the truth will set you free, one of his most poetically ardent defenders recognized that "nations grown corrupt" would rather take "bondage with ease than strenuous liberty." This fact is made obvious by the struthious apologetics that day by day through the popular media continue to anchor the myths of Dreams and Audacity.
Somehow the damning facts exposed in Deconstructing Obama must saturate the electorate before the 2012 elections, so that those who voted for the Barry of Dreams or the Barack of Audacity can see that what they voted for in 2008 was a cunningly devised fable.