Did Someone Mention ‘Obama’ and ‘Plagiarism’?
I have been on the road the last several days so I have not had the chance to watch the Republican national convention. From what I have read, however, I get the sense that the media are troubled that Melania Trump might have lifted a phrase or two from Michelle Obama. Michelle seems an unlikely source of inspiration. As the late Christopher Hitchens once said of Michelle's Princeton thesis, “To describe it 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.”
But my gripe isn't with Michelle. It is with her husband. During the 2008 campaign I read Barack Obama's alleged 1995 masterpiece, Dreams from My Father, and came to a startling conclusion. This conclusion was later confirmed by celebrity biographer Christopher Andersen, namely that "literary devices and themes [in Dreams] bear a jarring similarity to [Bill] Ayers’ own writings.” Did they ever.
It seems that shortly before getting into the revolution business, Bill Ayers took a job as a merchant seaman. “I’d thought that when I signed on that I might write an American novel about a young man at sea,” says Ayers in his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, “but I didn’t have it in me.”
The open sea can intimidate. Years later, Ayers would recall a nightmare he had while crossing the Atlantic, “a vision of falling overboard in the middle of the ocean and swimming as fast as I could as the ship steamed off and disappeared over the horizon.” Although Ayers has put his anxious oceangoing days behind him, the language of the sea has not let him go. Indeed, it infuses much of what he writes. This is only natural and often distinctive, as in an appealing Ayers’ metaphor like “the easy inlet of her eyes.”
“I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience,” Ayers writes of these adventures. Yet it struck me as entirely curious that much of this “singular” language flows through Obama’s earthbound memoir. Despite growing up in Hawaii, Obama gives little indication that he has had any real experience with the sea or ships beyond body surfing at Waikiki. Ayers, however, knows a great deal about both.
“Memory sails out upon a murky sea,” Ayers writes at one point. Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses. Obama, like Ayers, has a fondness for the word “murky” and its aquatic usages. “The unlucky ones drift into the murky tide of hustles and odd jobs,” he writes, one of four times “murky” appears in Dreams.
Ayers and Obama also speak often of waves and wind, Obama at least a dozen times on wind alone. “The wind wipes away my drowsiness, and I feel suddenly exposed,” he writes in a passage that sounds as though he had just been called from sleep to man a late watch. Given their awareness of the wind, both writers make conspicuous use of the word “flutter.”
Not surprisingly, Ayers uses “ship” as a metaphor with some frequency. Early in the book he tells us that his mother is “the captain of her own ship.” For Obama, it is his father who acts like a “sea captain.” Ayers imagines the family ship as “a ragged thing with fatal leaks” launched into a “sea of carelessness.” Obama too finds himself “feeling like the first mate on a sinking ship” and speaks fondly of “a tranquil sea.” More telling still is Obama’s use of the word “ragged” as in the poetic “ragged air” or “ragged laughter.”
Ayers and Obama each use “storms” and “horizons” as both substance and as symbol. Ayers writes of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama weighs in with “boundless prairie storms” as well as “eastern horizon,” “western horizon,” and “violet horizon.” Both use the words “current” and “calm” as nouns, the latter word more distinctively as in Ayers’ “pockets of calm” and Obama’s “menacing calm.” Their imaginative use of the word “tangled” suggests a nautical genesis as in Ayers’ “tangled love affairs” and Obama’s “tangled arguments.”
In Dreams, we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in Fugitive Days, “the whole weird panorama of my life.” Ayers writes of still another panorama, this one “an immense panorama of waste and cruelty.” Obama employs the word “cruel” and its derivatives no fewer than fourteen times in Dreams. On at least twelve occasions, Obama speaks of “despair,” as in an “ocean of despair.” Ayers counters with a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well. Both distinctively pair “violence and despair.” Obama’s "knotted, howling assertion of self" sounds like it had been ripped from the pages of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf. The word “knot” or its derivatives, an Ayers’ favorite, is used eleven times in Dreams.
Ayers uses “moorings” figuratively, but Obama uses it literally and too knowingly. “The boats were out of their moorings,” he writes, “their distant sails like the wings of doves across Lake Michigan.” In his book, A Kind and Just Parent, Ayers speaks lovingly of his bike rides along Lake Michigan, “a shining sea of blues and greens.” He knew the lake well and understood what a “mooring” was.
At the end of the day, I found in both Dreams and in Ayers’ several works the following shared words: fog, mist, ships, sinking ships, seas, sails, boats, oceans, calms, captains, charts, first mates, floods, shores, storms, streams, wind, waves, waters, anchors, barges, horizons, harbor, bays, ports, panoramas, moorings, tides, currents, voyages), narrower courses, uncertain courses, and things howling, wobbling, fluttering, sinking, leaking, cascading, swimming, knotted, ragged, tangled, boundless, uncharted, turbulent, and murky.
One could make the argument that since Dreams was published in 1995 and Fugitive Days in 2001, Ayers copied from Obama. In his 1993 book, To Teach, however, Ayers tells the story of an adventurous teacher who would take her students out to the streets of New York to learn interesting life lessons about the culture and history of the city. As Ayers tells it, the students were fascinated by the Hudson River nearby and asked to see it. When they got to the river’s edge, one student said, ”Look, the river is flowing up.” A second student said, “No, it has to flow south-down.” Upon further research, the teacher discovered “that the Hudson River is a tidal river, that it flows both north and south, and they had visited the exact spot where the tide stops its northward push.”
In his 1995 Dreams, Obama shares a jarringly similar story from his own brief New York sojourn. As Obama tells it, he takes an unlikely detour to the exact spot on the parallel East River where the north-flowing tide meets the south-flowing river. There, improbably, a young black boy approaches this strange man and asks, “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?” Obama tells the boy it “had to do with the tides.” The seeming indecisiveness of this tidal river is used here as a metaphor for Obama’s own life. Immediately afterwards, he chooses to drift no more and lights out for Chicago, there to meet his muse. No, Obama did not copy from Ayers. He had Ayers write the damned book.
Even if there were no other evidence, the frequent and sophisticated use of nautical terms in Dreams makes a powerful case for Ayers’ involvement. One passage in particular caught my attention. Obama writes that for black nationalists, a steady attack on the white race “served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.” As a writer, especially in the pre-Google era of Dreams, I would never have used a metaphor as specific as “ballast” unless I knew exactly what I was talking about. Seaman Ayers most surely did.
Andersen based his account of Dreams’ creation on two unnamed sources within Hyde Park. As Andersen tells it, Obama found himself deeply in debt and “hopelessly blocked.” At “Michelle’s urging,” Obama “sought advice from his friend and Hyde Park neighbor Bill Ayers.” What attracted the Obamas were “Ayers’s proven abilities as a writer” as evident in his 1993 book, To Teach.
The media, however, could not bring themselves to question any of this. In recognizing Obama’s unique genius, they validated their own. They have so much emotional equity staked in this recognition that they would rather believe Obama a failed president than a fraudulent human being or a fake writer. In May 2010, in the midst of the Gulf oil mess, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, Maureen Dowd, plumbed new depths of self-deception. In 'Dreams From My Father,'" she wrote, Obama showed passion, lyricism, empathy and an exquisite understanding of character and psychological context -- all the qualities that he has stubbornly resisted showing as president. It was a book that promised a president who could see into the hearts of other people. But there's so much you don't learn about candidates in campaigns, even when they seem completely exposed."
I should end the narrative here, but that would be like leaving a Cinquo de Mayo party with the piñata intact. While fact-checking to make sure Dowd did win a Pulitzer -- I was a little incredulous -- I discovered that she too had been hit with a plagiarism rap. In May 2009, Dowd lifted a paragraph nearly word for word from the blog of Talking Points Memo editor, Josh Marshall. Said Dowd in her own defense, "My friend [who shared her info with Dowd] must have read josh marshall without mentioning that to me.” Of course, Maureen, we believe you. You write for the New York Times.