© Jack Cashill
Evidence continues to mount that Barack Obama had substantial help from Bill Ayers in the creation of his 1995 book, Dreams From My Father, a book that Time Magazine has called “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” The evidence falls into five general categories, here summarized:
A 1990 New York Times profile on Obama’s election as the Harvard Law Review’s first black president in 1990 caught the eye of agent Jane Dystel. She persuaded Poseidon, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster, to authorize a roughly $125,000 advance for Obama’s proposed memoir.
Obama repaired to Chicago with advance in hand and dithered. At one point, in order to finish the book without interruption, he and wife Michelle decamped to Bali. Obama was supposed to have finished the book within a year. Bali or not, advance or no, he could not. Simon & Schuster canceled the contract. His agent hustled him a new, smaller contract.
Ayers published his book To Teach in 1993. Between 1993 and 1996, he had no other formal authorial assignment than to co-edit a collection of essays. This was an unusual hole in his very busy publishing career.
Obama’s memoir was published in June 1995. Earlier that year, Ayers helped Obama, then a junior lawyer at a minor law firm, get appointed chairman of the multi-million dollar Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant. In the fall of that same year, 1995, Ayers and his wife, Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn, helped blaze Obama’s path to political power with a fundraiser in their Chicago home.
In short, Ayers had the means, the motive, the time, the place and the literary ability to jumpstart Obama’s career. And, as Ayers had to know, a lovely memoir under Obama’s belt made for a much better resume than an unfulfilled contract over his head.
Allow me to reconstruct how Obama transformed himself into what the New York Times has called “that rare politician who can write . . . and write movingly and genuinely about himself.” There is an element of speculation in this, but new evidence continues to narrow the gap between the speculative and the conclusive. One clue comes from an unexpected source, Rashid Khalidi, the radical Arab-American friend of Obama’s and reputed ally of the PLO.
In the acknowledgment section of his 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire, Khalidi writes of Ayers, “Bill was particularly generous in letting me use his family’s dining room table to do some writing for the project.” Khalidi did not need the table. He had one of his own. He needed the help.
Khalidi had spent several years at Chicago University’s Center for International Studies. At a 2003 farewell dinner on the occasion of his departure from Chicago, Obama toasted him, thanking him and his wife for the many dinners that they had shared as well as for his “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”
Chicago’s Hyde Park was home to a tight, influential radical community at whose center were Ayers and Dohrn. In this world, the Ayers’ terrorist rap sheet only heightened their reputation. Obama had to know. The couple had given up revolution in 1980 for the long slow march through the institutions. By 1994, if not earlier, Ayers saw a way to quicken that march.
I believe that after failing to finish his book on time, and after forfeiting his advance from Simon & Schuster, Obama brought a sprawling, messy, sophomoric manuscript to the famed dining room table of Bill Ayers and said, “Help.”
Obama’s limited skills
Obama needed all the help he could get. Prior to 1990, he had written very close to nothing. In 1981 Occidental College published two of Obama’s poems—“Pop” and “Underground. Obama calls it some “very bad poetry,” and he does not sell himself short. From “Underground”:
It would be another decade before Obama had anything in print and this an edited, unsigned student case comment in the Harvard Law Review unearthed by Politico. Attorneys who reviewed the piece for Politico described it as “a fairly standard example of the genre.”
Once elected president of the Harvard Law Review—more of a popularity than a literary contest--Obama contributed not one signed word to the HLR or any other law journal.
In 1990 Obama also contributed an essay to a book published by the University of Illinois at Springfield, an anthology called After Alinsky: Community Organizing in Illinois.
Although the essay covers many of the issues raised in Dreams and uses some of the memoir’s techniques, it does so without a hint of style, sophistication, or promise. The following two excerpts capture Obama’s range or lack thereof:
“Moreover, such approaches can and have become thinly veiled excuses for cutting back on social programs, which are anathema to a conservative agenda.”
“But organizing the black community faces enormous problems as well . . . and the urban landscape is littered with the skeletons of previous efforts.”
These cliché-choked sentences go beyond the merely unpromising to the fully ungrammatical. “Organizing” does not “face.” “Efforts” do not leave “skeletons.” “Agendas” do not have “anathemas.” Indeed, the essay is clunky, pedestrian, and wonkish, a B- paper in a freshman comp class.
In “Why Organize” Obama makes use of the fully re-created conversation, a technique used to somewhat better effect in Dreams. Here, his ungainly conjuring of black speech makes one cringe:
"I just cannot understand why a bright young man like you would go to college, get that degree and become a community organizer."
" 'Cause the pay is low, the hours is long, and don't nobody appreciate you."
To read “Why Organize” in its entirety is to understand the profound limits of Obama’s literary talent. I am sure he sensed those limits if no one else did.
Bill Ayers’ 2001 memoir Fugitive Days and Obama’s Dreams From My Father follow oddly similar rules. Ayers describes his as “a memory book,” one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. Obama says much the same. In Dreams, some characters are composites. Some appear out of precise chronology. Names have been changed.
Dreams and Fugitive Days are both suffused with repeated reference to lies, lying and what Ayers calls “our constructed reality.” A serious student of literature, Ayers has written thoughtfully on the role of the first person narrator in the construction of a memoir.
In true postmodernist fashion, he rejects the possibility of an objective, universal truth. He argues instead that our lives are journeys, whose “narratives” we “construct” and, if we have the will and the power, impose on others.
Curiously, Obama says much the same in Dreams and in much the same language. “But another part of me knew that what I was telling them was a lie,” writes Obama, “something I’d constructed from the scraps of information I’d picked up from my mother.”
The evidence strongly suggests that Ayers transformed the stumbling literalist of “Why Organize” into the sophisticated postmodernist of Dreams, and he did not so not by tutoring Obama, but by rewriting his text. The Ayers’ quotes that follow come from an essay of his, “Narrative Push/Narrative Pull.” The Obama quotes come from Dreams:
Although I cite one example for each, Dreams offers many more. There are ten “trap” references alone and nearly as many for “narrative,” “struggle,” and “journey.” To be sure, there are other postmodernists in Chicago, but few who write as stylishly and as intelligibly as Ayers and fewer who make their dining room tables available to would-be authors of a leftist bent.
The sea metaphors
A newly discovered anecdote from Bill Ayers’ 1993 book, To Teach, solidifies the case that he is indeed the muse behind Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father.
In the book, 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.”
Not knowing which was right, the teacher and the students did their research. What they discovered, writes Ayers, was “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 book, Dreams From My Father, Barack Obama shares a stunningly comparable anecdote about tidal rivers from his own brief New York sojourn. He tells of meeting with “Marty Kauffman” at a Lexington Avenue diner, the man from Chicago who was trying to recruit him as a community organizer.
After the meeting, Obama “took the long way home, along the East River promenade.” This serendipitous journey to the river enables him to tell a story that is transparently fabricated and almost assuredly hatched in the weathered brain of Bill Ayers.
As “a long brown barge rolled through the gray waters toward the sea,” Obama sat down on a bench to consider his options. While sitting, he noticed a black woman and her young son against the railing. Overly fond of the too well remembered detail, Obama observes that “they stood side by side, his arm wrapped around her leg, a single silhouette against the twilight.”
The boy appeared to ask his mother a question that she could not answer and then approached Obama: “Excuse me, mister,” he shouted. “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?”
"The woman smiled and shook her head, and I said it probably had to do with the tides." Obama uses the seeming indecisiveness of this tidal river as a metaphor for his own. Immediately afterwards, he shakes the indecision and heads for Chicago.
Even were there no other clues, Obama’s frequent and sophisticated use of nautical metaphors like this one makes a powerful case for Ayers’ involvement in the writing of Dreams. Despite growing up in Hawaii, Obama gives no indication than he has had any real experience with the sea or ships. Ayers, however, knew a great deal about the sea. After dropping out of college, he took up the life of a merchant seaman.
Although Ayers has tried to put his anxious ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go. “I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience,” Ayers writes of his maritime adventures. Yet curiously, much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir.
“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 also 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 typical passage. Both also 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,” not a substantial one either but “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.” He also makes a metaphorical reference to “a tranquil sea.”
More intriguing is Obama’s use of the word “ragged” as an adjective as in the highly poetic “ragged air” or “ragged laughter.” Both books use “storms” and “horizons” both as metaphor and as reality. Ayers writes poetically of an “unbounded horizon,” and Obama writes of “boundless prairie storms” and poetic horizons—“violet horizon,” “eastern horizon,” “western horizon.”
Ayers often speaks of “currents” and “pockets of calm” as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in “a menacing calm” or “against the current” or “into the current.” The metaphorical use of the word “tangled” might also derive from one’s nautical adventures. Ayers writes of his “tangled love affairs” and Obama of his “tangled arguments.”
In Dreams, we read of the “whole panorama of life out there” and in Fugitive Days, “the whole weird panorama.” 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 the “ocean of despair.” Ayers speaks of a “deepening despair,” a constant theme for him as well. Obama’s "knotted, howling assertion of self" sounds like something from the pages of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf.
My own semi-memoir, Sucker Punch, offers a useful control here too. The book makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to ships, seas, oceans, calms, storms, wind, waves, horizons, panoramas, or to things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, or murky. None. And yet I have spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean.
If there is any one paragraph in Dreams that has convinced me of Ayers’ involvement it is this one, in which Obama describes the black nationalist message:
“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.
Why this matters
Obama’s handlers have “constructed” his persona around his presumably superior intelligence. Bill Buckley’s son Christopher, smitten by Obama’s literary skills, is among those who have yielded to this imagery and joined the Obama crusade. Even if someone benign had ghostwritten the book it would present a problem for Obama.
The question is often asked why Obama associated with Ayers. The more appropriate question is why the powerful Ayers would associate with the then obscure Obama. Before Obama’s ascendancy, it was Ayers who had the connections, the clout, and the street cred. Ayers could also write and write very well. By the mid-1990s he had had several of his books published. What Ayers could never do, however, was run for office on his own.
My suspicion is that Ayers saw the potential in Obama, and chose to mold it. The calculation in Dreams is palpable. Nothing about the book would deny a black Democrat the White House. If it were revealed that the ghostwriter is Ayers, it would suggest that Ayers has played a major role all along in the shaping of Barack Obama. It is unlikely that the McCain camp would have invested so much energy in establishing the Ayers-Obama link if they did not think this was the case.
At the end of the day, the observer is left with only two conclusions: either Barack Obama experienced a quantum surge in his writing skills almost overnight; or someone made a major contribution to the rewriting of his book.
The dispassionate observer has to choose the latter—the former has no precedent. If he can endure the consequences, he concedes that that contributor had to be Bill Ayers.
Jack Cashill is the author, among other books, of Hoodwinked: How Intellectual Hucksters Hijacked American Culture. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue University.
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