Tyee Books

Did Young Barack Have a Ghostwriter?

Did an ex-Weatherman terrorist really write 'Dreams from My Father'? Dream on.

By Crawford Kilian 30 Sep 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

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Bill Ayers: Right-wing blogs are buzzing.

When I read Dreams from My Father in the first weeks of the Obama presidency, I was struck by the astonishing sophistication of the young Obama's writing.

Had I read it when it first came out, in 1995, I'd have pegged him as the best black American writer since James Baldwin, with a bright future as an author. I would also have wondered, as I wonder now, how the hell a guy of 33 could write so well.

Evidently others had the same reaction, and the current buzz in the right-wing U.S. blogosphere is that Obama didn't write it at all; what's more, the real author is none other than ex-Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers, who knew Obama in Chicago in the 1990s.

The argument first appeared in an article by Jack Cashill in American Thinker, published last October. For some reason the story didn't take off until this September, but it's now spread far and wide.

Cashill makes an interesting case, though he admits he can't really prove it. He simply finds it highly unlikely that a young man with little previous writing experience could have produced such a sophisticated book. But as the author of 21 published books (and a few more still looking for a publisher), I find Cashill's arguments equally unlikely.

Advances and contracts

Let's take just a couple of Cashill's points. First, he says that in 1990 a New York agent got Obama a $125,000 advance from Simon & Schuster, based on his having become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review. Obama failed to deliver, the contract was cancelled, but Obama got to keep much of the advance. Then his agent got him a new deal (only $40,000) with Random House. This time he delivered Dreams from My Father, and it eventually made him a rich man.

Cashill argues that the book shares many similarities with the prose style of Bill Ayers, right down to the metaphors and readability levels. Ayers and Obama knew each other in Chicago, and they shared many sentiments and values. So, says Cashill, Ayers took Obama's manuscript and some taped materials and put the book together for him.

Having dealt with New York publishers (including Random House) between the 1970s and 1990s, I find it hard to imagine that a young Ivy Leaguer could have put together an effective book pitch without having some real writing ability. Agents are no more gullible than publishers. If they don't see the real stuff in a sample of fiction or nonfiction, they won't even answer the author's query.

And maybe Obama did get $125,000, though it's hard to believe a publisher would write off even a small fraction of that when he didn't deliver. Even harder to believe is that another publisher would fall for Obama's hard-luck story and fork over another 40 grand.

Help with writer's block?

I can well imagine that Obama might have taken an advance and then run into major writer's block. It happens. I can also imagine that he turned to friends for advice and help, and Bill Ayers might have been one of those friends.

But did Ayers actually take a botched manuscript and overhaul it into a remarkably fluent and eloquent memoir? I haven't read anything by Ayers, but let's assume he's the fine writer Cashill says he is, fond of the same metaphors and images Obama uses. Maybe he could have ghostwritten Dreams from My Father, but why would he?

For all his Harvard and Columbia background, Obama was then a young nobody. Producing a book as sophisticated as this one would have been a time-consuming project. Ayers had a busy academic career and was cranking out his own books on education. What was in it for him?

Possibly quite a lot -- a good chunk of that second advance, anyway. And if it had been a formal agreement to divide the royalties of the book, like any other ghostwriting project, Obama's contract would contain a clause or two to that effect.

Suppose it had been a handshake deal, under which Obama paid Ayers some fraction of the royalties without the publisher's knowledge. Ayers would presumably have declared that income on his tax returns; maybe he's still doing so.

Gambling on an unknown

Even this seems unlikely. A professional ghostwriter knows that the advance is usually the only money a book earns, so the bulk of the advance goes to the ghost, with any future royalties shared. Ayers would have had to gamble that Obama's name on Ayers's writing would make substantial income, but that must have seemed highly unlikely.

Cashill makes much of the similarity of metaphors and images in Dreams from My Father and Ayers's own writing. That may be true, but it could as well come from Obama's finding permission, by reading Ayers's work, to adopt a certain style. Ayers could have been a mentor, not a ghostwriter.

If the Obama manuscript really were a mess, chances are the publisher would have recruited an in-house editor with a reputation for salvaging disasters. Again, a paper trail would exist to document both the editor's role and the editor's revisions.

And any such project would be known to dozens or hundreds of people in the publishing world, especially after Obama launched his presidential campaign. Surely someone would have leaked some documents about the candidate's non-authorship of his first book.

Of course, if Random House were to present us with such a paper trail, and it showed no ghostwriter or rescue editor, Obama's critics would treat it like his Hawaiian birth certificate: They're concerned with finding another reason to dislike him, not with determining where the truth is.

My best guess is that young Barack had too much ego to let someone else mess with his writing, unless the publishers had found the manuscript unpublishable and had told him it needed heavy editing. That in turn would have required weeks or months of constant communication as the editor reshaped the manuscript, with Obama learning as he took part in the process.

A chorus of wisdom

The most remarkable achievement of the book, astonishing in a male writer of any age, is its use of women as a chorus of wisdom commenting on the foolishness of men.

In a bildungsroman, or "education novel," the young male hero learns what his world is all about. Usually, this involves the hero listening to various versions of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise old man who shares his wisdom.

Obama certainly pays attention to older men: his grandfather, his Indonesian stepfather, the later-notorious Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and of course his own father. But they mostly serve as examples of what not to do. They run into limits, sometimes set by their societies, more often by their own weaknesses.

Young Barack loves (or at least respects) these men. He honours their visions. The description of his conversion to Christianity, while listening to one of Wright's sermons, is an extraordinary passage.

But the women always have the last word. Whether it's his mother, or his white and black grandmothers, or his various half-sisters, the wisdom of the women renders judgment without appeal. They pay more attention to their men than the men pay to themselves, and they do not judge out of resentment. They see and admire their men's wonderful traits, but they also see their self-destructive follies.

Showing, not telling

Again, Obama does not tell us how women's judgments taught him anything, or made him a better man. He lets them speak (in very believable dialogue), and does not argue with them. We can safely assume that he has heeded what they say.

And what they do. As a community organizer, Obama works with a shy young woman who's found an issue: asbestos in her public-housing complex. He encourages her to push the issue, and watches her confront a Chicago Housing Authority bureaucrat: "I had the unsettling feeling that his soul was familiar to me, that of an older man who feels betrayed by life -- a look I had seen so often in my grandfather's eyes."

The bureaucrat offers the young woman an empty assurance. She turns it into a promise that will help to goad the bureaucracy into action. Obama watches, and learns. His community, especially its women, is organizing him -- not by telling him, but by showing him, as good storytellers do.

By the time Obama returns from his first trip to Kenya, we can draw a moral he doesn't bother to make explicit: Men who ignore women will indeed suffer betrayal, not by life but by themselves. Women are far from perfect, but they often see what men choose not to. The man who takes counsel with them may not like what he hears, but it will serve him well.

Perhaps Bill Ayers wrote in that chorus of wise women, and perhaps someday we'll learn all about it. But for now, the evidence suggests Obama wrote the book himself, with good editorial guidance, just like Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe and a host of other fine writers.  [Tyee]

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