Prior to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write Dreams From My Father, he had written very close to nothing. Then, five years later, this untested 33 year-old produced what Time Magazine has called -- with a straight face -- "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician."
The public is asked to believe Obama wrote Dreams From My Father on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all. Writing is as much a craft as, say, golf. To put this in perspective, imagine if a friend played a few rounds in the high 90s and then a few years later, without further practice, made the PGA Tour. It doesn't happen.
And yet, given the biases of the literary establishment, no reviewer of note has so much as questioned Obama's role in the writing, then or now. As the New York Times gushed, Obama was "that rare politician who can write . . . and write movingly and genuinely about himself." These accolades matter all the more because Obama has built his political persona around his presumably superior intellect, Dreams being exhibit A.
Shy of a confession by those involved, I will not be able to prove conclusively that Obama did not write this book. As shall be seen, however, there are only two real possibilities: one is that Obama experienced a near miraculous turnaround in his literary abilities; the second is that he had major editorial help, up to and including a ghostwriter.
The weight of the evidence overwhelming favors the latter conclusion and strongly suggests who that ghostwriter is. In that this remains something of a work in progress, I am willing to test my hypothesis against any standard of proof and appreciate any and all good leads.
In my career in advertising and publishing, I have reviewed the portfolios of a thousand professional writers, all of them crowded with writing samples, but only a handful of these writers would have been capable of having a written a book as stylish as Dreams. I have also written a book on intellectual fraud, Hoodwinked, and examined any number of bogus biographies that excited the literary left to the point of complicity, Edward Said's and Rigoberta Menchu's prominent among them, Menchu winning a Nobel Prize for hers. Obama's ascent seems to follow a century-old pattern.
Tracing Obama's literary ascent is complicated by what Politico.com calls a "scant paper trail." That trail begins at Occidental College whose literary magazine published two of Obama's poems -- "Pop" and "Underground" -- in 1981. Obama calls it some "very bad poetry," and he does not sell himself short. From "Underground":
Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance . . .
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."
Of note, Politico reporters Ben Smith and Jeffrey Resner observe that "the temperate legal language doesn't display the rhetorical heights that run through his memoir, published a few years later."
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. As Matthew Franck has pointed out in National Review Online, "A search of the HeinOnline database of law journals turns up exactly nothing credited to Obama in any law review anywhere at any time."
A 1990 New York Times profile on Obama's election as Harvard's first black president 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.
With advance in hand, Obama repaired to Chicago where he dithered. At one point, in order to finish 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. He was surely in way over his head.
According to a surprisingly harsh 2006 article by liberal publisher Peter Osnos, which detailed the "ruthlessness" of Obama's literary ascent, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract. Dystel did not give up. She solicited Times Book, the division of Random House at which Osnos was publisher. He met with Obama, took his word that he could finish the book, and authorized a new advance of $40,000.
Then suddenly, somehow, the muse descended on Obama and transformed him from a struggling, unschooled amateur, with no paper trail beyond an unremarkable legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes, into a literary superstar.
To be sure, it is not unusual for successful politicians to hire ghostwriters -- John McCain gives due credit to Mark Salter for his memoir, Faith of My Fathers -- but it is highly unusual for unknown young Chicago lawyers to hire ghostwriters.
I have attempted to contact Dystel by phone and email without success. It is highly unlikely she refashioned the book, and Osnos admittedly did not. If my suspicions are correct, the ghost on this book shared many of Obama's sentiments, spoke his language and spent considerable time reworking the text.
I bought Bill Ayers' 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for reasons unrelated to this project. As I discovered, he writes surprisingly well and very much like "Obama." In fact, my first thought was that the two may have shared the same ghostwriter. Unlike Dreams, however, where the high style is intermittent, Fugitive Days is infused with the authorial voice in every sentence. What is more, when Ayers speaks, even off the cuff, he uses a cadence and vocabulary consistent with his memoir. One does not hear any of Dreams in Obama's casual speech.
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.