Saturday, October 18, 2008

Obama in Plain Sight: Intro to "Dreams" Implies He Didn't Write It

Jack Cashill has assembled evidence suggesting that Barack Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father may be the work of a ghostwriter: Obama's Chicago neighbor William Ayers. Obama agrees with Cashill on one important point: in his own Introduction to Dreams, which describes his book's genesis, Obama himself strongly implies that he didn't write it.

According to Obama, he did some writing on another book, not a memoir but "an essay on the limits of civil rights litigation in bringing about racial equality" (xiii; all citations refer to the 2004 paperback edition). This book was never finished, and it doesn't exist. Obama says that his work on the "civil rights litigation" project was aborted by personal memories that forced themselves upon him: "I found my mind pulled..." (xiv). But he doesn't say how these memories turned into the book Dreams from My Father. In particular, he doesn't say he wrote the book. He says that Dreams "found its way onto these pages" (xvi).

Most readers of Dreams have probably assumed that Obama's curiously impersonal description is merely figurative, a display of humility, a modest way of saying that he did write the book the reader has in hand. I have no doubt that Obama hoped the words would be understood that way. Nevertheless, it should be noted that Obama's display of humility is so extreme that although he devotes his Introduction to just a single topic--where Dreams came from--he omits the writing altogether. Instead he replaces the writing of Dreams by a quasi-automatic process whereby memories somehow took form in words and found a way onto the page by themselves. This picture is so fantastic that it can't be taken literally, and therefore can't be suspected of falsehood. In describing a genesis of Dreams that is blatantly impossible, Obama is counting on readers to think, "he can't really mean it," and he leaves it to us to come up with our own idea of what he did mean. That's very convenient for Obama, since in saying, as in essence he does, "this book came into existence without anybody writing it," Obama also implies, "and I, the credited author, didn't write it." Unlike "nobody wrote this book," "I didn't write this book" is not a fantastic statement that cannot mean what it literally says. Lots of people didn't write Dreams from My Father. Maybe Barack Obama is one of them. Maybe when he said he didn't write the book--because nobody did--he meant it. And maybe he was telling the truth. That would explain why Obama would want to say something as implausible as "[it] found its way onto these pages": he used an implausibility to muffle an implicit, plausible, and truthful, but dangerous statement: "I didn't write it."

Obama's whole Introduction to Dreams has the odd rhetorical project of persuading the reader that Barack Obama, the author of Dreams from My Father, actually had nothing to do with writing his book and couldn't have written it. Describing how the project began, Obama explains that the idea for his first book was not his in the first place: the "opportunity to write it arose" when newspapers reported that he had been elected the first black president of the Harvard Law Review, and "a few publishers" (i.e., nobody in particular, the idea for his book was nobody's), who must have thought Obama was a writer or could become one, took the initiative to call him (xiii). Obama then accepted the role of writer which publishers had offered him, and he "agreed to take off a year after graduation and put [his] thoughts to paper." As Obama describes it, he did not exactly agree to write a book, but rather to do some writer-like things, that is, to clear his agenda for time to write, and "put thoughts to paper." Would the transition of thoughts to paper involve words? Obama leaves that part to the reader's imagination.

Obama began to play at being a writer with only a vague idea of his subject matter, "imagining [him]self to have something original to say about the current state of race relations." He demurs at claiming he actually had anything original to say, or anything to say at all: Obama only claims to have imagined he had something to say, and eventually he concluded on his own that the theories in his plan "seemed insubstantial and premature," and he gave them up (xiv). So far Obama has stated that he "sat down and began to write," but not that he ever got past "began to." His incipient writing was soon interrupted by forces outside his control, just as Obama's legal career had been sent onto a detour by the calls of publishers who thought he was a writer and convinced him to "take a year off"; except now the impersonal alien forces approached Obama from inside himself: "I found my mind pulled toward rockier shores. First longings leapt up to brush my heart. Distant voices appeared, and ebbed, and then appeared again" (xiv). One might have expected Obama to explain that these voices were a kind of Muse, and that by listening to them he became the writer who wrote Dreams. But he doesn't; on the contrary, he states, "I strongly resisted the idea of offering up my past in a book."

Obama does once mention writing in connection with his memories, but the passage does not refer to writing Dreams from My Father. Obama says that in reflecting upon oral stories told him by others, he discovered "I had spent much of my life trying to rewrite these stories" (xvi). Even here Obama only claims that he was trying to write, and the activity he calls rewriting yields no inscription of words in any permanent medium where they might be read. This metaphorical "writing" has no text and produces no books--it's all in the head. So Obama the author is affirming that, yes, he was after all a writer, he'd been one for a long time, only not the kind who writes books.

Obama's writing-without-writing allows him to explain how he became the author of Dreams without writing it and without wanting to write it. After evoking his lifetime process of "trying to rewrite these stories," Obama arrives at Dreams from My Father this way:

At some point, then, [note the temporal vagueness] in spite of a stubborn desire to protect myself from scrutiny, in spite of the periodic impulse to abandon the entire project, what has found its way onto these pages is a record of a personal, interior journey--

In other words, Dreams from My Father is Obama's "writing," even though he won't say he wrote it, because he wrote it metaphorically: it told stories he'd been "trying to rewrite" all his life. But as for actually writing the book the reader is holding, nobody did that. It just "found its way onto these pages."

So as I said, Obama agrees with Jack Cashill on one critical point: Obama didn't write Dreams from My Father. Where he and Cashill differ is that according to Obama, nobody wrote Dreams, while Cashill thinks somebody wrote it for him. Needless to say, of the two positions, only Cashill's is plausible. It's a certainty that somebody wrote Dreams from My Father. If Barack Obama didn't write it, then somebody else did.

Obama's Introduction to Dreams from My Father is a pretty strange document. But the Preface he affixed to the 2004 reissue is even stranger. Bear in mind that the Preface is printed immediately before the Introduction in the 2004 edition, so that it would not be difficult for anyone to read both of them and compare. Like the Introduction, the Preface also narrates the genesis of Dreams. But Obama seems to have forgotten parts of his own story.

As I mention in the original introduction, the opportunity to write the book came while I was in law school, the result of my election as the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review. In the wake of some modest publicity, I received an advance from a publisher and went to work with the belief that the story of my family...might speak in some way to the fissures of race, etc. (vii, emphasis added)

The "burst of publicity" that testified to Obama's "modest accomplishments" in the Introduction has here been reduced to "some modest publicity." The "few publishers" who initiated Obama's project when they "called" him have given way to "an advance" (i.e., a cash incentive) that Obama received from "a publisher." But most importantly, Obama's original project (the essay on the limits of civil rights litigation), his project agenda, his work-in-progress, the memories that arose unbidden to overwhelm his theories, his struggle to resist the direction in which those memories were leading him, the final triumph in which his inner journey "found its way onto these pages"--all this has disappeared. According to the 2004 Preface, when Obama received his advance, he already had a "belief" about the story he could tell, and he immediately "went to work."

Obama says he "went to work" on Dreams from My Father, but he still does not say that he wrote it. In the Introduction Obama also said he went to work on his essay about civil rights litigation, and even that he "sat down and began to write." But he never wrote that book, and it doesn't exist. When Obama says in the Preface that he "went to work" on Dreams, it's impossible to know whether this means he started writing the book, started thinking about writing it, or started imagining how to deliver a book to his publisher without writing one. "Went to work" claims only that Obama made some early contribution to the Dreams project as a content-provider, whatever a content-provider might be.

Obama's narrative then skips straight from "went to work" to the completed book's publication. Neat! Utterly uninformative about the work of writing Dreams--or the miracle that created it, whatever it was--Obama pronounces confidently about the side of authorship that involves book reviews, promotional appearances, and sales. "Like most first-time authors," he explains, sounding like a veteran mid-list publishing personality, "I was filled with hope and despair." But when his book enjoyed only modest success, Obama says, "I went on with the business of my life." According to Obama, being an author was not part of the business of Barack Obama's life. It was merely a temporary and superficial intrusion upon a life devoted to other things that Obama took much more seriously. Referring to his short-lived "career as an author" as a "process" he was "glad to have survived," Obama seems to be referring to the negotiations with his publisher and their promotional campaign. He hasn't said anything about writing.

Obama's statement that he "went on with the business of [his] life" strikes another note of discord with the Introduction, where Obama had explained that Dreams somehow emerged from an inner work of "trying to rewrite" that had occupied "much of [his] life" (xvi). In that sense his authorship of his book, although not the actual writing of it, was putatively continuous with Obama's life and not an intrusion upon it. But in the 2004 Preface to Dreams the life of Obama is no longer a private "journey" but public "business" instead. When Obama's ephemeral performance as book-trade personality has run its course, it disappears from his life without residue: not only does Obama not write anything else, he doesn't even reflect: "I had little time for reflection over the next ten years" (viii). This is not the same "Obama" who described himself in the Introduction to Dreams.

Taking a paragraph to illustrate the business of this period, "Obama 2004" kicks off his narrative by mentioning a voter registration project that he ran in the 1992 election cycle. This is a strange touch, because the period supposedly summarized began in 1996, after Dreams was published (hardback 1995, paperback 1996, according to the copyright page). Perhaps "Obama 2004" just wanted to sneak in a plug for his voter registration talking-point, and didn't bother to reflect on the chronology of the life he was narrating.

When the summary arrives at 2004, Obama wins the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, and finds himself in the news again (his first fifteen minutes of fame, we recall, having come when he was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review); and once again, as if through an odd coincidence of mistaken identity, powers outside Obama descend upon the busy public man and impose the role of author: "Just as that spate of publicity prompted my publisher's interest a decade ago, so has this fresh round of news clippings encouraged the book's re-publication" (ix).

What follows these words is a passage whose peculiar unbelievability exceeds even Obama's high standard.

For the first time in many years, I've pulled out a copy and read a few chapters to see how much my voice may have changed over time. I confess to wincing every so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced. I have the urge to cut the book by fifty pages or so, possessed as I am with a keener appreciation for brevity. (ix)

After reading in the Introduction to Dreams that the book recorded Obama's "search for his father, and through that search a workable meaning for his life as a black American" (xvi), that the book culminated a lifetime effort at attempted "rewriting" of intimate stories, undertaken "in the hope of extracting some granite slab of truth upon which my unborn children can firmly stand," it comes as a surprise that the author should have stored this hard-won granite slab in a virtual attic and never read it again for many years. But "Obama 2004," we recall, has denied that reflection was ever part of the business of his life, or that he even had time for it. So when Obama 2004 is moved to pull out a copy of Dreams, he isn't interested in the personal achievement of his stories. Nor does this man, who in the Introduction admitted he periodically thought of abandoning the whole book in deference to "a stubborn desire to protect myself from scrutiny" (xvi), now feel even a little bit curious to see whether the republication of his personal book might expose something that on second thought he would rather have kept private. No, Obama 2004, the vote-drive organizer, law professor, family man, Illinois state legislator, and candidate for U.S. Senator--the guy who admits he never thought of publishing a book at all unless someone else, aroused by publicity, thought of it first and asked him--Obama pulls out his own book solely to measure the changes in what he calls his "voice" by examining a few sample passages ("a few chapters"). Supposing Obama's "voice" did change; why should a man so busy with an active political life have cared about his changing "voice," and cared about this "voice" above all else? That would make sense for a teacher of rhetoric, a literary scholar, or a professional writer. Or even for a serious recreational writer. But Obama, according to the self-portraits of the Introduction to Dreams and the 2004 Preface, was none of these.

Let me translate Obama's statement that he reopened Dreams "to see how much my voice may have changed over time." This means that Obama--the real, living Obama, "I," the one who pulls out Dreams to read it--he suspects that the "voice" of the author-on-the-page Obama doesn't sound like his voice, the real Obama's voice. For some reason this concerns him, and he wants to see how much the author of Dreams doesn't sound like Obama. Now what is this phenomenon Obama calls his "voice"? First he discusses the prose style of Dreams, and this, he affirms, is not the "voice" of Obama 2004 (who I reiterate is the only actual, living Obama). But according to Obama, "voice" is not prose style alone, because after describing how alien the prose of Dreams seems to him, Obama declines to disavow the "voice" in Dreams after all: "I cannot honestly say, however, that the voice in this book is not mine--that I would tell the story much differently today than I did ten years ago, even if certain passages have proven to be inconvenient politically, the grist for pundit commentary and opposition research" (ix). So Obama is saying that by "voice" he means two different things: (a) prose style, and (b) something other than prose style that includes content political opponents might want to highlight. Of these, Obama considers the latter the more important to "voice," since he says that although the prose style really is not his, the voice still is.

Fine; but in that case, affirming ownership of the "voice" (content) would involve reading through the whole book, and not just representative passages, which is what Obama says he did. Examining "a few chapters" would be satisfactory only if Obama was interested in checking the style and nothing else.

Notice, moreover, how at the end of the paragraph Obama acknowledges that passages in Dreams had already become a topic of media comment and opposition research. At the beginning of the same paragraph he said that for many years he never so much as pulled out a copy of Dreams until his run for the U.S. Senate encouraged the book's republication. So Obama is saying he knew opponents were reading his book to mine it for dirt, but Obama himself wasn't interested enough in the book to go back and see what they might find there, until his publisher showed an interest in reissuing it to the marketplace? I compute only three possible explanations for Obama's account of how he finally "pulled out a copy" of Dreams after neglecting it for many years: he's lying, he's clueless, or both.

But perhaps the strangest feature of this paragraph is Obama's commentary on the change he observed in the prose-style aspect of his "voice." Obama does not merely assess the quantity of change, as he says he wished to ("to see how much my voice may have changed"); he assesses the quality of the writing in Dreams; and his assessment is brutal. Where else does an author who has published only one book, and that one only moderately known, append a preface to a republication of his own sole book informing readers that the prose in it is painful to read, and so flabby that fifty pages should be cut? I doubt those sentiments were shared by the critics whose "mildly favorable" reviews Obama had mentioned earlier in the Preface. The testimonials printed on my paperback include "beautifully crafted," "beautifully written," and "a book worth savoring." Why would an author of a book whose writing is so often selected as a special object of praise append a preface saying that the writing in his book stinks? It certainly couldn't be a sales pitch. And if Obama's assessment was sincere, if he really thought the prose in Dreams so bad, why didn't he just revise it, and give readers a better book? Even writers of well-known classics sometimes make considerable revisions for later editions. Dreams from My Father was hardly a classic whose circulation outside its author's control inhibited revision. Not yet, anyway.

There is clearly something about the writing in Dreams that embarrasses Obama. But it is not at all plausible that what embarrasses him is what he says it is, the ineptitude of the writing. Because the writing in Dreams is far from inept, and even if it were inept, the author himself would have no conceivable reason to observe and advertise his own ineptitude, unless he had already published other books and gained a reputation for a better sort of writing. But at the time of the 2004 Preface Obama's only reputation as a writer was as the author of Dreams from My Father, and no reader of the reissued book could have had any expectation of an authorial voice other than the one that was there, if they had any expectations at all.

So if the writing in Dreams embarrassed Obama, but not because it was inept, what was it that embarrassed him?

An inference may be drawn from Obama's description of the curiosity that supposedly drew him back to Dreams: he wanted "to see how much [his] voice may have changed over time." Even before Obama discovered that the writing in Dreams was inept, he already knew (or strongly suspected) that its voice was not his. Now the way Obama puts this implies that the voice in Dreams, including its prose style, was his once; but for Obama who goes back to Dreams, the voice he is looking for, and the one he finds, is not his. Instead of saying, however, "I didn't write this, it found its way onto the page by itself," as in essence he did in the Introduction, in the Preface Obama implies instead that he did write Dreams, but he was a different and very bad writer when he wrote it, so bad that he's now ashamed to be associated with the writing in his book.

Well, Obama 2004 was right about one thing: the "voice" in Dreams isn't his. The distance between reader-Obama 2004 and the writing in Dreams can be gauged from the writing in the 2004 Preface, whose text we have under examination: it has none of the lyricism of Dreams from My Father (or of the Introduction to Dreams). Or by looking at the writing in The Audacity of Hope, a preview excerpt of which is printed at the back of my copy of Dreams from My Father. Very little lyricism there either. Let's give Barack Obama a little credit for perceptiveness: when he said he was curious about how much the prose-style-voice of Dreams differed from that of Obama 2004, his instinct, if that's what it was, was right on target: the author of Dreams and Obama 2004 do sound like different people. The question is, why?

Obama's critique of the prose style of Dreams preempts that question by providing an immediate answer: Obama's prose style was changed by "time." He then provides a few illustrations of the improvements time brought to his taste in writing. To the implausibilities already noted we now may add another, the implausibility of someone becoming a markedly different and, in his estimation, better writer, without any acknowledged effort to improve his writing, or even any acknowledged practice at writing in the interim--by Obama's account between 1995 and 2004 he had no time even for reflection, much less for writing. Nevertheless during this span his writing improved significantly, the work, he suggests, of time (whenever Obama discusses writing, he never does anything, the writing just happens).

But Obama's whole self-critique is implausible, whether he's bashing the writing in Dreams or congratulating himself for becoming better. So if we can't accept "time improved Obama's style" as a plausible answer to the question of why the author of Dreams and Obama 2004 don't sound like the same writer, what would an alternative answer be? One possibility, obvious when the question is properly phrased, is that one or both of the authorial Obamas isn't Barack Hussein Obama at all. This would mean that at least one ghostwriter was involved in the two books credited to author Barack Obama. Since none of Barack Obama's publications acknowledge any writing assistance besides his agents, editors, and consulted advisors, the involvement of one or more ghostwriters would mean that Obama has misrepresented himself as the author of at least one of his two books.

According to this analysis, Barack Obama's Introduction to Dreams from My Father and his 2004 Preface offer an obfuscated, self-contradictory, and unbelievable representation of his authorship that, upon close reading, proves vacant. As Obama tells it, his authorship of Dreams was miraculous, because although he lacked the writing skill to be the author of anything, and he didn't want to be the author of a memoir, and he resisted becoming the author of a memoir, and he tried in vain to become the author of a different kind of book, and he never had an idea of being the author of anything until one or several publishers had the idea first and he agreed to accept the opportunity they offered to be an author, and even then he only considered himself an author as long as his publisher was selling his book, after which he reverted back to a complete non-author, reverted so completely that he wasn't even moved to reread his book when political opponents were using it against him--because, in short, despite all the reasons Obama gives why he couldn't have written a book like Dreams from My Father, and despite the fact that, according to Obama's account, he didn't write Dreams from My Father, nevertheless Dreams from My Father somehow "found its way" onto the page with Barack Obama's name under the title as the author. That's a miracle. It couldn't have happened.

But if Obama's fantastic story contains one believable detail, one grain of truth, it would probably be that Obama did not write Dreams from My Father. Because if he had written it, why would he have concocted an alternative story about its genesis that is so implausible, much less one that implies he didn't write it? Instead of telling an outright lie--"I wrote Dreams from My Father"--Obama would have told the truth, but obfuscated it.

But why wouldn't he have lied? If Obama had a ghostwriter and wanted to hide it, why wouldn't he have covered his tracks better? Perhaps we'll never know; and unless Obama someday proves that he did write Dreams after all--i.e., unless he puts all doubts to rest by replacing the story he has already told in two inconsistent and unbelievable versions with a third that he could have told at the beginning if it was the truth--then the question of Barack Obama's incomplete self-concealment will intrigue psychoanalysts and literary scholars for a long time to come. Here I will offer speculation of a comparatively mundane and practical sort.

The person who wrote Dreams from My Father was not merely a hired professional wordsmith. He or she was a literary talent: no creative genius perhaps, but someone with a definite gift and the ambition to develop and use it. Since Obama was not that kind of person--as he repeatedly insists--then by claiming to be the author (i.e., the writer) of Dreams, he would have assumed a role that brought with it expectations he could not meet and did not wish to. Barack Obama did not have another Dreams from My Father in him--he wasn't even comfortable acknowledging authorship of this one. So he would have tried to avoid a massive, elaborate charade that might consume his life and run a high risk of exposure. Instead he would indirectly tell as much truth as he could, by refraining from saying that he actually wrote Dreams, and also by acknowledging that he wasn't a writer at all, so no further writing should be expected of him. I suspect that when Obama said in the 2004 Preface that he knew his career as an author would be short-lived, but he was "glad to have survived the process with his dignity more or less intact," he was glad indeed he had survived without the loss of dignity that exposure would bring, and glad he could stop pretending to be the author he wasn't. And when Obama described the ten years after Dreams as if he couldn't do enough to forget about his book, maybe that had some truth in it too.

Barack Obama, and the literary author who may have put Obama's Dreams into writing on paper where a publisher could sell it and people could read it, escaped the curious attention of readers for a long time. Nobody much cared who wrote Dreams from My Father until Barack Hussein Obama became a candidate for the U.S. presidency. But those days of untroubled obscurity may soon be ending for the author or authors of Sen. Barack Obama's Dreams from My Father.

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At October 22, 2008 at 1:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps it was written by a guy in his neighborhood?

At October 22, 2008 at 2:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


At October 22, 2008 at 5:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Neat piece of detective work. A lot of evidence hiding in plain sight when you deconstruct things. I hope you have a chance to read Fugitive Days and compare the two books.

At October 22, 2008 at 5:32 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah, dead-on. I read both books. The same person did not write both books. As a serious writer and prolific reader, even when one intentionally tries to change styles, there is a rhetorical DNA all people who write well possess: a writer wrote Dreams, a politician with a book contract wrote Audacity.

At October 22, 2008 at 5:41 PM , Blogger Barry Dauphin said...

You make Obama sound downright Clintonian. That might explain a lot of things about the campaign.

At October 23, 2008 at 2:35 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At October 23, 2008 at 1:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Borges! It was written by Jorge Luis Borges. The introduction, at least, sound like something he would write.

At October 28, 2008 at 3:07 PM , Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Are you prepared to apply this analytic principle universally? How many authors will be discredited if it turns out that they never stated explicitly that "I wrote the book?" I congratulate you on achieving a kind of postmodern McCarthyism, and I'm sure you'll be proud of that accomplishment.

At October 29, 2008 at 3:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps the 2004 preface to "Dreams" was put in place to create a narrative to pre-empt any "bumps in the road" that might have arisen following the publication of "Audacity". Having Obama look back from 2004 and comment on how his writing had changed from the "Dreams" of 1995, embeds a datapoint in the story of "Obama the Author", that allows readers of both books a plausable reason to accept any differences they notice, while also helping to deflect any questions of authorship (after so many years of having published nothing) that might have surfaced if the style disparities had been noted by any reviewers after publication.

At January 20, 2009 at 4:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

nice post really liked it


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