Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

May 29, 2009


Jack Cashill, a conservative journalist, raises an issue that Obamites have declined to consider: whatever happened to Obama's literary skills after he wrote Dreams From My Father?

Jack Cashill, American Thinker - The first question I had to resolve was whether the 33 year-old Barack Obama was capable of writing what Time Magazine has called "the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." The answer is almost assuredly "no."

In his bestselling study of success, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell painstakingly lays out what he calls the "ten-thousand-hour rule." Gladwell quotes neurologist Daniel Levitin to the effect that "ten thousand hours of practice [in any subject] is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert" and cites example after example to make his case.

Obama appears to have lopped about 9900 hours off that standard. In Dreams, he speaks of writing only the occasional journal entry and some "very bad poetry." . . .

It was not Obama's style but his election as the first black president of the Harvard Law Review in 1990-more of a popularity than a literary contest-that netted him a roughly $125,000 advance for a proposed book. According to a 2006 article by liberal publisher Peter Osnos, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract when Obama could not deliver, despite a sojourn to Bali to help him write.

It was about this time that Bill Ayers entered the picture. "I met [Obama] sometime in the mid-1990s." he would later tell Salon. "And everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious. For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago."

Obama needed help, and Ayers had the means, the motive, and the ability to provide it. Unlike Obama, he has a well-established paper trail. . .

Ayers, we know, provided an informal editing service for like-minded friends in the neighborhood. Aspiring radical Rashid Khalidi attests to this in the acknowledgements in his 2004 book, Resurrecting Empire. "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. Having no political ambitions, Khalidi was willing to acknowledge it. . .

After Dreams was published in 1995, Obama's typewriter fell silent once again. He contributed not one signed word to any law journal or other publication of note until his unexceptional and conspicuously ghosted 2006 book, Audacity of Hope. Obama was not a writer. As his lame inaugural address proved, he still isn't. . .

The opening scene of Dreams takes place in the early 1980s in and around Obama's New York City apartment with its "slanting" floors. As the scene unfolds, Obama is making breakfast "with coffee on the stove and two eggs in the skillet." In Fugitive Days, Ayers inhabits an apartment with "sloping floors." He too cooks a lot -- his books are rich with often sensual food imagery -- and uses a "skillet," a southern regionalism. . .

In the opening pages, Obama makes an exception to his unlikely New York "solitude" for an elderly neighbor, a "stooped" gentleman who wore a "fedora." In Fugitive Days, it was Ayers' grandfather who is "stooped" and a helpful stranger who wears a "fedora."

One day, Obama's roommate finds his neighbor dead, "crumpled up on the third-floor landing, his eyes wide open, his limbs stiff and curled up like a baby's." Ayers tells of watching his mother die, "eyes half open, curled up and panting." In both cases, the eyes are "open" and the body is "curled up."

At the climax of the opening sequence, Obama receives a phone call. It comes from an African aunt. "Listen, Barry, your father is dead," she tells him. Obama has a hard time understanding. "Can you hear me?" she repeats. "I say, your father is dead." The line is cut, and the conversation ends abruptly.

The opening sequence of Fugitive Days climaxes in nearly identical fashion. This phone call comes from Ayers' future wife, Bernardine Dohrn. "Diana is dead," says Dohrn of Ayers' lover Diana Oughton, killed in a bomb blast. Ayers has a hard time understanding. "Diana is dead," she "repeats slowly." Ayers drops the line, and the conversation ends abruptly.

At the conclusion of Dreams' opening scene, a stunned Obama "sat down on the couch, smelling eggs burn in the kitchen, staring at cracks in the plaster, trying to measure my loss." This passage features Obama's signature rhetorical flourish, the triple parallel without a joining conjunction. There are scores of such examples throughout Dreams, perhaps hundreds:

"the mixed blood, the divided soul, the ghostly image of the tragic mulatto trapped between two worlds."

"Her face powdered, her hips girdled, her thinning hair bolstered, she would board the six-thirty bus to arrive at her downtown office before anyone else."

"his eyes were closed, his head leaning against the back of his chair, his big wrinkled face like a carving stone."

As it happens, Ayers' signature rhetorical flourish, likely cribbed from Joseph Conrad, is the triple parallel without a joining conjunction. There are scores of such examples throughout Fugitive Days, perhaps hundreds:

"He inhabited an anarchic solitude-disconnected, smart, obsessive."

"We swarmed over and around that car, smashing windows, slashing tires, trashing lights and fenders-it seemed the only conceivable thing to do."

"trees are shattered, doors ripped from their hinges, shorelines rearranged.". . .

Ayers lived a considerably more adventurous life than Obama, beginning with his youthful days as a merchant seaman in the North Atlantic. "I realized that no one else could ever know this singular experience," Ayers writes. Yet much of the nautical language that flows through Fugitive Days flows through Obama's earth-bound memoir.

Although there are only the briefest of literal sea experiences in Dreams, the following words appear in both Dreams and in Ayers' work: fog, mist, ships, seas, boats, oceans, calms, captains, charts, first mates, storms, streams, wind, waves, anchors, barges, horizons, ports, panoramas, moorings, tides, currents, and things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, and murky. . .

More convincing still are those complex tropes in Dreams that appear, only slightly altered, in Ayers' books. In his 1993 book, To Teach, Ayers writes, "Education is for self-activating explorers of life, for those who would challenge fate, for doers and activists, for citizens." "Training," on the other hand, "is for slaves, for loyal subjects, for tractable employees, for willing consumers, for obedient soldiers."

In Dreams, these thoughts find colloquial expression in the person of "Frank," the real life poet, pornographer and Stalinist, Frank Marshall Davis. "Understand something, boy," Frank tells the college-bound Obama. "You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to get trained." Both authors make the point that "training" strips the individual of his racial identity.

In To Teach, Ayers recounts the story of an ambitious teacher who takes her students out to the streets of New York to learn about its culture and history. These students ask to see the nearby Hudson River. When they get to the river's edge, one student says, " Look, the river is flowing up." A second student says, "No, it has to flow south-down." Upon further research, the teacher discovers "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 Dreams, written two years later, Obama 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."


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So Obama is a plagiarist-fraud as well as a fraud in other things. And water is wet.

Not too many people with a working BS meter can listen to that guy for more than a few minutes without realising that, as BEST, he's an empty Tom suit.

May 30, 2009 6:41 AM  

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