By Jack Cashill
July 12, 2009
In previous articles on the subject of President Obama's writing
skills, I have focused on his 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father, not
his 2006 book, Audacity of Hope for one reason: Dreams, according to
esteemed British author Jonathan Raban and others, captures Obama's
On the strength of Dreams, Raban called Obama "the best writer to
occupy the White House since Lincoln." Raban is in good company. "I
was astonished by his ability to write, to think, to reflect, to
learn and turn a good phrase," said Nobel prize-winning novelist Toni
Morrison of Dreams. "I was very impressed. This was not a normal
Although Audacity has received respectful reviews, it has not gotten
the raves Dreams has. The New York Times describes Audacity "as much
more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like
outtakes from a stump speech."
Still, despite the book's "flabby platitudes," the Times assures its
readers that "enough of the narrative voice in this volume is
recognizably similar to the one in Dreams From My Father." Without
intending to, the Times likely captured the thinking behind the
creation of Audacity.
If portions of Audacity sound like outtakes from stump speeches, it
is because they are outtakes from stump speeches. This can be
proved. What cannot be proved, but what seems likely, is that Obama
included just "enough of the narrative voice" from Dreams to maintain
continuity between the two books.
The question remains -- who provided that narrative voice? In the
criticism of my last two American Thinker articles, only the
Washington Post addressed the central issue, and it did so
facetiously: "The book [Dreams] is beautifully written and yet, in
Cashill's opinion, Obama is - and always was - a crappy (his word,
not mine) writer."
Critics, please forget for a minute the parallel styles, words,
phrases, images, and anecdotes shared by Dreams and Bill Ayers'
books. Forget for a minute Bill Ayers. The three existing samples of
Obama's prose before Dreams -- the 1983 article "Breaking the War
Mentality," the 1988 article "Why Organize," and his unsigned 1990
Harvard Law Review case note -- are proof enough that Barack Obama
is, in fact, a crappy writer.
Consider the following sentence from "Breaking The War Mentality," an
article the 21 year-old Obama wrote for Columbia's weekly news
magazine, Sundial, in March 1983:
--The belief that moribund institutions, rather than individuals are
at the root of the problem, keep SAM's energies alive.
The noun, "belief," and the verb, "keep," don't agree -- one of an
appalling five such noun-verb mismatches in the essay -- and the
punctuation is fully random. More problematically, the word choice
sucks all logic out of the sentence. In the previous paragraph, Obama
had warned his readers about the "the relentless, often silent spread
of militarism in the country."
In this paragraph, the reader is told that these same military
institutions are "moribund" -- that is "nearly dead." How their
debilitated state keeps the "energies" of the Students Against
Militarism (SAM) "alive" is apparently left to the reader's imagination.
Obama is no untutored ghetto kid. He wrote this after eight years at
Hawaii's best prep school and after four years at two good universities.
In my 25-year career in advertising and publishing I have had to
review the portfolios of at least a thousand professional writers. I
can tell within three paragraphs whether a writer deserves a second
look. Based on any of his pre-Dreams samples, Obama would not have
made the first cut. I never would have hired him. No one would
have. He is simply a crappy writer.
I have also taught writing at enough levels and under enough
different circumstances to know that even the best teacher cannot
transform a crappy writer into a great writer. The best that the
teacher can hope for is a semi-crappy writer who does not make too
many grammatical errors.
Between Harvard and Dreams, Obama had no extra training. In a 2006
article, written while he was still seething, liberal publisher Peter
Osnos tells the story of what did happen during those lost years.
According to Osnos, the New York Times did a profile of Obama when
elected the first black leader of the Harvard Law Review. The
article prompted literary agent Jane Dystel to have Obama submit a
book proposal to an imprint of Simon & Schuster. The publisher liked
the proposal and advanced him about $125,000. "Several years
passed," Osnos writes, "and Obama was too busy finishing law school
and embarking on his career to get the book done." Simon & Schuster
then canceled the contract, and Obama likely had to pay at least some
of it back.
Dystel then approached Times Book at Random House where Osnos was
publisher, and he advanced Obama $40,000 more. The newly inspired
Obama promptly turned in what Time Magazine has called "the
best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." Osnos
believes Obama wrote the book himself, but he was in no position to
know that. My publisher has to accept on faith that I am writing my
own books. Even my agent does.
Obama's memoir was published in June 1995. In January of that same
magical year, Ayers had chosen Obama, then a junior lawyer at a minor
law firm, to chair the multi-million dollar Chicago Annenberg
Challenge grants. In the fall of 1995, Ayers and his wife,
Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn, launched Obama's ascent to political
stardom with a fundraiser in their Chicago home.
Dreams sold modestly in 1995, and the rights to it eventually
reverted to Random House's Crown Books Division, which made a killing
on the book after Obama's keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention.
After being elected senator in November 2004, Obama replaced the now
"furious" Dystel and her 15 percent cut with a powerful D.C. attorney
who charged only by the hour. Some time before his swearing in as
senator, Obama signed a two-book deal with Crown for somewhere in the
neighborhood of $2 million. Although an Obama fan, Osnos was dismayed
by Obama's "ruthlessness" and his "questionable judgment about using
public service as a personal payday."
In October 2006, Audacity debuted to kind reviews and huge
sales. Despite Obama's "unforgiving Senate schedule and periodic
bouts of writer's block," he had been able to write a 216-page book
without any acknowledged writing help in what was likely an 18-month
window. This was the same writer who blew a $125,000 advance because
he was unable to produce a book during "several" much less hectic
years, the same writer who between his 1995 masterpiece and Audacity
had written nothing deeper than a column for a community newsletter.
How did Obama do it? "I usually wrote at night after my Senate day
was over, and after my family was asleep -- from 9:30 p.m. or so
until 1 a.m," he told interviewer Daphne Durham of Amazon. "I would
work off an outline -- certain themes or stories that I wanted to
tell -- and get them down in longhand on a yellow pad. Then I'd edit
while typing in what I'd written."
In fact, the legitimacy of this interview is as dubious as the
legitimacy of the book. Obama's answer to Durham's question. "What
inspires you", shows up word-for-word (70 words) in the promotional
blurb for Audacity. The explanation was legitimate enough, however,
for Time Magazine.
--"His best writing time comes late at night when he's all alone,
scribbling on yellow legal pads," wrote Jay Newton-Small two months
before the November 2008 election. "This is how he wrote both of his
two best selling books -- Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of
Hope -- staying up after Michelle and his two young daughters had
long gone to bed, reveling in the late night quiet."
Little of this rings true. Obama's oldest daughter was born in 1998,
three years after Dreams was published. The late night story line
was likely contrived to explain how he could have written Audacity
despite the "unforgiving" schedule of a new senator.
One of my more diligent correspondents, whom I call Mr. West, has
been doing some intriguing analysis of Audacity. He had earlier sent
me an indexed compendium of "759" distinctive words and phrases that
appear in both Dreams and Bill Ayers' books.
Mr. West has since compared Dreams and Audacity. By a generous
count, Audacity matches Dreams in only 140 of the 759 word
selections. "Many of these were words were just used one time in
Audacity and in a different context," writes Mr. West. He was
surprised too by the words and phrases that he expected to find in
Audacity but did not. His conclusion, "Ayers was absolutely not
involved in Audacity."
Mr. West noted also that when Dreams-like words appear in Audacity,
they suddenly emerge in clusters. In the passage that follows, words
and phrases that appear in both Dreams and Audacity are in bold italics:
--Slowly, the senior senator rose from his seat, a slender man with a
still-thick snowy mane, watery blue eyes, and a sharp, prominent
nose. For a moment he stood in silence, steadying himself with his
cane, his head turned upward, eyes fixed on the ceiling. Then he
began to speak, in somber, measured tones, a hint of the Appalachians
like a knotty grain of wood beneath polished veneer. I don't recall
the specifics of his speech, but I remember the broad themes,
cascading out from the well of the Old Senate Chamber in a rising,
This is the kind of stretch that the Times rightly describes as
"recognizably similar" to the "narrative voice" of Dreams. To my
ear, however, it sounds forced and a little stilted and reads not so
much like a passage from Dreams as an imitation of such a passage.
Mr. West also compared Audacity to various stump speeches made by
Obama during the time Audacity was being written. The plagiarism here
is inarguable. Mr. West lists 38 passages that appear virtually word
for word in Obama speeches given in 2005 or 2006 and in Audacity.
The first example comes from a speech Obama gave on October 25, 2005,
the second from Audacity.
--. . . those who work in the field know what reforms really work: a
more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math,
science, and literacy skills. Longer hours and more days to give kids
the time and attention they need to learn.
--And in fact we already have hard evidence of reforms that work: a
more challenging and rigorous curriculum with emphasis on math,
science, and literacy skills; longer hours and more days to give
children the time and sustained attention they need to learn.
By 2006, Obama appears to have been reading speeches that have been
lifted in full from the text of Audacity. The first example comes
from a June 28, 2006 speech, the second from Audacity.
--Indeed, the single biggest "gap" in party affiliation among white
Americans today is not between men and women, or those who reside in
so-called Red States and those who reside in Blue, but between those
who attend church regularly and those who don't.
--The single biggest gap in party affiliation among white Americans
is not between men and women, or between those who reside in
so-called red states and those who reside in blue states, but between
those who attend church regularly and those who don't.'
Of course, all that this proves is that whoever wrote Obama's
speeches wrote large sections of Audacity, perhaps all of it, and
this is only an issue if someone other than Obama wrote his speeches.
As we are seeing, though, falsehoods have a way of compounding
themselves. When Rachel Klayman of Crown pulled Dreams from the
vaults and put it back in circulation, she unknowingly set in motion
a series of fabrications, beginning with the foundational myth that
Obama is a literary genius. To sustain that myth, Obama's enablers
have to make us believe that he also wrote Audacity by himself as
well as most of his speeches, staying up unto 1 A.M. each night to do so.
The emergence of Jon Favreau, whom Time Magazine calls a "wunderkind
wordsmith," complicates this scenario. After a February 2009 speech
to Congress, the Washington Post ran a photo of Obama holding the
speech, on the first page of which was clearly printed, "Draft
2/24/09 12pm...Favreau/Rhodes." It even included Favreau's phone number.
According to Wikipedia, "Favreau was hired as Obama's speechwriter
shortly after Obama's election to the United States Senate. Obama and
Favreau grew close, and Obama has referred to him as his 'mind
reader.'" Obama thought highly enough of Favreau to make him his
chief speechwriter for the presidential campaign. The London Guardian
reports that Favreau carries Dreams wherever he goes and can "conjure
up his master's voice as if an accomplished impersonator."
Of the thirty-eight speeches during Favreau's tenure that found their
way into Audacity are we to believe that he wrote none of them? It
is much more likely that he wrote all of them. Yes, Obama may have
written his thoughts down in longhand, but why would he not have
given those notes to his gifted young speechwriter to polish?
Here is what I believe happened. Obama knew he had a problem on his
hands when Dreams was republished in 2004. He recruited Ayers to
write the (post-modernist) preface to the 2004 edition, but once he
was elected to the Senate they both knew that Ayers was poison. To
achieve continuity, Ayers, I believe, wrote the prologue to
Audacity. It is the best-written part of the book. From here,
Favreau took over. An "accomplished impersonator," he labored to
make extended passages of Audacity sound like Dreams. It was a good
effort, but he simply does not write as well as Ayers does.
Those who think Ayers cannot write either have not read him or do not
have the wherewithal to judge him. In a recent critique of us
"Internet zanies," Republican bigwig Ken Blackwell (why the attacks
from the right?) observes, "Bill Ayers' thoughts have all the leaden
quality of most deadening Marxist screeds. Ayers' writing you can't
pick up; Obama's you can't put down." No, Ken, Ayers writes very
well indeed. Fugitive Days is a better book than Dreams.
To be sure, Obama does not mention Ayers in the acknowledgments
section of Dreams. In a similar spirit he slights Favreau in
Audacity. He merely thanks a number of his Senate staff, "including
Pete Rouse, Karen Kornbluh, Mike Strautmanis, Jon Favreau, Mark
Lippert, Joshua DuBois, and especially Robert Gibbs and Chris Lu" for
reading the manuscript, but of course, "on their own time."
I imagine that Favreau made his contribution on his own time as well.