Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a three-part analysis of Barack Obama’s “Dreams From My Father.”
“I picture the street coming alive, awakening from the fury of winter, stirred from the chilly spring night by cold glimmers of sunlight angling through the city.” Bill Ayers, “Fugitive Days.”
“Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.” Barack Obama, “Dreams From My Father.”
Prior to 1990, when Barack Obama contracted to write “Dreams From My Father,” he had written very close to nothing.
As an undergraduate, Obama had written what he justifiably calls some “very bad poetry.” He published nothing under his own name in The Harvard Law Review, where he served as an editor and as president. And after leaving Harvard, he published nothing in its review or in any law journal.
Then, in 1995, 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 this on his own. I do not buy this canard for a minute, not at all. In writing a book on intellectual fraud, “Hoodwinked,” I developed an eye for literary humbug, and “Dreams” serves up an eyeful.
In writing an earlier article about “Dreams’” dubious authorship, I had questioned whether the influential Muslim crackpot who paved Obama’s way into Harvard, Khalid al-Mansour, might have greased his way into the world of publishing as well. If so, he remains well behind the scenes.
On closer examination, the path to publication appears more straightforward than I anticipated. There are two sources here to consider.
One, a surprising 2006 article by liberal publisher Peter Osnos for the American Century Foundation offers some hard evidence on what Osnos describes as the “ruthlessness” of Obama’s literary ascent.
The second, more speculative source – Bill Ayers’ 2001 memoir “Fugitive Days” – may very well answer the questions that Osnos cannot.
As Osnos relates, a 1990 New York Times profile on Harvard’s first black editor caught the eye of a hustling young literary agent named Jane Dystel.
Dystel persuaded Obama to put a book proposal together, and she submitted it. Poseidon, a small imprint of Simon & Schuster, signed on and authorized a roughly $125,000 advance for Obama’s proposed memoir.
With advance in hand, Obama repaired to Chicago where the University of Chicago offered him an office and stipend to help him write. Obama 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 Osnos, Simon & Schuster canceled the contract and likely asked that Obama return at least some of the advance.
Dystel did not give up. She solicited Times Books, 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 wannabe into a literary superstar.
As the New York Times gushed, again with a straight face, Obama was “that rare politician who can write … and write movingly and genuinely about himself.”
Osnos offhandedly notes that the writing of “Dreams” was “all Obama’s,” which means only that someone had fixed the book before he had seen it. Two questions demand answers: who and why.
I have attempted to contact Dystel without success, but it is highly unlikely she re-wrote the book. Whoever did almost assuredly shared many of Obama’s sentiments, spoke his language and spent considerable time reworking the text.
I had never even thought of Bill Ayers as a likely ghostwriter until I ordered his memoir, “Fugitive Days,” and began to read it. He writes very well and very much like “Obama.”
Unlike “Dreams,” however, where the high style is intermittent, “Fugitive Days” is infused with the authorial voice in every sentence. That voice is surely Ayers’.
“What makes ‘Fugitive Days’ unique is its unsparing detail and its marvelous human coherence and integrity,” writes left-wing literary guru and Obama pal, Edward Said.
Said adds that Ayers’ “family background, his education, his political awakening, his anger and involvement … all these are rendered in their truth without a trace of nostalgia.” He could have said very much the same about “Dreams From My Father.”
Obama’s memoir was published in June 1995. In January 1995, 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 that same year, 1995, Ayers and his wife, Weatherwoman Bernardine Dohrn, launched Obama’s ascent to political stardom with a fundraiser in their Chicago home.
In short, Ayers had the means, the motive, the time, the place and the literary ability to jumpstart Obama’s career. And, as Ayers had to know, a lovely memoir under Obama’s belt made for a much better resume than an unfulfilled contract over his head.
Tomorrow: Part 2: “Deconstructing the text.”