In his much discussed New Yorker article, editor and Obama biographer David Remnick raises the question of how much President Barack Obama will secure for writing his post-presidential memoirs.
The one agent Remnick queries suggests an advance somewhere between $17 and $20 million. What Remnick does not ask, of course, is who will write this putative memoir.
Remnick knows there is some controversy about Obama’s writing skills. In his 2010 Obama biography “The Bridge,” Remnick scolds me – and Rush Limbaugh by extension – for daring to suggest that Bill Ayers helped Obama with his 1995 memoir, “Dreams from My Father.”
Remnick concedes that Limbaugh’s October 2008 endorsement of my thesis “may not have been Limbaugh’s most racist insinuation of the campaign.”
Still, he huffs, our collective “libel about Obama’s memoir – the denial of literacy, the denial of authorship – had a particularly ugly pedigree.” Sure, Dave, whatever.
Unwittingly, however, Remnick has raised real questions about the authorship of Obama’s second book, “Audacity of Hope.” Remnick did so in “The Bridge,” and he does so again in his New Yorker article.
It should be noted that Obama has claimed full authorship of both. “I’ve written two books,” he told a convention of schoolteachers while on the stump in 2008. “I actually wrote them myself.”
Although I and others have paid more attention to “Dreams” – “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician,” according to Joe Klein of Time – the evidence for outside help is even stronger in “Audacity.”
In October 2006, two years after Obama was elected to the U.S. Senate, “Audacity” was published. It could not have been easy.
Obama had roughly an 18-month window to write what would prove to be a 431-page book, but, as Remnick writes in “The Bridge,” “He procrastinated for a long time.” It is understandable why.
Obama’s workdays were packed, in his own retelling, with “committee markups, votes, caucus lunches, floor statements, speeches, photos with interns, evening fundraisers, returning phone calls, writing correspondence, reviewing legislation, drafting op-eds, recording podcasts, receiving policy briefings, hosting constituent coffees and attending an endless series of meetings.”
To complete the project, Remnick estimates that Obama had to write “nearly a chapter a week.” The chapters are on average nearly 50-pages long.
As any writer knows, this is an extremely difficult schedule for a talented pro with no conflicts. For an amateur with an absurdly busy schedule and a Luddite approach to writing, it was flat-out impossible.
“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,” he would later relate to Daphne Durham of Amazon. “Then I’d edit while typing in what I’d written.”
As to how he found the time, Obama told Dunham, “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.”
In “The Bridge” Remnick confirmed this scenario. He quotes a person known only as “aide” to explain, Obama “was punching the clock during the day and then coming alive at night to write the book.”
In the New Yorker article, however, Remnick adds a new twist – Obama was doing his writing on this book in the morning. Remnick quotes Obama buddy Marty Nesbitt on his friend’s “amazing” capacity “to crank stuff out.”
Said Nesbitt, “When [Obama] was writing his second book, he would say, ‘I’m gonna get up at 7 and write this chapter – and at 9 we’ll play golf.’ I would think no, it’s going to be a lot later, but he would knock on my door at 9 and say, ‘Let’s go.'”
Only the most willfully blind of Obama’s literary acolytes – Remnick chief among them – could believe that Obama wrote a well-researched 431-page book in between golfing engagements, weekend trips to Chicago, a few international jaunts, 39 town hall meetings and a Herculean Senate schedule.
In her review of “Audacity,” the New York Times’ Michiko Kakutani describes the book “as much more of a political document. Portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech.”
These passages sound like “outtakes from a stump speech” precisely because they are outtakes from a stump speech. At least 38 passages from speeches Obama delivered in 2005 or 2006 appear virtually word-for-word as ordinary text in “Audacity.”
Here is one example from a speech Obama gave on Oct. 25, 2005:
. . . 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.
Here is the parallel excerpt from “Audacity.”
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.
The 37 additional cribbed passages prove only that whoever wrote Obama’s speeches wrote large sections of “Audacity,” perhaps all of it, and this is an issue only if someone other than Obama wrote his speeches.
Someone did. British author Jonathan Raban, who had earlier called Obama “the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln,” was “disconcerted” to learn that Obama worked with 20-something speechwriter Jon Favreau on his 2009 inaugural address.
The Obama of Raban’s imagination did not need speechwriters, but, in fact, Obama had been relying on Favreau since the convention of 2004.
Bill Ayers was not impressed with the results in any case. In March 2011, he gave a talk at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
When an audience member asked him to comment on “Dreams,” Ayers complimented the book. “The second one was more of a political hack book, but the first book’s quite good,” he said, adding, “Did you know I wrote it?”
On multiple occasions, Ayers has taken credit for “Dreams” with a playful bit of double irony. That is what got the audience’s attention at Montclair.
What was overlooked was his suggestion that “Audacity” had a different and lesser author. In this regard, he was right.
Before writing that $20 million check for a new Obama memoir, a publisher might want to do a serious review as to who wrote the previous two. There may be a James Frey-style smackdown awaiting.
As to the proposed $12 million for Michelle Obama’s memoirs, I would refer the future publisher to the late Christopher Hitchens’ review of Michelle’s Princeton college thesis.
“To describe [the thesis] as hard to read would be a mistake; the thesis cannot be ‘read’ at all, in the strict sense of the verb. This is because it wasn’t written in any known language.”
She’ll need some help, too.
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