Belmont Club

The Other Obama Conspiracy Theory

The “other” and perhaps best founded Obama conspiracy theory revolves not around the President’s birth certificate or his grades in school, themes recently taken up by Donald Trump, but over whether he was the true author of his best-selling  “Dreams from My Father”. Jack Cashill, author of Deconstructing Obama, is the primary proponent of the theory that it was ghost written by someone else. The book’s summary says:

“I’ve written two books,” Barack Obama told a crowd of teachers in July of 2008. “I actually wrote them myself.” The teachers exploded in laughter. They got the joke: lesser politicians were not bright enough to do the same. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama supporters pointed to the first of those two books, the 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, as proof of Obama’s superior intellect. Time magazine called Dreams “the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician.” The Obama campaign machine traded on the candidate’s literary reputation, encouraging volunteers to “get out the vote and keep talking to others about the genius of Barack Obama.”

There was just one small flaw, as writer and literary detective Jack Cashill discovered months before the November 2008 election: nothing in Obama’s history suggested he was capable of writing either Dreams or his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope. In fact, as Cashill continued his research, he came to the shocking conclusion that the real craftsman behind Dreams was terrorist emeritus Bill Ayers.

“This was a charge,” David Remnick admits in his definitive Obama biography, The Bridge, “that if ever proved true, or believed to be true among enough voters, could have been the end of the candidacy.”

That the thesis was never believed by enough voters was proved by Barack Obama’s. But experts on both sides remain divided over the evidence. Cashill’s most persuasive arguments for a different authoriship derive from statistical comparisons between “Dreams” and Obama’s later work, “Audacity of Hope”, but most crucially by matching up text patterns with Bill Ayer’s “Fugitive Days”.

The centerpiece of his evidence rests on the analysis Chris Yavelow, whose software package Fiction Fixer is designed to compare a given text against another to see how closely they match. It was originally intended to allow an author to see how close he came to a literary mark. Cashill submitted the texts to Yavelow to see what he came up with.

When he ran the two books nominally by Barack Obama, the 1995 Dreams From My Father and the 2006 Audacity of Hope, through FictionFixer, he concluded, “They were written by different people.”

As Yavelow explains, authors don’t go from a 3.8 percent use of the passive voice in 1995 to an 8.3 percent use in 2006. For developing writers, the use of the passive almost always diminishes with experience. …

When, however, Yavelow compared Obama’s Dreams with Bill Ayers’ memoir, Fugitive Days, he found the similarity of the two books “striking.” He then quickly corrects himself: “’Striking’ is an understatement for the relationship FictionFixer uncovered between Fugitive Days and Dreams From My Father.”

For the analytically inclined, Yavelow’s actual report is here.  But it isn’t ironclad. The main caveat Yavelow himself brings up in the small size of the Ayers sample as a methodological problem.

Conclusion: this analysis makes a strong case for the likelihood that the author of Fugitive days ghostwrote Dreams from My Father … Alternatively, another scenario might be … the author of Fugitive Days might have served as a “book doctor” … and given extreme license to edit and rewrite …

Caveat: Normally, FictionFixer works with text samples of 50,000 words or greater (the closer to 100,000 the better; remember, many of FictionFixer’s calculations require data to be normalized to a 100,000-word standard). We decided to work with Ayer’s Fugitive days even though only 25,344 words were available as electronic text simply because of time constraints. …

If a reader of this document has a sample of Ayer’s work that is closer to 100,000 words in length, we would greatly appreciate a copy of it to run through FictionFixer for the purpose of generating a more accurate analysis.

At one point attempts were made to contact the Oxford scholar, Peter Millican, who had another text analysis product called Signature. Negotiations for a corroborative test failed. But Millican ran a few back of the envelope checks. His conclusion was different from Yavelow’s. Based on “preliminary tests” the Don concluded that Obama had nothing to worry about.

Some preliminary tests, using various data measures and a range of powerful statistical facilities that were recently added to Signature, indicated nothing that would give Obama any cause for concern. So I felt that any analysis I did would be far more likely to put an end to the story than to substantiate it, by providing objective data against what looked like partisan allegations.

The Republicans were apparently keen to press for a full-scale investigation, which would take a good deal of my time but for which they were prepared to pay through Oxford University Consulting’s personal consultancy arrangements.

Oxford University Consulting, on my behalf, insisted quite properly that any such arrangement would have to be agreed before the results were known: there could be no question of carrying out an analysis that would be paid for only if the results came out in their favour. And I insisted that the analysis, once produced, would have to be in the public domain and thus made available to the Democrats also.

Having got to this stage, with texts and controls carefully prepared and special facilities added to Signature for the purpose, my little adventure into US politics ended. I was left with the impression that payment for propaganda was fine; but payment for objective research was quite a different matter.

Maybe one day I’ll go back and do the analysis in detail, but I doubt it. I would rather spend my time on serious research question

At the heart of Millican’s obections to the Yavelow analysis was the lack of a “control” sample. A “control” is a randomly chosen text against which the similarity of the subject document can be compared against. If a comparison  between “Dreams” and “Fugitive Days” generated the same statistical delta as between “Dreams” and “Huckleberry Finn” then the methodology would obviously be suspect. But otherwise Millican found Yavelow’s analysis quite “interesting”. At Millican’s own site, the professor writes:

Cashill’s fourth analysis (by Chris Yavelow) used far more sophisticated measures, built into FictionFixer, a proprietary software system for helping aspiring writers to develop their style. This analysis is genuinely interesting, but unfortunately it records no “control” measurements at all, so the results produced are impossible to assess. Yavelow describes some of his results as “striking”, but to me they seem too weak to draw any really strong conclusions. Besides, without any comparable statistics involving other texts, we have no way of assessing their true significance – the history of stylometry is littered with the remains of defunct hypotheses built on what to the eye looked like “striking” coincidences but which then dissolved away under critical statistical examination. So Yavelow’s claim to have made “a strong case for the likelihood that the author of Fugitive Days ghostwrote Dreams from My Father” is so far completely unsubstantiated. However his analysis is the only one of the four that stands any chance of providing any basis for a more substantial case.

So essentially the question is an empirical one. If a Bill Ayers sample of sufficient length were available and were a control text were used in an agreed manner, then the issue might be revisited with a semblance of impartiality. Yet none of this addresses the question of why this is important. After all, who really cares about the authorship of books? After all, JFK didn’t write “Profiles in Courage” and did that matter?

The answer probably lies in the unique relationship between Barack Obama’s life and his political image. The candidate on 2008 ran with but a slender public record but with a life story that many found compelling. “Dreams” was more than a simply autobiography; it was the basis of a messianic career; a sacred text.  If “Dreams” were ghostwritten, not only would it suggest the Messiah could not even write his own life story competently but it would open the story of his life to further questioning. It would be as if John McCain, having run on his service record, were suddenly found to have minted his own medals. If he lied in that, he would be asked about everything again.

Because the authorship of “Dreams” is so important to so many careers, the controversy, while theoretically resolvable to a degree of probability using empirical methods, may never be settled. A parallel may be drawn to the debates over authenticity of the Koran, whose proof of divine origin in part rests of the perfection of its style.

Islamic scholars believe that the insuperable literary style of the Qur’an is a proof of its divine origin, claiming that the Qur’an is written in a perfect, inimitable style that cannot be matched by human endeavor … that Qur’anic speech was unique among the linguistic productions of seventh-century Arabs; Many Muslim scholars believe that the speech in the Qur’an is like a rhymed pattern, which is characterized by the assonance at the end of the verses.

This is nothing more than Jack Cashill’s argument adduced in support of, and not against a Holy Writ. The website Inimitable Koran says, nobody can write something that stylistically like the Koran.  “According Qur’anic Exegetes these verses issue a challenge to produce a chapter (surah) that imitates the Qur’an’s unique expression. The tools needed to meet this challenge are the finite grammatical rules and the twenty eight letters that make-up the Arabic language; these are independent and objective measures available to all. The fact that it has not been matched by Arabic literary critics since it emerged to this day does not surprise most scholars familiar with the Arabic language and that of the Qur’an.”

Quite naturally the challenge of Koranic inimitability has provoked skeptics into finding stylistic faults with the Koran. Those intent on attacking its origins have complied lists incomplete sentences and ommitted phrases and most especially foreign words or poorly conjugated ones found within its text. Lee Smith recounts one dissident who  catalogs the Persian words in the Koran before noting that Mohammed had a Persian friend, suggesting blasphemously that the Holy Text’s origins might be partially human in nature, and those humans the despised Persians into the bargain.

Cashill’s effort serves the same purpose. By making the case (which Millican says is unproved) that Ayers wrote “Dreams” he is suggesting the President is not only a bogus writer but a fraud to boot. But rarely does evidence count where faith and revelation are concerned. They will continue to believe what they want and woe unto the unbeliever. The origins of “Dreams From My Father” are wrapped up with the origins of Obama himself. That must always remain a mystery, for you cannot let light in upon magic.

Darth Vader: No. *I* am your father.
Luke: No. No. That’s not true. That’s impossible!
Darth Vader: Search your feelings, you *know* it to be true!
Luke: [anguished] No! No!

Sample, please and control text.

“No Way In” print edition at Amazon
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