Saturday, October 11, 2008

Jack Cashill's investigative work on who wrote Obama's autobiography finally 'making waves'

++Addition++Steve Sailer reminds his readers why an Obama ghostwriter is unlikely:
One reason few have finished Obama's autobiography, even though it has been on the bestseller list for over a year, is because of the stubborn relentlessness with which he refused to recount any incidents in his life just because they were entertaining or educational or edifying. It's clearly not ghostwritten—any professional hack would have made it less forbiddingly literary, more reader-friendly.
Steve's probably spent more time with Dreams than anyone else has. Jack will need to produce a smoking gun, not just suggestive circumstantial evidence, to definitively make his case. He tells me he's sure he is right, and that he has more coming soon. Stay tuned, I guess.

---

Jack Cashill has been marshalling circumstantial evidence that Obama's Dreams from my Father was ghostwritten for months. He has now flagged William Ayers as the suspected shade, arguing the sentence style, imagery, readability, and technical difficulty of the former terrorist's Fugitive Days bears a strong resemblance to Dreams:

Although Ayers has tried to put his unhappy ocean-going days behind him, the language of the sea will not let him go. Indeed, it infuses much of what he writes. This is only natural and often distinctive, as in an appealing Ayers’ metaphor like “the easy inlet of her eyes.”

Less natural is that much of this same nautical language flows through Obama’s earth-bound memoir, Dreams From My Father. For simplicity sake, I will refer to the memoir’s author is “Obama.”

Ayers is particularly eloquent when writing about the “fury” of the elements as, curiously, is Obama. Consider the following two passages, the first from “Fugitive Days”:

“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.”

The second from “Dreams”:

“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.”

These two sentences are alike in more than their poetry, their length and their gracefully layered structure. They tabulate nearly identically on the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES), something of a standard in the field.

The “Fugitive Days” excerpt scores a 54 on reading ease and a 12 th grade reading level. The “Dreams’” excerpt scores a 54.8 on reading ease and a 12th grade reading level. Scores can range from 0 to 121, so hitting a nearly exact score matters.

A comparable nature passage from my novel, “2006: The Chautauqua Rising,” scores a 61.6 with an 11 th grade reading level. The samples I submitted from my own semi-memoir on race, “Sucker Punch,” score in the 63-76 range.

In reading Ayers, one senses that he is unaware how deeply his
seagoing affects his language. “Memory sails out upon a murky sea,” he writes at one point.

Indeed, both he and Obama are obsessed with memory and its
instability. The latter writes of its breaks, its blurs, its edges, its lapses. He also has a fondness for the word “murky” and its aquatic usages.
Interesting suspicion, anyway.

Before settling on Ayers, the investigative work for which Jack is renowned didn't draw much attention. I suspect this is because it only requires a few minutes with Dreams and Obama's post-'04 DNC convention speech book, Audacity of Hope, to realize they probably weren't written by the same person. Ghostwriting is not an uncommon for celebrities to have done. Obama surely had substantial input in Dreams, and likely in Audacity, too, but unless he is the apotheosis of literary ventriloquism, possessing an uncanny political prescience to boot, he wasn't behind the keyboard when both (or either) of them were created.

It is the Ayers' connection and the Obama campaign's downplaying of it that has the conservative media now paying attention. It seems to me that proving that Ayers ghostwrote Dreams (presuming for the sake of argument that he actually did so) will be an impossibility. The major media will not only fail to undertake any investigative journalism of their own, they'll likely make no mention of Jack's work at all. It'll take an internal leak from someone on the 'inside' 15 years ago to break the thing open.

39 comments:

Stopped Clock said...

By his own admission, various samples from Cashill's writing exhibit a 13 point variance on the Flesch reading level scale. Therefore the surprisingly close match between a random excerpt from Obama's book and a random excerpt from Ayers' book isn't very good evidence for the authors being the same.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there computer programs that can determine with fair accuracy whether or not two texts were written by the same person? It would seem to me that, with book length texts, or at least lengthy excerpts, to work with, applying such programs to this issue ought to produce fairly sound results.

blue said...

Cashill seems to have several written articles on the subject which are similar but contain different, overlapping subsets of facts and observations.

In this article here, Cashill compares the way the word "current" is used in Obama's two books.

Ayers often speaks of “currents” and “pockets of calm” as does Obama, who uses both as nouns as in “a menacing calm” or “against the current” or “into the current.”

As a point of contrast, the author of Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” never uses “calm” as a noun and uses “current” almost always as an adjective to mean “contemporaneous.”

The difference between the two Obama books on the word “current” is striking. In “Dreams,” there are four uses of “current” as noun and two as adjective. In “Audacity,” there is one of use of “current” as noun and twenty as adjective."


This article is probably the best composite of all that he has written:

Ayers describes his as "a memory book," one that deliberately blurs facts and changes identities and makes no claims at history. Obama says much the same. In Dreams, some characters are composites. Some appear out of precise chronology. Names have been changed.

As a control, allow me to introduce my own book, Sucker Punch, which is no small part a memoir about race, specifically in my relationship, at great remove, with Muhammad Ali and the world of boxing. In the book, I describe my own unreconstructed coming of age in racially charged Newark, New Jersey as it happened. I change no names, create no composite characters, alter no chronologies. Most memoirs observe the same conventions.


And this great line on the nautical imagery:

Sucker Punch again offers a useful control. It makes no reference at all, metaphorical or otherwise, to ships, seas, oceans, calms, storms, wind, waves, horizons, panoramas, or to things howling, fluttering, knotted, ragged, tangled, or murky. None. And yet I have spent a good chunk of every summer of my life at the ocean.

blue said...

“A steady attack on the white race . . . served as the ballast that could prevent the ideas of personal and communal responsibility from tipping into an ocean of despair.”

I gotta agree with Cashill about the distinctiveness of nautical imagery.

In high school, I read Kipling's "Captains Courageous," which takes place on a fishing boat. I had to constantly refer to an unabridged dictionary to understand what the various nautical terms met. Kipling had once spent two weeks on a similar fishing boat and then wrote the book.

I read the book very carefully and tried to understand all the terms I didn't know, but I can't imagine ever using that sort of jargon in my own English papers.

Using ballast as a metaphor like that? It's so foreign, at least to someone like me.

blue said...

Or perhaps people with literary aspirations try very methodically and deliberately to come up with interesting metaphors.

Anonymous said...

Ayers is also a rapist. Google it.

Audacious Epigone said...

SC,

To the contrary, I think it is quite suggestive. It's expected that there will be slight deviation between things written by the same person. So even if the reading level difference between Dreams and Fugitive Days varied a little, it would still be plausible they were written by the same person. Yet they are almost identical.

Blue,

It's curious to me, though, that Obama makes such heavy use of seafaring metaphors. Maybe it comes from his childhood in Hawaii, or he just likes the imagery of being on the water? Without having first-hand navigational experience, I can't imagine making such heavy use of seafaring metaphors, even if I was trying maximize the poetic value of some aspiring piece of literature.

Audacious Epigone said...

Anon,

Jack sent his inquiries to various universities to have that done. Apparently, what you're thinking of is known as the Flesch Reading Ease score. I'm not aware of anything that identifies authorship (other than programs for catching plagiarism, but that's more obvious than a person writing about two different things).

John S. Bolton said...

Obama under Ayers' wing is alarming. The Obama panic is on, as the correlation between Obama being ahead in the polls, and the markets showing panic conditions, would indicate. If the ACORN RICO lawsuit puts him behind, an easing of the panic could be expected.

Audacious Epigone said...

JSB,

I've read the series of posts you've done on the relationship over the last couple of weeks. I looked at the S&P 500 after Palin's nomination was announced at the end of August and McCain began gaining in the polls for a couple of weeks. But with the exception of a two day surge in mid-September, the S&P has been heading steadily downward at an accelerated rate, for a couple of weeks when McCain's chances looked better, and since then as they've come to look worse. It's hard to distangle.

Stopped Clock said...

But it's just an excerpt, not the average for the entire book. For all we know, he chose those two passages because they came up so close; we have no reason to give him the benefit of the doubt when he picks two supposedly random snippets. One could probably expect to find excerpts from the same two books with a much greater variance, and excerpts from totally unrelated writing, such as for example Francis Fukuyama, that come out to a near perfect match. But that wouldnt mean that Fukuyama is the author of Obama's and Ayers' books.

Stopped Clock said...

A post I wrote yesterday about low-income white Republicans scores 54.19, which is in between the two supposed Obama passages, so by this argument I could claim I'm the true author of both books. (And that was the first bit of writing I tested too; I didnt have to go scour my archives or anything.)

So, I'm not educated enough on ghostwriting in general to tell how solid of an argument the rest of this is, but I can tell you from my own experience writing children's novels that it is perfectly normal for two different people to have very similar scores and for the same author to have widely varying scores for different pieces of his writing.

Unnamed and Forgotten said...

Obama is killing the markets! What his subprime mortgage caper doesn't kill, the threat of his presidency will.

John S. Bolton said...

AE thanks for your response. I've only been following the DJIA and noting the times when Obama has many polls putting him ahead more than the 5% margin. U&F: I'm happy to hear people saying that. I noticed Investors Bus. Daily has started to say this too, as of Sat. I'm hoping to claim credit for first internet or published use of the term the "Obama panic" as a description of the current globe-circling financial sell-off. Ayers' long collaboration with Obama, will, I believe, turn out to be a significant part of what this enormous breakdown of confidence is about. American subprime mortgages don't amount to much in this larger complex of markets.

Anonymous said...

The old saying is, "when you see hoof prints, think horses, not zebras." Ghost writing is ubiquitous. Absolutely commonplace. Ask anyone in the publishing industry. The assertion that Obama received substantial help writing it, or didn't write it at all, is hardly shocking. The political implications may be shocking, but the factual conjecture hardly is.

Audacious Epigone said...

SC,

Good point. I just sent the question to Jack.

JSB,

This wouldn't be the first insight of monumental significance you have made.

I think I have a reasonable idea as to how to get at the chicken-and-egg question. I'll run two correlations: One of Obama's daily support and the market performance on the same day, another with Obama's daily support and the market performance for the previous day. Zogby does a daily tracking poll, and it's out by mid-morning. If the market is responding to Obama's gains, the former correlation should be stronger. If Obama's support is a result of the market dropping, the latter should be stronger. Not a definitive test, but it's worth running. I'll do it tomorrow.

Oh, and since you're the school marm: I meant "disentangle", not "distangle". Thanks for going easy on me, this time :)

Anon,

Right. And that's why Jack drew no attention until he focused in on Ayers. A ghostwriter is really no story at all. A ghostwriter who is also an unrepentant terrorist to whom a potential President said he had no meaningful relationship is quite the story, however.

Steve Sailer said...

Wouldn't a simpler explanation be that Ayers read his colleague Obama's 1995 book before writing his 2001 book, and was influenced by it?

The nautical metaphors in Obama can be explained by the fact that on his Facebook page he lists his eight favorite books and one is "Moby Dick."

Ayers is a funnier, livelier writer than Obama. I can't imagine a ghostwriter producing anything as dull as Dreams.

Obama Supporter said...

If Ayers was in a hurry he could have written something as dull as Dreams. It may have been good practice for his own autobiography later.

Obama's a halfwitted revolutionary who gives a good speech in a soothing voice. Beyond that, everything's been handed to the man on a platter.

Dragon Horse said...

So Obama, as a Law Student knew Ayers from his time as a community organizer in Chicago? Ayers just happened to like this black guy community organizer who focused on one neighborhood on the Southside and decided to write a book for him?

Does that sound realistic?

Put yourself in the position of someone like Ayers meeting a young Barak Obama fresh out of Columbia in the early 1980's...

That really makes no sense for Ayers to do something like that.

Audacious Epigone said...

JSB,

I'll post what I find with the proposed test tomorrow. I'm slammed today.

SC,

Jack says every test he's run suggests the same author, and he "knows he's right". He promises that he'll have more to come shortly that will explain what he means by that.

Steve and OS,

Both of those suppositions seem plausible to me. I shouldn't be interjecting much myself, because speculation isn't my, uh, strong suit, which is why I primarily stick to quantitative stuff, and anyway I haven't read Fugitive Days and have only read chunks of Dreams (as Steve says, it's hard to stomach, especially when you're accustomed to reading quantitative, to-the-point empirical bloggers). Jack says Ayers' 2001 book is the better of the two. But if Ayers was 'warming up' with Dreams...

DH,

Very reasonable point. But doesn't it similarly strike you as odd that an unknown who hadn't written anything of consequence previously would receive a $150k book advance?

Anonymous said...

I asked the question about a computer program to identify/match authors in the second comment above.

After a bit of Googling, I understand that the field in which this is employed is a branch of forensic linguistics, and that the type of analysis is called stylometric analysis. How reliable or accepted it is I have no idea, but I did run across one program that evidently does this sort of thing in matching literary texts.

http://www.philocomp.net/?pageref=humanities&page=signature

I think there are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of Obama apart from the authorship of his memoirs, but still think that those interested might find a comparative computer analysis of interest.

blue said...

I've read parts of Dreams and the introduction to Audacity.

And yes, the person who wrote Dreams seems to be different from the person who wrote Audacity, at least if one reads the introductions to both books. The writing in Dreams is so graceful. The writing in Audacity, much more pedestrian.

Perhaps Obama worked and worked at Dreams but not at Audacity?

Can Steve Sailer comment on this? Has Sailer read Audacity?

(The contrast between the content and the style of Dreams is extreme. The book is so dull! I really wonder why Obama would choose to write his memoirs in his early 30s. If he were to do it after 8 years as POTUS, that would be another matter.
Even the fact that his father is a Kenyan, his stepfather is Indonesian, and that he grew up in Hawaii doesn't add any color or interest, at least in the chapters I read. Is an Obama a supremely, talented, sensitive narcissist)?

tommy said...

I imagine there are ways to test the hypothesis. You could tally up vocabulary and various grammatical features in Rebel Days and Obama's two memoirs. Then you could find a few dozen other memoirs written by left-wing university-educated political activists and see how they compare to one another.

This would be an exhausting project.

tommy said...

The Wikipedia article on stylometry states that a common method of determining authorship is finding the frequency of function words and comparing them using principal component analysis.

Audacious Epigone said...

Jack has a couple more columns providing further circumstantial evidence of Ayers' involvement in Dreams. The most difficult to dismiss comes from a book Ayers wrote in 1993, where he described a group of students asking their teacher about the Hudson River flowing in two directions on the east side of Manhattan. Obama describes the same thing, using a black woman and her son, in Dreams.

I've asked him if he's used stylometric analysis yet.

Audacious Epigone said...

Jack says he has had stylometric analyses run on both texts, and says they're positively related but not conclusive. I'm not familiar with the method (or methods, as there seems to be multiple aspects of stylometric analysis), so I'm not sure exactly what that means or how significant it is. It's not a 'smoking gun', though, and without one, I don't see how this goes beyond an interesting interesting potentiality.

Peter said...

From Cashill's site:

Obama “took the long way home, along the East River promenade” ... While sitting, he noticed a black woman and her young son against the railing ... The boy appeared to ask his mother a question that she could not answer and then approached Obama:
“Excuse me, mister,” he shouted. “You know why sometimes the river runs that way and then sometimes it goes this way?”
"The woman smiled and shook her head, and I said it probably had to do with the tides."


Geography clearly isn't Obama's strong suit. He didn't realize that there's nothing unusual about the East River's flow being variable according to tides, because it isn't a river. It's an arm of the Atlantic Ocean.

JBS said...

AE,

I don't want to derail this thread, but comparing September 2007 to September 2008, there was another decline in the number of births in Arizona:

http://www.azdhs.gov/plan/

As you can see, the bulk of the drop is concentrated in Maricopa county where there was a substantial housing boom.

Audacious Epigone said...

Peter,

Heh, thanks, I didn't know either. I never claimed to have walked by there multiple times (ever), though.

JBS,

Not at all--the update is much appreciated. The trend appears to be very real.

tommy said...

Someone sees further circumstantial evidence that Ayers might have ghostwritten Obama's biography.

Steve Sailer said...

Obama published his autobiography in July 1995, about six months after he became chairman of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which Ayers had largely dreamed up. Ayers needed to butter up Obama to get approval for various grants to leftwing groups.

Ayers published his autobiography six years later in 2001. My guess would be that Ayers read Obama's autobiography in 1995 in order to be able to flatter Obama into approving grants for his Ayers' pals.

When Ayers went to write his own autobiography, he may have been influenced by Obama's book.

The nautical metaphors in Obama's book can be explained by Obama listing on his Facebook page as one of his eight favorite books "Moby Dick."

tommy said...

The nautical metaphors in Obama's book can be explained by Obama listing on his Facebook page as one of his eight favorite books "Moby Dick."

Has anyone yet tried comparing the nautical language in Moby Dick to see how they compare to those used by Ayers?

tommy said...

Has anyone yet tried comparing the nautical language in Moby Dick to see how they compare to those used by Ayers?

Sorry, "see how it compares to the metaphors used by Ayers," is what I meant to say.

Audacious Epigone said...

Tommy,

Not that I know of. I wonder if the word "ballast" appears in Moby Dick?

tommy said...

A quick search of Moby Dick reveals that the word "ballast" occurs once and the word "ballasted" occurs twice. I was too lazy to check whether they are used in the same way Obama and Ayers use "ballast."

tommy said...

For what it is worth (not much), the word "murky" appears twice Moby Dick. In both instances, it is use to describe light rather than water.

The "Hudson" is mentioned twice in Moby Dick, though it doesn't mention anything about the tide modifying the flow of the river.

I couldn't find use of the phrases "currents of calm," "pockets of calm," or anything very similar in Moby Dick. The phrase "into the current(s)" is not used.

The word "tranquil" and its variants comes up often enough in Moby Dick. References to a "tranquil sea" are pretty cliche in any event. "Oceans of despair" does not occur, but again this is a fairly common phrase.

The word "knotted" occurs often enough, but isn't used analogically or metaphorically except in a reference to wrinkles in Moby Dick. "Tangled" also isn't used in this sense in the book. There is at least one such use of "entanglement," however. "Horizon" occurs frequently, though always in reference to an actual, not metaphorical, horizon. "Ragged" occurs four times in the book.

A quick glance through the old book reminds me of how infrequently simple metaphors or analogies are used in Dickens' writings. The narrative of the story, not simple phraseology, bears the author's allusions.

tommy said...

Does Obama often make use of nautical metaphors in his speaking engagements? I cannot recall him using them.

tommy said...

For what it is worth (again, not much), none of the following terms occur in Obama's DNC speech in 2004.

sea
ocean
horizon
panorama
murky
river
tide/tidal
flutter
ragged
storm
current
tangle
knot

He makes a reference to a "naval lieutenant," but, of course, he is referring to John Kerry on the Mekong. He makes use of the phrase "wind at our backs." That appears to be the only possible nautical metaphor in the speech.

Obama's speech on race contains mention of the word "ocean," but only in reference to the founders of the colonies crossing the ocean from the Old World. The word "storm" only occurs as part of the word "firestorm." The word "current" is only used in the sense of "contemporary." None of the other words listed above are used. The word "wind" is used here, but only in quoting Dreams. I didn't read this entire speech again, but browsing it did not reveal any evident nautical metaphors.

With the exception of a reference to immigrants crossing the ocean, none of the above words occur in Obama's acceptance speech. He makes a reference to a "hurricane," and to "floodwaters," but these are obvious references to Katrina and Ike. The only reference to "wind" is in the term "wind power." Once again, I didn't care to read this entire speech for a second time, but I could not find any obvious nautical allusions in browsing this speech either.

He doesn't seem too fond of inserting nautical metaphors into his significant speeches. But then I'm not sure how involved he is in writing or editing his own speeches.

All in all, I have to say that after reviewing Moby Dick and Obama's speeches, I'm less certain than before that Obama wrote his autobiographies without assistance. I do get the sense that someone with firsthand experience of the sea might have assisted in penning these books.

Proving that is another matter...

tommy said...

It may also be worth keeping in mind that Obama hasn't had any qualms in borrowing the rhetoric of other speakers. That is demonstrated in this video. Some of the shorter phrases he uses are so generic that he may not be swiping them from the sources the video implies, but it becomes obvious toward the end of this video that he has lifted material from former clients of David Axelrod like Deval Patrick and from Malcolm X.