There are a great many things we do not know about the current President of the United States. For a while there was concern about Barack Obama’s birthplace, some “birthers” denying that he was born in the United States, a constitutional requirement for the office. Thanks to the taunts of billionaire Donald Trump, who was thought to be a 2012 presidential candidate himself, the President belatedly made his birth certificate public. But many other questions normally asked of presidential candidates and chief executives remain unanswered.
The details of his early family life, for example, are far from clear. Were his parents ever married? Who were his girlfriends and early buddies? How well did he perform in school, and who got him into (let alone paid for) Columbia University and Harvard Law? Who financed his world travels? (Neither book records a 1981 trip to Pakistan.) What are his most serious religious convictions, if any? How close is he to the ever-corrupt Daley Machine in Chicago? What does he read? How hard does he work, apart from campaigning? Perhaps, above all, we should know if Barack Obama really is as brilliant and creative as Democrats routinely contend.
The historical record is extraordinarily minimal for two major reasons. First, Obama himself has been very tight-lipped. He saw to it, for example, that all of his academic records are sealed. And he has been evasive when confronted with his past. In a campaign interview with Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly, Obama giggled and smiled his way through a thicket of meaningful questions, coming across as a very nice man who had said nothing of substance. That’s effective politicking, of course.
A second reason for the silence is the well-documented fact that the major media in the United States are overwhelmingly liberal and desire success for the most left-wing president in American history. Then too, many on both sides of the ideological fence are hoping that the first black president will lead the nation proudly and effectively.
The establishment right’s fear of being labeled “racist” surely explains part of the reluctance on its part to examine Obama’s past very closely. Then too, Obama has the Ivy League, “insider” credentials that almost automatically protect candidates from beltway critics. In many an elite cocktail party and faculty gathering, criticism of the President is simply “proof” of the speaker’s mental incapacity. Time magazine assured us that with Obama’s election, “brains” had now returned to Washington.
True, in recent months the foibles and failures of the President and his administration have become so glaring that a great many on the right (and a smaller number on the left) have begun to savage Obama’s vision of an America wed to a massive federal government, ever climbing debt, subjective moral standards, and international retreat. Perhaps if these critics had known, or even wanted to know, more about Obama the man before jumping on his bandwagon, they could have spared themselves and the world much anguish.
The far right in the United States, of course, has been the most critical of Obama from the start of his presidential campaigning. The rise of the Tea Party, the popularity of Fox News, and the Republican sweep of 2010 reveal the eagerness of conservatives and centrists to change the nation’s course. Despite leftist claims to the contrary, race is not an issue. The Tea Party’s enthusiastic embrace of black Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain in 2011 illustrates the fact.
Some on the far right have been probing Obama’s past, convinced that he is not what he claims to be: a centrist, an intellectual, and a non-political savior of the vast majority of Americans. One of the best examples of the work underway is Jack Cashill’s new book Deconstructing Obama: The Life, Loves, And Letters of America’s First Postmodern President, published in 2011 by Simon and Schuster’s Threshold Editions. Cahill, who holds a doctorate in American Studies from Purdue, is the author of six popular books and a novel. He writes frequently for online publications WorldNetDaily and the American Thinker.
Deconstructing, despite its rather misleading subtitle, is mostly about the claim, made by Cashill during the election campaign of 2008, that Obama did not write his autobiography, Dreams from My Father. Does this matter? Well, if the charge is true, Obama has consistently lied about his authorship, which tells us something important about his character. Moreover, Dreams is the source of much of what we know about Obama before he became a presidential candidate. Cashill delights in pointing to its factual errors and inconsistencies.
Cashill charges that Obama ‘s fellow Chicagoan William Ayres, a radical leftist and one time terrorist, was the author or co-author. In the presidential race of 2008 this issue was part of a larger and apparently unsuccessful effort by conservatives to link Obama and Ayres as close friends and ideological allies. Ayres, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a skilled and much published writer.
Cashill bases his case on two major premises. First, that before Dreams, Obama had shown no propensity for exceptional writing. Indeed, from the sparse collection of writings we have, Obama displayed a very mediocre style and at times had trouble matching nouns and verbs. (pp 160-168.) Cashill presents several more current examples of the President’s clumsiness in extemporaneous public speaking. (One cannot forget his public mention of the “Marine Corpse.”)
Secondly, Cashill matches excerpts from four books by Ayres with Dreams. The parallels are at times persuasive (pp 48, 50, 77-80, 120-122, 192-198, 200, and 205-207). For example, both Ayres and Obama used nautical language extensively in their books, often the same words (pp 79-80). Ayres worked as a merchant seaman; we have no knowledge of Obama at sea — other than in a metaphorical sense. Other attempts by the author to show similarities fall flat. The allegations cry out for more sophisticated and scientific examinations.
Cashill also discusses Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope (pp 208-19), a volume which is little more than a collection of platitude-filled campaign speeches. Cashill believes that much of it came from Obama speech writer Jon Favreau, a wunderkind who joined the Obama camp in 2004. The brilliant writing in Dreams is largely missing; still, there are parallels with passages in Ayres, and Cashill thinks that Favreau tried to make this book sound like Dreams. Cashill also points to Obama’s hectic schedule preceding the publication of the book, arguing that the candidate could not possibly have had the time to write anything original.
Cashill’s poorly organized and often padded book is of interest largely because of its attempt to link Dreams with Ayres. On pages 230-31 we read that Ayres told two journalists he was the sole author of the book. He may have been merely trying to be ironic. However, Anne Leary, one of the interviewers, thought later that Ayers was dead serious, and he told Will Englund of the National Journal that he wanted the royalties that were due him.
Like John F. Kennedy, Barak Obama has many secrets. It may well take decades to identify and document all of them. It seems likely that Obama employed Ayres to some degree when writing his autobiography. But further probes into Obama’s past must be based on much greater research and careful reasoning than we find in Cashill’s admittedly partisan blast.
Thomas C. Reeves writes from Wisconsin. Among his dozen books are Twentieth Century America: A Brief History, and biographies of John F. Kennedy, Joseph R. McCarthy, Fulton Sheen, Walter J. Kohler, Jr., and Chester A. Arthur.