Maraniss and the Ayers Conspiracy

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
May 3 2012 5:56 PM

Maraniss and the Ayers Conspiracy

Reader Lynn writes in:

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

I really liked your articles from the campaign trail, but perhaps things have gotten a bit dull for you now so you have to grasp at straws. Really, there are no other substantive topics to write about except for a lame biography written by a known liar and a girlfriend's diaries? We live in a huge country with enormous political and social problems, let alone two wars - the election process is critical to solving our country's problems and you use your time writing about this???? 
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It's a good question -- or, counting the punctuation mark, a good four questions. Believe me, my interest in the Maraniss book is purely 1) literary and 2) a function of my curiousity about how Obama conspiracists will read it. The common argument of the Obama conspiracy theorist is that the media never looked into Obama's past. If the media couldn't get it, Obama was covering something up. (And he is preventing Columbia and Occidental from releasing more information about him.) If the media wasn't trying to get it, they were covering up for him. "Birther" activism, which is waning but not dead, is focused on more than Obama's birth certificate. Obama skeptics want his college records, his passport records, etc and etc. Some of them want proof that he wrote the words attributed to his name.

Take Jack Cashill. Since 2008, he's written about the implausibility of Obama writing Dreams From My Father, and the plausibility of Bill Ayers writing it for him. In one early column, Cashill pointed the laser scope at a bad poem Obama had written at Occidental College in 1981.

Somehow, those few years later, this 33 year-old amateur with no paper trail beyond a hack legal note and a poem about fig-stomping apes 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 that Obama did this on his own, almost as though he were some sort of literary idiot savant. I don’t buy this canard for a minute.

Cashill's digging involved reading the publically available Obama ouvre and then engaging in authorship analysis to prove that Bill Ayers, not Obama, had the sort of pretentious prose style and metaphor selection bias that informed Dreams. But Maraniss's reporting found that the people (and composites) in Dreams were real, and some had letters Obama had sent them. The writing, from a 20-year-old, is Beat-influenced automatic prose that sounds quite a lot like Dreams.

Moments trip gently along over here. Snow caps the bushes in unexpected ways, birds shoot and spin like balls of sound. My feet hum over the dry walks. A storm smoothes the sky, impounding the city lights, returning to us a dull yellow glow. I run every other day at the small indoor track [at Columbia] which slants slightly upward like a plate; I stretch long and slow, twist and shake, the fatigue, the inertia finding home in different parts of the body. I check the time and growl—aargh!—and tumble onto the wheel. And bodies crowd and give off heat, some people are in front and you can hear the patter or plod of the steps behind. You look down to watch your feet, neat unified steps, and you throw back your arms and run after people, and run from them and with them, and sometimes someone will shadow your pace, step for step, and you can hear the person puffing, a different puff than yours, and on a good day they’ll come up alongside and thank you for a good run, for keeping a good pace, and you nod and keep going on your way, but you’re pretty pleased, and your stride gets lighter, the slumber slipping off behind you, into the wake of the past.

Bit hard to read that and rule out the possibility that the author, with another 13 years of life and education, wrote Dreams. Is Cashill convinced? I've asked, and in the meantime, I see he's moved on to the deeper meaning of that story of Obama eating dog meat as a kid in Indonesia.

Despite a healthy interest in dogs – there are 20 distinct dog references in his 2001 memoir “Fugitive Days” – Ayers does not appear to have eaten any.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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