Politicians have long exploited the symbolic power of books. In “Six Crises” (1962), Richard Nixon wrote of a conversation with newly elected President John F. Kennedy. “Every public man should write a book,” Kennedy told Nixon, “because it tends to elevate him in popular esteem to the respected status of an ‘intellectual.’ ” There are other reasons for politicians to write books — profit and public exposure. But the accolades from a tale well-told can burnish an image, as Kennedy found with “Profiles in Courage” (1955), and Barack Obama discovered with “Dreams from My Father” (1995) and “The Audacity of Hope” (2006).
The influence of books lies at the heart of two new ones about President Obama. They take very different approaches and reach very different conclusions about the president, his intellect and his politics. In “Reading Obama,” James Kloppenberg, a professor of intellectual history at Harvard, studies not only Obama’s own writings but also the writers who shaped his thinking. Kloppenberg interviewed Obama’s professors, examinedarticles he edited while president of the Harvard Law Review and analyzed his two books.
The president’s books provide the hook and organizing principle for “Reading Obama.” Kloppenberg is attracted to the political and historical aspects of “The Audacity of Hope,” and that book plays a larger role in his analysis than “Dreams From My Father.” He writes that “Audacity” is “often dismissed, incorrectly, as a typical piece of campaign fluff.” But in Kloppenberg’s eyes, the book reveals Obama to be a philosopher-president, someone whose peers include Adams, Jefferson, Lincoln and Wilson. His reading of Obama convinces him that the president fuses “three distinct developments”: the American democratic tradition, the philosophy of pragmatism, and the academic debates that defined campuses during his educational years. Each contributed to the president’s desire for compromise and consensus.
Kloppenberg’s method does not always provide original insight into Obama’s ideas, but it does reveal the careful, career-long thought behind them. For instance, Obama’s commitment to pragmatism — what Kloppenberg calls “philosophical pragmatism” as opposed to Bill Clinton’s “vulgar pragmatism” — requires him to admit that, sometimes, it doesn’t offer the best solution. “It has not always been the pragmatist,” Obama writes in “Audacity,” who “has created the conditions for liberty.” In a 2006 story for Time, Joe Klein counted more than 50 of these “on the one hand . . . on the other hand” formulations in Obama’s book. Klein saw them as a sign of the then-senator’s political savvy. But “Reading Obama” suggests they were something else: the result of a sincere and coherent worldview.
Kloppenberg works through many influences on Obama, from James Madison to Gordon Wood’s scholarship on Madison, in a style that is clear, methodical and dry. (One exception comes in his wonderfully barbed asides about the Washington media.) But “Reading Obama” also delivers terrific capsule histories of the movements and individuals who had an impact on the president — the turmoil in legal studies in the 1980s, figures ranging from John Rawls to Clifford Geertz. This is not a beach read, but it will teach you much about Obama.
In contrast to Kloppenberg, Jack Cashill takes a withering view of Obama as an author. He complains that the president’s books contribute to “the foundational myth of Obama as genius.” In “Deconstructing Obama,” he presents his thesis that Obama did not write his books and that he turned to “unrepentant terrorist” Bill Ayers for assistance.
Cashill, an author and blogger who has a doctorate in American Studies, argues that Obama was “desperate” in 1994 for help in finishing his overdue first book, “Dreams From My Father,” and turned to Ayers. Recognizing Obama as a politically sympathetic up-and-comer, Ayers agreed to write or rewrite parts and to edit others. Like all politicians, Obama got plenty of help with his speeches and, when it came time for his second book, “Audacity,” he encouraged his staff to ape Ayers — and even brought back the man himself to ghostwrite the book’s prologue and much of its epilogue.
To support this theory, Cashill relies on various types of evidence: chronological (Obama’s schedule didn’t allow enough time to write either book); biographical (Christopher Andersen’s “Barack and Michelle” has two unnamed sources who say Ayers helped Obama); statistical (computer-generated comparisons of Obama’s prose with that of Ayers and other writers); and, most of all, stylistic (Obama and Ayers both rely on “the language of the sea,” though only Ayers comes from a nautical background).
While Cashill strives for a scholarly tone, he packages “Deconstructing Obama” as a memoir-detective story, moving from his initial discovery of Ayers’s role in 2008 to his sleuthing out purported facts about the literary relationship between the two men.
Cashill’s clues are far from convincing. Cashill believes that the similarity between the two men’s “imagery” and “structure” is by itself “almost enough to convict” Obama of his charges. For example, Ayers writes in his memoir, “Fugitive Days:” “The confrontation in the Fishbowl flowed like a swollen river into the teach-in, carrying me along the cascading waters from room to room, hall to hall, bouncing off boulders.” In “Dreams,” Obama writes the following passage: “I heard all our voices begin to run together, the sound of three generations tumbling over each other like the currents of a slow-moving stream, my questions like rocks roiling the water, the breaks in memory separating the currents.”
“Deconstructing Obama” includes many more flimsy examples of stylistic overlap: Obama and Ayers both misquote a line from Carl Sandburg’s famous poem “Chicago”; they both misspell the name of a city in South Africa (though they misspell it in different ways); they both love the words “flutter” and “ragged.” Cashill bends or invents evidence to fit his theories and further undercuts his argument with errors of fact and interpretation.
He attacks the media for ignoring Andersen’s book, to which Cashill says Obama gave his “tacit blessing.”But the White House, in fact, so disliked the book that it canceled a staffer’s CNN appearance because the network booked Andersen — and then quizzed him about the Ayers connection.
“Deconstructing Obama” is distressing also for what it reveals about the publishing industry. Cashill details how the media, including conservative outlets such as Fox News and the National Review, ignored his research. Yet he has now published a book with the conservative imprint of Simon & Schuster, one of the biggest houses in the country.
Books may be our most sophisticated and important medium — Kloppenberg’s volume offers proof of that — but Cashill’s work should remind us that books also are not nearly as accountable as they ought to be. Anything that sells is fit to print, even if it is as grotesque, delusional and paranoid as “Deconstructing Obama.” You can’t trust a book by its cover. That’s a point Cashill set out to make — and did so, thoroughly, though not in the way he intended.
Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition
By James T. Kloppenberg
Princeton Univ. 302 pp. $24.95
The Life, Loves, and Letters of America’s First Postmodern President
By Jack Cashill
Threshold. 343 pp. $25