WASHINGTON — “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped — in his life, convictions and outlook on the world -- by reading and writing as Barack Obama," said Michiko Kakutani, the literary critic of the famed New York Times. Did you know this? Frankly, I did not know President Obama was so wedded to books and the printed word as to be compared to President Abraham Lincoln, author of the Gettysburg Address and the magisterial second inaugural address and devotee of Shakespeare. To be honest, I did not think that by the wildest leap of imagination Obama could be compared even to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, who holds a doctorate, or Ulysses S. Grant, the author of — until now — the finest presidential autobiography of all time. That is, if Mark Twain is to be believed. Twain compared Grant's memoirs to Julius Caesar's commentaries.
Yet Kakutani has delivered the above testimonial. Moreover, others who have had the pleasure of reading Obama's earlier writing have been equally lavish in their praise of his literary saga. I had known him to deliver passable speeches from a teleprompter, ad-lib tolerably well on contemporary life and watch sports on television. But to be shaped by books as Lincoln was? As these other presidents were? Michiko, baby. What have you been smoking? What has Barack been smoking?
I know that in Obama's January interview with Kakutani, he mentioned a dozen or so authors and books that had caught his fancy. But so far as I know, that is about the only time he ever mentioned them. Of course, there is a very good reason for his artsy name-dropping. He wants to hook a big fat literary contract from a big fat lazy publisher of books that are bought but rarely read. Do I hear talk of a $30 million contract?
He has already had help from the likes of Jonathan Raban, Joe Klein and Britain's the Guardian. All have read — or claimed to have read — "Dreams From My Father," Obama's 1995 best-selling memoir. Supposedly, after immersing himself in the memoir, Raban called Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln." Klein said it "may be the best-written memoir ever produced by an American politician." And the Guardian's reviewer esteemed the book the fifth best nonfiction book of all time -- yes, of all time!
Unfortunately, others have also read the pathetic drivel that came from Obama's pen before "Dreams." The New York Times best-selling author Christopher Andersen wrote in his 2009 book that Obama, a "hopelessly blocked" writer facing a contract deadline, realized that he had taken on more than he could deliver. So he turned to his Chicago neighbor, Bill Ayers, who was a proven writer, to finish what became "Dreams." Ayers has remained relatively reticent about his work, but then again, he shares Obama's politics. As for Andersen, he has sources that he has never divulged. Maybe he will when the former president snags his $30 million.
An even more interesting critic is Jack Cashill, a scholar and literary critic. He actually read Obama's literary outpouring that came before "Dreams." Though it was limited, this is possibly what excited Kakutani. It consists of but two essays. Just two essays in all those years.
This week in The American Spectator, Cashill demonstrated that the two essays are littered with risible grammatical errors, "awkward sentence structure, inappropriate word choice, a weakness for cliches" and — an Obama trademark — "continued failure to get verbs and nouns to agree." For instance, in his 1988 essay, Obama wrote, "The election of Harold Washington in Chicago or of Richard Hatcher in Gary were not enough to bring jobs." He meant "was." We are expected to believe that a few years later he was capable of writing what Cashill calls a graceful and sophisticated memoir, namely, "Dreams From My Father." Well, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize after a mere eight and a half months in the White House. In Obama's world, anything is possible.
Cashill's point, and Andersen's and mine, is that "Dreams" was almost certainly not written exclusively by Obama. For a publisher to claim that it was is to commit fraud. To claim that Obama alone is going to write a book on the order of Grant's memoirs is fraudulent and a horselaugh.