James Kloppenberg vs. Jack Cashill

[Washington Post]

In Sunday’s Washington Post, I’ve got a long review of two books about the books of Barack Obama — James Kloppenberg’s Reading Obama, which reverse-engineers the ideas in Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, and Jack Cashill’s Deconstructing Obama, which advances his theory that Bill Ayers actually wrote Dreams. Kloppenberg’s book is pretty good. Cashill’s is pretty grotesque, and, by the end of my review, I suggest that its mere existence says some troubling things about the modern publishing industry.

Despite all that, I still don’t think my review comes down hard enough on Cashill. I say he “bends and invents evidence to fit his theories,” but lacked the space to really prove it. So let me do that here, first with a more developed example, then with a few quick hitters. I’m not trying to be pedantic, and I’m not trying to be political. But I am trying to stand up for some common standards of fact and argument and discourse — even if Cashill, and his publisher, Simon & Schuster, do not.

One thing to admire about Cashill is his comprehensiveness. It’s not enough for Ayers to have written Dreams. For Cashill, he must also have written parts of Audacity and even Obama’s famous 2002 speech against the Iraq war. I’ll run down Cashill’s reasoning on this latter point, to which he devotes an entire chapter, and put my counterarguments in bold parentheses. Cashill begins by describing Obama’s speech as cowardly and calculating. (In reality, Obama talked frankly about a “dumb war” and a “rash war.”) Cashill pauses to note that Obama praised his grandfather’s service in World War II — and that he would later assign this to an apocryphal uncle in 2008. (Here’s Cashill frantically defending Sarah Palin’s “Korea” gaffe.) Cashill also cherrypicks statistics in order to dispute Obama’s description of a struggling economy. (Obama mentions “a stock market that has just gone through the worst month [September] since the Great Depression”; Cashill counters that “the Dow Jones would gain more than 10 percent in that very October of Obama’s discontent.” Which statistic better captures the reality?) But Cashill soon gets to the business at hand: “Despite Obama’s claims to unique authorship,” he writes, “one senses a radical contribution to the speech.” What catches Cashill’s attention? The fact that Obama singles out the Defense Department’s Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz for censure — “two names in common parlance only on the hard left,” Cashill writes. (A year later, David Brooks devoted an entire column to the idea that everyone was giving Perle and Wolfowitz too much credit.) Cashill also uses the mention of Perle and Wolfowitz to implicate Ayers, who attended Obama’s speech and whom Cashill believes to be virulently antisemitic. At the end of the chapter, Cashill unveils his masterstroke: Obama later told a reporter that “it was a hard speech to give. And it was just, well, a well-constructed speech” — and in this phrasing, Cashill argues, Obama lets slip that the text “had been handed to him” by none other than Bill Ayers.

Again, this kind of nonsense saturates Cashill’s book. Let’s switch to bullet points for some of my favorite examples.

  • Cashill keys onto the word “ballast,” which Obama and Ayers both use in their memoirs. When the word is “flat-out misused” in Audacity — Obama describes religion as “a ballast against the buffeting winds of today’s headlines” — Cashill sees it as proof that Ayers has been replaced by Obama’s speechwriters. Throughout his book, Cashill makes much of Ayers’s nautical background, writing here that “no one in the know uses the phrase ‘ballast against’ in reference to a ship.” Perhaps not, but plenty of people use it in reference to “a balloon or airship” (the OED’s second definition), including Obama here.
  • For someone whose arguments depend in large part on his literary sensibility, Cashill writes quite poorly. In particular, he struggles with pacing — or, if you want to be cynical, with filling up enough pages to merit a book. At one point, Cashill spends a page on “an eye-popping documentary” about Africa, which leads to another page on his seven-year-old spat with Thomas Frank — and all this by way of introducing the reader to Sarah Palin. Even more egregious are Cashill’s frequent and lengthy asides about the editors who won’t publish him, the allies who don’t have his back, and all the usual enemies in modern conservatism’s paranoid style.
  • Speaking of those enemies: Cashill attacks a Politico reporter for taking “as gospel” David Axelrod’s defense that Obama and Ayer’s kids “attend the same school,” but never mentions that Axelrod was responding to that same reporter’s 1800-word exposé on Obama’s early relationship with Ayers — an exposé Cashill cribs from later in his book.
  • And speaking of comprehensive: I haven’t even mentioned Cashill’s most absurd arguments, such as the one that “Pop,” Obama’s youthful poem, is both by and about Frank Marshall Davis — and that the poem’s “amber stain” may allude to an act of oral sex between Obama and Davis. I could also mention that, earlier in his book, Cashill spends several pages demonstrating that Obama’s early writing sucks (it does), which makes the “Pop” theory seem superfluous. But I think I’ll just let its insanity resonate all by itself.

I also wish I had had more space to talk about Kloppenberg’s book. While Cashill would surely seize on to the New York Times report that Kloppenberg’s work has received “prolonged applause” from his fellow professors, Kloppenberg actually defends Obama from both the right and the left. (For example, Kloppenberg chastens those professors who want to see Obama’s Christianity as political calculation: “Like the overwhelming majority of Americans outside the small subculture of academic life, Obama locates the foundation of his own moral principles in his religious faith.”) Kloppenberg also outworks his conservative counterpart. Where Cashill worries about (and actually line edits) Obama’s youthful essay on nuclear protesters in the Sundial, a student publication at Columbia, Kloppenberg combines his discussion of that essay with an interview with a professor who remembered Obama writing a paper that advocated for a moderate form of nuclear nonproliferation. (Kloppenberg also digs up another Obama Sundial essay that Cashill missed.)

Still, the story here is Deconstructing Obama. Cashill’s opus should remind us that the book industry, for all its virtues, still has a lower filter than other media. Publishing doesn’t fact-check like magazines. It doesn’t possess a newsroom’s institutional culture. In fact, in each and every book contract, it puts the burden of truth (and the threat of lawsuits) on its authors. Publishers sell this as the result of limited resources, but it also means anything that sells is fit to print. Even if it’s as grotesquely padded, delusionally argued, and comprehensively paranoid as Deconstructing Obama.


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