Deconstructing Obama: Avant-Garde Idiocy

The premise of Jack Cashill's new book, Deconstructing Obama, published by Simon & Schuster, is that President Obama's entire life is one massive fraud, as demonstrated (Cashill claims) by the fact that Obama almost certainly did not write the two memoirs that eloquently and movingly retell the president's life story. And I have to admit that Cashill's skepticism is contagious -- having read Deconstructing Obama, I find myself wondering whether it was written by Jack Cashill, or a sophisticated computer program meant to simulate the effects of low oxygen levels on the brain.

I've never encountered anything -- on the left or the right -- so aggressively stupid, so terminally self-unaware, so pathetically festooned with self-aggrandizing tripe as Deconstructing Obama. When not retreading the already well-worn ground of Obama's “radical” associates, Cashill describes at length his own journalistic expertise and gift for literary analysis -- praise that he unwittingly steps on when recounting his amateurish and nonsensical attempts at “detective work” into Obama's books and past. (At one point, Cashill faults his critics for not acknowledging “my frequent caveats about the limits of my knowledge.”)

More than anything else, Deconstructing Obama is a bizarre book. It's a frayed string of conspiracy theories that loops and knots itself into a tangled mess. It's a disjointed harangue in which chapters seem to repeat themselves and an entire section is inexplicably devoted to Sarah Palin's “perseverance in the face of resistance.” It's an intellectually and morally offensive screed in which 19-year-old Barack Obama's poetry serves as the launching point for an outlandish theory about Obama's grandfather bribing Barack Obama Sr. to pose as the future president's father. (Cashill's candidates for Obama's “real” father include Malcolm X and Jimi Hendrix.)

The allegation that animates this corpse of a book is that the true author of Obama's intensely personal autobiography, Dreams from My Father, is none other than Bill Ayers, the former Weatherman and current focal point for fringe right-wing obsessives. The “evidence” Cashill marshals in support of this claim is weak to the point of parody. Much is made, for example, of the frequency of nautical terms and metaphors in Dreams, even though “Obama gives little indication that he has any real experience with the sea or ships beyond bodysurfing at Waikiki.” Ayers apparently served as a merchant seaman at one point, so... QED, I guess.

Much of the rest of his proof consists of random words that both Obama and Ayers use in their books and stories they tell that have tangential similarities. Cashill even claims early on that the superficial similarities between two sentences from Obama's and Ayers' memoirs are “almost enough to convict.” He reprints anonymous emails from fellow travelers who share Cashill's conviction, as well as his deficiencies of expertise and common sense. The argument, I guess, is that if you get enough ignorant people talking about the same subject they'll somehow equal one expert.

What remains is Cashill cobbling together various fantastical explanations for the many holes -- logical and factual -- in his arguments, such as his take on Obama's updated introduction for the 2004 reprint of Dreams. In that introduction, Obama looks back on his creation and confesses to “wincing every so often at a poorly chosen word, a mangled sentence, an expression of emotion that seems indulgent or overly practiced.” Cashill, however, argues that Ayers wrote the new intro and offers his “purely speculative” belief that Ayers “was telling those in the know that he could have done better with Dreams, that perhaps he allowed the nominal author too much leeway in what remained in the book. Ayers has an ego. All real writers do.” But if Ayers' ego is that pronounced, why did he agree to write the book and not claim any credit in the first place?

Weaving its way through all this nonsense is Cashill's messianic belief that he has been cruelly and needlessly victimized in his self-described quest to ensure “the future of the Republic.” And, ironically, by airing these grievances he provides perhaps the most compelling proof that his theory is irretrievably insane: even the right-wing press thinks he's a crank. In painstaking detail, he explains how the pillars of the conservative media -- the Weekly Standard, the National Review, the Washington Times -- all declined to give his Ayers ghostwriting conspiracy even a cursory examination. He writes of gaining admission to Grover Norquist's weekly Wednesday meeting of conservative muckety-mucks and being booed while making his case.

Cashill's theory has been almost completely ignored by the legitimate press. One notable exception was the New Yorker's David Remnick, author of The Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama, who set aside a couple of pages of the biography to break down Cashill's “libel about Obama's memoir” and note the “particularly ugly pedigree” of denial of authorship accusations against black writers.

Deconstructing Obama is a peek into the right-wing's dank, dark ideological sub-basement. If it can be said to have any use, it is to demarcate the furthest extreme of the right's increasingly deranged antipathy towards the Democratic president.