Did Ayers Help Obama Get Into Harvard?


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© Jack Cashill

September 20, 2009

Although terrorist emeritus Bill Ayers claims not to have met Barack Obama until the mid-1990s, there is reason to believe that he not only knew Obama much earlier, but that he helped get him into Harvard Law School.

The evidence, substantial if speculative, can be found in an unlikely source, Barack Obama's 2006 bestseller, Audacity of Hope , and it may have been provided by Ayers himself.

In the way of background, I have made the argument on these pages that Bill Ayers wrote the better part of Obama's acclaimed 1995 memoir, Dreams From My Father. 

From the beginning of my research, I had focused on Dreams because the myth of Obama's genius is built squarely upon this first book.  So well crafted is Dreams that it inspired British author Jonathan Raban to annoint Obama "the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln," and his is the consensus opinion among the world's literati.

Audacity has not gotten the rave reviews Dreams has.  The New York Times accurately describes it "as much more of a political document."  The Times adds that "portions of the volume read like outtakes from a stump speech." With good cause.  As I have shown previously, portions of Audacity are, in fact, word-for-word outtakes from stump speeches, most likely written by Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau. 

Still, the Times reassures its readers that "enough of the narrative voice in [ Audacity ] is recognizably similar to the one in Dreams From My Father ."  With a major assist from a scholar who prefers to remain anonymous, whom I call "Mr. West," I have become increasingly convinced that Ayers wrote those stretches of Audacity that best capture Dreams' narrative voice, including the book's nicely written epilogue.

What attracted Mr. West to the epilogue was a series of parallel word choices as well as a positive reference to Benjamin Franklin, a figure whom Ayers also speaks of approvingly.  After a close review of my own, I am convinced that the epilogue, especially its last thousand words, shows the hand of Ayers as clearly as any passage in Dreams.   Intriguingly, too, Ayers may have written himself into its dialogue.

Although no one word or phrase reaches smoking gun status, I was able to match every distinctive phrase and concept from this thousand-word stretch of Audacity to a comparable one from Ayers' work-with one interesting exception.  And for reference I was only using two of Ayers' books--his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days and a 2004 collection called Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice.   This extraordinary parallelism suggests a certain haste on Ayers' part as he seemed to be mining his own clichés.

Many of the words and phrases in the Audacity epilogue can be found in the Ayers' books, often multiple times.  These include words like "contingent," "obscurity," "torrent," "inherently," "satisfying," glimpse," "fleeting," "demonstrable," "calculation," "petty," "nameless," "faceless," as well as "narrow" and "landscape" used metaphorically, and "labor" used as a verb.

Telling too are the phrases: "my heart," "filled with,"  "measure of," "sense of," "what matters," "the path to." Again, none of these is significant in itself.  It is just that every phrase I searched in Audacity I found in Ayers, again often multiple times.  This does not happen by chance.

The parallel concepts convinced me beyond doubt of Ayers' involvement.  In the epilogue, the voice of Obama tells us that "satisfaction is not to be found in the glare of television cameras."  Ayers is equally disdainful of "the sinister glare of celebrity."

Obama talks about our "collective dreams." Ayers uses the word "collective" the way others use "and" and "the." The Weather Underground was organized into "collectives." He refers to "collective well-being," "collective gloom," "collective goodwill" and a dozen other Marxist-spawned "collective" sentiments.  Speaking of Marx, Obama uses the concept of "process" in a consciously dialectic sense as does Ayers.

In Audacity's epilogue, Obama tells the reader the he strives "to help people live their lives with some measure of dignity."  Ayers too sees the need "to validate the dignity and worth of students," to honor "the full measure of their humanity," and to make efforts "to achieve and extend human dignity."

Obama talks of people "constructing lives for themselves and their children."  Ayers speaks of "our constructed reality" and tells his readers that "the details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed" and that in his terrorist days, "we constructed our lives underground."

In the epilogue's most dramatic moment, Obama relates a conversation he had had nearly twenty years earlier with a friend of his, "an older man who had been active in the civil rights efforts in Chicago in the sixties."  This friend was "one of the few academics" that Obama knew, and Obama listened closely to his advice about law school and a political career beyond.

"Both law and politics required compromise," the man tells him, adding that he himself had thought about going into politics but was unwilling to compromise.  Historically, the real life Ayers has sounded much like Obama's academic sage.  In Fugitive Days , for instance, he tells us that he and his comrades were eager to "combat the culture of compromise."

Looking back, Obama concedes that he was "perhaps more tolerant of compromise" than this older friend was.  Curiously, "tolerant" is the one key word not found in either of Ayers' books in question.  Apparently, he has no particular use for that concept.

The evidence to this point suggests that Ayers ghosted the epilogue of Audacity and that his worldview closely parallels the one attributed to Obama.  But there is a corollary question that begs to be asked: just who is this "older man," the "academic" and veteran "civil rights." activist who wrote a recommendation to help Obama get into Harvard Law.

The epilogue identifies this friend as an urban studies professor at Northwestern University, but if there were such a professor, why not name him?  What reason would there be to conceal his identity?

A more likely possibility, of course, is that the "older man" was Ayers himself.  The conversation between Obama and the man is extensive and impressively well remembered.  Since the older man is making points that Ayers himself has made over the years -- especially the need to resist "the culture of compromise"--Ayers would have had no problem recalling and writing such a passage.

The year of the conversation would have been 1988.  Ayers and Obama were both in Chicago.  Ayers, seventeen years Obama's senior, was indeed an "academic" with a newly minted doctorate of education from Columbia.

Although Ayers did not teach at Northwestern, his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, has, and Ayers himself presented a paper at Northwestern during the time of Audacity's composition.  Ayers teaches in the Education Department at the University of Illinois, Chicago, but he has taught at least one course there under the rubric, "Education/Urban Studies."

If the world thinks of Ayers as a terrorist, he likes to think of himself as a civil rights activist.  "Most of us had come to our understanding of the world from our involvement in the civil rights and peace movements," he writes in Fugitive Days .  This is an identity he has aggressively staked, largely to establish the moral high ground in his endless squabbles with other, less seasoned left wing factions. 

Ayers did not complete his doctorate at Columbia until 1987, but Dohrn apparently left New York and began work at the Chicago Law Firm of Sidley Austin in 1984.  Ayers seems to have commuted between his wife and children in Chicago and his university in New York from 1984 to 1987.  Obama left New York, where he too had attended Columbia University, and arrived in Chicago in 1985.

Steve Diamond, a life long member of the democratic left writing on his blog, Global Labor (now part of his new blog King Harvest) has documented that Ayers and Obama had a relationship dating back to their work together on a major 1988 educational reform project in Chicago. Diamond’s source was “a senior Democratic Party activist who was part of the Obama campaign.”

Although CEO of a major power company, Commonwealth Edison, Bill Ayers’s father, Tom, apparently worked on this same project. Tom Ayers had been a major client of Sidley Austin, and it has been acknowledged by at least one senior partner that Ayers got Dohrn her job. Given her contempt conviction for refusing to cooperate in a terrorist investigation, Dohrn would have needed some extraordinary pull to get hired by a prestigious law firm. She could not be admitted to the bar. A few years later, Sidley Austin hired Obama on as a summer intern. Did Tom Ayers grease those skids as well? 

In the educational world, if not in the legal one, the radical past of Ayers and Dohrn made them rock stars.  An endorsement from Ayers would have carried real weight at Harvard.  If he did help Obama get in, it would have made perfect sense for Ayers to guide his protégé through, to get him the gig at Sidley Austin, to help him write Dreams , to secure him the chair of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (also confirmed by Diamond), and to launch his campaign for the Illinois State Senate with a fundraiser chez Ayers.

Ayers surely saw the potential.  He was the wordsmith Cyrano to Obama's winsome Christian.  Although a political person like Audacity's "older man," Ayers could never hope to woo fair America on his own.

Given Obama's oddly impolitic lurch to the left, David Horowitz has come to think of him as the "Manchurian Candidate."  The usually prudent Horowitz wonders out loud who has been whispering in Obama's ear and for how long. 

With his fingerprints on the 2006 Audacity of Hope , the 1995 Dreams From My Father , and quite possibly on the 1988 Harvard letter of recommendation, Professor Ayers has to be a suspect.

Who is Jack Cashill?


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