Rush Limbaugh felt certain he had the next big Obama story in his lap. He—or somebody on his staff—thought they had discovered a portion of Obama’s Columbia undergraduate thesis on the conservative blog Pajamas Media. The post by Michael Ledeen, a long-time associate of foreign intelligence agencies who left academia under a cloud of plagiarism charges, claimed that Time’s Joe Klein had been granted access to 10 pages of the thesis and that it revealed an antifounder bias on the part of the man who would be president. Ledeen, meanwhile, lifted the story from a blog called Jumping in Pools that had posted a phony report on the thesis back in August.
Ledeen explained later on PJM: “I cam [sic] across it on Twitter, read the blog, found it interesting, and posted on it. I failed to notice that one of the tags was ‘satire.’” Apparently, there was no due diligence other than the fact that Ledeen found the post “interesting.” The blog he was referring to didn’t cite sources or provide links for any of the information.
Right wingers have been on the hunt for Obama’s undergraduate thesis since it was referred to in passing in a New York Times article in 2007. A copy of the paper, "Soviet Nuclear Disarmament," has never turned up. The title of that paper was not nearly as sexy as "Aristocracy Reborn,” the title of the fake thesis posted on Jumping in Pools that Ledeen was writing about.
Here is a history from 2008 of the Obama thesis smear. The “Yes We Can” man allegedly complained in an academic paper when he said, “I see poverty in every place I walk. In Los Angeles and New York, the poor reach out to me and all I can do is sigh.”
It’s no wonder Ledeen, a former contributor to The New Republic, was peddling the Jumping in Pools story, and Limbaugh was loving it. The piece had a number of slurs about Barack Obama that have percolated in the right-wing media ever since Obama came into prominence.
During the presidential campaign, writer Jack Cashill speculated at the conservative site American Thinker that ex-terrorist Bill Ayers had ghost written Obama’s celebrated memoir Dreams from my Father. To be fair, Cashill admitted in his post that he would not be able to prove conclusively that Obama did not write this book. Despite the disclaimer, Cashill went on to make one of the weakest cases for phony authorship ever committed to pixels. His “evidence” included Obama’s lack of previously published writing and the number of references to the words “lies” or “lying” in both the Ayers memoir Fugitive Days and Dreams from my Father. It went downhill from there.
After Cashill’s original blog appeared in 2008, Robert Fox, the millionaire brother-in-law of a GOP congressman, tried to prove the connection. He offered $10,000 to Dr. Peter Millican, an Oxford professor who had developed a computer program to make comparisons between texts. Times of London reported this on November 2, 2008. Millican told Fox that the initial findings made it “highly implausible” that the books shared authors. He also said that if further research was done, then the findings would be made public whether or not Ayers was proven to be the author. Fox withdrew his offer.
Nonetheless, Cashill has beaten this drum at American Thinker as recently as October 25. Again, he compares samples of Dreams to samples of Ayers’s writing. He is also convinced by the “pedestrian” prose of an essay Obama wrote in 1988.
A large part of Cashill’s argument derives from his belief Ayers is the proven prose stylist while Obama is the novice poseur. This is actually nonsense in both respects. It rests on Cashill’s method of lifting Obama’s writings out of context and comparing them to Dreams from my Father.
It would be just as easy to take decontextualized examples from Ayers’s previous writing to show what a bad writer he is. For example, this quotation from one of Ayers’s books on education, To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher, is an overwritten clunker: “We are left to think about what ought to be and what ought not to be; we are left to investigate and inquire into and with our students, and to interrogate the larger contexts of teaching; we are left to choose among conflicting claims, and this requires thinking critically and intensely about possible courses and outcomes.” That’s a tortured mouthful, but by Cashill’s logic this would disqualify Ayers from possessing the ability he shows in Fugitive Days.
Cashill cites Christopher Andersen’s biography of the first couple as further proof that Ayers was Obama’s writing partner. Andersen’s book deploys unnamed sources and wasn’t written with the Obamas’ cooperation. On September 22, Andersen appeared on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox:
Hannity: But Bill Ayers helped him with his book, and you actually pick up—you found the literary devices and themes bear a jarring similarity to Ayers’ own writings.
Andersen: That’s true. And they were good friends. And during the campaign, of course.
Hannity: They were good friends.
Andersen: Yes, of course, they were.
Hannity: So he denied it.
Andersen: It was kind of—yes, he did. It was like a literary cabal there that was interesting in Chicago.
Appearing on Fox, Andersen allowed Hannity’s insinuation to stand. On CNN, Howard Kurtz questioned Andersen on the passages about Ayers in the book. Andersen was quick to say to Kurtz, “I definitely do not say that [Ayers] wrote Barack Obama’s book.” Rather than a “literary cabal,” he referred to “a group of Hyde Park writers.”
Naturally, American Thinker also ran with Ledeen’s piece on the “Obama thesis.” Denis Keohane wrote “Michael Ledeen at PJM reports…” But even Ledeen didn’t make claims to reporting—he said that he had “missed [the thesis story] the first time around.” Some reporting is exactly what should have been done.
In Keohane’s article, he took the opportunity to tell a tale of two theses. He compared coverage of the made-up Obama paper to coverage of the paper that was actually written by Robert McDonnell, the Virginia gubernatorial candidate. Keohane complains about the inflation of the significance of the McDonnell paper “across the spectrum of the media,” but he makes no attempt to confirm the validity of the claims about Obama.
Rush spoke as recently as September 30 about the claims made by Cashill on American Thinker. He also cited Andersen’s book as evidence of “the erosion of the myth of Obama.” Limbaugh, who lately has taken to referring to the President of the United States as a "boy" and a "man-child," then proceeded to read Ledeen’s post on the air without qualification.
About an hour later, a researcher slipped him a note. Limbaugh admitted that “we have to hold out the possibility that this is not accurate.” Even as he made this noncorrection, Limbaugh continued to refer to the paper that “Obama wrote.” Later he found out that the site the “thesis” came from was a “satire blog” and he said, “We stand by that fabricated quote because we know he thinks it anyway.”
The Obama thesis was one instance where the mainstream media, excluding the conservative propaganda organization called “Fox News,” did not rise to the right-wing bait. Let’s see if the lesson holds next time this kind of slime rises from the right like a Balloon Boy in the sky from the muck of lies where so much of it originates.
Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College. He is also a Nation columnist and a professor of journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. His seventh book, Why We’re Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America’s Most Important Ideals, was recently published in paperback. He occasionally blogs at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/altercation and is a regular contributor to The Daily Beast.
Mickey Ehrlich is a freelance writer and an English teacher at Kingsborough Community College.