Jack Cashill’s new book continues a crusade he began during the 2008 presidential campaign: to prove Barack Obama didn’t write his own memoir. David Sessions talks to Cashill about his strange claims and why he thinks the GOP’s 2012 candidates may soon be drawing from his playbook.
Jack Cashill identifies heavily with Dr. Miles Bennell, the hero of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who in the the classic 1956 film is the last person on earth to keep extraterrestrials from controlling his mind. The aliens eventually let Bennell escape, figuring no one will believe his wild tales.
Cashill, a Kansas City-based independent journalist, sees the story as a parable of his relationship with the mainstream media. “Most people think you’re friggin’ crazy, but I remain optimistic that someday they’ll see I’m right,” Cashill told me.
His new book, Deconstructing Obama: The Life, Loves, and Letters of America's First Postmodern President (Threshold Editions) is a good example of why few people believe him. Written like an adventure story, with Cashill as the main character, it intensifies a crusade he launched on the eve of the 2008 election: To prove that former radical Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers actually wrote Obama’s celebrated memoir, Dreams From My Father. Along the way, Cashill throws in that Obama possibly invented a college girlfriend and has repeatedly told false stories about his childhood.
Cashill wasn’t always someone most people would call a conspiracy theorist. Born in 1947 into a “ghetto Irish Catholic” family in Newark, he was educated in the classics, first at St. Regis High School in Manhattan, then at Siena College in upstate New York. He studied Greek, minored in classics and gravitated toward literature. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from Purdue in 1982, and after a yearlong fellowship in France, moved to Kansas City for his wife’s new job at the University of Missouri.
Barack Obama and Bill Ayers officially met in 1995, the year Dreams was released. But Cashill believes this story of their relationship, like most of the rest of Obama’s biography, was fabricated by Obama’s campaign team and their mainstream media accomplices.
There, he produced a series of documentaries for public television, blossomed as a conservative talking head on the city’s famous talk station, and ran campaign communications for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) during her days in local politics. He wrote a handful of pieces on Kansas politics for The Weekly Standard, an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal on the Catholic church, and an essay on capitalist heroes in American literature in Fortune. Then the Internet hit.
“I realized I had as much investigatory power at my fingertips as the newsroom of The New York Times,” Cashill said. That’s when his stories started taking a turn for the weird, and the respectable conservative publications stopped answering his calls. “They thought I was now a kook and I was tainted,” he said.
Over the past two decades, he has written over 600 columns and nine books. In 2003, his book First Strike alleged that the Clinton White House covered up the real cause of the 1996 crash of TWA Flight 800 to keep Clinton from losing the 1996 election. His 2004 documentary Mega Fix added the Oklahoma City bombing and the Atlanta Olympics bombing to the plot, claiming Clinton’s coverups of all of the above contributed to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cashill’s books, none of which have sold more than 2,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, insinuate that those incidents were plotted by Islamic terrorists.
Cashill pushes back against the implausibility of these alleged cover-ups by insisting he only touches serious conspiracy theories. “I have no interest in conspiracy,” he told a Republican audience in 2009. “I still believe Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK … and I don’t know who killed Vince Foster.”
Cashill says he stumbled into his crusade against Obama innocently after picking up Dreams From My Father in an airport bookshop. Having reviewed the portfolios of “literally thousands” of writers, as he reminds anyone who will listen, Cashill says he knew instantly that the book was “too good” to have been written by a fledgling politician. For a man who finds foul play nearly everywhere he looks, it was a heaven-sent revelation.
Barack Obama and Bill Ayers officially met in 1995, the year Dreams was released, serving on the board of the Annenberg Challenge, a Chicago educational organization Ayers helped found. But Cashill believes this story of their relationship, like most of the rest of Obama’s biography, was fabricated by Obama’s campaign team and their mainstream media accomplices. Instead, he argues, Obama and Ayers were so tight that Obama turned over his troubled manuscript, which Ayers embellished with his own themes and phrases until it was virtually indistinguishable from Ayers’ 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days.
Cashill’s postulations may stand just on what he calls “literary detective work,” but he believes one man has proved him right: “rush” biographer Christopher Andersen, whose 2009 book on the Obamas’ marriage off-handedly mentioned that Obama had consulted with Ayers when he found himself struggling with the Dreams manuscript. Cashill told me Andersen’s book is the biggest problem for Cashill’s critics, because it appears to confirm that Ayers had substantial influence on Dreams. But if Barack and Michelle confirms anything, it’s Cashill’s influence on Andersen. Andersen claims to have had two anonymous sources “inside Hyde Park,” but the only one he cites for Obama and Ayers’ supposed relationship is—you guessed it—Jack Cashill. Pressed on the issue by The Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz, Andersen said he never claimed Ayers wrote Obama’s book.
Given the even wilder charges the right leveled against Obama, it’s a bit surprising the authorship conspiracy hasn’t taken off among conservatives. It barely made a dent in 2008, despite approving nods from the National Review’s Andy McCarthy, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. It was mostly disavowed by prominent conservative writers: National Review’s Jonah Goldberg called it “ unpersuasive” and “a bridge too far,” and legal blogger Ann Althouse played around with the theory before declaring it “ Ayers-o-mania gone wild.” Slate reporter Dave Weigel, who then covered conservatives for The Washington Independent, devoted three posts to debunking Cashill. Republicans offered an Oxford scholar $10,000 to prove Ayers wrote Dreams, and once he refused, even birther-friendly GOP politicians didn’t seem interested in taking up the charge.
That might be about to change with the release of Deconstructing Obama, which comes just as the GOP’s presumptive 2012 presidential candidates are looking for a footing on the trail. And despite the urgings of conservative pundits, early signs point to lots of pandering to the darker, more conspiratorial corners of the GOP base. Mike Huckabee can’t help commenting on Obama’s “Kenyan” origins in the presence of fringe radio hosts; Newt Gingrich still praises as “brilliant” an essay that described Obama as a “Kenyan anti-colonialist”; Michelle Bachmann said that she would bring her birth certificate to the first presidential debate if she decides to run. Donald Trump became a full-fledged birther on The View this week, yelling “I want to see his birth certificate!” to the shock of the audience. The GOP at large has made a sport of seeing how close it can tiptoe to birther conspiracies without openly endorsing them.
Cashill believes conservative journalists push back against these flirtations in order to keep being welcomed in elite social circles. Candidates like Huckabee “look stupid” because they don’t have the ammunition to question Obama’s origins and authorship. Cashill hopes Deconstructing Obama will fill the information gap. He’s had some help from C-SPAN’s BookTV, which has aired a special on the book a total of four times in the past few weeks. In just over a month on shelves, the book has sold as many copies as any of his previous works. And the elite conservative consensus is “already starting to break down,” he said. “It’ll take a while for it to bubble up, but the way I see things moving right now, it’ll take about two to four weeks for this thesis to become accepted on the right.”
David Sessions is a homepage editor at The Daily Beast. He has written for Slate, New York, Politics Daily and others. He also blogs about religion and politics at Patrol.