The Corner

Unconvinced

A lot of folks are emailing around Jack Cashill’s latest effort to prove that Barack Obama in some way relied on help from Bill Ayers to write Dreams from My Father. I just don’t find it persuasive. Consider Cashill’s first, supposedly damning, example of similarities between Dreams and Ayers’s published work:

Ayers and Obama, however, go beyond citing Sandburg.  Each quotes the opening line of his poem “Chicago.”  From Dreams:

He poured himself more hot water. “What do you know about Chicago anyway?”

I thought a moment. “Hog butcher to the world,” I said finally.

From Parent [a work by Ayers]:

“At the turn of the century, Chicago had a population of a million people and was a young and muscular city – hub of commerce and industry, the first skyscraper city, home of the famous world exposition, “hog butcher to the world” – bursting with energy.”

This I would call a B-level match.  What raises it up a notch to an A-level match is the fact that both misquote “Chicago,” and they do so in exactly the same way.  The poem actually opens, “Hog butcher for the world.”

Really? The hog-butcher line is a plodding cliche, not some obscure reference. There’s not a whiff of plagiarism here, the language and context read completely differently. As for them both getting the quote wrong, so what? I would bet that most, or at least a great many, people get that quote wrong in the same way. If you search Google Books, you’ll find 605 books or excerpts using the “to” and 655 using “for.” If you search Nexis you’ll find 536 instances of “to” and only 382 of “for.”

Cashill has many other examples like this one and a lot more that are much worse (i.e. less persuasive). Indeed he calls this “hog butcher” instance an “A” level example and cites it first presumably because it packs a wallop. It’s not a wallop; it’s a whiff.

Now, it’s entirely possible that Obama is a closer student of Ayers’s work than we’ve been told. I certainly believe they were closer friends then we’ve been told. But I think trying to claim some sort of literary conspiracy is a bridge too far.

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