The “Debunking” columns usually rely on simple reasoning and established facts (often in the form of physics, chemistry, geology and other hard sciences) to demonstrate that a conspiracy theory is either impossible or highly implausible.
That can’t be done in this case, but the theory is still extremely unlikely… the difference between a .0000001% chance and a .005% chance of occurring. I’ll explain.
The theory goes that Bill Ayers is the secret ghostwriter for Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama, published when Obama declared his run for Illinois Senate. Ayers, a notorious radical who participated in terrorist activities against the United States, was a prominent player in Chicago-area hard left politics. He’d also written a handful of moderately successful books, while Obama had written none. The memoir by Obama was considered to be professionally produced, and some of the phrases and word choices used throughout the book were highly reminiscent of those used by Ayers in some of his books.
The theory has gotten pushback from fans of the former President, who are offended by the suggestion that he used a ghostwriter. The fact is, though, that it is exceedingly likely that he did so. In this, he is hardly alone.
The overwhelming majority of political books, as well as books by other celebrities, are ghostwritten. This is because writing a book is a complex endeavor, and producing a good one requires practice. It is for this reason that the first published book by any author is very rarely the first book they’ve written; typically they have a manuscript or ten in various stages of completion which fell by the wayside on their way to eventual publication.
Politicians like to release books just as they’re preparing for a political run (as Dreams from My Father was.) Taking quiet weeks to write a multi-hundred page manuscript is directly counter to the mad scramble involved in readying for a campaign. Books published on the brink of a political campaign are exceedingly unlikely to be self-produced.
Instead, the process goes as follows: the “author” arranges with a publisher to have a book produced with their name on it, and a decision is made about the general topic. The publisher provides them with an experienced ghost writer; each publisher has a dozen or two experienced ghosts, and one is selected who is likely to work well with the subject. The ghost sits for a series of interviews with the subject, grilling them over the course of a few days to get both statements of general philosophy and specific anecdotes. The ghost then retreats to the quiet of their home and, using some of the words of the subject, composes the book.
Acknowledgement of the ghost depends on the publisher and the contract. For some, such as the William Shatner “Tekwar” books, the publisher expects to use the “sole author” fiction as a way to promote sales to potential buyers. This is why William Shatner is listed as the only writer of those books… but he happened to dedicate nearly every one of the to Ron Goulart. The Tekwar books were written with the distinctive short chapters and implied transitions that Goulart used for his science fiction, and while he has never officially acknowledged being the actual writer of those… he’s the actual writer of them, likely after brainstorming with Shatner about the plots.
There are four places where a ghost writer can be found, when they are to be acknowledged. Often it’s on the cover: “Window of Opportunity: A blueprint for the future by Newt Gingrich… with David Drake and Marianne Gingrich” (One of those, David Drake, was an experienced novelist with two decades of professional writing under his belt.) Sometimes it’s on the half-title page, which is the big page with the book’s title just before the official title page. Sometimes the person who wrote the book is included in the acknowledgments, usually amidst thanks to the publisher and editor. Sometimes, such as in the case with TekWar, they’re included in the dedication.
Make no mistake, however: even when there is not an official ghost writer, such as in the books of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump, a ghost writer was almost certainly used. On the rare occasions when they aren’t, and the person in question isn’t an experienced author, the inexperience shines through. In Bill Clinton’s memoir, he rambles inexpertly. In Drew Carey’s Dirty Jokes and Beer, most of the chapters are only a few pages in length because he hasn’t the skill to present a cohesive narrative.
So, the timing of the release and the history of other political writers both argue strongly for a ghost writer. Why not Ayers? What about those common phrases?
The phrases are easily understood when one realizes that Obama would have been very likely to have read Ayers’ books. With Ayers being a power player in the forums where Obama was trying to gain support, it would be foolish for Obama to bypass the opportunity to discover what a possible patron’s focuses were. Obama, like most Presidents, is by all accounts a voracious reader. He likely picked up some phrases from his reading of them.
But the use of Ayers as a ghost writer is exceedingly unlikely. As an accomplished author within the community, he would have expected to receive credit for his work. Even if he were willing to bypass such credit as a favor for a young activist, his price for producing the book would have been too high. Lastly, most large publishers use only an established stable of ghosts whose work they know, so as to allay union concerns and minimize issues with their legal department needing to check the material.
While it is possible for Ayers to have been the ghost writer, it’s virtually certain he wasn’t. And if anyone simply wants to be offended that Obama used a ghost to compose his stories, which would have been initially related with his words… they’d better be prepared to throw virtually every other politician and celebrity under that bus.