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"Barring a deathbed confession, yeah, it's hard to know," he concedes. "There are people who argue Shakespeare didn't write all of Shakespeare's stuff. Except my evidence is hugely better than theirs is. I am 100 percent confident I'm right, and if I am right, it's the most consequential literary fraud since Profiles in Courage."
When Deconstructing Obama was released in February, Cashill's friends told him to expect a Pulitzer Prize. He knew better. None of his books, he points out, have been reviewed in major publications.
"So the story sits there, and it's like I dropped a frog in the Kool-Aid," he says. "And no one wants to drink it anymore or talk about the frog in the Kool-Aid or whether it's a legitimate frog."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the hero of Deconstructing Obama is Cashill himself. His literary avatar inhabits an Orwellian world. He runs through a busy airport with a giant head of James Carville following him on televisions tuned to CNN. The few people who can see the truth die before their stories can reach the public. In this world, Obama is being forced on people who lack the intellect to defend themselves from the media onslaught, and the candidate's public persona is built entirely on the reputation of his memoir.
But the conspiracy doesn't succeed because Cashill wanders into a bookshop and purchases a paperback edition of Dreams From My Father before he boards a flight to Buffalo.
He begins his quest to disprove Obama's authorship by sending baiting e-mails to suspected collaborators in the hopes that they'll confess. (They don't.) A potential link to Ayers emerges during Cashill's reading of Fugitive Days, a memoir that Ayers released in 2001. Cashill notes the similarities between it and Dreams From My Father, including the use of nautical imagery and the word "midafternoon." The aha moments often take place in Cashill's study as he pores over the prose or exchanges e-mails with friends who have their own suspicions about Obama.
Cashill's literary detective work began with the idea that Obama did not have the capacity to craft the prose in Dreams From My Father. "Although the book lacks discipline and occasionally grinds on in useless detail, long stretches of Dreams are very well written," he writes in the first chapter of Deconstructing Obama. Cashill argues that Obama, a lawyer by training, did not have the writing experience to craft an exceptional piece of nonfiction.
Cashill acknowledges that it's common for authors with political aspirations to work with ghostwriters. That revelation on its own would hardly be a bombshell. Lucky for Cashill the conspiracy theorist, Obama didn't get just anyone to help him — he got, in Cashill's view, a terrorist bordering on a supervillain.
"It doesn't matter if people use ghostwriters," Cashill says. "I'm not saying some ghostwriter wrote Dreams From My Father. I'm saying the Rosenbergs or Tim McVeigh wrote Dreams From My Father."
Ayers issued a blunt dismissal of Cashill's theory in 2009. "You've all lost your minds," he wrote in an e-mail to the Daily Beast. "Best of luck in the twilight zone."
Cashill's claim that Obama was incapable of producing a decent book opened him up to charges of racism. Cashill says he can't understand how anyone could see racism in his ideas.
At the same time, Cashill is not oblivious to the politics of race. He notes, for instance, that liberals call Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas an intellectual lightweight.
"Well, there's a racial element to the Thomas thing," he says. "There's a racial element because he's black. But the charge of racism only goes one way, used against the right. It's totally political."