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Battle of the Books

Why Obama whups Clinton in the war over word ownership.

The Clinton campaign's latest tactic is to smear Barack Obama by claiming he plagiarized material in some of his speeches. As many pundits have noted, this was a move right out of Karl Rove's playbook--try to take an opponent's strength (in this case, Obama's eloquence) and turn it into a weakness. But when you consider the different approaches that Hillary and Obama took in writing their respective books, the Clinton campaign's attack is especially Rove-ian: When it comes to the issue of ownership of words, let's just say Obama is on much firmer ground than Clinton.

For Clinton's two literary efforts--the 1996 book It Takes A Village and the 2003 book Living History--she used ghostwriters. That's no grave sin: Plenty of politicians use ghostwriters. But it should be noted that Clinton didn't exactly shower hers with credit. In Village, Clinton infamously failed to include Barbara Feinman--the ghostwriter Simon & Schuster paid $120,000 to help Hillary with the project--in her acknowledgements. Hillary haters subsequently made Feinman a literary martyr, alleging that she'd written the entire book. More recently, Hillary's advocates told the New Yorker that Feinman's work was so unsatisfactory that it was basically unusable and Hillary didn't credit her out of spite. The truth probably lies somewhere in between--which still doesn't make Hillary look particularly good.

Nevertheless, Clinton did seem to learn her lesson from the episode and in Living History, she acknowledged the help of ghostwriter Maryanne Vollers. But Clinton didn't go so far as to list Vollers's name alongside her own on the book's cover, a gesture plenty of other presidential candidates--including John Edwards and John McCain--have made. As for Vollers's feelings about her work with Hillary, the novelist Walter Kirn--who lived in the same Montana town as Vollers--once wrote that Vollers came to conclude that "there was no Hillary, really, just a creature concocted by her people who was happy to be a concoction of her people." Vollers subsequently disputed Kirn's characterization, branding him a "delusional Clinton hater" and reaffirming her admiration for Hillary. When I called both Feinman and Vollers to learn more about their experiences working with Clinton, neither one was able to tell me about them due to the confidentiality agreements they'd signed. The editors of Village and Living History--Becky Saletan and Nan Graham, respectively--did not respond to phone messages, nor did Lissa Muscatine, a former Clinton speechwriter who reportedly helped with the writing of Hillary's two books. And Feinman's former literary agent, Flip Brophy, who brokered her deal for Village, refused to discuss the matter with me, branding it "old history."

Obama's literary efforts, in contrast to Hillary's at least, are an open book. As a relatively unknown young lawyer with a smallish book advance, Obama obviously couldn't afford a ghostwriter for his 1995 memoir Dreams From My Father, so he wrote the book himself. But anyone familiar with the story of Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish knows that editors sometimes do more than just massage an author's prose--they can also rewrite it. So I called Henry Ferris, who was Obama's editor on Dreams, to ask him how many of the words in that book were Obama's. Ferris didn't have too many specific memories of the work he did with Obama more than a decade ago. "He and his book now are seen in such different ways than I was looking at them at that time," Ferris explained. "I didn't take on the project thinking he'd be a leading candidate for the presidency." But Ferris was absolutely adamant about one thing: "He wrote it completely and totally all by himself," Ferris said. "No one helped him." He added, "The manuscript needed shaping and focus, it needed editing, a lot of which he did based on suggestions I made. He was a terrific writer, a great stylist. … This was not a job where I went in and had to completely redo this book for him. He needed the kind of guidance any first-time writer would need."

For his second book, the 2006 The Audacity of Hope, Obama got enough of an advance ($1.9 million for a three-book deal) and was certainly busy enough with his work in the Senate--not to mention laying the groundwork for his presidential campaign--that no one would have blamed him for going the ghostwriter route. But, according to Rachel Klayman, the Crown editor who worked with him on Audacity, he didn't. "I get irritated when people ask, 'Does he have a ghostwriter?' because it's the opposite of that," Klayman told me. "Not only does he not have a ghostwriter, he's on an entirely different plane from most writers editors work with." Klayman said that Obama's writing process was similar to that of many authors: He'd write a draft of a chapter--oftentimes working at his computer late at night--and then send it to her and a group of other people (although in Obama's case these people weren't just friends but mainly political and policy advisors) for suggested edits.

As for what Obama sent in, Klayman said, "I've never worked with any other writer who needed less line editing than he did. That's how clean his writing is. That doesn't mean we didn't do some editing. I did a lot of different things. But he's sort of a self-editing phenomenon. Sometimes my role was to stand back and watch him edit himself." She added, "Working with him was so much like working with someone whose day job is being a writer. He is a writer as far as I'm concerned. [Slate editor-in-chief] Jacob Weisberg said he's more like a writer who became a politician than a politician who became a writer.”

In other words, the prospect of Hillary beating Obama in a battle over the ownership of words is about as strong as her current prospects of beating him for the nomination.  

Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.