Should voters care that Barack Obama is friendly with William Ayers, a onetime leader of the Weather Underground terrorist group that committed dozens of bombings and other violent crimes between 1969 and 1975? That question came up during the recent Democratic debate in Philadelphia, and scorn by the bucketful was heaped on the ABC moderators who asked it.
The Washington Post's Tom Shales, for example, was appalled that Obama should be confronted with "such tired tripe" as the fact that he "once associated with a nutty bomb-throwing anarchist." Michael Grunwald of Time derided the "extremely stupid politics" responsible for questions like the one about the "obscure sixties radical" with whom Obama "was allegedly 'friendly.' " Other commentators were even more outraged.
The chorus of protests echoed Obama's own defense. When George Stephanopoulos challenged him to explain his relationship with the unrepentant former terrorists - "I don't regret setting bombs," Ayers told The New York Times. "I feel we didn't do enough" - the senator dismissed the issue as irrelevant.
"This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And the notion that [my] knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense, George." His links to the ex-Weathermen he brushed aside as "flimsy," saying he was sure "the American people are smarter than" to think he shares the terrorists' radical views.
Obama didn't leave it there. His campaign issued a 1,300-word "fact check" pooh-poohing his connection to Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn (another former Weathermen terrorist), as "phony," "tenuous," "a stretch" - but simultaneously defending them as "respectable fixtures of the mainstream in Chicago."
Yet Obama's ties to Ayers and Dohrn aren't nearly as trifling as he suggests, and their views - today, not 40 years ago - are about as "respectable" and "mainstream" as those of, say, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama's incendiary minister.
The key facts, reported by Ben Smith in Politico.com, are these: Barack Obama's political career was launched in Ayers's and Dohrn's home, when a group of "influential liberals" gathered in 1995 to meet the young organizer who was Illinois lawmaker Alice Palmer's chosen successor. In the years that followed, Obama and Ayers would serve together as (paid) board members of the Woods Fund, a leftist Chicago foundation, and appear jointly on academic panels, at least one of which was organized by Michelle Obama. Ayers would even donate money to one of Obama's political campaigns.
Arguably, none of this would matter if Ayers and Dohrn had long ago repudiated their violent extremism. But they have always refused to apologize for their monstrous behavior. "We weren't extreme enough in fighting against the war," Ayers told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. In a memoir published that year, he exulted: "Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon." America, he said after Sept. 11, "is not a just and fair and decent place. . . . It makes me want to puke."
Is this Obama's idea of "respectable" and "mainstream" political thinking? If so, doesn't that tell us something about his judgment and standards?
In Chicago the other day, radio producer Guy Benson discovered video recordings of Ayers and Dohrn speaking at a reunion of antiwar radicals in November 2007. To live in the United States, Dohrn told the group, is to be "inside the heart of the monster" that is such a "purveyor of violence in the world." Ayers denounced America as an imperial warmonger steeped in "jingoistic patriotism, unprecedented and unapologetic military expansion, white supremacy . . . attacks on women and girls, violent attacks, growing surveillance in every sphere of our lives, on and on and on."
Even if Obama doesn't personally believe these things, is it really "tired tripe" to ask why he seems so comfortable in the company of people who do? Is it really "extremely stupid politics" to wonder whether such people might play a role in an Obama administration? Rather than slam the few journalists who raise such questions, might it not behoove others in the media to follow suit?