As the Democratic primary campaign slogs onward to Indiana and North Carolina this week, Hillary Clinton – despite her still-overwhelming deficits in votes, delegates and cash – is reveling in the one success she can truly claim: The bloom has been plucked off Barack Obama’s rose. Making Obama appear unelectable has been her strategy ever since he reeled off 11 straight victories in February, and it became clear that her only hope is to convince the superdelegates to overturn his certain pledged-delegate advantage. Obama’s life story and recent statements certainly have provided grist for the opposition-research mill; still, being forced to traverse his recent controversies under withering assault from a fellow Democrat, rather than in the partisan context of the general-election campaign, has at least partially drained the reservoir of goodwill Obama had established at the beginning of the year.
With gracious assists from the national media and Obama himself, Hillary has raised two key questions about Obama that voters weren’t asking themselves as they fawned over his January speeches: Who is this guy? and Can we trust him? Implicit in these questions is the assumption that voters already know everything they need to know about Hillary, and have already decided whether they trust her or not. (In this she is, however unintentionally, parroting George Bush’s 2004 line, “You may not always agree with me, but at least you know where I stand.”) She has effectively re-positioned Obama as The Unknown Quantity – or, as the survivors of Oceanic 815 would put it, as The Other.
The extent to which race in general, or the complicated nature of Obama’s heritage in particular, plays a role in this positioning is up for debate. But it’s clear that Obama, who so recently emerged as a vessel for so many Americans’ hopes to change the country, is now viewed with rising suspicion by citizens who feel they don’t know him and can’t trust him – at least not yet.
(It’s also clear, by the way, that Obama’s oft-proclaimed efforts to “turn the page on the battles of the ’60s” are doomed to failure, at least until November. His attempts to remain forward-looking have been skillfully undercut by the brouhahas over Rev. Wright, who reminds boomers and seniors of the radicalism that took over the Civil Rights movement in the late ’60s, and William Ayers, who has the potential to drag Vietnam-era debates into this election just as the Swift Boaters did in 2004.)
My brother-in-law is one of those Democratic-leaning boomers who now thinks he’ll vote for John McCain if Hillary isn’t the nominee. He couldn’t identify an issue on which Obama differs so much from Hillary that he can be dismissed on policy grounds; his distaste was more ephemeral. “I don’t think [Obama] believes half of what he’s saying, and I don’t think he’s very smart. All he can do is talk,” he told me over the weekend.
I told him what I tell every Democrat who questions Obama’s goodwill or character: Go read the books. Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope are available at your local bookstore or library; they’re also available on CD or cassette. Through them, Obama serves up more insight into his personal history and his political philosophy than any presidential candidate in generations. Rev. Wright is mentioned prominently — as is Obama’s personal rejection of Black Nationalism. So set aside what you think you know, I told my brother-in-law, and go find out what he really thinks. And then decide for yourself how you feel about him.
“America isn’t easy,” Michael Douglas said (courtesy of Aaron Sorkin) in his widely revered/ridiculed closing speech in The American President. “America is advanced citizenship. You’ve gotta want it bad, ’cause it’s gonna put up a fight.” I’m reminded of that quote every time I bully someone into the bookstore lately; I was reminded of it again during last Wednesday’s debate, when George Stephanopoulos anointed William Ayers as a mainstream campaign issue.
Ayers and Obama had been linked in the media before, to be sure – several times in the British press, oddly enough, but mostly on Fox News, where Sean Hannity has been ranting about Ayers for months. The trouble with this sudden spotlight on Ayers is that it leaves most of the stage unilluminated. Stephanopoulos, like Hannity before him, focused only on a bare-bones summary of the Weathermen’s activities, leaving viewers completely up in the air about Ayers’ life before, during or since, or why Obama might ever have come into contact with him.
As a result, millions of Americans were fed a caricature of the Obama-Ayers connection that they likely won’t be able to flesh out before they head into the voting booth in November. I had never bothered to follow the Ayers trail before last week, so I decided last weekend to follow the same advice I’ve been doling out for months. In no more than half an hour of Web surfing, I located a treasure trove of information that provides a much more complete account of the man than Stephanopoulos’ torrent of half-truths and misrepresentations.
I don’t offer the following links in defense of Ayers – because I personally find his violent acts in the ’70s repugnant, and his attempts these days to finesse the words “regret” and “remorse” over those acts just as repugnant. Instead, I offer them to suggest that most of us don’t know the whole story, and to demonstrate that, in the Internet age, there’s no excuse for remaining uninformed.
Here is the rather exhaustive Wikipedia entry on the Weather Underground, and here is another on Ayers himself. If you’re so inclined, you can read book-length histories of the organization here and here.
The New York Times article Stephanopoulos referenced during last week’s debate was published, coincidentally, on the morning of September 11, 2001, and appeared in the Arts section. It begins with the incendiary quote, “I don’t regret setting bombs…I feel we didn’t do enough.” Ayers subsequently wrote a Letter to the Editor accusing the article’s author of “deliberate distortion.”
Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor in the department of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago, focusing on teaching for social justice, urban educational reform, narrative and interpretive research, and children in trouble with the law.
Here’s a statement from Chicago mayor Richard Daley calling Ayers “a valued member of the Chicago community.”
Here’s a blog post from a colleague in the field of education, praising Ayers’ latter-day career.
Here’s an article from Editor and Publisher describing the collective yawn the Ayers issue has drawn from the Chicago media. On the other hand, here’s a Chicago Tribune columnist wondering if Obama’s Ayers connection doesn’t reveal a “moral blind spot.” Finally, here’s a remarkably balanced piece from the Politico on Obama and Ayers.
Finally, here is Ayers’ own website.
As I noted before, I find Ayers’ current attitude toward his violent past to be just as unacceptable as the acts he committed. Ayers seems to be a rather lucky man: He was out of town, and then went underground, when his girlfriend and other Weathermen were blown up in an accidental explosion in 1970; he was able to emerge from hiding in 1981 after all federal charges against him were dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct; he managed to become a successful and well-respected educator, and a member in good standing of Chicago’s liberal intelligentsia, without performing any real penance for his previous acts.
It is only in that last guise that Obama has encountered Ayers – as has the rest of his city’s contemporary Democratic establishment. Ayers may not be just “a guy from the neighborhood,” but, for better or worse, he clearly has been accepted as part of the furniture in the Chicago Democrats’ party tent. As a result, it’s difficult to see how Obama should be uniquely hung out to dry for attending a fundraiser, serving on a charity board, or otherwise engaging in day-to-day events of Chicago politics in which Ayers was also involved.
Unfortunately, it’s quite easy to see how the GOP (once Hillary has finally been jettisoned) will try to tar him with this and other such illusory issues during the general-election campaign, in their effort to make Obama an unacceptable alternative to four more years of their own disastrous rule. It’s what Republicans do best, after all; in fact, based on the evidence of the last seven years, it’s the only thing they do well. Here’s hoping the American people will insist on hearing facts rather than innuendo, that they’ll demand the full story behind every allegation – and that, in the likely absence of responsible reporting, they’ll be willing to put in the work and find out the truth on their own. After all, we shouldn’t need a Weatherman to know…ah, screw it.