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|Barack and the bomber|
|By Byron York|
|Posted: 04/17/08 05:51 PM [ET]|
|If we’re judged by those with whom we associate, here’s a question:|
Would you rather be associated with a ’60s radical who plotted to bomb the Pentagon and to this day believes, as he said a few years ago, “I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough,” or would you rather be associated with — slight pause, please — Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.)?
That was the rather bizarre scenario raised by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) at Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debate in Philadelphia.
ABC’s George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about Obama’s relationship with William Ayers, the unrepentant former member of the Weather Underground.
“An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly,” Stephanopoulos said to Obama. “Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
At first Obama downplayed his connection with Ayers. “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 an official endorsement from,” Obama said. “He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas with on a regular basis.”
Then Obama downplayed the question’s relevance. “The notion that somehow as a consequence of me 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.”
And then, the Coburn Card.
“The fact is that I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate,” Obama said, “who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.
“Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements? Because I certainly don’t agree with those, either.”
Where to start?
Well, Coburn is ardently anti-abortion. So much so that he once said, during his 2004 Senate campaign, “I favor the death penalty for abortionists and other people who take life.”
It’s a far-out position. But note a couple of things. Coburn also said in the campaign that he realizes abortion is not, you know, against the law. And he does not support the death penalty for people who haven’t broken the law and who haven’t received due process if they have.
“I understand what the law is,” Coburn said during the 2004 campaign. “My hope would be that we would get back to a time when we recognize the value of life, and I think we’re not.”
Now, that’s still an out-there position. Coburn’s dream is not going to happen.
But wouldn’t Coburn be more comparable to Ayers if he, Coburn, had bombed abortion clinics in the past — and then said that he not only did not regret bombing the clinics but wished that he had done more? And then, after bombing abortion clinics and refusing to express regret, he held a political event in his home for Barack Obama, which Obama attended?
And if all that had happened, would Obama say it wasn’t a problem because Coburn had bombed those clinics a long time ago, when Obama was just 8 years old?
Do you believe that would endear Obama to voters in the Democratic primaries?
As it was, Obama used his Senate colleague Coburn to suggest that the issue was not one of violence, and radicalism, and lawbreaking, but rather a simple disagreement: Sen. Coburn and I disagree on some things, and yet we’re still friendly. Bill Ayers and I disagree on some things, and yet we’re still friendly. So what’s the problem?
That’s not quite good enough.
Obama needs to tell us more about his relationship with Ayers. It’s important because voters might well wonder whether that relationship, coupled with Obama’s longtime relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is the beginning of a pattern, a pattern in which Obama seems quite comfortable with people who really, really, really don’t like the United States of America.
It’s a reasonable question, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) was right to suggest that Republicans will raise it in the general election campaign if Obama is the Democratic candidate.
They will — and they should.
Why not clear it up now?
"William Ayers, in the age of terrorism, will be Barack Obama's Willie Horton."There has been a sudden spate of blog items and newspaper articles, mainly in the British press, linking Barack Obama to a former member of the radical Weather Underground Organization that claimed responsibility for a dozen bombings between 1970 and 1974. The former Weatherman, William Ayers, now holds the position of distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Although never convicted of any crime, he told the New York Times in September 2001, "I don't regret setting bombs...I feel we didn't do enough."
--Former counterterrorism official Larry C. Johnson, The Huffington Post, Feb. 16, 2008.
|Obama once visited '60s radicals|
While Ayers and Dohrn may be thought of in Hyde Park as local activists, they’re better known nationally as two of the most notorious — and unrepentant — figures from the violent fringe of the 1960s anti-war movement.
Now, as Obama runs for president, what two guests recall as an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office stands as a symbol of how swiftly he has risen from a man in the Hyde Park left to one closing in fast on the Democratic nomination for president.
“I can remember being one of a small group of people who came to Bill Ayers’ house to learn that Alice Palmer was stepping down from the senate and running for Congress,” said Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician and advocate for single-payer health care, of the informal gathering at the home of Ayers and his wife, Dohrn. “[Palmer] identified [Obama] as her successor.”
Obama and Palmer “were both there,” he said.
Obama’s connections to Ayers and Dorhn have been noted in some fleeting news coverage in the past. But the visit by Obama to their home — part of a campaign courtship — reflects more extensive interaction than has been previously reported.
Neither Ayers nor the Obama campaign would describe the relationship between the two men. Dr. Young described Obama and Ayers as “friends,” but there’s no evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served together on the board of a Chicago foundation.
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But Obama’s relationship with Ayers is an especially vivid milepost on his rise, in record time, from a local official who unabashedly reflected a very liberal district to the leader of national movement based largely on the claim that he can transcend ideological divides.
In one sense, Obama’s journey toward the cultural and political center is not unusual among national politicians. But its velocity is.
Politicians of an earlier generation had their own relationships with figures now far to their left. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, interned at a radical San Francisco law firm while in law school.
On the other side of the political spectrum, many in the generation before hers shifted dramatically on civil rights. John McCain voted against creating a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and later called that a mistake.
The relationship with Ayers gives context to his recent past in Hyde Park politics. It’s milieu in which a former violent radical was a stalwart of the local scene, not especially controversial.
It’s also a scene whose liberal ideological features — while taken for granted by the Chicago press corps that knows Obama best — provides a jarring contrast with Obama’s current, anti-ideological stance. This contrast between past and present — not least the Ayers connection — is virtually certain to be a subject Republican operatives will warm to if Obama is the Democratic nominee.
The tension between the present and recent Chicago past is also evident in some of his positions on major national issues. Many national politicians, including Clinton, have moved toward the center over time. But Obama’s transitions are still quite fresh.
A questionnaire from his 1996 campaign indicated more blanket opposition to the death penalty, and support of abortion rights, than he currently espouses. He spoke in support of single-payer health care as recently as 2003.
Like many of the most extreme figures from the 1960s Ayers and Dohrn are ambiguous figures in American life.
They disappeared in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.
Both have written and spoken at length about their pasts, and today he is an advocate for progressive education and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she’s an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.
But — unlike some other fringe figures of the era — they’re also flatly unrepentant about the bombings they committed in the name of ending the war, defending them on the grounds that they killed no one, except, accidentally, their own members.
Dohrn, however, was jailed for less than a year for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating other Weather Underground members’ robbery of a Brinks truck, in which a guard and two New York State Troopers were killed.
“I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough,” Ayers told the New York Times in 2001.
And their rehabilitation in establishment circles, even in Hyde Park, has its limits.
Though he is a respected figure in liberal educational circles, Ayers wrote recently about how in 2006 he was informed he was persona non grata at a progressive educators’ conference in the summer of 2006.
“We cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past,” he quoted the conference organizers, whom he described as friends, as writing to him.
But the couple has been embraced, by and large, in the liberal circles dominating Hyde Park politics.
“Bill Ayers is one of my heroes in life,” said Sam Ackerman, a longtime local activist. “I knew Tony Rezko, and he ain’t no Rezko.”
But others in Hyde Park, whose intellectual and political life revolves around the University of Chicago, view the couple with ambivalence.