Sarah Palin’s charge that Barack Obama is “palling around with terrorists” may mark the descent of Campaign 2008 into the sewer that has marked so many other recent U.S. elections. But her comments operate on another level, too, continuing to brand anyone who criticizes George W. Bush’s neoconservative foreign policy as un-American.
The Alaska governor’s larger point – made in her Oct. 2 debate and on the campaign stump since then – is that Obama is a person who dares to find fault with U.S. policies overseas and thus deserves to have his patriotism questioned.
"Our opponent,” Palin told Republican supporters during a post-debate speech in Colorado, “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."
Palin added about Obama, "This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America. We see America as a force of good in this world. We see an America of exceptionalism."
It’s unclear if Palin understood the full significance of her reference to American “exceptionalism,” the theory preached by the neoconservatives who led her debate prep. They argue that the United States has the exceptional right to operate outside international law.
But Palin does grasp the political usefulness of smearing an opponent in the style of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who in 1984 famously defined critics of Ronald Reagan’s aggressive foreign policy as people who would “blame America first.” Palin is, in effect, labeling Obama a blame-America-firster.
In the vice presidential debate, Palin twisted Obama’s 2007 analysis of U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan – which called for more troops on the ground to reduce reliance on air strikes that had killed civilians – into him condemning everything the U.S. military has done in Afghanistan.
“Barack Obama had said that all we're doing in Afghanistan is air-raiding villages and killing civilians,” Palin said. “And such a reckless, reckless comment and untrue comment, again, hurts our cause.”
With the blessings of John McCain’s campaign, Palin then expanded on this “character” assault against Obama by citing his tenuous connection to former Vietnam War-era radical William Ayers as well as recalling the controversy over Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Though McCain has in the past decried this sort of personal smear tactic – especially when he was the victim in 2000 – his campaign has announced, rather openly, its intent to go negative on Obama in a guilt-by-association barrage in the weeks before Nov. 4.
Several top Republicans told the Washington Post that “McCain and his Republican allies are readying a newly aggressive assault on Sen. Barack Obama’s character, believing that to win in November they must shift the conversation back to questions about the Democrat’s judgment, honesty and personal associations.”
McCain aides also left no doubt that the strategy would have a McCarthyistic tinge by highlighting Obama’s limited connections to Ayers, who as a young man in the late 1960s and early 1970s, veered off into violent radicalism in protest of the slaughter going on in the Vietnam War.
Ayers became a leader of an extreme faction, known as the Weathermen, that planted bombs at the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. After years of living underground, Ayers surfaced and escaped a prison sentence in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct in his case.
Though never disavowing his rationale for reacting to the Vietnam War violence by trying to bring a small measure of that violence back home, Ayers expressed regret for some of his actions and quietly built a life as a Chicago-based college professor focusing on educational issues.
Possibly because Ayers came from a family with deep ties in the Chicago establishment – his father had served as chief executive of Commonwealth Edison – the ex-student radical was given a kind of second chance to turn his expertise to the good of his community.
One of Ayers’s defenders now is Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, whose father had run the city at the time of infamous clashes in 1968 between anti-war activists and police.
“He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally,” Daley told the New York Times in a front-page article on Oct. 4. Daley also urged people to view Ayers’s radicalism four decades ago in the context of the time when the brutality of the Vietnam War had torn apart the nation’s social fabric.
“This is 2008,” Daley said. “People make mistakes.”
History also shows that the mistakes were not just made by anti-war activists, but by the nation’s leaders who intervened with a half-million U.S. troops and massive firepower in what amounted to a local civil war.
The record reveals that President Lyndon Johnson’s decisions were driven by fear that he would be blamed for “losing Indochina” and by the erroneous belief that communism was a monolith. Johnson and his advisers failed to appreciate the emerging Sino-Soviet split or the nationalism that inspired much of the Vietnamese resistance to French and then American domination.
As Johnson pushed forward into the bloody Vietnam quagmire, the American people also splintered into angry factions, some backing the war and some doing what they could to end it. In 1967, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. threw his moral weight on the anti-war side, calling the United States “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”
A few young Americans reacted to the violence in Vietnam – and to the refusal of the U.S. government to stop the war – by turning to anarchy or trying to “bring the war home” through violent acts within the United States. William Ayers was such a person.
Clearly, however, Obama had nothing to do with Ayers’s behavior during the Vietnam War when Obama was still a child. It’s also a stretch to suggest that a tenuous connection to Ayers implicated Obama in either Ayers’s actions during the Vietnam War or his lack of remorse for some of his decisions.
Ironically, it was the Chicago establishment that put Obama – a bright, young community organizer working with churches on Chicago’s South Side – into contact with Ayers, who served on philanthropic boards seeking to improve educational opportunities in the city.
The Obama campaign says the two men first met in 1995 through an educational project known as the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which was part of a $500 million national program for school improvement funded from the fortune of Walter Annenberg, a pro-Republican publisher (and close personal friend of Ronald Reagan).
Ayers also hosted a small political gathering for Obama’s first state senate campaign; their terms overlapped as members of board for the Woods Fund, another community-oriented philanthropy; and they lived in the same Hyde Park neighborhood, seeing each other occasionally on the street, the Times reported in the Oct. 4 story.
Though Palin cited the publication of the Times article to justify her new attacks linking Obama to Ayers’s Vietnam-era “terrorism,” the article actually cites no evidence to support Palin’s charge that Obama was “palling around with terrorists,” with its suggestion that Obama and Ayers were close friends.
The article concludes that the two appear to have been only casual acquaintances and that Ayers had little to do with Obama’s political development. According to the Times article, even conservative Republicans who knew Obama in that time period said he showed no radical tendencies.
“I saw no evidence of a radical streak, either overt or covert, when we were together at Harvard Law School,” said Bradford Berenson, who worked with Obama on the Harvard Law Review and later became an associate White House counsel to George W. Bush.
Berenson called Obama a “pragmatic liberal” whose moderation frustrated others at the law review who held more leftist views.
Nevertheless, McCain and Palin appear determined to make this guilt-by-association theme work in the final weeks of the campaign, hoping that it will raise doubts about Obama that might scare off white working-class voters, so-called Reagan Democrats.
The McCain-Palin ticket is helped by the fact that during the latter stages of the Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton’s campaign injected the Ayers issue into the race under the guise that the Republicans would use it – and therefore it was best to raise it in time for Democrats to deny Obama the nomination.
The Ayers issue was part of the Clinton “oppo” research on Obama dating back at least to December 2007 when I was briefed on it by a close Clinton associate. The Clinton campaign pushed the Ayers theme during the spring 2008 primaries in Rust Belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio.
Key media personalities helped, such as George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, a former Bill Clinton adviser. During a key prime-time debate before the Pennsylvania primary, Stephanopoulos said about Ayers that “in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.’”
Obama was left protesting this pejorative guilt-by-association. “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, George,” Obama responded.
“So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow – somehow their ideas could be attributed to me – I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.”
By referring to the fact that Ayers’s comments were published on Sept. 11, 2001, Stephanopoulos led viewers to believe that Ayers had either hailed the 9/11 attacks or used the 9/11 tragedy as a ghoulish opportunity to suggest that more bombings were desirable.
But that wasn’t true. The comment, which was from an interview about a memoir that Ayers published earlier in 2001, was included in a New York Times article that appeared in the newspaper’s Sept. 11, 2001, edition, which went to press on Sept. 10, hours before the 9/11 attacks. In other words, the Ayers comment had no relationship to the 9/11 attacks.
During the debate, in response to Sen. Clinton’s piling on about Ayers, Obama pointed out that her husband had done more for ex-members of the Weather Underground than he had.
“By Sen. Clinton’s own vetting standards, I don’t think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act” than knowing Ayers, Obama said. [For more details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Are the Clintons Playing Joe McCarthy?’]
But now the Ayers issue is back, thanks to Republican operatives, the New York Times front-page article on Oct. 4 – and Sarah Palin’s new role as the attack dog for John McCain’s campaign.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
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This story was published on October 7, 2008.