August 28, 2008


Sam Smith

There is one real reason to been concerned about Obama-Ayers flap: Obama is botching it.

The incident provides an unsettling insight into how Obama handles crises. What should have been a minor sidelight to the campaign is becoming more important in large part because a strange combination of misdirected caution and misguided aggression.

The caution of Obama's personal response has obscured a key point: if you're involved in urban politics, you're going to find yourself mixed up with the Bill Ayers of the world. Hell, if I were held personally responsible for every political crook or scoundrel I ever had in my house, met over lunch, or served on a board with, I couldn't get into a Starbucks, let alone public office.

This is a strange concept for those Americans who live in far less polyglot places and have no sense of what the diversity of urban politics is like.

Obama has handled the problem the way he does so many that make him uncomfortable - with attorney like parsimonious parsing that comes off as evasive and unresponsive. It isn't that he's really done anything wrong; he just makes it sound that way.

The best way to handle the truth is to tell it. And then explain it.

For example, it would have been interesting to know how many other strange people have shared board seats with Obama. Hell, I'm on a board with Christopher Hitchens and no one has ever accused me of being unduly influenced by that notorious intellectual terrorist.

It would also have been helpful if the Obama campaign had stressed that Ayers was brought into the Chicago school reform movement by that other radical activist, Mayor Richard Daley. If Daley has - from all accounts - survived the association, maybe Obama will as well. Further, the whole controversial schools project that Obama and Ayers were involved in was funded by decidedly unradical Annenberg money.

God knows why Daley named Ayers, but one thing you learn about urban politics is that you have to have been there to understand it. Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times tried to explain it last spring:

||||| For Obama, perhaps a problem, because of Ayers' extremist past -- which has never bothered anyone in Chicago. That's why back in the day when Obama was starting his political career -- making a visit to the Ayers home while running for a state Senate seat, and then agreeing to being on panels with him and serve on a foundation board together -- it was no big deal, or any deal, to any local political reporters or to the editorial boards of the Sun-Times or Tribune.

Once Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, and wife Bernardine Dohrn, also in the group -- surfaced after years on the lam, they settled easily in to the village known as Hyde Park-Kenwood in Chicago, fitting into the highly political, supremely philosophical community anchored by the University of Chicago. For outsiders, it's Cambridge, Berkeley and Evanston --without a lot of chain stores. It's also the place the Obamas call home.

But Ayers, who became a scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was also eventually embraced by a pragmatic son of blue-collar Bridgeport desperately trying to upgrade Chicago's chronically troubled schools: Mayor Daley, whose father's legacy was tarnished because of anti-Vietnam War protesters getting clobbered in the 1968 convention and the Days of Rage the next year. . .

Obama made it seem at the debate he hardly knew Ayers. Besides serving on the Woods Fund board, in 1997 he and Ayers were to be on a University of Chicago panel organized by Michelle Obama, then an associate dean. And Ayers could reinforce Obama as an elitist: In 2002, Obama and Ayers were scheduled to be on a UIC panel with this lampoon-able title: "Intellectuals in Times of Crisis." |||||

Stunningly absent fron the whole debate has been the worthy original purpose that brought Ayers and Obama into contact: reforming public schools including an emphasis on local school councils. If someone is going to accuse Obama of being an Ayerhead, they should at least point to one campaign speech in which he has shown any real interest in public schools.

Obama's real problem is not that he knew Ayers but that Obama is such a pretentious prig about the myth he has created for himself that anything that threatens it becomes a capital crime.

He's not the first Democratic candidate with this problem. John Kerry masochistically got the swiftboaters going by his exaggerated and narcissistic references to his Vietnam experiences. As I noted at the time:

|||| John Kerry's hyping of his Vietnam tour has proved a huge disaster among voters who are veterans. According to a new CBS poll, only 37% of vets now support Kerry compared with 46% immediately after the convention. Bush, despite his AWOL status during the same war, has moved up from 46% to 55%. . .

In short, this has been one of the great political missteps of recent years, a candidate who goes out and makes a big deal of a few months in his life only to have it backfire on him among the very voters he is trying to reach. . .

If Kerry had let others speak of his Vietnam activities, all might have been well. Instead, the candidate engaged in version of the maritime barroom trait known as telling "sea stories." Some of these may be true, but typically they are embellished for the benefit of the listener. A "sea story" is by definition an exaggerated version of events, not considered malicious but also not to be taken as the verbatim truth.

When the sea story involves one's own alleged heroism, however, the reaction of other vets can turn decidedly sour. Bill Mauldin said you could tell the hero in a bar because he was the morose guy in the corner by himself. George McGovern described them as the ones who came home dead.

Kerry broke the rules of the game by his bragging and now is paying the price. It doesn't matter that some of his critics are also telling sea stories or real untruths. He should have been smart enough to see it coming and avoided the temptation. Now his campaign and the nation are paying the price as one of the dumbest campaign gimmicks of recent times falls part. |||||

Kerry, like Obama, was trying to control his own myth. Unfortunately, it seldom works.

Obama has created another problem. Instead of coming up with a reasonable explanation of his relationship with Ayers, he has sent his troops out to intimidate media outlets that offer their own. As with the Kerry affair, some of these alternative stories are wrong but presumably being wrong will still be a protected right under an Obama administration. Or will it?

Writes Time: "The Obama campaign is fighting back against National Review writer Stanley Kurtz and his research into Obama's association with Bill Ayers. Kurtz was on WGN Radio's Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg tonight to discuss what he's found in the files at the University of Chicago. The Politico's Ben Smith has an email the Obama campaign has sent out to supporters hours ago asking them to call into the show. Here are some excerpts:

"'Tonight, WGN radio is giving right-wing hatchet man Stanley Kurtz a forum to air his baseless, fear-mongering terrorist smears. He's currently scheduled to spend a solid two-hour block from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. pushing lies, distortions, and manipulations about Barack and University of Illinois professor William Ayers. Tell WGN that by providing Kurtz with airtime, they are legitimizing baseless attacks from a smear-merchant and lowering the standards of political discourse. . . It is absolutely unacceptable that WGN would give a slimy character assassin like Kurtz time for his divisive, destructive ranting on our public airwaves. At the very least, they should offer sane, honest rebuttal to every one of Kurtz's lies.'"

In fact, according to Rosenberg's producer, the Obama campaign was invited to appear on the show with Kurtz but hung up on him.

When you combine this with the letter the campaign wrote to the Justice Department trying to stomp out a group running ads on the Ayers issue and the pressure being put on national media to avoid such ads, one gets an uncomfortable hint of what life might be like over the next eight years. Next to evangelical Christians, evangelical liberals are among the nation's most intolerant constituencies.

Besides it's stupid. I listened to a portion of the Kurtz interview and while I think he could make much better and more honest use of his time on this earth, there was nothing so astounding or outrageous as to have deserved the tactics of the Obama campaign, which, as Rosenberg noted, he hasn't seen in three decades on the air.

In short, Obama's avoidance of the issue and aggression in dealing with those who raise it merely keeps the matter alive. It's dumb politics driven by a campaign's overwrought sense of its own role in the universe.

In fact, anyone who spends a few minutes watching Obama knows that you don't need a weatherman to know which way his wind is blowing. The only thing he would ever bomb is his own chances.