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Parsing The Ayers Allegation

Ben Smith has a piece in The Politico today about the former anti-war radicals whose home Obama visited in 1995 for what Ben calls "an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office." I think Ben’s a great reporter doing terrific work these days, but the piece makes me uncomfortable.

To recap: The two radicals, William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, were part of the Weather Underground group that claimed some 25 bombing attempts in the 1960s, though they were never prosecuted for their role and no one was killed as a result of the attempts (except, by accident, some of the group's own members). Since then, Ayers and Dohrn have tried to rehabilitate themselves, and have succeeded in at least becoming semi-respectable figures in liberal Chicago circles, though they still make a lot of liberals (and non-liberals) uncomfortable. Ayers teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is some sort of progressive education advocate; Dohrn is a law professor at Northwestern. In 2001, Ayers told The New York Times he didn't regret the bombing attempts.

First, just a small quibble: Ben says Ayers and Obama were, at best, casual friends. Even that seems to overstate things, though. I don't see evidence of any relationship. The only concrete connection we know of is the meeting, which was attended by a number of local liberals; their contemporaneous membership on the board of a local organization; and a $200-donation by Ayers to one of Obama's state senate campaigns. (Obama also once praised something Ayers had written about the juvenile justice system.) I'm not saying they couldn’t have been casual friends; just that there isn't much evidence for that at this point.

More importantly, I'm just not sure what the upshot is here. There were plenty of inoffensive reasons--that is, reasons that had nothing to do with Ayers' or Dohrn's past--for people Obama knew to arrange the meeting. Given that there’s no trace of support for terrorism or political violence anywhere in Obama's record--to the contrary, Obama condemned Ayers' and Dohrns' past through a spokesman--I just don't see how this tells us anything useful about Obama. Or, to put it differently, the only conclusion that would be interesting--that Obama supports political violence--strikes me as completely implausible.

Ben and I have actually been e-mailing about this, and one of the things we've been going back and forth on is a proper analogy. Let me give you mine (which is really just a modified version of one he proposed): Suppose we were talking about a meeting Mike Huckabee attended during a (fictitious) run for state senate in the early '90s. Let's say the meeting took place in the home of a local pastor, who, back in the '70s, had been part of a radical anti-abortion group that at times attempted, but never succeeded in, bombing abortion clinics. The pastor was never prosecuted and had since become a semi-respectable member of his community, where he also ran an adoption clinic for children of mothers he'd counseled against abortion. 

If Huckabee had once addressed a group of local conservative activists at the pastor's home, would that tell us anything about his views on political violence? Reasonable people can disagree about this. But I don't think it would.

Just one more quick thought: Though it's not the rationale for Ben's piece, you often hear the Clinton campaign say this stuff is fair game because the GOP would seize on it during the general election. (I got an e-mail from the Clinton campaign this morning making that point in reference to this related item.)

I find that argument absurd. Yes, obviously, the Republicans will throw everything they have at Obama if he's the nominee. But raising nasty allegations now only makes them more likely to be taken seriously later on, at which point the GOP will be able to say, in that classic credibility-enhancing way, “Democrats brought this up back in the primaries.”

That's not to say you can't make allegations about your opponent. Just that, if you think something's relevant to his or her fitness for office, you have an obligation to explain why, not simply argue that his general-election opponent will raise the issue. That logic can justify pretty much anything.

--Noam Scheiber