The Republican strategy from the beginning of this campaign has been to try to revive, for one more election, the culture wars they have used to divide the nation for decades. The choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s VP nominee was all part of that culture war strategy. The culture wars are a legacy of the sixties, when the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war (along with sex and drugs and rock-and-roll) broke up the New Deal Democratic coalition that had been forged on the basis of economic interests. “Reagan Democrats” were lured away from the Democratic party through cultural wedge issues, with race dominating in the early decades of this strategy and guns, God and gays being the focus in more recent years. (Scary brown people still factor in, of course, through the immigration issue.) Since the culture wars date back to the sixties, I guess it is appropriate that the Republican focus this year is on an old leftie from the sixties.
Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan wrote a brilliant piece in Atlantic way back in December – when neither Obama nor McCain were frontrunners – that almost seems prescient in light of the Ayres attacks. I strongly encourage you to read the entire thing. But here is Sullivan’s key point:
Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.
At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a momentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.
… [H]ow do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.
… McCain’s bipartisan appeal has receded in recent years, especially with his enthusiastic embrace of the latest phase of the Iraq War. And his personal history can only reinforce the Vietnam divide. But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the
world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so
much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic
battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be
your man. …
Again, this was written when neither Obama nor McCain were the front-runners for their respective party’s nomination.
Obama has made the same point himself back during his primary battle with Clinton – he represents a break with the internecine psychodrama of the Baby Boomers.
So it’s not surprising that Republicans have been trying to find a way to drag Obama into an increasingly irrelevant culture war that the Boomers have been fighting for 40 years. It is hard to imagine a guy like Ayres being even remotely relevant to anything in this country at this time, given the extraordinary challenges we face, except in that context. Voters should be insulted with this line of attack, and the polls seem to indicate that they are. But since the Republicans have chosen this as the major focus of their presidential campaign, I guess it’s important to address it.
So, for the record, let’s dispel the most blatantly untrue McCain campaign claims about Obama and Ayres.
During last night’s debate, McCain made the following statements:
“Senator Obama chose to associate with a guy who in 2001 said that he wished he'd have bombed more. And he had a long association with him.”
“[Y]ou launched your political campaign in Mr. Ayers' living room.”
And, of course, Pit Bull Palin on numerous occasions has claimed that, “[O]ur opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who target their own country.” [Note the plural “terrorists.”]
It is one thing for McCain and Palin to try to accuse Obama of “guilt-by-association” with an old radical. But what they are doing is more sinister and reprehensible. As Frank Rich wrote last Sunday (and I can’t emphasize strongly enough, this is a MUST READ piece):
All’s fair in politics. John McCain and Sarah Palin have every right to bring up William Ayers, even if his connection to Obama is minor, even if Ayers’s Weather
Underground history dates back to Obama’s childhood, even if establishment
Republicans and Democrats alike have collaborated with the present-day Ayers in
educational reform. But it’s not just the old Joe McCarthyesque guilt-by-association game, however spurious, that’s going on here. …
What makes them different, and what has pumped up the Weimar-like rage at
McCain-Palin rallies, is the violent escalation in rhetoric, especially (though not exclusively) by Palin. Obama “launched his political career in the living room of a domestic terrorist.” He is “palling around with terrorists” (note the plural noun). Obama is “not a man who sees America the way you and I see America.” Wielding a wildly out-of-context Obama quote, Palin slurs him as an enemy of American
By the time McCain asks the crowd “Who is the real Barack Obama?” it’s no surprise that someone cries out “Terrorist!” The rhetorical conflation of Obama with terrorism is complete. It is stoked further by the repeated invocation of Obama’s middle name by surrogates introducing McCain and Palin at these rallies. This sleight of hand at once synchronizes with the poisonous Obama-is-a-Muslim e-mail blasts
and shifts the brand of terrorism from Ayers’s Vietnam-era variety to the radical Islamic threats of today.
That’s a far cry from simply accusing Obama of being a guilty-by-association radical leftist. Obama is being branded as a potential killer and an accessory to past attempts at murder. “Barack Obama’s friend tried to kill my family” was how a McCain press release last week packaged the remembrance of a Weather Underground incident from 1970 — when Obama was 8.
Where to start.
Who is Ayres? [h/t to Wikipedia for much of this] He was the son of the CEO of Commonwealth Edison, the largest electric utility in Illinois. In 1969, Ayres was a co-founder of the Weather Underground, which conducted a campaign of bombing public buildings during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to protest the Vietnam war. Those bombings were preceded by communiqués that provided evacuation warnings, along with statements of the particular matter to which their attacks were allegedly responding. No one was ever killed in any of the bombings with which Ayres was associated (although some members of the Weather Underground blew themselves up by accident in Greenwich Village in 1970). He went “underground” from 1970 to 1980, when he turned himself in to authorities. While underground, federal charges against Ayres were dropped because of illegal activities by the FBI in the course of their investigations.
After emerging from underground, Ayres got a doctorate in education and became a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ayers worked with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in shaping the city's school reform program, and was one of three co-authors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant proposal that in 1995 won $49.2 million over five years for public school reform. In 1997 the City of Chicago awarded him its Citizen of the Year award for his work on the project. Since 1999 he has served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation established as the Woods Charitable Fund in 1941. While it is fair to say his political views are still toward the left wing of the political spectrum, over the last couple of decades he has become a respected member of the mainstream education establishment in Chicago.
Ayres attracted attention in 2001 when he published a book, “Fugitive Days: A Memoir,” dealing with his time in the Weather Underground. In the months before Ayers' memoir was published on September 10, 2001, the author gave numerous interviews with newspaper and magazine writers in which he defended his radical past, including a fateful interview with the New York Times that was conducted earlier but was published on September 11, 2001. The New York Times reporter quoted him as saying "I don't regret setting bombs" and "I feel we didn't do enough.” Obviously, those were inflammatory quotations in the context of the 9-11 attacks. Ayres immediately protested them in a letter to the editor:
[The Times reporters’] angle is captured in the Times headline: “No regrets for a love of explosives” (September 11, 2001). She and I spoke a lot about regrets, about loss, about attempts to account for one’s life. I never said I had any love for explosives, and anyone who knows me found that headline sensationalistic nonsense. I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact we didn’t do enough to stop the war. …
I wrote about Vietnamese lives as a personal American responsibility, then, and the hypocrisy of claiming an American innocence as we constructed and stoked an intricate and hideous chamber of death in Asia. Clearly I wrote and spoke about the export of violence and the government’s love affair with bombs. Just as clearly [the
reporter] was interested in her journalistic angle and not the truth. This is not a question of being misunderstood or “taken out of context,” but of deliberate distortion.
Some readers apparently responded to her piece, published on the same day as the vicious terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, by associating my book with them. This is absurd. My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy. It begins literally in the shadow of Hiroshima and comes of age in the killing fields of Southeast Asia. My book criticizes the American obsession with a clean and distanced violence, and the culture of thoughtlessness and carelessness that results from it. …
All that we witnessed September 11—the awful carnage and pain, the heroism of ordinary people—may drive us mad with grief and anger, or it may open us to hope in new ways. Perhaps precisely because we have suffered we can embrace the suffering of others and gather the necessary wisdom to resist the impulse to lash out randomly. The lessons of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and 70s may be more urgent now than ever.
To be clear, I am not defending Ayres’ actions 40 years ago (nor has Obama ever done so). But, also to be clear, Ayres never said as Republicans are now quoting him, that he wished he had undertaken more bombings 40 years ago. But, rather, he said he wished he had done more to stop the Vietnam war. And on that narrow point, I agree with him. Although I was just a junior high student at the time, I was aware of what was going on in Southeast Asia and I attended anti-war rallies. A couple of years ago, with my family, I visited the American War museum in Saigon. It brought tears to my eyes – quite literally. Dropping bombs on Hanoi was not heroic. Three million Vietnamese (and 58,000 Americans) died in that war. The streets of Saigon are still haunted by grotesque victims of our use of Agent Orange. From the Vietnamese standpoint, they were repelling the last of the Western powers to occupy their country. The Vietnamese never considered their country to be two countries. When the French pulled out in 1954, the Geneva Accords called for national elections in 1956 to reunify the country. The US didn’t allow those elections to take place because Ho Chi Minh would have won. So we fought to maintain the division of the country so the “communists” wouldn’t prevail. From the Vietnamese standpoint, we were just the latest in a long line of foreign occupiers. It was a tragedy for both countries. Based on my own travels in Vietnam, (to my amazement) the Vietnamese have forgiven us. Now let’s get over our own civil war over Vietnam.
In a recent article, the New York Times quotes Chicago Mayor Richard Daley saying of Ayres, “He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally. This is 2008. People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.” As the Times reports, “Daley, whose father was Chicago’s mayor during the street violence accompanying the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the so-called Days of Rage the following year, said he saw the bombings of that time in the context of a polarized and turbulent era.”
So what was Obama’s connection with Ayres? As Obama said in the debate last night,
Bill Ayers is a professor of education in Chicago. Forty years ago, when I was eight years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago, he served and I served on a board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan's former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg. Other members on that board were the presidents of the University of Illinois; the president of Northwestern University, who happens to be a Republican; the president of the Chicago Tribune, a Republican-leaning newspaper.
Obama and Ayres lived in the same neighborhood. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago and Ayres taught education at the University of Illinois. Ayres was a respected member of the Chicago educational establishment. As Obama noted last night, Obama and Ayres were both connected with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge underwritten by the Annenberg Foundation set up in the 1990’s by the billionaire Walter Annenberg, who served as an ambassador under Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Annenberg was the country’s most generous philanthropist until Bill Gates and was knighted by the UK. Bill Ayres was one of the authors of the Chicago grant proposal. The board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was handpicked by Adele Smith Simmons, president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. In 1995, Obama was asked to be chairman of the board, quite an honor for the young attorney and University of Chicago constitutional law lecturer. (Ayres actually never served on the board.) As Obama correctly noted last night, it was a prestigious board that included prominent Republicans. Hardly a radical affiliation let alone a “terrorist” organization.
Ayres and Obama also both served on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an offshoot of the Wood Charitable Fund. The fund works as a funding partner with nonprofit organizations seeking to increase opportunities for disadvantaged people in Chicago. Its board, like that of the Annenberg Challenge, is mainstream Chicago establishment. Obama attended a grand total of 12 meetings of the Woods Fund.
The most ridiculous of the Republican claims is, as McCain said last night, that Obama launched his political career in Ayres living room. In 1995, when Obama was running for state senator, the retiring incumbent, Alice Palmer, shuttled him around the district to make introductions. One of those meetings arranged by Palmer took place in Ayres' home. In my experience, a novice candidate for state senate would meet with a homeless person in his cardboard box if he was invited in. This is not the stuff of a terrorist cabal. It would be just as true to say that, “Obama had a long association with prominent members of the Chicago Republican establishment with connections to the Nixon and Reagan administrations and his political career was launched with their money.”
The New York Times has investigated the relationship between Obama and Ayres (including the archives of the Chicago Annenberg project) and concluded, “the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8”.”
There is nothing suspect or inappropriate about the casual association between Obama and Ayres. This is a guy, after all, who received the Citizen of the Year Award in Chicago in 1997.
But Ayres is a symbol of ‘60s radicalism and a pretext for an unseemly insinuation that Obama is somehow connected with “terrorism”. The fact that this has become the centerpiece of the McCain/Palin campaign with three weeks to go in a presidential contest taking place in the midst of a global financial crisis, when the country is fighting two wars, should tell you more about McCain and Palin than it does about Obama. Let’s bury the 40-year culture war in this country.
Enough Fear and Smear. Defeat Hate! Embrace Hope! Vote Obama!