Guilt by association is back with a vengeance, and Ed Martin is wielding the sword.
Ed Martin is a far-right conservative activist who ran Gov. Matt Blunt's office for a hot minute as chief of staff, before resigning amid a scandal involving the alleged deletion of public records. Previously he has attacked abortion rights and the Missouri Non-Partisan Court Plan. Now he is attacking Barack Obama.
The anti-Obama attack ad and website - Ed's new sword - were paid for by Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons, reportedly one of the guys who funded the Swift Boat attack on John Kerry.
The closer line of Ed Martin's anti-Obama ad, the one meant to leave those lingering doubts intended to keep you from flipping the Obama switch at the polls, is: "Why would Barack Obama be friends with someone who bombed the Capitol … and is proud of it? Do you know enough to elect Barack Obama?"
This "someone" is William Ayers. It may or may not be fair to describe him as "friends" with Obama (I'll come back to that), but he did not bomb the Capitol. As part of the Weathermen, he did conspire to bomb the Capitol and the Pentagon (and the people in them), and he certainly comes across as proud of having done so.
It's probably hopeless, in the aftermath of 9/11, to evoke the context of the Vietnam War and the public opposition to it in a way that would explain the actions of the Weathermen. Certainly, if you are running for U.S. president you don't want to mess with explaining the political context that once spurred some young people in this country to treason and revolution.
Fortunately, Obama does not need to do so. He has already answered the attacks in Martin's attack ad. He answered them when George Stephanopoulos brought up the Ayers connection on ABC during the Democrat Presidential Candidate Debate in Philadelphia back on April 16. I quote from the transcript on Martin's own American Issues Project website:
"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 some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. And 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. The fact is that I'm also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, 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."
I am not guilty by association, Obama argues. It's a sound argument. If the logic in debates won elections, this case would be closed. But only winning votes wins elections, and logic is only one strategy to winning votes among many.
Of course, Martin's ad doesn't accuse Obama of bombing the Capitol (or conspiring to do so) when he was 8 years old. It tries to suggest a sinister connection between Obama as an adult being "friends" with someone who conspired to bomb the Capitol when Obama was 8 years old.
Why would Obama do that?
The answer - which is the answer to the question left lingering at the end of the attack ad - can be inferred from the analogy to Tom Coburn. Bill Ayers and Tom Coburn both were significant operators in political circles where Obama wanted to have an impact, and as an exceptionally skilled politician, he made productive use of an association with both men - without accepting or adopting the values of either.
The Tom Coburn example is easy to understand and even applaud. We call it "being bi-partisan" and "crossing the aisle," and both presidential contenders boast at being good at doing it. Of course, that's why Obama slipped in the Coburn analogy during the debate - it answered the question about Ayers on firmer rhetorical footing. That's a long-established and effective debate strategy.
Explaining the Ayers association is much more problematic for Obama, at this point in his career. It sets him back many political incarnations. It places him in a much more narrow setting than that in which he operates now or could possibly operate as U.S. president. But, once you accept that Obama's earliest political roots in Chicago included university liberals in Hyde Park, there is nothing worse in the Ayers incident than his working closely with Tom Coburn as a Senate colleague.
Bill Ayers was not a bomb-building revolutionary when Obama met him. He was a college professor with significant political connections in liberal Chicago. He also was a neighbor of Obama's in Hyde Park.
A Chicago Sun-Times article, written in the aftermath of the Ayers blowup in the primary debate (and archived on Martin's website), sums up Obama's connections with Ayers and Ayers' wife, also a former Weatherman, Bernardine Dohrn:
"In the mid-1990s, Ayers and Dohrn hosted a meet-and-greet at their house to introduce Obama to their neighbors during his first run for the Illinois Senate. In 2001, Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's campaign. Ayers also served alongside Obama between December 1999 and December 2002 on the board of the not-for-profit Woods Fund of Chicago. That board met four times a year, and members would see each other at occasional dinners the group hosted."
That $200 Ayers gave the young, green Obama is somewhat hilarious in light of the $2.88 million that Harold Simmons gave Ed Martin's American Issues Project to construct this guilt-by-association attack.
There can be no doubt that the young Obama, just getting started in politics, used Ayers and Dohrn to help build his early base. If you can't get the support of your neighbors, you're not going to go very far in elected politics, and these were his neighbors, or some of them.
We have an eyewitness account of that first meet-and-greet in Hyde Park, written by Maria Warren and published on a blog that, in a way, got this whole thing going. "When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn," Warren wrote on her blog in 2005. "They were launching him — introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread."
No beginning politician would get anywhere without making many such "standard, innocuous little talks" in their neighborhood. It so happens that the neighborhood where Obama got his start included a liberal set, and these former Weathermen were powerful players in it.
Obama would quickly build many bridges out of that initial, liberal base, bridges that would take him into the state Senate, then the U.S. Senate, and now into this historic nomination for U.S. president. As Obama widened his base and built bridges, he disappointed some of his initial liberal base, who resent or fail to appreciate the basic facts of electoral politics and consensus-building. If Bill Ayers' flashy, radical, nostalgic politics appealed deeply to Barack Obama, Barack Obama never would have left Hyde Park. He never would have met Tom Coburn or attracted the attention of a far-right activist like Ed Martin.
Law professor and writer Stanley Fish puts Ayers and Dohrn into useful context in an April 27 New York Times piece, also written in the wake of that argument during the Democratic primary debate (and also archived on Martin's website).
Fish writes, "Confession time. I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers's house (more than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to an offer from Harvard. Of course, I'm not running for anything, but I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in the eyes of some to get me canned. Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven't asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since repented), and he hasn't asked me to forgive him for his (if he has any)."
Fish, too, rejects guilt by association. As a legal scholar, he knows it's a logical fallacy.
But logic is only one weapon in politics, and it's not the one that draws the most blood. Ed Martin - who, unfortunately for all of us, is not a fool - knows this. He knows that the big, loud half-lie can be much more powerful - much more damaging - than the complicated truth.
Wrapping up his side of the argument in the April 16 primary debate, Obama expressed faith that American voters would reject the foolish logical fallacy of guilt by association. He said, "So this kind of game in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that somehow their ideas could be attributed to me, I think the American people are smarter than that."
Ed Martin is banking on the voters to be dupes. Barack Obama thinks we are smarter than that. I can't tell you how much I hope Obama is right.