By: Mark Fitzgerald
His political opponents think Illinois Sen. Barack Obama’s acquaintance with former Weatherman William Ayers is a weak spot worthy of attack, as certain Republican presidential nominee John McCain did again Sunday on a TV talk show.
But here in Chicago, home to both men, the charge that Obama has been friendly with the former political radical has gone nowhere.
Ayers’ extremist past has “has never bothered anyone in Chicago,” Chicago Sun-Times political columnist Lynn Sweet wrote after Obama was questioned about his relationship with Ayers in last week’s debate with Hillary Clinton.
“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,” Sweet added.
And it’s no big deal still to the Tribune editorial board, which has not endorsed a Democrat for president since 1872.
“Ah, we know Ayers too,” a Tribune editorial said last week. “And his wife, Bernardine Dohrn. If you know people in Chicago academic circles, chances are you know Ayers and Dohrn. They have not been repentant about their days in the radical, anti-war movement in the 1960s and their time fleeing federal authorities. They should be. There is still time for them to be. But they have done good work in Chicago–Ayers at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Dohrn at Northwestern University Law School’s Children and Family Justice Center.”
Ayers also was given the seal of approval by Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, nobody’s idea of a radical and someone who doesn’t need a weatherman to know which way the political winds are blowing.
The Ayers episode is one reason “that Americans are angry about Washington politics,” Daley said.
“One more example is the way Sen. Obama’s opponents are playing guilt by association, tarring him because he happens to know Bill Ayers,” Daley said in a statement issued last week.
Daley called Ayers “a valued member of the Chicago community” who is “worked with me in shaping our now nationally renowned school reform program.”
Chicago’s pundit class is not exactly unanimous on shrugging off the Obama/Ayers connection. Steve Chapman, a Chicago Tribune columnist of libertarian bent who also serves on the paper’s editorial board, argued Sunday that the relationship, which he said Obama was disingenuously trying to downplay, does matter.
“It’s hard to imagine he would be so indulgent if we learned that John McCain had a long association with a former Klansman who used to terrorize African-Americans,” Chapman wrote. “Obama’s conduct exposes a moral blind spot about these onetime terrorists, who get a pass because they a) fall on the left end of the spectrum and b) haven’t planted any bombs lately.
“You can tell a lot about someone from his choice of friends. What this friendship reveals is that when it comes to practicing sound moral hygiene, Obama has work to do and no interest in doing it.”
But locally, Obama is far more likely to be rapped for being too palsy, or at least endorsing, the feckless president of the Cook County Board, Todd Stroger. Chicago media critic Steve Rhodes, in his blog The Beachwood Reporter, rarely lets slip an opportunity to contrast Obama’s national image as a daring leader who will bring “change you can believe in” with his get-along, go-along relationship with city and Cook County political hacks.
He once suggested this question to Michelle Obama for an interview the Sun-Times was promoting: “How do you square Barack’s campaigning as a change agent with all the profiles of him that describe him as a cautious, conservative, ultra-pragmatic legislator?”
The Chicagoist Web site, while also mostly shrugging off the Ayers “controversy,” said it pointed to disturbing pattern:
“While their relationship just might be a tempest in a teapot — or in Obamaspeak, a ‘distraction’ — is the fact that Obama is once again downplaying a friendship really the bigger deal? After all, this is the same guy that originally tried to claim he hardly knew Tony Rezko, and had only performed a few hours of legal work for him. Where’s that famous Obama transparency? This is a ‘new kind of politics’?”