Guilt by association — is that how Barack Obama will be brought low, if not in the remaining Democratic primaries, then in the general election?
I'm not just referring to Obama's long relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, which is fair game for his critics. Despite his best damage-control efforts, Obama's presidential candidacy has been hurt by the controversy, which even he acknowledges is a legitimate concern for voters.
If he is a victim of anything, it is his own poor judgment. Obama waited too long to make a clean break with his former pastor, something he finally did last week after the latest Wright eruption. Even so, some of his own supporters are left to wonder how Obama could have attended Wright's church for 20 years without being exposed to the outrageous rubbish and bigoted ravings that he now condemns.
Obama probably knows his unequivocal repudiation of the angry reverend he once described as his spiritual mentor is not going to end the controversy. He still has some explaining to do.
Jeremiah Wright and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan are a mutual admiration society, and that has given Obama's political adversaries a back-door way to try to associate the Democratic front-runner with Farrakhan, whose anti-Semitic statements over the years have made his name toxic. Speaking in Washington last week, Wright praised Farrakhan as "one of the most important voices in the 20th and 21st century.''
In last month's presidential debate in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton used the Wright controversy in a spurious attempt to link Obama to the Nation of Islam leader. That moved Washington Post columnist Colbert I. King to ask who "among all the top Democrats intimately involved in the Pennsylvania primary'' has the coziest relationship with Farrakhan?
King wrote: "It's not Barack Obama. The individual who has shared a podium with Farrakhan and has publicly praised the Nation of Islam leader loudest is the person most responsible for organizing, mobilizing and delivering the Pennsylvania vote to Hillary Clinton: her close friend and trusted political counselor (Gov.) Ed Rendell.''
So why didn't Clinton demand of Rendell what she has demanded of Obama — that he "denounce'' and "reject'' Farrakhan? Obama has done both.
Meanwhile, we can expect to hear more about Obama's association with William Ayers, a member of the radical Weather Underground that declared war on the U.S. government in the 1960s and bombed federal buildings. Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, comes across as unrepentant four decades later, saying his only regret is that he didn't do more for his cause.
In the Philadelphia debate moderated by ABC's George Stephanopolous and Charles Gibson, Obama was asked to explain his relationship with Ayers and "why it won't be a problem.'' From all I know, their association seems innocent enough. They live in the same neighborhood and served together on a charity board in Chicago. And oh yes, Obama accepted a campaign donation from the professor.
When asked for a response, Clinton said: "What they (the Weather Underground) did was set bombs. And in some instances people died.''
That's true, so why did former President Bill Clinton commute the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground as he was leaving the White House? Which is worse — serving on a charity board with these '60s radicals or commuting their prison sentences? By the way, Ayers was never convicted of a crime.
In an interview last week with the Financial Times, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, an Obama supporter, said Ayers' radicalism should be viewed in the context of the times.
"It was the late 1960s — the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King tore up the country,'' said the mayor, whose father, the legendary Richard J. Daley, was blamed for a police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "And Vietnam tore up families. It was a very difficult, challenging time for the country.''
He went on: "But this is 2008. Over the years I've gotten to know Bill Ayers. He's been very active in school reform and education and a very active person in the community.''
No doubt Obama has not heard the last about Jeremiah Wright, Louis Farrakhan or Bill Ayers. Internet bloggers, some masters of the smear, will take it from here.
It's not hard to figure out what's going on. The idea is to raise doubts about whether Obama is really one of us. He seems more foreign than American. He is the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya. He spent part of his childhood in Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population. Hillary Clinton says Obama is not a Muslim "as far as I know.'' But isn't his middle name Hussein? And isn't he a liberal elitist who refuses to wear a flag pin on his lapel and sips wine with a former Weatherman? He's just different, you know.
You get the drift.
Call it McCarthyism, the politics of personal destruction, guilt by association or whatever you choose. It is poison, and it has no place in our politics, especially when there are legitimate reasons for voters to reject Obama's candidacy.
Philip Gailey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.