Let's play an analogy game. A debate moderator asks you about your relationship with unrepentant domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. The analogy you choose to draw with Ayers is:
(a) Justice Hugo Black, who joined a terrorist organization in his youth, but later contributed greatly to liberal reform;
(b) Timothy McVeigh, because he is another domestic terrorist who was proud of his actions;
(c) John Brown, another freedom fighter accused of being a terrorist for challenging an oppressive system with violence, but who was later rehabilitated; or
(d) Senator Tom Coburn, because his right-wing views on abortion are similarly offensive to Ayers' radicalism, and pointing out that you are willing to be friendly with the like Coburn shows that your coziness with Ayers doesn't mean that you endorse his views.
Obama chose "d". Surely that tells you something about where he's coming from (in particular, that he fails to understand that the reason that his relationship with Ayers is troubling to many is because of Ayers' lack of remorse for his terrorist past, not because he has views today that some would find radical), just as his choice of (a), (b), or (c), would have told you something about his perspective.
UPDATE: Orin writes that he doesn't understand my point, because Obama only knew one of these men, and he was trying to make a point about how he is friendly with people whose ideas he vehemently disagrees with. But that assumes that Obama had to respond the way he did. Obama could have chosen A, which would have meant acknowledging that Ayers had a terrorist past, he was aware of it, but thinks he has overcome it with good works. He could have chosen B, and added (if true) that he no longer speaks to Ayers because he found him to be unrepentant in private conversation and public statements. He could have chosen C, which implies that he agreed with Ayers' violent acts, because they were justified to stop the Vietnam War.
Instead, he chose (d), from which, contrary to Orin, we can surmise several things. It tells us that he tried to give a weaselly politician's answer, instead of directly telling people what he thinks of Ayers' past and present. (Not really surprising for a politician, however.) It tells us that he thinks that it's a sign of one's open-mindedness that one is willing to be friendly with colleague who has some rather harsh anti-abortion views, which is probably true of someone who travels in his circles, but would strike many people who are friendly with vehement pro-lifers as an odd conclusion to draw.
And most important, it tells us that he simply didn't understand that his connection with Ayers was under attack not primarily because Ayers currently has radical views that one could, perhaps, analogize to Coburn's in their "unmainstreamness," but because unlike Coburn, Ayers was a terrorist who tried to kill innocent Americans, and he is not only proud of it, but feels he didn't do enough. Some commenters have pointed out that in the elite liberal academic culture I've been referencing, violence on behalf of "revolutionary" goals is not only not shocking to many, it's often affirmatively romanticized, as with the ubiquitous Che t-shirts, and the inexplicable love affair many in the academy have with Fidel Castro. Again, it's not that Obama himself romanticizes such violence, but that he is a product of a culture in which being disturbed by a lack of remorse over the "revolutionary" violent actions of the Weathermen 30+ years later is just not on the cognitive map.
And commenter Jerry F. adds:
Now, perhaps Professor Kerr is right and, when Obama initially brought up Coburn, he meant only that he can be friends with people who have views that Obama strongly disagrees with. I suppose only Obama knows what he had in mind then. Assuming this was what Obama meant, however, he was completely missing the point, since commentators who expressed concern about his relationship with Ayers (for the most part) did not argue that he agreed with Ayers' most noxious views.
But I think that a more reasonable interpretation of Obama bringing up Coburn (regardless of what Obama may have said as an explanation after the fact) is that he finds Coburn to be more or less the equivalent of Ayers on the right. In any event, I don't see on what ground someone can argue that this interpretation is less reasonable than Professor Kerr's charitable interpretation. The truth, of course, would be that Coburn is, at most, *Obama's* equivalent on the right (assuming Coburn is the most conservative member of the Senate), not Ayers' equivalent on the right.
And Jerry F. (no, not my sock puppet!) adds, in response to Orin's (and some commenters') doubts that Obama didn't understand how toxic Ayers is:
Because if Obama had that understanding, he would have dumped Ayers years ago.
Is this really so hard for you people to understand? If Obama actually appreciated how normal people will respond to a Rev Wright or Bill Ayers, he would have got them out of his life before he started running for President. He would have "Sister Souljahed" both of them, rather than "that's not the Rev Wright I knew" and "Bill Ayers, he's just some guy down the street."
Think of how much damage to his campaign Obama could have avoided if he'd left Trinity two years ago. Think of all the lies and cover-ups Obama could have avoided if he'd totally separated himself from Ayers after getting elected to the US Senate. Why didn't he do that?
Because he's loyal? Don't make me laugh.
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