What is the Significance of Obama's Ties to Ayers (and Wright?):
Here's my take: Obama is an extremely ambitious man. He's been interested in a national political career for many years. It's not that surprising that he wouldn't find Ayers and Wright objectionable company--in the very liberal, Hyde Park/Ivy League circles that he's traveled in since attending Columbia, people with such views are more mainstream than, say, the average conservative evangelical Christian. That itself makes Obama far more liberal than the image his campaign attempts to portray.
But what is interesting to me is that not only did Obama not personally find anything especially obnoxious about Wright's radicalism, anti-Americanism, ties to Farrakahn, and so on, or Ayers' lack of regret for his terrorist past, he apparently didn't expect that much of anyone else would care, either. How else do you explain why he didn't jettison these individuals from his life before they could damage his presidential ambitions? How else do you explain how his campaign seemed to be caught flatfooted when Obama's ties to Wright and then Ayers became campaign issues? And, perhaps most tellingly, how else do you explain that when Obama was asked in a debate with Clinton about his ties to Ayers, he analogized his friendship with Ayers to his friendship with Senator Tom Coburn, as if being friends with a very conservative senatorial colleague is somehow analogous with being friends with an unrepentant extreme leftist domestic terrorist?
In short, Obama's ties to Ayers and Wright suggest to me NOT that Obama agrees with their views, but that he is the product of a particular intellectual culture that finds the likes of Wright and Ayers to be no more objectionable, and likely less so, than the likes of Tom Coburn, or, perhaps, a Rush Limbaugh. Not only that, but he has been in his particular intellectual bubble so long that he was unable to recognize just how offensive the views of a Wright are to mainstream America, or how his ties to Ayers would play with the public, especially post-9/11.
Does that mean that Obama would be a bad president, or an extremist president? No, or at least, not necessarily. One 20th century president--Reagan--had a rather extreme worldview, but he was a good enough politician to govern reasonably close to the center, and have a successful presidency. Obama may have similar skills, though he lacks Reagan's advantage of having been an ideological convert from the other side. But in any event, he is clearly not the mainstream partisan of nonideological change that he is running as, and it at least seems worth pointing that out.
More on Obama as a Product of a Particular Liberal Culture:
On Saturday, I wrote that Obama's ties to Ayers and Wright, and his apparent lack of self-consciousness about these ties and how they might affect his political career, "suggest to me NOT that Obama agrees with their views, but that he is the product of a particular intellectual culture that finds the likes of Wright and Ayers to be no more objectionable, and likely less so, than the likes of Tom Coburn, or, perhaps, a Rush Limbaugh."
Some readers might be a bit mystified as to what I was getting at. Well, consider Obama's years at Harvard Law. I attended Yale Law School the same years that Obama attended Harvard, and I had friends at Harvard, so I have some idea about the general intellectual culture that the institution (which was not dissimilar to Yale's culture).
That culture considered extreme leftists (known as "progressives") to be within mainstream political discourse, but run-of-the-mill conservatives (known as "reactionaries") to be, at best, on the fringe. Consider that conservative lawyer and Obama Harvard Law classmate Brad Berenson praised Obama as president of the Harvard Law Review because "Whatever his politics, we felt he would give us a fair shake". Are there many places in America where mainstream conservatives like Berenson have had to worry about being treated fairly because of their politics, and where a "boss" will get praise simply for not treating them like pariahs? But Obama won support and praise simply for giving conservatives a "fair shake," with no question that people on the extreme left were entitled to such treatment.
Now consider Obama's answer when asked at a debate about Ayers:
"George, but this is an example of what I'm talking about. 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."
So, it seems that in Obama's mind, he's an open-minded guy because he's as willing to be friends with a law-abiding conservative Republican senator as with an extreme leftist unrepentant former domestic terrorist--just as he was considered open-minded at Harvard for treating a mainstream conservative Berenson as a non-pariah. It is this attitude that is a reflection of the political culture of elite liberal east coast schools, and liberal univeristy ghettos such as Hyde Park, and is also reflected in Obama's infamous "clinging to guns and religion" remark.
Being in the academy myself, I know many people who share Obama's outlook, or who are even more left-wing. Many of them are fine individuals, write thoughtful and interesting scholarship, are a pleasure to engage with in conversation, and respect my work and my ideas, even if they think some of my views are rather loony. Like them, Obama may very well be a fine, thoughtful, individual, willing to engage with people and ideas despite his natural instinct to recoil. But that doesn't mean I'd want to be governed by them, or him, and Obama's 100% liberal voting record in the Senate is likely a far better indication of his underlying ideology than his willingness to be polite to Berenson and Coburn.
UPDATE: For another take, see this piece by Jennifer Rubin. H/T--Instapundit.
FURTHER UPDATE: No, commenters, I haven't enjoyed being governed by Bush, the Republican Congress, or the Democratic Congress, and I'm not looking forward to a McCain Administration, either. But there's a good reason that liberals are especially excited by the prospect of Obama winning--he will be the first president to come out of the post-1970s elite liberal university culture that dominates modern liberalism, for better or for worse. Since this culture is antithetical in many (though not all) ways to my own views, I don't see any reason to share this enthusiasm.
Obama and Liberal Culture -- A Response to David B:
In his post below
, my co-blogger David Bernstein argues that Obama "is the product of a particular intellectual culture that finds the likes of Wright and Ayers to be no more objectionable, and likely less so, than the likes of Tom Coburn, or, perhaps, a Rush Limbaugh." I won't be voting for Obama in November, but I don't see the evidence that Obama is part of that "intellectual culture."
David offers two pieces of evidence in support of his claim. The first is that Obama went to Harvard Law School at a time when David went to Yale Law School, and in his experience Yale Law had such an intellectual culture. There are a bunch of problems with this argument, I think. The most obvious is that conservatives who worked with Obama at Harvard saw him as distinct from the "intellectual culture" that David describes. Unlike others, Obama gave conservatives a fair shake.
David uses the "fair shake" comment to effectively connect Obama to the fringe. He reasons that the comment shows that Obama was at a place where it was unusual to treat conservatives fairly. Thus, by implication, Obama is part of an intellectual culture that does not treat conservatives fairly. I think the more relevant point is that Obama himself stood out from that culture, though, not that he was a part of it.
Second, David notes that in distancing himself from Ayers, Obama pointed out that he was good friends with Tom Coburn. David construes that as effectively equating Ayers and Coburn. But I read Obama's comment very differently. In the first part of the answer, Obama distanced himself from Ayers. He then added one sentence about Coburn, which is this: "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."
Obama's sentence is inarticulate, because he does not say why this "fact" is relevant. If you read the entire quote in context, though, I think the most natural way to construe that comment is much more innocuous. Obama was just saying that a lot of people have taken crazy or disturbing views, and it makes no sense to assume from Obama's conections to that person that the person's crazy or disturbing views reflect Obama's values. He not only knows Tom Coburn, but he is actually a friend, and yet Coburn's comment in favor of killing abortion doctors doesn't somehow "rub off" on Obama. Similarly, the fact that he knows Ayers doesn't mean that Ayers' views "rub off," either. If you read the full answer to the question, I think you'll see that this is probably what he had in mind.
Like David, I think Obama is very liberal. My sense is that Obama is the most liberal major party candidate for President since George McGovern in 1972. Like David, I won't be voting for him. Still, I don't see the point of connecting Obama to radical views without evidence that Obama himself personally held them.
Response to Orin:
Orin suggests that I'm "connecting Obama to radical views." Well, connecting is a bit ambiguous, but I did specify quite strongly (and sincerely) that I don't think that Obama shares the views of people like Ayers or Wright.
I do, as Orin says, think that Obama is the product of a particular (and, to most Americans) peculiar liberal culture, centered in elite universities (like Obama's alma maters, Columbia and Harvard) and university towns (like Hyde Park), where the typical American political spectrum is skewed. Individuals who would be considered fringe leftists according to the ordinary spectrum are considered more-or-less mainstream "progressives," while run-of-the-mill conservatives are considered to be fringe "reactionaries."
Orin fails to note the best evidence I've presented that Obama is a product of that culture: his failure to recognize the harm that his association with Ayers, and his much closer association with Rev. Wright, could do to his presidential ambitions. These guys are mainstream figures in Hyde Park, and wouldn't raise many eyebrows in Cambridge or Morningside Heights, but they are toxic in most other parts of America.
Orin says that Obama proved himself not to be a product of that culture because he treated conservatives at Harvard fairly. But there is no inconsistency between treating someone fairly, and thinking that his views are on the fringe; this just shows Obama is a decent person.
Indeed, the praise heaped on Obama for treating conservatives fairly, if anything, suggests that he accepted the prevailing view about conservatives, but nevertheless treated them fairly. If Obama had rejected the prevailing culture, it would have been unremarkable that he would not treat conservatives like pariahs. Could you imagine someone saying of an old-fashioned, working-class style liberal like Tip O'Neill, "he showed his openmindedness by treating Republicans with the same respect as he treated members of the Communist Party, USA?"
Orin and I can agree to disagree about the significance of Obama's analogizing of Ayers' past as a Communist domestic terrorist to Coburn's present as a vehemently anti-abortion Senator. But, putting Ayers aside for a moment, I think it's clear that Obama thought that pointing out that he is willing to be friendly with a colleague who vehemently opposes abortion shows him to be an especially open-minded, non-judgmental guy.
Here's what doesn't compute for me. Even though I strongly believe that abortion should be legal, it has never occurred to me that the fact that I am friendly with various people who think that abortion is murder and want to criminalize it is a sign of special tolerance on my part. Perhaps that's because I realize that this position is fairly widely held in the United States, often by people who are sincere, thoughtful, and a far cry from the intolerant fanatical theological zealots of many pro-choicer's imagination (just look at what some have assumed about Sarah Palin, solely because of her anti-abortion views). That Obama would publicly state on his own behalf that "some my (not-so-best) friends" vehemently oppose abortion--even if he weren't analogizing this particular friend to an unrepentant terrorist--suggests to me that he is, indeed, a product of an insular liberal intellectual culture. (And let's not forget the attitude toward rural, less educated American who "cling to guns and religion).
UPDATE: By the way, while some pro-Obama commenters seem to think I'm being horribly unfair to Obama, commenters on right-wing blogs that linked my previous posts seem to think I'm being much too charitable for not recognizing Obama as the radical red they think he is. Some pro-Obama commenters have asked what the point is of these posts, if I'm not demonstrating that Obama is some horrible pro-terrorist monster. Well, whoever said that I thought Obama was a horrible pro-terrorist monster? And since when is it against blogging ethics to try to draw a reasonably subtle (critical) portrait of a presidential candidate? Obama is neither the leftist caricature that some critics assert, nor is he the postideological, nonpartisan advocate of change his campaign would like to portray.
A Reply to David:
Sorry to turn this blog briefly into the Orin/David show, but here's a quick response to David B's reply below
1) David B argues that his best evidence that Obama is a "product" of that culture is Obama's "failure to recognize the harm that his association with Ayers, and his much closer association with Rev. Wright, could do to his presidential ambitions." He writes: "These guys are mainstream figures in Hyde Park, and wouldn't raise many eyebrows in Cambridge or Morningside Heights, but they are toxic in most other parts of America."
I really don't get this argument. Barack Obama is the surprise Democratic nominee for President. (Recall that, a year ago, everyone thought Hillary would be the nominee.) Further, Obama now has a lead in the polls over his Republican rival with less than a month to go. If Obama actually made a calculation years ago about the impact of his connection with Ayers and Wright on his Presidential ambitions, as David imagines, isn't the best evidence that Obama was quite accurate in his calculation?
2) David next argues that " I think it's clear that Obama thought that pointing out that he is willing to be friendly with a colleague who vehemently opposes abortion shows him to be an especially open-minded, non-judgmental guy," and that anyone who thinks that being friends with someone who is pro-life is somehow notable is just out of the maintstream.
This argument misrepresents what Obama said. Obama did not point out Coburn because Coburn is pro-life. He pointed out Coburn because — in Obama's own words — Coburn "said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions." In other words, Coburn didn't just express the pro-life position. Rather, he advocated executing doctors who provide them. It is that view that Obama sees as outside the mainstream, not the view that providing abortions should be a crime.
UPDATE: In his update below, David states, "Obama is neither the leftist caricature that some critics assert, [but] nor is he the postideological, nonpartisan advocate of change his campaign would like to portray." I agree. At the same time, I don't understand what that has to do with his connections to Wright and Ayers or his view of Coburn. It seem to me that there is a lot of room for liberal partisanship beyond the "intellectual culture" of New Haven or Cambridge.
One More Reply to Orin:
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.
Which One of These Is Not Like the Other:
(Apologies once again to readers for occupying the main space with this exchange. Feel free to skip if you're not following it.) In response to David's "analogy game" below
, I'm just befuddled. As I explained earlier, Obama was making the point that he has personal relationships with other people who have views that he finds abhorrent, and that his personal relationship to them does not mean he agrees with their views. As an example, he picked his friend Senator Coburn, who has argued that abortion doctors should receive the death penalty.
In response, David points out that Obama could
have pointed out his personal relationship with three people Obama never met: John Brown, who died in 1859; Justice Hugo Black, who died when Obama was a boy; or Timothy McVeigh. What does it tell you, David asks, that Obama did not
choose Brown, McVeigh, or Black as examples of personal friends of his who have abhorrent views? Maybe I'm missing a trick question, but I'm guessing it tells you that he is not personal friends with them.
UPDATE: In his update below, David argues that Obama's comment is also objectionable because "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, 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." But why does it tell us that Obama lacks that understanding? In my experience, sometimes politicians running for office do not come out and say things that would hurt them with voters. They try to put the best spin on things, presumably on the theory that it will help them win the race. Given that, it seems a bit odd to say that Obama's failure to volunteer an adverse point must mean that he doesn't understand it, and that his failure to understand it shows how out of the mainstream he is.