As the Democratic primaries near their end, supporters of both Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama have used a time-honored yet unexpected device to
attack each other: old-fashioned redbaiting.
At the Philadelphia
presidential debate in April, George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his
relationship with the Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, who with his
comrades bombed several government buildings in the 1970s. Obama protested that
he knew Ayers as a neighbor and professor of English (actually, he teaches
education) whose "detestable acts" when Obama was eight were no
reflection on "me and my values."
But as soon as it was her turn to speak, Obama's opponent piled on. Ayers
and Obama had served together on the board of the Wood Foundation in "a
paid directorship position," noted Clinton.
It was legitimate to raise questions about their relationship, she insisted,
since Ayers's bombings had resulted in people's deaths. This line of attack may
have been shortsighted on Clinton's part, considering that her husband pardoned
two imprisoned members of the Weather Underground before leaving office, but
the Clinton campaign didn't back off.
Before you could say Comrade, Clinton's
close adviser Sidney Blumenthal was emailing out blog posts, articles, and
reports from a wide array of conservative sources. Blumenthal's missives went
to "an influential list of opinion shapers--including journalists, former
Clinton administration officials, academics, policy entrepreneurs, and think
tankers," as the left-wing activist and professor Peter Dreier reported on
the Huffington Post (May 1).
This was shocking in its own way. Blumenthal, the very man who coined the
term "vast right-wing conspiracy," Dreier noted, by circulating
articles from the conservative media, was attempting to exploit "that same
right-wing network to attack and discredit Barack Obama."
Blumenthal sent out pieces from the ultra-conservative Accuracy in Media
(AIM)--"With Obama, It's the Communism, Stupid," "Obama and the
Fifth Column," "Is Barack Obama a Marxist Mole?"--as well as
items from more mainstream conservative publications, such as a Fred Siegel
cover story from National Review, Fred Barnes's "Republicans Root
for Obama" from THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and an older City Journal
article by Sol Stern reporting Bill Ayers's current role in developing a radical
curriculum for K-12 teachers ("Ayers's texts on the imperative of
social-justice teaching are among the most popular works in the syllabi of the
nation's ed schools and teacher-training institutes").
Particularly grating to Obama supporters was Blumenthal's airing of AIM's
allegation that Obama had sought to hide the influence a Communist mentor had
on him as a young man. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama
mentions a certain "Frank," a black poet friend of his white
grandfather's who was a "contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston
Hughes" and had once had "some notoriety." Frank gave the young
Barack some "hard-earned knowledge" (such as that "black people
have a reason to hate. That's just how it is"). As Obama set off for
college, Frank told him that college was "an advanced degree in
compromise" and that he should not "start believing what they tell
you about equal opportunity and the American way."
It was easy for students of American communism to figure out that this was
Frank Marshall Davis, a Chicago writer and
Communist activist who moved to Hawaii
in the late 1940s. That Davis sought to advise
the young Obama as he prepared to leave home hardly proves that Davis was a major
influence on Obama or that the young man accepted his Communist views. Obama's
withholding of Davis's full name, however, does
suggest that he worried it might cause him problems in his political career--as
if Davis were
another difficult uncle like Jeremiah Wright.
At one time, left/liberal people would have vigorously
objected to all this redbaiting. But Obama's supporters responded in kind.
opened the door, as Bill Ayers's brother argued on the Huffington Post
(April 17), by engaging in "the most base version of McCarthyism"? If
Obama had left-wing connections in his youth, why not bring forward Clinton's own hidden
past? Let's see who the real leftist is!
First to attack was New Left elder statesman Tom Hayden, who told readers of
the Nation magazine's website (April 22) that Clinton herself had been
as far left as one could get. And unlike Obama, she did not have the excuse of
being eight years old when the New Left radicals were in their prime. Hayden
revealed that Hillary "was in Chicago for
three nights during the 1968 street confrontations" and that at Yale Law
School in 1970 she
chaired a meeting where students voted to join a national strike against the
Vietnam war. The same year, during the trial of Black Panther leader Bobby
Seale for murder, Clinton
oversaw Yale law students who were following the proceedings and looking for
signs of government misconduct. Most significantly, Hayden writes, Clinton went to work after law school for the San Francisco law firm
that defended the Panthers, led by Robert Treuhaft, a former member of the
Hayden, of course, sees these activities as "honorable" and asks a
simple question: "Doesn't the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whom Hillary attacks today,
represent the very essence of the black radicals Hillary was associating with
in those days?" Now she has become a "guilt-by-association
insinuator," who is "engaged in a toxic transmission onto Barack
Obama of every outrageous insult and accusation ever inflicted on her by the
American right." Furious at this betrayal, Hayden calls her "Lady
Hayden's sally was followed by one from Clinton's biographer Carl Bernstein on the Huffington
Post (May 2). What upset Bernstein was that Clinton was evading the truth about her own
past radical activities and associations.
These began at Wellesley,
Bernstein wrote, when "she exhibited an academic fascination with the Left
and radicalism." Later at Yale she was associate editor of an alternative
law review that depicted "policemen as pigs and murderers." Yet,
notes Bernstein, in her 2003 memoir, Clinton
breathed not a word of her activity on behalf of the Black Panthers, nor was
she honest about why she went to work for the Robert Treuhaft law firm.
Treuhaft told Bernstein that Clinton
came to the firm because it was a "Movement law firm" and she was
"in sympathy with all the Left causes." Treuhaft commented that back
then, "we still weren't very far out of the McCarthy era." Bernstein
adds, "And might still not be, to judge from the 2008 presidential
It is just as silly, Bernstein concludes, to tie Obama
to the Weather Underground as it is to call Clinton a Stalinist. Yet Bernstein and the
others have inadvertently opened up two legitimate lines of inquiry: What
remains of their old radical ideals in both candidates' present thinking, and
how far is each willing to go in exploiting the other's past? If scrutiny of
these matters is fair game for them, it can hardly be off limits for the press
and the voting public.