This commentary first appeared on the Huffington Post on May 2, 2008
For several weeks, the Clinton campaign has been distributing literature and disseminating incendiary notions -- which figured significantly in Pennsylvania, and are now central to the candidate's message in Indiana and North Carolina -- assailing Barack Obama for his association with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, the radical, violent organization responsible for bombing several government buildings in the early 1970s.
In their debate in Philadelphia, after moderator George Stephanoplous had raised the question of Obama's relationship with Ayers, Hillary Clinton elaborated on the subject, seeking to add to its significance:
SEN. CLINTON: ...I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York, and I would hope to every American, because they were published on 9/11 and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died. So it is -- you know, I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about.
Whether this is 21st century McCarthyism--as argued by several important commentators not publicly allied with Obama -- among them Stanley Fish in the New York Times (who has written several admiring columns about her candidacy) and Rick Hertzberg of the New Yorker -- is a matter readers will have to decide.
Whatever name it is called, Hillary Clinton, perhaps better than any contemporary political figure of our time, knows the insidious nature of this kind of guilt by association, for she (like Bill Clinton) has been a victim of it herself over a political lifetime.
Precisely because she knows the destructive power of such assertions and how unfair they can be, she has sought for a quarter-century to hide and minimize her own activities, associations, student fascination, and personal history with the radical Left. Those associations -- logical, explicable, and (her acolytes have always maintained) even character-building in the context of the times -- are far more extensive than any radical past that has come to be known about Barack Obama.
Which raises the question: Is the Clinton campaign's emphasis on the Ayers-Obama connection significantly different or less spurious than the familiar (McCarthyite?) smears against Hillary, particularly those promulgated and disseminated by the forces she labeled "the vast right-wing conspiracy" in the 1990s?
Like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton has (at least so far as this reporter and biographer has been able to determine) consistently rejected the ideological rigidity of the radical Left and -- especially -- the notion of revolutionary violence as a means of political change in contemporary America, despite claims to the contrary by the VRWC. Like Obama -- and John McCain for that matter -- she has valued her friendships with individuals who figured in the Left-wing and anti-war movements of the 60s and Vietnam era. And like Obama and McCain, she has never wavered from her belief and faith in establishment politics, within the two-party system.
But her past associations -- and her evasions about them -- may tell us much about the formation of Hillary Clinton, both as a product of her youthful time -- the sixties and seventies, when radical student movements and the anti-war movement were a hugely potent force on campus and in American politics generally -- and as a presidential candidate. The facts are fairly simple:
In the 60s, as an undergraduate at Wellesley, she exhibited an academic fascination with the Left and radicalism; rejected more extreme forms of political protest and violence as a student leader (there is no evidence I know that Obama has ever done anything but the same); wrote her senior thesis on the radical Chicago community-organizer Saul Alinsky (whose best-known philosophical mantra was, "Whatever works to get power to the people, use it."); and then, during the 1992 presidential campaign and White House years, insured that the thesis was locked up in the Wellesley archives and unavailable to reporters.
At Yale law school she embraced some leftist causes she perhaps wishes she hadn't today (the Black Panthers' claim that they couldn't get a fair trial, more about which later); worked in the most important radical law firm of the day -- Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, in Oakland, which represented the Communist Party and defended the Panthers in their murder trials; and became associate editor of an alternative law review at Yale which ran stories and pictures depicting policemen as pigs and murderers.
In her 2003 "memoir," Living History, Hillary mentions not a word about her role in the Panther trial in New Haven--during which she directed Yale law students monitoring the proceedings for evidence of government misconduct in its prosecution of the Panthers accused of murder. "It meant going in and out of the Black Panther headquarters to obtain documentation and other information," a classmate told Donnie Radcliff of the Washington Post, quoted in Hillary Rodham Clinton: A First Lady For Our Time. "Hillary's job was to organize shifts for her classmates and make certain no proceeding went unmonitored...[for] civil rights abuses..."
As for her summer at the law firm, Hillary's one-sentence mention of it in Living History gives the impression that Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein might as well been handling postal rate increases, rather than defending the Panthers, members of the communist party, and accepting cases that mainstream lawfirms were afraid to take -- particularly civil liberties cases -- in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. "I told Bill about my summer plans to clerk at Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein, a small law firm in Oakland California, and he soon said he would like to go to California with me."
That is the total verbiage expended on so formative an experience, and the lasting -- but distant friendship -- she maintained for the next twenty-some years with Bob Treuhaft and his wife, the muckraking journalist (and, like her husband) former communist party member Jessica Mitford.
"The reason she came to us," Treuhaft told me [the quotation is in my biography of Hillary Clinton, A Woman In Charge] "the only reason I could think of, because none of us knew her, was because we were a so-called "Movement law firm at the time. There was no reason except politics for a girl from Yale" to intern at the firm. "She certainly... was in sympathy with all the Left causes, and there was a sharp dividing line at the time. We still weren't very far out of the McCarthy era."
And might not still be, to judge from the 2008 presidential campaign.
In the 1980s, Jessica Mitford visited the Clintons at the governor's mansion in Little Rock. She and Treuhaft had left the communist party in 1958, years after the revelation of Stalin's murderous crimes, but -- Jessica Mitford wrote in her memoir, A Fine Old Conflict, she quit "not primarily over some issue of high principle, but because it had become dull....boring. Rather like London's debutante circuit."
When Jessica Mitford died in 1996, Hillary Clinton wrote Bob Treuhaft a lovely condolence letter from the White House, characteristically filled with the kind of heart-felt personal touches that the senator's friends have always remarked upon.
Which, of course, no more raises the question "Is Hillary Clinton a Stalinist?," or a communist sympathizer, than "Is Barack Obama a Weatherman?" or a weatherman sympathizer, because of his association with Bill Ayers.
Aside from the candidate herself, her prime-most abettor in pushing the Bill Ayers-Weatherman-Obama line is, inevitably, Sidney Blumenthal, who has also been distributing many other questionable allegations about Obama he has plucked from and disseminated to, at times, of all places--organs of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy.
As in the Clinton White House, where he was the archivist of the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy's plots, Blumenthal is no independent operator. He maintains an ongoing personal and strategic dialogue with his patrons, Hillary and Bill Clinton.
One of Hillary Clinton's most winning attributes -- and Bill Clinton's too -- has always been their understanding of the complexity of American politics, and the danger of ideological demagoguery (witness their fight against the "vast right-wing conspiracy" and excesses). The resort by Hillary and her campaign to guilt-by-association--of which the Bill Ayers allegations are but one example: see Louis Farrakhan, or a comparatively-obscure African-American writer and perhaps -- communist party member named Frank Marshal Dixon, whom Obama knew in high school in Hawaii -- is, even for some of her most steadfast advocates, particularly dismaying. Like Gov. Bill Richardson and Senator Christopher Dodd, among others who have abandoned the Clintons, many old Clinton hands had hoped, judging from Hillary's triumphant and collegial senate years, that she -- and Bill -- had left behind such tactics when the Clinton Presidency ended in 2001 and the Right-wing threat to the Clintons' tenure in the White House had abated.
"The sad irony," noted Jonathan Alter in Newsweek, "is that these are the same [guilt-by-association] attacks used against her husband in the elections of the 1990s. The GOP tried to destroy Bill Clinton for his relationships (much closer than Obama's tangential connections) with Arkansas crooks, sleazy fund-raisers and unsavory women. But 'The Man From Hope,' while seen as less honest than Bush or Bob Dole, bet that issues and uplift were more important to voters than his character. He won...."
"Shame on you, Barack Obama," said Hillary Clinton in Ohio, asserting that the Obama campaign had misrepresented her health-care plan.