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Barack Obama finds himself haunted by the '60s

April 17, 2008 |  3:40 am

Will the taint of the late 1960s and early '70s -- at least as it affects mainstream politics -- ever fade?

Barack Obama, who was grade-school age during the peak of the counter culture, could be excused for muttering that question to himself after Wednesday night's debate in Philadelphia on ABC-TV.

Throughout much of its first half, the faceoff with Hillary Clinton must have seemed like a root canal for him -- and no more so than when his links (however tenuous) to an extremist from the days when radicalism was often the norm on college campuses was explored.

William Ayers a onetime leader of the Weather Underground was the subject of a debate question directed at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama As we noted in a running blog on the debate, questioners Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos were in a no-win situation. After a period when it seemed there was a debate every other day, almost two months had passed since the last one.

Gibson and Stephanopoulos could have ignored the various furors that have flared -- and been thoroughly covered -- over that time. But they would have been widely scorned had they done so.

So they raised the expected topics (and, as a result, have been widely scorned anyway): Rev. Jeremiah Wright's rants; the non-existent sniping in Bosnia; "bittergate."

The unexpected came when Stephanopoulos, under what he termed "the general theme of patriotism," asked Obama about "a gentleman named William Ayers (pictured above and, as a young man, below). He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He's never apologized for that."

Ayers and his even more notorious wife, Bernadine Dohrn, were on the lam ...

from authorities for about 10 years. After various charges against them were either dropped or reduced, they became established parts of the progressive political scene in Chicago (both are college professors).

And they reside in Obama's neighborhood. Stephanopoulos noted that "an early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held" at their house "and your campaign has said you are 'friendly.' "

He asked Obama to "explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?"

Obama, who a moment before had complained about "manufactured" issues, responded: "George ... this is an example of what I've been 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 mug shot for William Ayers a leader of the Weather Underground acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George."

Obama had made his point and probably would have been well-advised to stop there. Instead, he struck a blow against bipartisanship by mentioning that he is friends with Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, who he termed "one of the most conservative Republicans" in the Senate and a politician who "once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions."

Continued Obama: "Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those, either.

"So this kind of game in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that somehow their ideas could be attributed to me, I think the American people are smarter than that. They're not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn't."

Clinton, seeing an opening, went through it, noting that Obama had served with Ayers on the board of a philanthropic education foundation in Chicago. And she mentioned that an article about Ayers, in which he said he did not regret setting off bombs, happened to run in the New York Times on 9/11.

Her blow landed, she added: "I know Sen. Obama's a good man and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising."

Well, yes ... and now with her imprimatur.

-- Don Frederick

Photo credits: Associated Press; Chicago Historical Society