Obama’s Ties to Left Come Under Scrutiny
February 19, 2008, 6:38 pm
Filed under: Obama's friends scare me

By RUSSELL BERMAN, Staff Reporter of the Sun

WASHINGTON – Senator Obama’s ties to a former leader of the violent left-wing activist group the Weather Underground are drawing new scrutiny as he battles Senator Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Senator Obama, a Democrat of Illinois, shakes hands with workers during a tour of the RMI Titanium Company yesterday, in Youngstown, Ohio.

As an Illinois state senator in 2001, Mr. Obama accepted a $200 contribution from William Ayers, a founding member of the group that bombed the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon during the 1970s.

Mr. Ayers wrote a memoir, “Fugitive Days,” published in 2001, and on the day of the September 11 terrorist attacks, he was quoted by the New York Times as saying: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

He and Mr. Obama served together on the nine-member board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago nonprofit, for three years beginning in 1999, and they have also appeared jointly on two academic panels, one in 1997 and another in 2001. Mr. Ayers, who was never convicted in the Weather Underground bombings, is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Ayers link, reported on Friday by Bloomberg News, has surfaced in recent days as Mr. Obama tries to add to his lead in the Democratic primary fight. He faces Mrs. Clinton today in a primary in Wisconsin and caucuses in Hawaii, after which they will prepare for critical elections in delegate-rich Ohio and Texas on March 4.

Reached at his office in Chicago yesterday, Mr. Ayers declined to comment on his relationship with Mr. Obama.

In a statement last night, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, William Burton, acknowledged the $200 contribution from Mr. Ayers, who he noted lived in Mr. Obama’s state Senate district and was once an aide to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. “Senator Obama strongly condemns the violent actions of the Weathermen group, as he does all acts of violence,” Mr. Burton said. “But he was an eight-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost 40 years ago is ridiculous.”

The Clinton campaign declined to comment on the Ayers tie, but the former first lady has argued that she is a stronger general election candidate because she has been “vetted” during her many years in the public eye and has successfully defeated sustained attacks from Republicans.

“Those are pretty slender ties to a controversial figure,” the dean of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs, David Birdsell, said of Mr. Obama’s links to Mr. Ayers. But it he said that may not matter if Mr. Obama is the nominee in a general election. “Will the GOP pick that up in the campaign? Sure,” he said.

The campaign of the likely Republican nominee, Senator McCain, declined to comment.

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee, Alex Conant, said that Mr. Obama would “have to answer questions about his Illinois record” if he wants to be commander-in-chief.

Republicans may not go after Mr. Obama directly on the Ayers issue, one party strategist said, but they are likely to portray the link as one in a series of Chicago ties that raise questions about his past. The Illinois senator has been dogged by his friendship with a Chicago developer, Antoin Rezko.

Before he can worry too much about Mr. McCain and the Republicans, however, Mr. Obama must deal with Mrs. Clinton, and that campaign has turned increasingly negative.

Yesterday the Clinton campaign accused Mr. Obama of plagiarism for lifting phrases for a speech he gave in Wisconsin on Saturday from a 2006 address by one of his top supporters, Governor Patrick of Massachusetts.

“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Mr. Obama said in his speech. ” ‘I have a dream’ – just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ – just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ – just words? Just speeches?”

Mr. Obama was responding to a criticism from Mrs. Clinton that while she offers “solutions,” he merely offers words and speeches. His language was nearly identical to that used by Mr. Patrick shortly before his election as governor.

” ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ – just words? Just words?” Mr. Patrick said then, before also quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy.

The Clinton campaign seized on the incident in a conference call with reporters, combining it with criticism of Mr. Obama for backing off a pledge to use public campaign financing during the general election. “If your campaign is premised on rhetoric and the rhetoric is not your own, and your campaign is premised on promises, and you are breaking them, there are problems,” a Clinton campaign spokesman, Howard Wolfson, said.

While Mr. Obama told reporters in Ohio yesterday that he “should have” credited Mr. Patrick, he also said: “I really don’t think this is too big of a deal.” His campaign manager, David Plouffe, told reporters in a conference call that the Clinton camp was “grasping at straws.”

The Obama campaign also sent out examples of instances in which Mrs. Clinton had copied phrases from him. A couple of the citations, such as her pledge to “bring the country together,” represented presidential campaign slogans that are hardly unique to Mr. Obama.


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