Obama's Truthfulness in Question

Obama's Truthfulness in Question

By Ruben Navarrette - October 15, 2008

SAN DIEGO -- Any day now, I expect Barack Obama to call a news conference, wag his finger to the cameras, and announce with all the sincerity he can muster: "I did not have a substantive relationship with that Weatherman, Mr. Ayers."

Of course, the way things are going, Obama may not have to lift a finger, let alone wag one. He might be able to run out the clock and avoid comment on continuing questions involving his involvement with a Hyde Park neighbor and unrepentant domestic terrorist, William Ayers.

Saying nothing would be smart. And, up to now, with few exceptions, Obama has been pretty smart in dealing with the Ayers issue by trying to deflect questions, minimize the friendship and change the subject.

Obama did all three on April 16 when ABC's George Stephanopoulos brought up Ayers during a Democratic debate in Philadelphia and noted that Obama's campaign had acknowledged the men were "friendly."

In response, Obama casually described Ayers as simply "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" and certainly "not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis." Obama acknowledged that Ayers had "engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago" but insisted that this had nothing to with him and his values. Obama noted he is "also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate." He also criticized "this kind of game" where he is linked to the views of "anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is" and expressed confidence that "the American people are smarter than that."

At that same debate, Hillary Clinton was smart enough to keep her eye on the ball. She noted that Obama and Ayers had served on a board together and their relationship continued after Sept. 11, 2001, when Ayers was quoted in The New York Times as saying he wasn't sorry for planting bombs in the 1970s and wished he could have done more. Clinton also suggested the Obama-Ayers relationship was "an issue that people will be asking about" and one that "certainly the Republicans will be raising."

Have they?

Sarah Palin recently characterized Obama as "someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect ... that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country." But those comments wound up being twisted by the other side, as when Rep. John Lewis characterized them as some sort of racist attack, which was just another way to change the subject.

John McCain, to the frustration of supporters, hasn't spoken much about Ayers. That's because he's caught in an impossible position. If he ignores the issue, his base could lose enthusiasm for his candidacy. But if McCain makes Ayers an issue, he risks coming across as out of touch with the concerns of everyday Americans, which at the moment have less to do with an aging leader of the Weather Underground than with how to survive the economic storm we're facing. Beyond the Republican fringe -- the sheltered folks who stand up at McCain-Palin rallies and declare Obama "scary" and insist that he is "an Arab" -- no one cares much about Ayers.

Having said that, here is what the voters should care about: Obama's truthfulness, which is now in question. Over the last few months, we've learned that Obama and Ayers had more than just a "flimsy" relationship that included Ayers hosting a political gathering at his home for Obama when he was running for the Illinois Senate and the two serving together on various panels and boards. Ayers was also a founder of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school-reform group. Obama served as chairman of its board from 1995 to '99, using the position to launch his political career.

Recently, Obama pulled back the curtain an inch. He told reporters that, during his association with Ayers, he had heard about the English professor's radical past but assumed Ayers had been rehabilitated. Ayers' ghoulish comments about not setting enough bombs suggest otherwise.

I put no stock in the politics of guilt by association. And even associating with ghouls should not hurt someone's bid for the presidency. But lying about it is another story. It could be a warning of things to come.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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