In 1952, when McCarthyism was at its height, Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas labeled the investigative techniques of the junior senator from Wisconsin “guilt by association” (Adler v. Board of Education). Douglas added that McCarthyite tactics were “repugnant to our society” because, despite the absence of any overt wrongdoing, the pasts of those attacked were “combed for signs of disloyalty” and for utterances that might be read as “clues to dangerous thoughts.”
More than a half century later, “McCarthyism” was joined in the lexicon by “Swiftboating,” the art of the smear campaign mounted with the intention not of documenting a wrong, but of covering the victim with slime enough to cast doubt on his or her integrity. Now, in 2008, after a primary season increasingly marked by dirty pool and low blows, “McCarthyism” and “Swiftboating” have come together in a particularly lethal and despicable form. I refer to the startling revelation — proclaimed from the housetops by both the Clinton and McCain campaigns — that Barack Obama ate dinner at William Ayers’s house, served with him on a board and was the honored guest at a reception he organized.
Confession time. I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers’s house (more than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to an offer from Harvard. Of course, I’m not running for anything, but I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in the eyes of some to get me canned.
Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven’t asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since repented), and he hasn’t asked me to forgive him for his (if he has any).
Indeed in all the time I spent with Ayers and Dohrn, politics — present or past — never came up.
What did come up? To answer that question I have to introduce a word and concept that is somewhat out of fashion: the salon. A salon is a gathering in a private home where men and women from various walks of life engage in conversation about any number of things, including literature, business, fashion, films, education and philosophy. Ayers and Dohrn did not call their gatherings salons, but that’s what they were; large dinner parties (maybe 12-15), with guests coming and going, one conversation leading to another, no rules or obligations, except the obligation to be interesting and interested. The only thing I don’t remember was ideology, although since this was all going on in Hyde Park, there was the general and diffused ideology, vaguely liberal, that usually hangs over a university town.
Many of those attending these occasions no doubt knew something about their hosts’ past, but the matter was never discussed and why should it have been? We were there not because of what Ayers and Dohrn had done 40 years ago, but because of what they were doing at the moment.
Ayers is a longtime professor of education at UIC, nationally known for his prominence in the “small school” movement. Dohrn teaches at Northwestern Law School, where she directs a center for child and family justice. Both lend their skills and energies to community causes; both advise various agencies; together they have raised exemplary children and they have been devoted caretakers to aged parents. “Respectable” is too mild a word to describe the couple; rock-solid establishment would be more like it. There was and is absolutely no reason for anyone who knows them to plead the fifth or declare, “I am not now nor have I ever been a friend of Bill’s and Bernardine’s.”
Least of all Barack Obama, who by his own account didn’t know them that well and is now being taken to task for having known them at all. Of course it would have required preternatural caution to avoid associating with anyone whose past deeds might prove embarrassing on the chance you decided to run for president someday. In an earlier column, I spoke of the illogic of holding a candidate accountable for things said or done by a supporter or an acquaintance. Now a candidate is being held accountable for things said and done four decades ago by people who happen to live in his upper middle class neighborhood.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain should know better. In fact, they do know better....
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Stanley Fish | Think Again | New York Times Blog: