When William F. Buckley Jr. died in February, one of the things widely praised, by liberals and others, was his stalwart insistence on moral hygiene. Even when his conservative movement was small and embattled, he rejected the temptation to join forces with anti-Semites, the John Birch Society and other extremists. Later, he disavowed longtime confederates Pat Buchanan and Joseph Sobran for the sin of bigotry.
Buckley knew the importance of choosing allies carefully. But some people who expect such care from conservatives don’t practice it themselves.
Among many liberals, extremism in the defense of "social justice" is no vice. When the folk singer Pete Seeger got a medal by President Clinton, no one cared that he was a veteran apologist for Stalin who still regarded himself as a communist. That indifference betrayed a double standard that conscientious liberals should reject.
By that standard, Barack Obama is a liberal, but not a conscientious one. I don’t much care if he declines to wear a flag pin; I can overlook his wife’s limited capacity for patriotic pride; and I defended his relationship with his former pastor. But his comfortable association with an unrepentant former terrorist should induce queasiness in anyone who shares the humane values that Obama extols.
When the issue came up in Wednesday’s Democratic debate, the Illinois senator tried to duck it. "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 said. He added that to suggest "knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense."
Obama went on, "I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who during his campaign once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions. Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements?"
This exercise in moral equivalence is unconvincing, if not dishonest. Would Obama be friendly with someone who actually bombed abortion clinics and defends that conduct? Not likely. But he is friendly with William Ayers, a leader of the radical Weather Underground, which in the 1970s carried out numerous bombings, including one inside the U.S. Capitol. (Though the last person who should object is Hillary Clinton, whose husband pardoned two Weather Underground members.)
Obama minimized his relationship by acknowledging only that he knows Ayers. But they have quite a bit more of a connection than that. He’s appeared on panels with Ayers, served on a foundation board with him and held a 1995 campaign event at the home of Ayers and his wife, fellow terrorist Bernardine Dohrn. Ayers even gave money to one of his campaigns.
It’s not as though Ayers and Dohrn have denied or repudiated their crimes. After emerging from years in hiding, they escaped federal prosecution because of government misconduct in gathering evidence, but they don’t pretend they were innocent. In 2001, Ayers said, "I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough."
Dohrn has likewise rationalized the explosions, claiming that "our acts of resistance were tiny and symbolic." She even went to prison for refusing to testify about an armored car robbery involving her confederates. That crime was not tiny or symbolic to the two police officers or the security guard who were shot to death in the process.
All this is public record, and Barack Obama would have to be in a coma not to know it. Yet he showed no qualms about consorting with Ayers and Dohrn.
It’s hard to imagine he would be so indulgent if we learned that John McCain had a long association with a former Klansman who used to terrorize African-Americans. Obama’s conduct exposes a moral blind spot about these onetime terrorists, who get a pass because they a) fall on the left end of the spectrum and b) haven’t planted any bombs lately.
You can tell a lot about someone from his choice of friends. What this friendship reveals is that when it comes to practicing sound moral hygiene, Obama has work to do and no interest in doing it.