Thursday, November 13, 2008

They can't let it go, the Bill Ayers thing

They, in this case being Wolf Blitzer and Sarah Palin, as reported by Rachel Weiner in Palin Attacks Obama Over Ayers Yet Again On CNN Huffington Post 11/12/08. At the risk of sounding like I'm partially defending that rightwing fanatic neo-Confederate theocrat Palin, it's Blitzer who brings it up in the passage Weiner quotes:

BLITZER: Because, you know, during a campaign, every presidential campaign, things are said, it's tough, as you well know, it gets sometimes pretty fierce out there. And during the campaign, you said this, you said: "This is not a man who sees America as you see it and how I see America."

And then you went on to say: "Someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he is palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."

PALIN: Well, I still am concerned about that association with Bill Ayers. And if anybody still wants to talk about it, I will, because this is an unrepentant domestic terrorist who had campaigned to blow up, to destroy our Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol. That's an association that still bothers me.

And I think it's still fair to talk about it. However the campaign is over. That chapter is closed. Now is the time to move on and to, again, make sure that all of us are doing all that we can to progress this nation.

Keep us secure, get the economy back on the right track, and many of us do have some ideas on how to do that and hopefully we'll be able to put all of that wisdom and experience to good use together.

BLITZER: So looking back, you don't regret that tough language during the campaign?

PALIN: No, and I do not think that it is off-base nor mean-spirited, nor negative campaigning to call someone out on their associations and on their record. And that's why I did it. [my emphasis]
Right now, the media pod people are trashing Palin, although a competing narrative is already peeking its way through the cloud of scorn, saying that everybody is underestimating the White Princess' political talents.

It's important for Democrats not to let our unavoidable shadenfreude over seeing Palin ridiculed by the Pod Pundits who normally put most of their energy into trashing Democrats.

But it shouldn't distract us from the fact that our national political press is flat-on-its-face dysfunctional. The full transcript is available at CNN-The Situation Room Transcripts. But it's Wolf Blitzer who bring up Bill Ayers in the question.

She was happy to pick up the cue, because for the hard right, they love talking about Obama the Terrorists' Pal. But at least in the section quoted by Weiner, Palin shows her usual level of concern for facts.

But before getting into that, not only does Blitzer not challenge her on easily identifiable misstatements in response to his question. He and his Establishment cohorts generally have been unwilling to do the kind of serious investigations they needed to be doing into her association with radical, theocratic religious groups that encourage they supporters to deep their more theocratic beliefs secret in order to win power in secular institutions like the Republican Party. Nor did they provide the kind of focus needed on Palin's close public association right up into 2008 with the far-right, neo-Confederate, explicitly anti-American Alaskan Independence Party, an affiliate of the radical-Christianist Constitution Party. And, as Palin told Wolf, it isn't "off-base nor mean-spirited, nor negative campaigning to call someone out on their associations and on their record".

But the press has focused a lot of attention on her clothes. Maureen Dowd has so far devoted significant portions of three of her high-profile New York Times columns to that pressing topic.

For those who are interested, In These Times has published a post-election column by Bill Ayers himself addressing the controversy over his loose association with the President-elect, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been 11/07/08. He states an obvious fact when he writes, "I became a prop, a cartoon character created to be pummeled." Most of his comments about the state of politics are pretty vague. Understandably so, since the Republicans, the Democrats and the press made him a national pariah this year. He probably doesn't want to embarrass anyone by too closely associating himself publicly with them. (By the way, he has his own blog. Doesn't everybody?)

It could also be he's just saying what he thinks. But he does mention someone, though not by name, that he has been "pallin' around with", as Palin put it:

My voicemail filled up with hate messages. They were mostly from men, all venting and sweating and breathing heavily. A few threats: "Watch out!” and “You deserve to be shot.” And some e-mails, like this one I got from “I’m coming to get you and when I do, I’ll water-board you.”

The police lieutenant who came to copy down those threats deadpanned that he hoped the guy who was going to shoot me got there before the guy who was going to water-board me, since it would be most foul to be tortured and then shot. (We have been pals ever since he was first assigned to investigate threats made against me in 1987, after I was hired as an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.) [my emphasis]
Which brings us to Palin's ongoing accusation that Blitzer solicited from her. So far as I'm aware, Bill Ayers has been a law-abiding citizen for at least the last 25 years or more. (See Thomas Frank, My Friend Bill Ayers Wall Street Journal 10/15/08.) I'm not certain whether Ayers' much-alluded-to comment about doing more refers to wishing he had done more bombing with the Weather Underground (WU). I have seen him say in a documentary that he wishes they had done more to stop the Vietnam War.

So maybe it's technically correct for Palin to call him an "unrepentant ... terrorist", though I don't really think it's fair.

But it's simply not true what Republicans - and at on at least one occasion, Hillary Clinton - said about him and the WU, that they killed Americans. Or what Palin says to Blitzer above, that they sought to "blow up, to destroy our Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol". They never attempted to blow up the entire Capitol or Pentagon, which is the literal meaning of Palin's claim to Blitzer. And it's not right, at least from my point of few, of falsely accusing someone of killing people.

You can think Ayers and the other members of the WU were ten kinds of scumbags when their group was active. And they did plant bombs in the Capitol building, the Pentagon, the State Department and other public buildings. But they were not trying to randomly kill people in those buildings, which is what the word "terrorism" most likely conjures to most Americans these days. On the contrary, they went out of their way to avoid injuring or killing anyone, setting their bombs to go off at night and issuing warnings before the blasts were timed to occur.

Could they have killed people? Sure. It was risky and in the eyes of virtually everyone in the US at the time, it was irresponsible and reckless. But the only people that were ever killed in the course of the WU's actions were two of their own members who died when a bomb they were constructed unexpectedly detonated.

Ayers in his column also makes a pretty straightforward Jeffersonian observation about the kind of "culture war" pariah image they hung on him and tried to hang on Obama:

Obama has continually been asked to defend something that ought to be at democracy’s heart: the importance of talking to as many people as possible in this complicated and wildly diverse society, of listening with the possibility of learning something new, and of speaking with the possibility of persuading or influencing others.

The McCain-Palin attacks not only involved guilt by association, they also assumed that one must apply a political litmus test to begin a conversation. ...

In a robust and sophisticated democracy, political leaders - and all of us - ought to seek ways to talk with many people who hold dissenting, or even radical, ideas. Lacking that simple and yet essential capacity to question authority, we might still be burning witches and enslaving our fellow human beings today. [my emphasis]
Which gets back to the point of why real journalism could have been valuable in reporting on the accusation involved Ayers. Reports that elaborated their actions accurately and described their political theory would have highlighted the fact that Obama has never involved himself with such an approach to politics. And I would be astonished if they could have found footage of even one Democratic member of Congress at the time expressing even remote sympathy for Weather Underground bombings.

Decent reports would have also described the fact that the Weather Underground, for all the attention they attracted, were a small group with minimal support even among those who were passionate antiwar activists. In fact, if the interviews in the documentary The Weather Underground (2003) convey an accurate picture, the group members themselves came to some kind of consensus in the mid-to-late 1970s that they had been mistaken in their approach of symbolic bombings. And that they had badly misread the political climate in America.

And, again assuming a fantasy world of competent professional journalism by our leading press outlets, such an approach to the story might have taught people something about terrorism. It would actually be interesting to hear what some of the former WU members have to say about the murderous Islamic terrorism of today. Who knows? They might actually have useful insights! And it would actually surprise me if they haven't had terrorism experts from government agencies attempt to talk to them about that very subject.

But our Wolf Blitzers think they have fulfilled their journalistic mission if they report what one side says and then what the other side says. And the "two sides" - more than that are very difficult for our reporters to manage - in this matter were Republicans and Democrats. Republicans had the incentive to make Bill Ayers sound as sinister as possible. While Democrats had an incentive to distance Obama from Ayers, not to encourage a fact-based discussion of the actual history involved. Because the latter could easily have been spun during the election as "defending" the WU's actions in the 1970s.

So to me, the real story here is not that rightwing fanatic Palin is still repeating her rightwing fanatic trash talk from the campaign. That's strictly "dog bites man" kind of news. The real story to which Democrats should be paying attention is the continuing dysfunction of the national press corps. A dysfunction that rarely helps the interests of Democrats more than those of Republicans.

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