Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Does Obama’s Past Matter?

President Barack Obama’s past has come up several times in the national debate. Is this a legitimate issue?

The disreputable pasts of other presidents have been noticed in other campaigns. President Bill Clinton, some people recall, had a “bimbo”problem. President John Kennedy had serious health problems, and he also wandered from his marriage vows. President Nixon may not have been a crook, but his politics was not always straight and narrow.

Mr. Obama’s past has been examined since he has been in office. It turns out the book that introduced him to the American public,“Dreams of My Father,” was not, as many people supposed at the time it was issued, a strictly factual production. There are huge chunks of Mr. Obama’s past that are only fleetingly touched upon in his supposed autobiography. Many of the incidents in the book, it appears on close examination, are fictional; some of the characters in the book are “composites.”

We assume, as a matter of course, that all people are influenced by their friends and acquaintances, which is why your mother warned you when you were a wayward teenager, “You are judged by the company you keep.”She didn’t want you running around with the street thugs of your misspent youth. “People will talk,’ she warned.

Some of the people who talk about presidents are journalists and commentators.

Among the past friends and acquaintances of Mr. Obama is Bill Ayres, a flag stomping former terrorist who, reminded of his own bomb throwing past, expressed regret that that he and his former comrades in the Weather Underground of the silly seventies were not more energetic. Mr. Ayres was quoted in a New York Times interview on the occasion of the publication of his memoir, ''Fugitive Days'', as saying, "I don't regret setting bombs" and "I feel we didn't do enough", and, asked if he would do it all over again -- "I don't want to discount the possibility.”

Mr. Obama claimed that his acquaintance with Mr. Ayres was fleeting and unimportant, a characterization some question. Their putatively historically “accurate” autobiographies are both larded with fictitious characters and episodes. Mr. Obama recovered politically from his momentary alliance with Mr. Ayres -- the publisher of “Prairie Fire,” a communist manifesto -- who also recovered from his disreputable past. Presently, Mr. Ayres is a celebrated pedagogue, a follower of Paulo Frere, author of “The Pedagogy of the Oppressed," a book that had a certain revolutionary cachet in the post Woodstock era and was thought by some to have ushered in decades of educational destruction.

Mr. Obama, whose political career was launched from Mr. Ayres’ living room, obviously was not judged by the company he kept with Mr. Ayres. Mr. Obama’s much longer and more emotionally involved connection with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, a black power preacher who claimed that the U.S. government “invented the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color,” apparently left no permanent marks on his reputation. Such associations obviously did not harm Mr. Obama’s presidential prospects. Both the title of Mr. Obama’s less literary opus, “The Audacity of Hope,” and his keynote address to the Democratic National Convention were inspired by Mr. Wright’s racialist effusions.

Not only past associations but commanding ideas bounce harmlessly off Mr. Obama’s politician-made-of-steel chest.

The thesis of a new documentary by Dinesh D’Souza, “2016 Obama’s America,” is that Mr. Obama is wedded to an overmastering idea: “He simply subscribes to an ideology that thinks it would be good for America to have a diminished economy and a diminished role in the world. In other words, Obama is all about what he perceives as global justice. And global justice to him means a redistribution of wealth and power away from America and towards the rest of the world. That’s his ideology.”

Mr. Obama’s favorable presidential fortune may be the best proof that mom’s warning – you will be judged by the company you keep – is simply an ancient relic of hallowed times past. The dust of ages has long since settled over both Mr. Ayres and Mr. Wright. But polls showing that some of the fizz has gone out of Mr. Obama’s bottle and Mr. D’Souza’s film, the #2 largest grossing documentary of all time, suggests Mr. Obama may be vulnerable.

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