The Magazine

Dueling Redbaiters

Which candidate is the real leftist?

May 26, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 35 • By RONALD RADOSH
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As the Democratic primaries near their end, supporters of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have used a time-honored yet unexpected device to attack each other: old-fashioned redbaiting.

At the Philadelphia presidential debate in April, George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his relationship with the Weather Underground terrorist Bill Ayers, who with his comrades bombed several government buildings in the 1970s. Obama protested that he knew Ayers as a neighbor and professor of English (actually, he teaches education) whose "detestable acts" when Obama was eight were no reflection on "me and my values."

But as soon as it was her turn to speak, Obama's opponent piled on. Ayers and Obama had served together on the board of the Wood Foundation in "a paid directorship position," noted Clinton. It was legitimate to raise questions about their relationship, she insisted, since Ayers's bombings had resulted in people's deaths. This line of attack may have been shortsighted on Clinton's part, considering that her husband pardoned two imprisoned members of the Weather Underground before leaving office, but the Clinton campaign didn't back off.

Before you could say Comrade, Clinton's close adviser Sidney Blumenthal was emailing out blog posts, articles, and reports from a wide array of conservative sources. Blumenthal's missives went to "an influential list of opinion shapers--including journalists, former Clinton administration officials, academics, policy entrepreneurs, and think tankers," as the left-wing activist and professor Peter Dreier reported on the Huffington Post (May 1).

This was shocking in its own way.Blumenthal, the very man who coined the term "vast right-wing conspiracy," Dreier noted, by circulating articles from the conservative media, was attempting to exploit "that same right-wing network to attack and discredit Barack Obama."

Blumenthal sent out pieces from the ultra-conservative Accuracy in Media (AIM)--"With Obama, It's the Communism, Stupid," "Obama and the Fifth Column," "Is Barack Obama a Marxist Mole?"--as well as items from more mainstream conservative publications, such as a Fred Siegel cover story from National Review, Fred Barnes's "Republicans Root for Obama" from THE WEEKLY STANDARD, and an older City Journal article by Sol Stern reporting Bill Ayers's current role in developing a radical curriculum for K-12 teachers ("Ayers's texts on the imperative of social-justice teaching are among the most popular works in the syllabi of the nation's ed schools and teacher-training institutes").

Particularly grating to Obama supporters was Blumenthal's airing of AIM's allegation that Obama had sought to hide the influence a Communist mentor had on him as a young man. In his memoir, Dreams From My Father, Obama mentions a certain "Frank," a black poet friend of his white grandfather's who was a "contemporary of Richard Wright and Langston Hughes" and had once had "some notoriety." Frank gave the young Barack some "hard-earned knowledge" (such as that "black people have a reason to hate. That's just how it is"). As Obama set off for college, Frank told him that college was "an advanced degree in compromise" and that he should not "start believing what they tell you about equal opportunity and the American way."

It was easy for students of American communism to figure out that this was Frank Marshall Davis, a Chicago writer and Communist activist who moved to Hawaii in the late 1940s. That Davis sought to advise the young Obama as he prepared to leave home hardly proves that Davis was a major influence on Obama or that the young man accepted his Communist views. Obama's withholding of Davis's full name, however, does suggest that he worried it might cause him problems in his political career--as if Davis were another difficult uncle like Jeremiah Wright.

At one time, left/liberal people would have vigorously objected to all this redbaiting. But Obama's supporters responded in kind. Hadn't Clinton opened the door, as Bill Ayers's brother argued on the Huffington Post (April 17), by engaging in "the most base version of McCarthyism"? If Obama had left-wing connections in his youth, why not bring forward Clinton's own hidden past? Let's see who the real leftist is!