A Primer on Palin and Ayers: Or, Let’s Not Folk This Up

[x-posted at Gelf]

Lately, people have been paying a lot of attention to Sarah Palin’s words (or “verbage“), and one of her favorite talking points has been Bill Ayers and his ties to Barack Obama. Back in August, I wrote an essay for Gelf on Obama, Ayers, and the documentary The Weather Underground, arguing that the overlooked film offered “a complicated sketch of a complicated problem.” I want to look at Palin’s take on Ayers, but first, in case you’re one of those late-breaking, unicorn-riding “uninformed voters,” let’s sketch the history of the Obama/Ayers issue.

As early as February, the Clinton campaign sent out emails on Ayers, with spokesman Phil Singer ominously wondering “what the Republicans will do with this.” It first exploded, however, at ABC’s April 16 Democrat debate. When George Stephanopoulos raised Ayers, Obama distanced himself from both the man and the “game” of invoking “flimsy” relationships. Hillary called this “a fair general statement” and then pounced: “But I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers,” adding that Ayers’s unrepentant attitude was “deeply hurtful . . . to every American.” The next day, another Clinton spokesman, Howard Wolfson, went further: “Bill Ayers hosted an event for Senator Obama when he was running for state senate. . . . We’re not talking about whether Senator Obama ran into somebody at an ice cream store in Hyde Park.” (And, yes, that link is to the National Review‘s “The Corner”—even in April, Republicans were tracking this Ayers story more closely than Democrats, and understandably so. Less understandable is why “The Corner” has produced more than 500 posts on “Obama + Ayers” to date.)

For his part, John McCain declined to comment on Obama and Ayers in early April, but that changed after the ABC debate. In fact, on the April 20 This Week with George Stephanopoulos, McCain brought it up unprompted: for Obama to “associate and have as a friend and serve on a board and have a guy kick off your campaign that says he’s unrepentant,” said McCain, “that’s an attitude, frankly, that certainly isn’t in keeping with the overall attitude of the American people.” Since then, the McCain campaign has continued mentioning Ayers, though not as frequently or systematically as one might expect. (For example, their September ad connecting Obama to Chicago’s political scene doesn’t include Ayers.) Also, there have been outside attempts to link Obama and Ayers, both journalistic—Stanley Kurtz’s fizzled article in the Wall Street Journal—and otherwise—a privately-financed $2 million ad buy for a Swift-boatish commercial.

This brings us to early October, when all hell broke loose. Oddly enough, the second round of Obama-Ayers coverage began with an October 3 New York Times piece about their intersections in Chicago’s local politics scene. This is odd because the article made it clear that the relationship was tenuous at best, and also because Sarah Palin doesn’t really read newspapers. Still, on the campaign trail, Sarah Palin reignited the issue, and her comments have attracted far more attention from public and press. There are three obvious explanations for this: 1) it’s Palin, who always attracts more attention; 2) it’s October, with time running out and voters tuning in; 3) it’s consistent, with Palin raising the issue four days in a row.

What exactly has she raised? Here, courtesy of the McCain campaign, is Palin’s statement from October 4: “Turns out, one of [Obama’s] earliest supporters is a man who, according to The New York Times, was a domestic terrorist. . . . This is not a man who sees America as you and I do—as the greatest force for good in the world. This is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.” Now, you can parse this several ways—for starters, we’re talking about only one terrorist, Ayers—but what’s important is that Palin’s content parallels McCain’s, and even Hillary’s. In all three cases, Obama and Ayers are hammered for their early involvement and their difference from, in McCain’s words, “the overall attitude of the American people.”

Despite the similarities between Hillary, McCain, and Palin, it’s the latter’s attacks that are really registering—and here we return to Palin’s words. An additional reason for the effectiveness of Palin’s attacks, I think, is her use of  “pals around.” Plenty of people have noted Palin’s increasingly folksy behavior—we’ve zoomed past Fargo and into Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. territory—and this locution is a perfect example. Presumably, one “pals around” at hockey games, and that’s exactly why it’s such a damning phrase.

I expect Palin to repeat these charges for the foreseeable future, just as she did on October 6 in Clearwater, Florida. Helpfully, the Federal News Service recorded a complete transcript of this event; it’s even peppered with “(Boos)” and “(Applause),” giving the impression that it was filmed before a live studio audience. Palin’s speech contains more homespun wisdom (“You can do the math or go with your gut”) and an answer for her non-answer on what she reads (“Really in that interview I was just getting really impatient because I was so convinced that Americans want to hear about the issues”). But it’s worth noting that Palin has tightened up her “pals around” line, which now reads “work with a former domestic terrorist” (my emphasis). Whether her original words were spontaneous or premeditated, sloppy or precise, they’ve done their damage.

About Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is a Ph.D. student in Yale’s English department and a freelance writer. He's working on a book about presidents and their books [more] . . .
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