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Steve Weissman: Baiting Obama

Steve Weissman: Baiting Obama

By Steve Weissman
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Bill Ayers is one of the more interesting people I've known, and I would love to discuss how, in the heat of the Vietnam War, he went from running a Summerhill school in Anna Arbor to bombing government buildings as a leader of the Weather Underground. I could even explain why I thought then - and still think - that Bill was wrong to do so.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright is a provocative theologian, whose heated rhetoric bears a striking similarity to some of the later speeches of another black preacher, the Rev. Martin Luther King. We could all learn from studying King's words, and those of the Reverend Wright, and decide for ourselves where we agree and disagree.

White workers in the rust belt, whether bitter or offended, could similarly teach us a great deal, especially when political scoundrels such as Dick Cheney sing the praises of "Guns, Guts and Glory" as they send a disproportionate number of those hard-pressed workers, their sons and their daughters to fight and die for the freedom of Big Oil in Iraq.

But using "bittergate," Wright and Ayers to drag down Barack Obama has nothing to do with fair-minded debate and discussion. Nor is all this a needed vetting of Obama, as Hillary persists in saying. The current noise is nothing less than the predictable rebirth of an American political tradition. Call it redbaiting, witch-hunting or McCarthyism, the old slime is back and the reasons go far beyond the demands of Gotcha journalism and electoral combat.

As anyone addicted to surfing the web knows, right wing Internet web sites, Fox News, and right wing talk radio have for some time been smearing Obama as a secret Marxist, Leninist elitist, secret Muslim and hater of Israel. Many of the attacks have specifically raised the specter of Bill Ayers and the Reverend Wright. The poison reached The New York Times on April 14, when the neo-conservative columnist William Kristol led a stinging attack on Obama with six paragraphs on Karl Marx and his description of religion as "the opium of the people." The ever-smiling Kristol headlined his attack "The Mask Slips."

Within hours, Fox News put the issue to Sen. Joe Lieberman: Is Obama "a Marxist as Bill Kristol says might be the case?"

"I must say that's a good question," said Lieberman. Quickly gathering his frayed liberal cloak about him, Lieberman added that he would "hesitate to say" Obama is a Marxist. "But he's got some positions that are far to the left of me and I think mainstream America."

None of this was a secret to the Clinton campaign, which kept saying Obama had not been vetted and would prove an easy target for those nasty old Republicans. Hillary directed this argument to the super delegates, but I suspect she was also trying to encourage mainstream journalists to go after Obama with the same smears the right wing had been using. Then came ABC's prime time debate and - no surprise - Hillary teamed up with Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos, Bill Clinton's former press secretary, to red-bait Obama as if he were a reluctant witness called before HUAC, the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Those of us of a certain age have seen this movie before, and I could not help hoping Obama would reply to his self-appointed inquisitors as Woody Allen did in the 1976 film, "The Front." "Fellas, I don't recognize the right of this committee to ask me these kinds of questions. And furthermore, you can go fuck yourselves." But no. Far cooler, Obama did his best to pivot and turn back to the real concerns of those Joe Lieberman calls "mainstream Americans," which is exactly the way to go. In time, Obama might also rise above the fray with his huge smile and that great quip from Ronald Reagan, "There you go again."

Obama will certainly get plenty of practice. redbaiting is how America's right wingers and their conservatized liberal allies have long fought to kill progressive social and economic change. Accuse the change-makers of being godless Commie pinkos. Berate them for associating with godless Commie pinkos. Damn them for not doing enough to root out all the godless Commie pinkos and their sympathizers, whether from the State Department, Hollywood, the unions, the media, charitable foundations, under their beds or wherever else the beasts of the night might lurk.

Don't laugh, it works. In the late 1940s, President Harry Truman proposed universal health care. right wingers branded it "Communistic" and smothered it at birth. We still don't have decent health care for everyone, and even John Edwards feared to suggest anything as "Socialistic" as a single-payer system. Better to find "a pragmatic compromise" existing insurance companies and HMOs might accept, as Hillary did so successfully in the 1990s.

Desegregate the races? Heaven forbid! Billboards and leaflets all over the South showed photographs of Martin Luther King attending "a Communist training school," and many white liberals shied away.

Organize workers into unions? Not on your life! Employers and their paid-for politicians branded the organizers as "Reds" and used flag-waving American Legionnaires to beat early unionists to a pulp or ride them out of town on a rail.

In a similar, if less violent, vein, Hillary now sounds like a card-carrying member of what she used to call "the vast right wing conspiracy." McCain has wasted no time trying to link Obama to Hamas. And, should Obama become president, he will run into wall-to-wall redbaiting as he tries to bring about such terribly Marxistical reforms as universal health care, well-paying jobs, more progressive taxation, serious regulation of Wall Street speculators and an end to our military occupation of Iraq.

As for my old friend Bill Ayers, I haven't seen him in nearly 20 years, but I doubt he has his neighbor Obama's ear. When asked about Ayers in the ABC debate, Obama identified him as an English professor. William Ayers is a widely respected and very outspoken education maven, and if Obama has spent any serious time with him, the senator would surely have known Bill's life-long passion has been to find more effective ways to teach our children.


A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Steve Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France.

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