Anyone who is not deeply naïve about American politics had to know it was coming: an intense assault on Barack Obama's character, his past, and his judgment. Now, as the previous fragments of rumor, innuendo, online reporting, and political gamesmanship are intersecting into a broader tale, we are about to see what Senator Obama -- and the United States of America -- are made of. We are about to move from "the silly season" to "the ugly season."
The sudden surfacing of a picture of Obama in traditional Somali dress; the charge that he had plagiarized his friend and advisor, Governor Patrick Deval; Senator Clinton's recent incensed discovery of leaflets circulating in Ohio exaggerating her support for NAFTA -- all of this is trivial in relation to the hit parade that is coming. Ties to Arab-American money and influence, Iraqi Baathist billionaire money, the PLO, domestic American terrorism... follow the money, connect the dots. This is now what is gaining traction (and detail) on the conservative blogs. It is just a matter of time (my guess is, a few days to a week) before it hits the mainstream press and the nightly news.
The timing is probably no coincidence. This week is probably Hillary Clinton's (and everyone else's) last chance to stop Obama from winning the Democratic nomination -- or at least from winning the primary elections and caucuses so decisively that the Democratic Party would be shattered if it then tried to deny him the nomination at its Denver convention on the strength of votes by "superdelegates." For weeks now, Senator Clinton's campaign has been trying to stimulate media interest in the story of Obama's Chicago past, to little effect. Now, finally, many of the threads have been picked up, extended, and woven together by conservative New York radio talk show host John Batchelor, in two extended blogs on the website, humanevents.com.
The implication of the story is that Obama got his start and rose to his heights in Illinois politics with the support of crooks, terrorists, and foes of Israel. Obama's early ties to Tony Rezko, a Syrian-American businessman about to go on trial next week for corruption (whom Hillary Clinton denounced in an earlier debate as a "slum landlord'), is the one part of the story that is more widely known. The idea here is that Rezko was a seminal figure in helping to fund Obama's political rise, and that he introduced Obama in 2003 to a shadowy Iraqi-born British billionaire, Nadhmi Auchi, who is allegedly implicated in financial wrongdoing or criminal activity on three continents. Other strands involve Senator Obama's associations with Professor Rashid Khalidi (then of the University of Chicago, now of Columbia University), who is alleged to have worked for the PLO in the late 1970s and is an outspoken critic of Israel, and his interaction with William Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn, former members of the revolutionary, terrorist organization of the late 1960s and early 70s, the Weather Underground, which was responsible for several bombings of government buildings.
Much of what hangs out there on the Internet now amounts to innuendo and guilt by association. No one is alleging that Obama has done anything illegal. Rather, the implication is that this is not the sort of man you would want to trust the future of your country to. And to the Jewish-American community: This is not the sort of man you would want to think about entrusting the security of the state of Israel to.
Many people (Jewish and otherwise) who have come to know Obama, watched him grow, and taken the measure of the man have come to feel differently. If every president (not to mention presidential candidate) had to agree with the views of or be held personally accountable for every individual he or she had met, served on a board or committee with, or taken a campaign contribution from, it is hard to imagine who we would have left to serve. I tried to think of a president in the post-World War II period who had not had to deal with a serious scandal in his administration. Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon and on, they all had skeletons tumbling out of their presidential closet. For a moment I thought, well, there was Jimmy Carter, who promised the country "a government as good as the American people." And then I remembered his director of the Office of Management and Budget, Bert Lance, who was forced to resign over allegations of prior financial mismanagement.
There is a lesson in Carter's experience. There are no angels in politics, and aspirants to the presidency should not present themselves as such. Politics does not attract angels. It attracts people who want to get close to power to advance their interests (which often include getting richer than they already are), and it attracts people who want power for a variety of reasons (which often include making the country and the world a better place). In the mix, we get corruption, scandal, or sometimes simply bad judgment. It seduces even people who think of themselves as honest: witness Senator McCain's involvement in the Keating Five scandal, or the recent allegations in a New York Times article of his close relationship with a lobbyist. It is important that Barack Obama's avid followers not idealize him into something he is not, and that he not mislead his devoted following and the country into thinking he is something superhuman in a moral sense. He is fallible and imperfect, and so has been every president in American history. The questions are ones of scale and balance, of what is left when you account for the fallibility, and of how a president, or would-be president, acknowledges and learns from his mistakes.
As the multiple strands of the story are seized upon, worked, researched, and vetted by major media outlets, we will see what is left to it. My guess is we will find that Chicago machine politics remain afflicted with many of the problems that have plagued it for decades, and that a young aspiring politician without deep roots in the city made some errors in judgment in associating with Rezko, and with Auchi if that is established. There is another story to be explained: how a prominent member of a violent terrorist organization 4 decades ago, who was quoted only some years ago as having said, "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough," became an influential professor and member of the Chicago social and political establishment. But that is hardly a story that Barack Obama has to answer for.
What Senator Obama will not be able to do is simply dismiss all of this as more "politics as usual" or "silly season." It may be politics as usual, but it is politics that can be deadly in a general election. Whether Obama used drugs as a young person is not really relevant to what kind of president he will be a generation later. But who he has worked with and depended on for his political advancement is not irrelevant. Barack Obama is not responsible for the views and associations of everyone he has ever associated with. But he would be wise to respond quickly and forthrightly as these questions come to the center stage. He must define in this context who he really is. If he does not do so, the Republican attack machine will be happy to do it for him. And we saw what they did four years ago to a war hero named John Kerry.