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Marc Cooper

Marc Cooper

Posted: October 5, 2008 01:46 PM

McCain's Own 60's Radical Pal


The McCain campaign shows no shame in engaging in a tired guilt-by-association tactic as Sarah Palin accuses Obama of "palling around with terrorists." This desperate calumny derives from Obama once serving on the same non-profit board as former 60's radical Bill Ayers, one of the founders of the Weather Underground.

But what about McCain's own associations with former 60's radicals. Indeed, until just a few years ago, McCain openly boasted not only about his passing friendship but also his deep collaboration with one of the most prominent of Vietnam-era student radicals, David Ifshin. The same David Ifshin who denounced America on Radio Hanoi as McCain sat locked up as a POW.

I met Ifshin about the same time he came into McCain's life. But under very different circumstances. In 1970, as president of the left-leaning National Student Association, Ifshin traveled to North Vietnam with other anti-war radicals and it was then that he went on Radio Hanoi to denounce his own country's war effort. That broadcast was piped directly into POW McCain's cell in the Hanoi Hilton and he was understandably enraged by what he thought was a traitorous act by a fellow American.

I crossed paths with the same David Ifshin a few months later when he showed up in Chile with folksinger Phil Ochs and Yippie leader Jerry Rubin. We spent some days together n Santiago and I can personally attest that while Ifshin never went as far as Ayres did in becoming a literal bomb-thrower, he was very much emblematic of a generation of radical dissidents. Ifshin had risen to notoriety by leading the takeover of his Syracuse university campus. He opened up his NSA offices to radicals trying to shut down Washington DC with streets protests in May 1971. Just after their sojourn in Chile, Ifshin and Ochs went on to Uruguay, joined a local university takeover and were arrested and deported.

As the years passed, Ifshin - just like Ayers-- eventually moved into the American political mainstream. Ayers came out of the underground, took up education as a profession and staked himself out on the non-violent political left. Ifshin moved more quickly to the center and eventually became General Counsel to the Bill Clinton campaign as well as a prominent leader in pro-Israeli causes. But until the day he died, at age 47 in 1996, Ifshin never renounced nor apologized for his youthful, radical past.

In the meantime, and much to his credit, Senator John McCain forged a close personal friendship with Ifshin, as well as a working political alliance. Together they worked to establish the Institute for Democracy in Vietnam and partnered up on the issue of normalization of relations with Vietnam.

As recently as two years ago, speaking at Columbia College, McCain affectionately and warmly recalled his relationship with Ifshin saying:

"We worked together in an organization dedicated to promoting human rights in the country where he and I had once come for different reasons. I came to admire him for his generosity, his passion for his ideals, for the largeness of his heart, and I realized he had not been my enemy, but my countryman . . . my countryman ...and later my friend. His friendship honored me. We disagreed over much. Our politics were often opposed, and we argued those disagreements. But we worked together for our shared ideals."

That John McCain is unrecognizable from the man who today stands behind the scurrilous attacks suggesting that Barack Obama pals around with terrorists because Bill Ayres - when Obama was literally eight years old--stupidly fancied himself an armed revolutionary.

The old John McCain was able to overcome his own repulsion against a young man who went on the radio station of the enemy who was holding and torturing him and built a warm friendship with him. If Obama were to run commercials today criticizing McCain for hanging out with the Tokyo Rose of the Vietnam era, it would be nearly as execrable as the McCain campaign's current smears around Bill Ayres.