On a Tuesday morning a few years ago, the New York Times published an article on Bill Ayers, a one-time radical who had just produced a memoir about his time in the Weather Underground. You probably don't remember the article. But you definitely remember the date it appeared.
It was September 11, 2001.
This was, to say the least, just about the worst possible moment for someone to say, as Ayers did, that he had no regrets about setting a bomb that blew up in the Pentagon. Ayers, of course, could hardly have known what would transpire the morning the article hit the newsstands. Nor, it must be pointed out, has Ayers ever been accused of detonating an explosion that killed or seriously wounded anyone. Still, his timing obviously could have been better.
In the six years and seven months that have passed since copies of the Ayers article were reduced to dust in the rubble of the World Trade Center, the former Weatherman has hardly attained the status of a household name. But that probably changed on Wednesday night when the fake journalist George Stephanopoulos, at the urging of reactionary cable screamer Sean Hannity, asked Barack Obama to defend his supposed relationship with Ayers. Obama responded that they were not close, that Ayers lived in the same Chicago neighborhood, and that they briefly served together on the board of an anti-poverty organization.
And this, my friends, is what we have come to. A man born in 1964 is being asked to defend—what?—the fact that he periodically interacts with a guy who did bad things in the 1960s and claims not to regret them. (And would it really matter if he apologized? Jane Fonda, who never bombed anything, has expressed regret for her youthful visit to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, and she has been forgiven by exactly nobody.) So now guilt by association has been defined down to the level of casual acquaintances. What precisely was Obama supposed to do, stab Ayers in the chest with an American flag lapel pin?
Last night, some meathead cable TV pundit tried to argue that Obama should have refused to serve on the same board as Ayers. Yes, there's a sensible solution: decline to help out an organization dedicated to assisting the poor because you don't like one of the other board members. Hell, if he really wanted to make a statement, maybe he could have moved away from Illinois entirely, just to make sure he wouldn't have to breathe the same air that Ayers might have exhaled. Do it for your country, man!
I get why the Republicans are doing this. Given the disastrous state of foreign and domestic policy and the deficiencies of their economically-illiterate nominee-in-waiting, they can only win by destroying the reputation of the Democratic candidate. And I know why Hillary Clinton wants to give this non-issue additional life. She's desperate to keep her campaign hooked up to life support for at least a few more weeks.
I guess I even understand why the media types are so excited. They're dumb, lazy, and uncreative, and a race between two ideologically indistinguishable candidates doesn't give them much to talk about. At this point, they're looking for something—anything—that can help them extend the conversation and stop viewers from flipping over to Animal Planet.
What I don't get is why the 1960s and early 1970s continue to be such a flashpoint in American society. When I was a kid, people who had lived through the Great Depression were still in their middle aged years. The 1920s and 1930s had their own share of culture wars, from prohibition to the flappers to FDR's bold attempts to insinuate the federal government into the economy in an unprecedented manner. The early 20th Century arguments between liberals and conservatives were often heated and bitter. But three or four decades later, everyone had moved on, choosing not to live their lives in the past.
Today, not only do sixty year old Baby Boomers wallow in memories of the Movement, but young conservatives seem absolutely transfixed by events that happened when they were in diapers, in utero, or in waiting. My theory (though unoriginal) is that right-wingers, both young and old, feel a great deal of sexual and social repression and deeply resent the apparent freedom and carefree lifestyle of the hippie and student radical. That sort of projected self-loathing combined with visceral dislike of the Movement's occasional anti-Americanism has twisted our conservative friends into psychological pretzels, raging against gray-haired men and women who haven't had a radical thought since they received their first mailer from AARP.
And while we're on the topic, why is it only the former radicals who are considered to have blood on their hands? The Vietnam War sent tens of thousands of young Americans and perhaps millions of Vietnamese to premature deaths and inadvertently ushered in the genocidal reign of Pol Pot in Cambodia. Why, then, should Bill Ayers be regarded as a pariah while Henry Kissinger continues to be treated with unearned respect by the same media hacks who wonder why Obama doesn't recite the flag salute after every meal?
I have my doubts about Barack Obama both as a potential Democratic nominee and future president, but his election, should it occur, could perform one enormously valuable service to his country. It is long past time to relegate the Vietnam era to the history books. The sooner we can all stop choosing up sides over events that took place during the impossibly distant past, the better off we will all be.