Much Ado by Stanley Fish NY Times, April 28,2008

In 1952, when McCarthyism was at its height, Supreme Court Justice
William O. Douglas labeled the investigative techniques of the
junior senator from Wisconsin “guilt by association” (Adler v.
Board of Education). Douglas added that McCarthyite tactics were
“repugnant to our society” because, despite the absence of any
overt wrongdoing, the pasts of those attacked were “combed for
signs of disloyalty” and for utterances that might be read as
“clues to dangerous thoughts.”
More than a half century later, “McCarthyism” was joined in the
lexicon by “Swiftboating,” the art of the smear campaign mounted
with the intention not of documenting a wrong, but of covering the
victim with slime enough to cast doubt on his or her integrity.
Now, in 2008, after a primary season increasingly marked by dirty
pool and low blows, “McCarthyism” and “Swiftboating” have come
together in a particularly lethal and despicable form. I refer to
the startling revelation – proclaimed from the housetops by both
the Clinton and McCain campaigns – that Barack Obama ate dinner at
William Ayers’s house, served with him on a board and was the
honored guest at a reception he organized.
Confession time. I too have eaten dinner at Bill Ayers’s house (more
than once), and have served with him on a committee, and he was one
of those who recruited my wife and me at a reception when we were
considering positions at the University of Illinois, Chicago.
Moreover, I have had Bill and his wife Bernardine Dohrn to my
apartment, was a guest lecturer in a course he taught and joined in
a (successful) effort to persuade him to stay at UIC and say no to
an offer from Harvard. Of course, I’m not running for anything, but
I do write for The New York Times and, who knows, this association
with former fugitive members of the Weathermen might be enough in
the eyes of some to get me canned.
Did I conspire with Bill Ayers? Did I help him build bombs? Did I
aid and abet his evasion (for a time) of justice? Not likely, given
that at the time of the events that brought Ayers and Dohrn to
public attention, I was a supporter of the Vietnam War. I haven’t
asked him to absolve me of that sin (of which I have since
repented), and he hasn’t asked me to forgive him for his (if he has
Indeed in all the time I spent with Ayers and Dohrn, politics –
present or past – never came up.
What did come up? To answer that question I have to introduce a word
and concept that is somewhat out of fashion: the salon. A salon is a
gathering in a private home where men and women from various walks
of life engage in conversation about any number of things,
including literature, business, fashion, films, education and
philosophy. Ayers and Dohrn did not call their gatherings salons,
but that’s what they were; large dinner parties (maybe 12-15), with
guests coming and going, one conversation leading to another, no
rules or obligations, except the obligation to be interesting and
interested. The only thing I don’t remember was ideology, although
since this was all going on in Hyde Park, there was the general and
diffused ideology, vaguely liberal, that usually hangs over a
university town.
Many of those attending these occasions no doubt knew something
about their hosts’ past, but the matter was never discussed and why
should it have been? We were there not because of what Ayers and
Dohrn had done 40 years ago, but because of what they were doing at
the moment.
Ayers is a longtime professor of education at UIC, nationally known
for his prominence in the “small school” movement. Dohrn teaches at
Northwestern Law School, where she directs a center for child and
family justice. Both lend their skills and energies to community
causes; both advise various agencies; together they have raised
exemplary children and they have been devoted caretakers to aged
parents. “Respectable” is too mild a word to describe the couple;
rock-solid establishment would be more like it. There was and is
absolutely no reason for anyone who knows them to plead the fifth
or declare, “I am not now nor have I ever been a friend of Bill’s
and Bernardine’s.”
Least of all Barack Obama, who by his own account didn’t know them
that well and is now being taken to task for having known them at
all. Of course it would have required preternatural caution to
avoid associating with anyone whose past deeds might prove
embarrassing on the chance you decided to run for president
someday. In an earlier column, I spoke of the illogic of holding a
candidate accountable for things said or done by a supporter or an
acquaintance. Now a candidate is being held accountable for things
said and done four decades ago by people who happen to live in his
upper middle class neighborhood.
Hillary Clinton and John McCain should know better. In fact, they do
know better. To date, Clinton has played hardball, but hasn’t really
fouled. I never saw anything wrong or inaccurate about her saying
that Martin Luther King’s vision required a president’s action
before it could be implemented, or Bill Clinton’s saying that Jesse
Jackson won the South Carolina primary twice. He did, and if the
implication was that Obama’s base constituency is African-American,
that too was accurate and continues to be so.
As for her saying that all Obama had ever done was give a speech,
she was being generous: he gave that speech against invading Iraq
at a small event featuring other speakers (including Jackson); the
local press coverage did not even mention him; and if this was, as
his campaign claims, an act of courage, it was a singularly private
one, maybe even a fairy tale. Clinton’s exaggerating the danger of
her visit to Bosnia (most likely unintentional because, as she
said, “I’m not dumb”) came a little closer to crossing a line, but
didn’t. Re-telling a story (about a hospital’s refusal to treat an
uninsured patient) that turned out not to be true was evidence of
faulty campaign organization, not of deliberate duplicity.
But the literature the Clinton campaign is passing around about
Obama and Ayers cannot be explained away or rationalized. It
features bold heads proclaiming that Ayers doesn’t regret his
Weathermen activities (what does that have to do with Obama? Are we
required to repudiate things acquaintances of our have not said?),
that Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s senatorial campaign (do you
take money only from people of whose every action you approve?),
that Obama admired Ayers’s 1997 book on the juvenile justice
system, that Ayers and Obama participated on a panel examining the
role of intellectuals in public life. That subversive event was
sponsored by The Center for Public Intellectuals, an organization
that also sponsored an evening conversation (moderated by me)
between those notorious radicals Richard Rorty and Judge Richard
Posner (also a neighbor of Ayers’s; maybe the Federalist Society
should expel him).
I don’t see any crimes or even misdemeanors in any of this. I do see
civic activism and a concern for the welfare of children. The
suggestion that something sinister was transpiring on those
occasions is backed up by nothing except the four-alarm-bell
typography that accompanies this list of entirely innocent, and
even praiseworthy, actions.
As for Senator McCain, in 2004 he repudiated the Swiftboat attacks
against fellow veteran John Kerry, but this time around he’s
joining in, and if Obama gets the nomination, it seems that the
Arizona senator will be playing the Ayers card. Of course, McCain
knows a little about baseless accusations and innuendos, given his
experience in South Carolina in 2000. And in case he has forgotten
what it feels like, he may soon be reminded; for there’s a story
abroad on the Internet that says that rather than being a heroic,
tortured prisoner of war, McCain was a collaborator who traded
information for a comfortable apartment serviced by maids who were
really prostitutes. I don’t believe it for a second, just as I am
sure that Senators McCain and Clinton don’t really believe that
Obama condones setting bombs or supports a radical agenda that was
pursued (as he has said) when he was eight years old.
The difference is that I feel a little dirty just for having
repeated a scurrilous rumor even as I rejected it. Apparently
Obama’s two opponents have no such qualms and are happily
retailing, and wallowing in, the dirt.

5 Responses to Much Ado by Stanley Fish NY Times, April 28,2008

  1. Tom J says:

    Well put.

  2. Tom J says:

    What is a Jack Janski, and why does he spend so much of his time posting the same things here over and over? I googled the name, and the only one I could find is locked up in a mental institution – something about substance abuse. Surely inmates aren’t allowed access to the internet?

  3. Badgerick says:

    Hey Jack,
    Before condemning people to Hell for being Anti-American Marxists, you should perhaps first make certain that you have a reasonable grasp of the principle terms of your argument: America, Marxism and Hell.

  4. susanb says:

    Bravo, Stanley Fish.

    Dear Mr. Ayers,

    Most of the responses on your blog make me want to go shower, and then apologize for being human. I’m so sorry for the ignorance, the hatred, and the knee jerk propaganda spew – taken right from the corporate media.

    I write editorials in the land of the northern redneck. I thought my own hate mail was pretty bad, but it pales in comparison. I haven’t had a death threat since 2001. I’m horrified by the threats found here.

    I’m grateful for your ongoing commitment to education, and to a better world. I’m just sorry that so many are so easily manipulated into McCarthyesque behavior, and that they have so little of value in their lives that they can spend endless amounts of time here leaving angry messages.

  5. Sam Pierce says:


    I find it hard to believe any fan of this terrorist would be inclined to shower.

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