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A little-known relationship in Sen. Barack Obama's past — one that had been buzzing in mostly conservative circles for months — took a very public turn Wednesday night during a Democratic debate in Philadelphia.
It relates to Obama's relationship with William C. Ayers, a onetime member of the Weather Underground, a leftist fringe of the 1960s antiwar movement. Known as the Weathermen, the group was responsible for bombings of the New York City police headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971 and of the Pentagon in 1972.
During the debate, moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his relationship with Ayers, as part of a discussion about Obama's patriotism.
"An early organizing meeting for your state Senate campaign was held at his house and your campaign has said you are 'friendly,' " Stephanopoulos said.
Stephanopoulos quoted a New York Times story, published Sept. 11, 2001, in which Ayers was quoted as saying: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
Asked Stephanopoulos: "Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?"
Obama downplayed the relationship.
"This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from," Obama said. "He's not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.
"And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values doesn't make much sense, George."
Sen. Hillary Clinton then piled on.
"I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position. And, if I'm not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this board continued after 9/11 and after his reported comments, which were deeply hurtful to people in New York and, I would hope, to every American, because they were published on 9/11, and he said that he was just sorry they hadn't done more."
We need to point out that it was merely a coincidence the remarks were published in the New York Times on Sept. 11 and they had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks that day. They were referring to activities by the Weather Underground in the 1970s.
Deborah Harrington, president of the Woods Fund, a philanthropic organization in Chicago, said Obama was a director from 1994 through 2001. That overlaps Ayers' time as a director by three years. It also means Obama served with Ayers for the final months of 2001, after Ayers made his comments to the New York Times.
Ayers, now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (not English as Obama stated), is still on the seven-member Woods Fund board.
In 2001, Ayers wrote a book, ''Fugitive Days'' — he called it a memoir — in which he wrote that he participated in the bombings of New York City police headquarters, the Capitol building and the Pentagon. But in a review of the book, the New York Times noted that Ayers coyly noted that some of the book was fiction.
Last week, Ayers defended the September 2001 comments on his blog stating: "I'm sometimes asked if I regret anything I did to oppose the war in Vietnam and I say: No, I don't regret anything I did to stop the slaughter of millions of human beings by my own government."
Obama has minimized his relationship with Ayers. Campaign finance reports show Ayers donated $200 to Obama's re-election campaign in 2001.
In the spirit of fairness, we should note that just before leaving office, President Bill Clinton pardoned Susan L. Rosenberg who, according to a New York Times story in 2001, was "a onetime member of the Weather Underground terrorist group who was charged in the notorious 1981 Brink's robbery in Rockland County that left a guard and two police officers dead."
But as for Clinton's comments about Obama's relationship with Ayers, we rate them True.
New York Times, "No Regrets for a Love Of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life With the Weathermen," by Dinitia Smith, Sept. 11 2001
Politico, "Obama once visited '60s radicals," by Ben Smith, Feb. 22, 2008
New York Times, "Officials Criticize Clinton's Pardon of an Ex-Terrorist," by Eric Lipton, Jan. 22 2001
Bill Ayers' blog, "Episodic Notoriety–Fact and Fantasy," by William Ayers, April 6, 2008
Sunday Times (London), "Terrorist link puts Obama under fire," by Sarah Baxter, April 13, 2008
New York Times, "The Oldest Rad," by Brent Staples, Sept. 30, 2001
Interview with Deborah Harrington, president of the Woods Fund of Chicago, March 3, 2008
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