Saturday, Oct. 18, 2008 | 2 a.m.
A Nevada Republican Party mail piece that accuses Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama of having “close ties to (a) domestic terrorist” is reckless and inflammatory, historians say, because it could stir dark passions, including a desire to inflict violence on Obama.
“This is dangerous politics,” said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian. He noted the country’s long history of political assassination and racial violence.
Shouts of “Kill him!” and “Terrorist!” have been heard at rallies held by Republican nominee Sen. John McCain and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, according to published reports.
It’s not clear whether the angry crowds were wishing death on Obama or William Ayers, a 1960s era radical and co-founder of an anti-Vietnam war group, The Weather Underground, that claimed responsibility for nonfatal bombings of the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.
The discomforting scenes at his recent rallies have forced McCain to proclaim his respect for Obama as a decent family man and grab the microphone of a woman who called him an “Arab.”
The state Republican Party’s ad, which tracks closely with a line of attack hammered home by McCain, accuses Obama of being a friend of Ayers.
The ad features a mug shot of Ayers next to the text, “Terrorist. Radical. Friend of Obama.” Below it, Obama is pictured next to the phrase, “Not Who You Think He Is.”
Obama was a child at the time of the bombings. He has called Ayers’ actions “despicable.”
Republicans say the two are closer than Obama has let on.
They live in the same neighborhood in Chicago and served on a nonprofit school reform board funded by the Annenberg Foundation, which is associated with conservative causes. Walter Annenberg’s widow is a McCain campaign contributor.
McCain brought up Ayers in the third and final debate, which was thought to signal the end of this phase of the campaign. “I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist,” McCain said. “But as Sen. Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.”
Republicans aren’t finished with the attack, as evidenced by the Nevada ad, which links Obama and terrorism. The ad shows Obama’s photo next to a quote from Ayers: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Ayers was referring to his anti-Vietnam activities and the quote was published — coincidently — in The New York Times hours before the 9/11 attacks. But the quote is not attributed to Ayers and could be thought to have been said by Obama, because of the proximity of the text to Obama’s picture. A reader might unwittingly think Obama said he wished he’d bombed more on Sept. 11.
When asked what she hopes voters will take from the ad, Sue Lowden, chairwoman of the Republican Party, said, “The associations of a candidate are important, and the public can decide for themselves how important it is that someone associates with a certain someone.”
When asked what she thought about McCain’s association with convicted Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy, who hosted a fundraiser for McCain, Lowden replied, “This is the first time I’m hearing about it, so I’m not sure if it bothers me.”
She described as unfair any insinuation that the ads could lead a disturbed person to violently lash out at Obama.
Presidential historians warned of the tone of the attacks, however.
“It’s reckless,” said Robert Dallek, a biographer of Richard Nixon. “It plays on our worst fears,” he said.
The use of inflammatory ads and attacks is hardly new. Thomas Jefferson was called the Antichrist. President Lyndon Johnson used images of children and nuclear weapons in 1964 to scare voters about his Republican opponent, Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Allies of President George H.W. Bush exploited fears of race and random violence with their Willie Horton ad in 1988.
Bush allies and Johnson, however, tied their attacks to actual issues, but McCain’s and the Republicans’ hit on Obama would seem to be focused entirely on questioning the Democrat’s loyalty to the United States. That’s the view of Kevin Baker, who wrote an influential essay two years ago for Harper’s Magazine, in which he explained the German concept of dolchstoss, or “stab-in-the-back.” German militarists used that word after World War I to blame German liberals, Jews and democrats for the national humiliation of the Great War.
It’s not clear the attacks will work this year.
Fred Greenstein, professor of politics emeritus at Princeton University and a presidential historian, said the Ayers attacks smack of desperation.
“The phrase ‘October surprise’ exists for a reason,” Greenstein said. “Tough campaigning has gone on over the years and sometimes punches are thrown that don’t meet the mark of the Queensberry standards,” he said, referring to boxing’s rules of engagement. “But this is super desperate,” he said.
Greenstein said that with the political tide favoring Democrats and Obama’s profile as an unflappable campaigner, “The Hail Mary comes into being.”
John Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University who has written extensively about negative ads in presidential campaigns, said the attacks can be powerful “when they hit a theme that resonates with people.”
But, with voters focused on the economy, “It’s a real long shot to think these ads will be home runs.”
He cited failed attacks against Bill Clinton in 1992 involving the candidate’s trips to the Soviet Union as a college student. The public back then was focused on the economy, as it is now, he said.
“These are the kinds of things you raise when you’re behind,” Geer said. “And it’s going to be very hard for McCain. People are watching the stock market, not Bill Ayers.”