While nearly all politicians shade the truth now and then, some utterly disdain the truth, a category that includes George W. Bush and increasingly Hillary Clinton, as she made clear again in Wednesday night’s debate on the strange topic of Vietnam-era Weather Underground leader William Ayers.

Since last year, the Clinton campaign has been pushing the supposed Ayers connection to Barack Obama as an attack "theme" to take down his candidacy. But Clinton went even further in the debate suggesting that Ayers had reveled in the 9/11 attacks – a false claim clearly meant to inflame Americans against Obama.

Ayers, now a graying college English professor living in Chicago, did support Obama’s state senate campaign and served with Obama on a board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a philanthropy that gives out grants aimed at alleviating poverty.

I first heard this Ayers connection from a Clinton operative in December when it already was circulating in media circles. However, mainstream journalists generally dismissed it as a cheap-shot case of guilt by a tenuous association. It got little traction.

But Clinton surrogates didn’t give up, taking the Ayers attack line to right-wing talk radio and the Internet where it was kept alive. The Clinton campaign’s doggedness was rewarded as the issue surfaced prominently in Wednesday night ’s debate in Philadelphia.

ABC News moderator George Stephanopoulos, whose national career was launched when he served as a top spokesman for President Bill Clinton, framed the Ayers question much as the Clinton campaign and the right-wing media have, suggesting some dangerous association between Obama and a mad bomber.

Stephanopoulos even suggested that Ayers had taken pleasure in the 9/11 attacks, saying: “In fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in the New York Times saying, ‘I don’t regret setting bombs; I feel we didn’t do enough.’”

Obama was left protesting how the ABC moderators were conducting a debate largely devoid of policy substance and focused on silly distractions.

“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,” Obama responded.

“So this kind of game, in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, is somehow – somehow their ideas could be attributed to me – I think the American people are smarter than that. They’re not going to suggest somehow that that is reflective of my views, because it obviously isn’t.”

Piling On

At this point, Sen. Clinton could have demurred, but instead chose to pile on. (After all, her campaign has been flogging this theme for months behind the scenes.) She also couldn’t resist pushing the 9/11 hot button.

“If I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this [Woods Fund of Chicago] 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 he was just sorry they hadn’t done more. And what they did was set bombs and in some instances people died,” Clinton said.

In her comments, Clinton created the clear impression that Ayers had either hailed the 9/11 attacks or used the 9/11 tragedy as a ghoulish opportunity to suggest that more bombings were desirable.

But none of that is true. The offensive comment that Clinton and Stephanopoulos referred to was from an interview about a memoir that Ayers published earlier in 2001. The comment was included in a New York Times article that appeared in the newspaper’s Sept. 11, 2001, edition.

As Sen. Clinton and Stephanopoulos surely know, that edition went to press on Sept. 10, hours before the 9/11 attacks. In other words, the Ayers comment had no relationship to the 9/11 attacks.

What Clinton and Stephanopoulos did was what lawyers refer to as “prejudicial” – they introduced an emotional component, 9/11, in a deceptive way to elicit a visceral reaction from those listening.

“I’m going to have to respond to this just really quickly,” Obama said after Clinton finished. “By Sen. Clinton’s own vetting standards, I don’t think she would make it, since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act.”

After the debate, the New York Times published a fact-checking article that noted the time discrepancies between Ayers’s comment and 9/11:

“Mr. Ayers did not make the remarks after the attacks on the World Trade Center that day. The interview had been conducted earlier, in connection with a memoir that he had published, Fugitive Days, and he was referring to his experience in the Weather Underground.” [New York Times, April 17, 2008]

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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