Two stories released recently– one by Newsday, the other by Politico– show just how ugly the business of politics really is. The first runs though the details of a rape case in 1975, where a young Arkansas lawyer named Hillary Rodham was appointed to defend a factory worker named Thomas Taylor who was being accused of raping a 12-year-old girl. According to court documents, part of Rodham’s defense of her client included attacking the victim’s credibility.
“I have been informed that the complainant is emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men and to engage in fantasizing,” wrote Rodham, without referring to the source of that allegation. “I have also been informed that she has in the past made false accusations about persons, claiming they had attacked her body.”
Dale Gibson, the investigator, doesn’t recall seeing evidence that the girl had fabricated previous attacks.
The victim, now 46, told Newsday that she was raped by Taylor, denied that she wanted any relationship with him and blamed him for contributing to three decades of severe depression and other personal problems.
“It’s not true, I never sought out older men – I was raped,” the woman said in an interview in the fall. Newsday is withholding her name as the victim of a sex crime.
The files on the case were destroyed years ago in a flood, making it nearly impossible to research the case further, beyond interviewing those involved– some of whom have since died.
The second story details a 1995 visit by a young soon-to-be state senator named Barack Obama to the home of an influential couple in Chicago politics, William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Obama, rising fast in local politics, was being introduced to the couple by then state senator Alice Palmer. Ayers and Dohrn are best known as founders of Weather Underground, a group responsible for a series of domestic bombings in the 1960s to protest the Vietnam War– acts for which they remain unrepentant.
[Prominent Chicago physician] Dr. [Quentin] Young and another guest, Maria Warren, described it similarly: as an introduction to Hyde Park liberals of the handpicked successor to Palmer, a well-regarded figure on the left.
“When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn,” Warren wrote on her blog in 2005. “They were launching him — introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread.”
Young described the gathering as a matter of “due diligence” for Palmer to introduce her chosen successor to constituents. “Many of us knew him already,” he said.
The story doesn’t give much detail on the meeting– other than that it happened– or whatever relationship existed between Obama and Ayers.
What’s striking about both articles is that the occurances involved are highly volatile, but entirely defensible. Clinton was obligated to provide her client the most vigorous defense possible (and with many of the case files destroyed, we have to assume that there was more evidence for her defense than the Newsday article provides). In fact, it could be argued that her work on this case is what led her to study and train medical personnel on issues of child abuse at Yale Law School in the 1970s.
Likewise, Obama cannot reasonably be held accountable for the past acts of everyone he’s met in his political career. As the article itself states, “there’s no evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served together on the board of a Chicago foundation.”
But when these skeletons in the closet type stories emerge, you can be sure of one thing: there is almost always a rival political campaign involved in pushing the story. In the case of the Obama-Ayers story, we know for a fact that the Clinton campaign has actively been pushing the story, while ignoring her husband’s presidential pardons of members of the same group. (In particular, Noam Schreiber of The New Republic has repeatedly questioned just how newsworthy the Obama-Ayers story is.)
It’s incredibly important that we put opposition stories like these– especially between Democratic campaigns– in the context of incidents like Willie Horton, the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the Valerie Plame outing, and last night’s 60 Minutes piece on Karl Rove and the Justice Department’s prosecution of a politically problematic Democratic governor.
While stories about defending a rapist or associating with a domestic terrorist may not be enough to bring down an opponent in a Democratic primary race, where voters are generally more left of center, there is no doubt that when moved into the light of the general population, they will have resonance. And that resonance will only benefit the underbelly of the Republican Party, which has earned a reputation for spinning (or finding groups to spin on their behalf) similar innocuous threads into general election gold.
In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine how this could play out in November. The stories fit so easily into the smears of Clinton as a flag-burning uber-liberal and Obama as a sinister Manchurian candidate, that the attack ads virtually write themselves: Clinton attacks underage rape victim; Obama befriends anti-war terrorist. In a system as unpredictable as democracy, that may be all it takes to swing the election. We’ve seen it before.
So in light of the fact that the Democratic race is all but over, it might be wise for the Clinton and Obama campaigns to hold their fire– at least the worst of it– so as not to lose the general election before a nominee has even been selected.