After the New York Times (10/4/08) devoted over 2,000 words to a front-page story assessing the "connection" between Barack Obama and former Weather Underground member William Ayers, it was no surprise that the John McCain/Sarah Palin campaign would seize the opportunity to try to re-inject the Ayers/Obama "link"--a popular topic among right-wing pundits like Sean Hannity--into the campaign.
In general, centrist pundits looked askance (e.g., NBC News Today show, 10/7/08) at the McCain camp's undisguised attempt to change the subject from the economy to Ayers (Washington Post, 10/4/08). But many in the media bent over backwards to suggest an equivalence between the Ayers exaggerations advanced by McCain/Palin and the Obama campaign's decision to remind voters of McCain's status as one of the Keating Five--five U.S. senators who received large campaign contributions from savings and loan executive Charles Keating, then later intervened in federal efforts to investigate what turned out to be Keating's criminal activities.
The two stories are not at all similar. Obama has had passing contacts with Ayers over the years, mostly via the board of a small non-profit; Obama once held a fundraiser in Ayers' house. (Ayers, who helped carry out a handful of nonlethal bombings in protest against the Vietnam War, is an academic in Chicago and well known in education policy circles. Federal charges against him in connection with the bombings were dropped in the 1970s.) The New York Times story that launched Ayers back into the media spotlight found that "the two men do not appear to have been close."
Why would the Times devote so much space to a non-story? The article offered one clue: "Their relationship has become a touchstone for opponents of Mr. Obama.... Conservative critics who accuse Mr. Obama of a stealth radical agenda have asserted that he has misleadingly minimized his relationship with Mr. Ayers." Unsurprisingly, the same day the Times story was published, Palin began citing it to inaccurately accuse Obama of "palling around with terrorists" (NYTimes.com, 10/4/08)
Apparently in response to that, the Obama campaign released an online video about McCain's role in the Keating scandal. While no two financial crises are exactly alike, the current financial meltdown and the S&L debacle were both arguably the results of deregulation; it is not much of a stretch by conventional campaign standards to point out during a major financial crisis that your opponent played a prominent role in the last major financial crisis.
But many in the press decided that the campaigns were behaving equally poorly. "Campaigns Shift to Attack Mode on Eve of Debate," read a New York Times headline (10/7/08), with reporter Adam Nagourney noting that while both candidates had pledged to run honorable campaigns, McCain had decided to question "Obama's character, background and leadership," and that "Obama’s campaign signaled that it would respond in kind."
A USA Today editorial, headlined "Candidates Pursue Trivia While the Economy Burns" (10/7/08), lamented that the candidates were dredging up "associations and scandals so old that most voters don't even know what they're talking about without a historical playbook." The paper faulted McCain's invocation of Ayers, then trained its criticism on Obama: "The Obama campaign's retort? To reply in kind."
In the Wall Street Journal, Gerald Seib wrote (10/7/08) that "any campaign attacks based on character will rapidly become a two-way mudfest. Indeed, they already have." On CNN's American Morning, reporter John Roberts declared (10/6/08): "And, of course, the Obama campaign trying to fire back in kind reminding people that John McCain was a member of the Keating Five a couple of decades ago. So, definitely going downhill on both sides here."
On the PBS NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, Time magazine's Karen Tumulty (10/6/08) echoed some of the conventional pundit wisdom, wondering if Obama might "overplay this.... If Obama responds too much in kind, it's almost like both campaigns have over-learned the lessons of the Swift Boat Veterans from four years ago. But I think if he responds too much in kind, he really damages his own brand, particularly with the swing voters, these independent voters that he's very badly going to need on Election Day."
After the October 7 debate, the Washington Post editorial page (10/8/08) was glad that Ayers and Keating did not come up, calling them both "inflammatory diversions" before characterizing the Keating story as "Mr. McCain's rather peripheral involvement in a savings-and-loan scandal two decades ago."
It's hard to describe McCain's role in the savings-and-loan scandal as "peripheral"; as one of the Keating Five, he was a key player in the highest-profile political scandal connected to the financial disaster. Though a Senate investigation cleared McCain of serious wrongdoing (it did flag his "poor judgment"), McCain's ties to Keating were well-established: He had received over $100,000 from Keating, had traveled on his private jet and had vacationed in the Bahamas with him; McCain's family and Keating were also involved in a business venture together.
Most importantly, as federal regulators were looking into Keating's Lincoln Savings and Loan, McCain and four other senators held two meetings with those regulators, some of whom were left with the impression that the senators were on hand to influence their investigation in Keating's favor. As blogger Matthew Yglesias pointed out (10/10/08), "McCain was accused of actual Keating-related wrongdoing, whereas nobody has tried to allege that Obama was actually involved in any of Ayers’ bad acts."
McCain has claimed for many years that the shame of the Keating scandal was what motivated his interest in campaign finance reform. But does that mean that the Keating history is off limits? Should reporters treat criticism of McCain's conduct in the scandal as a low blow, given that more recent stories have suggested that the senator is still doing favors for influential constituents, lobbyists and contributors (New York Times, "A Developer, His Deals and His Ties to McCain," 4/22/08; Washington Post, "McCain Pushed Land Swap That Benefits Backer," 5/9/08)?
There is an unfortunate tendency among campaign reporters to suggest "both sides" are equally at fault in situations like this. In this case, the McCain campaign's accusation that Obama is friendly with a terrorist is considered somehow on par with Obama raising McCain's political record on a matter of actual relevance.