- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2008

In the wake of the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, President Harding remarked: “I have no trouble with my enemies … [it’s] my … friends … that keep me walking the floors at night.”

Today’s presidential candidates likely feel the same way at times, facing a certain guilt by association, as their personal connections dovetail with their political ambitions. The media are watching — beware your past.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois faced down his own relationship with his controversial Chicago pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., in a speech yesterday that sought to distance himself from Mr. Wright’s anti-American and seemingly anti-white teachings and to bridge a gap on racial understanding, particularly his own views.

Although Mr. Obama’s speech generated much attention, the Democratic presidential aspirant hasn’t been the only top-level candidate singled out for scrutiny over his private affiliations and conduct, political experts say, noting that for many, guilt by association is a campaign reality as skeletons in the closet tend to be exposed.

“Barack Obama is not being subject to some special test for black candidates,” says Jeremy Mayer, an associate professor at George Mason University who runs the school’s master’s program in public policy. “This is a test that all presidential candidates go through to some extent.”

Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1960s got into hot water when some of his supporters were linked to the John Birch Society, whose conspiratorial anti-communist stance was considered too extreme at the time. More recently, in the 1996 presidential primary, candidate Pat Buchanan was linked to anti-Semites and racists who had helped with his campaign, said Mr. Mayer, who authored the 2002 book “Running on Race.”

And the scrutiny isn’t limited to presidential politics. Yesterday, a day after replacing Eliot Spitzer, who was driven from office amid a prostitution scandal, New York Gov. David Paterson pre-emptively admitted to several affairs.

Wilfred McClay, a professor of humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, said the nation tends to seek in its leaders an “uncommon common man” prototype who is born into humble origins but also is a consummate leader. Such a lineage can bring problems.

“We sort of have this desire to see our political leaders, in particular our president, as kind of moral exemplars,” Mr. McClay said. “If they are not squeaky clean, then at least we feel entitled to judge their character and party, and the way you do that is by association. To put it bluntly, anyone who wants to rise in politics, particularly if they don’t have a lot of money, has to make their way by taking on associates and associations that they may need to liquidate later on.”

Neither party is immune. Mr. McClay said past associations presented problems for Democrats President Clinton and President Carter, whose upstart brother Billy’s connection to the Libyan government was dubbed “Billygate.”

“To some extent, it’s a problem that President Bush has also had although he’s been stubbornly loyal to people,” he said.

Even the much-beloved President Truman weathered a corrupt early history against a tough Midwest political machine, “yet handled it with such integrity,” as his political career moved forward, notes Robert Watson, an author and presidential scholar who heads the American studies program at Lynn University in Florida.

In the current presidential election, the campaign of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York gave $23,000 to charity in August after it was discovered that donor Norman Hsu, who had raised more than $1 million for the Democrats, was a fugitive.

Mrs. Clinton also disavowed remarks of her supporter and a one-time vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, who lamented publicly that Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton’s rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, wouldn’t have gotten as far as he has if he was a white man.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the presumptive Republican nominee was forced to distance himself from radio talk show host Bill Cunningham in February. Mr. Cunningham, as he warmed up the crowd at a campaign rally in Cincinnati, repeatedly referred to Mr. Obama as “Barack Hussein Obama.” His angry tirade was seen as an attempt to tar Mr. Obama by playing into fears and false rumors, which had circulated online and in the media, that the senator was Muslim.

“I apologize for it,” Mr. McCain said of the comments, which he did not approve or endorse.

Mr. McClay says he thinks it’s inevitable that candidates will pick up certain associations as their careers continue to rise. It’s a part of the network building and organizing needed to put together a national campaign. But with increased power, their network is increasingly under the microscope.

“In certain ways, the church made a lot of sense for Obama in an earlier phase of his political career. I suspected he never really expected how quickly he’d be thrust into a position as a presidential candidates and national savior and all these other roles that seem to have come to him so easily.

“The problem is how, do you distance yourself from the people who helped get you to where you are now. Almost invariably, those early associations are going to stand in the way of bigger and higher associations.”

Mr. Mayer said he approved of Mr. Obama’s speech and its tone, calling it “amazing,” but he predicts that such guilt by association mudslinging will continue as the election moves forward. Many political strategists, he adds, welcome it, if only because it gets opponents off their message and keeps them away from the issues.

“A good political operative like a Karl Rove or a James Carville will sit back and say [that] every second that he and his campaign are talking about a subject that hurts them or doesn’t help them, we win.”

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