Campaign smears: Blasts from the past

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has been videotaped palling around — well, maybe not palling around, but certainly engaging in mutual discourse — with a man known to have filed false income tax returns.

Obama has been seen in the company of Republican presidential nominee John McCain.

This revelation, presented here exclusively in the most sensational way possible, is of major significance for one reason: It illustrates just how idiotic the two presidential campaigns have become in dredging up ancient stories hoping to smear their opponent.

Here’s how this week’s smarmy sideshows began: McCain’s strategists starting it — with a little help from The New York Times and before that, from Hillary Clinton.

On Oct.4, the newspaper printed a front-page investigation of whether or not Obama had a close relationship with a professor, Bill Ayers, a Chicago education person of the year, who had worked on projects with Obama in the mid-1990s, but who in the Vietnam War years led the anti-war Weathermen group that perpetrated bombings that killed people and planned other attacks on the Pentagon and Capitol.

Conservatives had been making much of the Obama-Ayers ties on YouTube and elsewhere. But they were just following the trail blazed by Sen. Clinton, who criticized Obama’s ties with Ayers when she was desperately trying to resurrect her floundering candidacy during the Democratic primary season.

Importantly, The Times investigation concluded that "the two men do not appear to have been close." And it noted that Obama had condemned as "detestable acts" the bombings perpetrated by Ayers anti-war terror group, back when Obama was eight years old. But to learn that, readers had to wade through the first 225 words of the leisurely-constructed story that appeared beneath a titillating headline that seemed to suggest something else: "Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths."

McCain’s strategists predictably ignored the newspaper’s investigative conclusion, wound up their vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin, and dispatched her to do her attack thing. She shamelessly declared that Obama had been "palling around with terrorists."

Team Obama pounced. They out-excavated McCain’s use of a 1990s link by digging up McCain’s past ties with 1980s savings and loan scandal figure Charles Keating of Phoenix. McCain had been one of five senators who had met with federal regulators to urge them to end their probe of Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan for rules violations. Naturally, Keating had given the senators sizable campaign contributions.

McCain later wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury for $112,000, the amount Keating raised for his campaigns. So this week, Obama’s campaign released a slickly produced 13-minute video detailing and deploring McCain’s ties to the Keating scandal. Never mind that McCain has said that he regretted his Keating actions and had rebounded from the scandal to become a campaign-spending reformer.

One thing Obama’s video didn’t mention was that years after the Keating scandal, federal officials noticed that Keating had deducted as business expenses money he spent on various McCain family vacations. Keating had flown the senator, his family and their baby sitter to his home in the Bahamas for a vacation, and also on other trips.

But McCain never listed Keating’s gifts as income on his tax forms. When the IRS questioned McCain about it, the Associated Press reported, he said he thought his wife had reimbursed Keating for the trips. Then McCain wrote the government a check for more than $13,000 to cover the income taxes he owed — a little-known epilogue to a well-known scandal.

With global financial markets in meltdown, American troops at war on two fronts and Election Day approaching fast, the strategists of Campaign ’08 are desperate pros working their cons. They think they can whip up new controversies by wagging old tales. Pay no attention to their sideshow.



(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service. E-mail him at martin.schram(at)