What Obama really said about “my neighbor” (or, context is everything)

I was just listening to NPR this morning, and apparently, McCain is still peddling this line about Obama associations with “terrorist” William Ayers, about how calling this guy “just my neighbor” is a lie, how this speaks to Obama’s character, etc., etc. That darn untrustworthy Obama!

Well, as luck would have it, I found a link via daily kos to this story the other day, and the tab is still open on my browser. The “Ayers is just my neighbor” thing came up originally on an ABC News moderated event between Hillary Clinton (then clawing for life to stay in this thing) and Obama. The hosts were Charlie Gibson and George Stephanopoulos Here’s the transcript from the beginning; and here’s a link to the part of the debate that features the comments in question.

Below the “more” part, I include the whole passage so you can read it yourself, but basically, this comes up during a back and forth about patriotism and a question from someone on the internet about the whole flag lapel pin thing, and Stephanopoulos used this as a chance to turn it back to Ayers. The context here, ironically enough, was a discussion about whether or not Obama was “tough enough” to take on the Republicans when they make attacks like this one. As the full quote/passage makes clear, Obama said much more than “he’s just my neighbor,” and the context/direction of the conversation didn’t exactly lend itself to a full discussion of the Obama/Ayers relationship.

Besides the obvious and rather desperate smear McCain is trying here, a tactic that seems especially ugly given that the world economy appears to be ending, what bothers me personally is the bad freshman writing mistake that McCain is making here. I’ve seen plenty of students who take this tactic, cherry-picking quotes in order to make a point no matter what the evidence they are quoting really says. In other words, if McCain was a first year composition student and he handed in a paper about how Obama is a terrorist with this claim about Ayers, I’d probably circle that line “Obama lied about him just being my neighbor” and write something like “What is the full context of this quote, John? Do you really think that was the intent of your source? Is this the full story? It sounds like you’re twisting the words here.”

Anyway, here’s the whole thing:


STEPHANOPOULOS: And, Senator, if you get the nomination, you’ll have…

(APPLAUSE)

… to beat back these distractions.

And I want to give Senator Clinton a chance to respond, but first a follow-up on this issue, general theme of patriotism, in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers. He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that.

And, 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.” An early organizing meeting for your State Senate campaign was held at his house and your campaign has said you are “friendly.”

Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?

OBAMA: George, but this is an example of what I’m talking about. This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And 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.

The fact is that I’m also friendly with Tom Coburn, one of the most conservative Republicans in the United States Senate, who, during his campaign, once said that it might be appropriate to apply the death penalty to those who carried out abortions.

Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn’s statements? Because I certainly don’t agree with those, either.

So this kind of game in which anybody who I know, regardless of how flimsy the relationship is, that 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.

CLINTON: Well, I think that is a fair general statement, but I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation, which was a paid directorship position.

And, if I’m not mistaken, that relationship with Mr. Ayers on this 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 that he was just sorry they hadn’t done more.

And what they did was set bombs. And in some instances, people died. So it is — I think it is, again, an issue that people will be asking about.

And I have no doubt — I know Senator Obama’s a good man and I respect him greatly, but I think that this is an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising.

And it goes to this larger set of concerns about how we are going to run against John McCain. You know, I wish the Republicans would apologize for the disaster of the Bush-Cheney years and not run anybody, just say that it’s time for the Democrats to go back into the White House.

(APPLAUSE)

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to be willing to do that. So we know that they’re going to be out there, full force.

And, you know, I’ve been in this arena for a long time. I have a lot of baggage, and everybody has rummaged through it for years.

(LAUGHTER)

And so, therefore, I have an opportunity to come to this campaign with a very strong conviction and feeling that I will be able to withstand whatever the Republicans send our way.

OBAMA: Look, I’m going to have to respond to this just really quickly, but by Senator 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…

(APPLAUSE)

GIBSON: Please.

OBAMA: … than me serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.

Look, there is no doubt, that the Republicans will attack either of us. What I’ve been able to display during the course of this primary, is that I can take a punch. I’ve taken some pretty good ones from Senator Clinton.

And I don’t begrudge her of that. That’s part of what the political contest is about. I am looking forward to having a debate with John McCain. And I think every poll indicates that I am doing just as well, if not better, in pulling together the coalition that will defeat John McCain.

When it comes to November and people go to the polling place, they’re going to be asking, are we going to go through four more years of George Bush economic policies? Are we going through four more years of George Bush foreign policy? If we as Democrats and if I as the nominee have put forward a clear vision for how we’re going to move the country forward, deal with issues like energy dependence, lower gas prices, provide health care, get our troops out of Iraq, that is a debate that I’m happy to have and a debate that I’m confident that I can win.

GIBSON: And, Senator Clinton, I’m getting out of balance in terms of time. You’re getting short-changed here. If you want to reply here, fine. If you want to wait, we’ll do it in the next half hour.

CLINTON: We can wait. GIBSON: All right. We’ll take a commercial break. We will come back to the Democratic debate from the city of Philadelphia, before the Pennsylvania primary. We’ll continue. Stay with us.

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