WASHINGTON — Just when Sen. Barack Obama thought he might be getting past a rocky stretch of negative news, he found himself facing new questions about his patriotism. Obama was grilled in a nationally televised debate about why he doesn’t wear an American flag on his lapel — fairly common fare for politicians these days — and his ties to a former member of the radical group Weather Underground who’s refused to apologize for planting bombs at government buildings in the 1970s.
He tried to brush aside the questions — posed by a Pennsylvania voter, the ABC News debate moderators and rival New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. “Manufactured,” Obama called them.
But the fact that those questions are percolating and the fact that Obama himself came prepared to fire back with opposition research about Bill Clinton’s pardon of two Weather Underground radicals suggest he knows that they could hurt him both in the Democratic primaries and almost certainly in a general election campaign against John McCain.
The first was raised on videotape by a Pennsylvanian identified as Nash McCabe from Latrobe.
“I want to know if you believe in the American flag,” the woman said. ”I am not questioning your patriotism. But all our servicemen, policemen and EMS wear the flag. I want to know why you don't.”
“I revere the American flag,” Obama said. “I would not be standing here if it wasn't for this country ... There's no other country in which my story is even possible. Somebody who was born to a teenage mom, raised by a single mother and grandparents from small towns in Kansas, you know, who was able to get an education and rise to the point where I can run for the highest office in the land, I could not help but love this country for all that it's given me.”
He also said he showed his patriotism by working to help veterans, to end the Iraq war and to improve health care and the economy. He went on to rip into those who raise the issue, which is widely mentioned on the Internet and on conservative media. “I have never said that I don't wear flag pins or refuse to wear flag pins,” he said. “This is the kind of manufactured issue that our politics has become obsessed with.”
He also was asked about his relationship with William Ayers, who was part of the Weather Underground and refused to apologize for its bombings. “I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough,” Ayers told The New York Times in an article published on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked New York and the Pentagon.
Ayers reportedly hosted a 1995 campaign meeting for Obama when Obama was running for the Illinois state Senate, and the Obama campaign was quoted as calling the two men friendly. They served together on the board of a Chicago foundation.
Obama also brushed that aside as another example of a manufactured issue, far from the concerns of regular voters.
“This is an example of what I'm talking about,” he told moderator George Stephanopoulos. He said his relationship with Ayers was casual, and that they did not exchange ideas “on a regular basis.”
“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,” Obama added.
He drew a parallel to a conservative friend, Republican Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, noting that Coburn once said it might be appropriate to execute those who provide abortions. “Do I need to apologize for Mr. Coburn's statements? Because I certainly don't agree with those, either,” Obama said.
He said he trusted that Americans would see through the guilt by association.
Clinton differed, and she argued that many Americans would, too. She noted that Obama continued to serve on a charitable board with Ayers after his 2001 comments, which she called hurtful to New Yorkers. “It is ... an issue that people will be asking about,” Clinton said.
Obama was clearly prepared, even as he tried to dismiss the criticisms as politics as usual. He hammered back at Clinton when she tried to say she wouldn't face such questions because enemies already have gone through all of her political baggage.
“By Senator Clinton's own vetting standards, I don't think she would make it,” Obama said, “since President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act.”
How Pennsylvanians viewed the exchange will be known Tuesday, when they go to the polls. But however Pennsylvanians vote, they will almost certainly not have the last word on the subject — especially if Obama becomes the Democrats' presidential nominee.