EARLY IN HIS 1980 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan spoke at the Neshoba County Fair near Philadelphia, Miss., a town infamous for the murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. In the course of remarks dealing mostly with economics and education, he said: "I believe in states' rights. I believe in people doing as much as they can at the community level and the private level." (You can hear Reagan's speech at http://www.onlinemadison.com/ftp/reagan/reaganneshoba.mp3).
Reagan should have known better than to use a phrase like "states' rights," however innocuously, in a place like Mississippi. His campaign appearance wasn't a veiled appeal to segregationists -- Reagan was no racist -- but for more than a quarter-century, that is how his detractors on the left have spun it. Bob Herbert wrote in The New York Times last year that Reagan went to Mississippi "to assure the bigots that he was with them." It's an ugly calumny -- and a good example of guilt by association at its most poisonous.
A more recent example occurred in 2000, when George W. Bush made a campaign stop at Bob Jones University, a school known for anti-Catholicism and a ban on interracial dating. Other than that single brief visit, Bush had no tie to Bob Jones. He hadn't studied there, never supported it financially, didn't share its racial or religious views. Nevertheless, he was sharply criticized for his appearance. The media declared it a "defining moment" of Bush's campaign, and many of his critics (including then-rival John McCain) pronounced him guilty by association of aligning himself with Bob Jones's noxious teachings.
One other illustration: the bludgeoning of Samuel Alito during his Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 2006. Senate Democrats led by Ted Kennedy pummeled Alito over his membership in the long-defunct Concerned Alumni of Princeton, a conservative group in which Alito had never played an active role. A former ROTC cadet, he had joined the organization in support of its call for restoring the military program to Princeton. But because it had also blasted racial and gender preferences in admissions, Kennedy and other Democrats insinuated that Alito must be a bigot.
In none of these cases was there anything like the relationship that Barack Obama had for so many years with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the incendiary, America-damning pastor he described for years as his mentor, his sounding board, and his friend. In none of them was there anything comparable to Obama's significant involvement with William Ayers, the domestic-terrorist-turned-extremist-professor with whom Obama worked closely at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, channeling more than $100 million into radical education projects.
Nor was anything in the Reagan, Bush, or Alito episodes akin to Obama's highly profitable relationship with Tony Rezko, the crooked Chicago businessman and political fixer who was convicted in June on multiple counts of fraud, corrupt solicitation, and money laundering. In the course of their 17-year relationship, Rezko directed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Obama's political war chests; he also facilitated the Obamas' purchase of a $1.6 million mansion by agreeing to buy the adjoining lot from the same seller.
More and more loudly, Obama and his defenders have been insisting that to call attention to these deplorable associations is to engage in ridiculous and unfair "guilt by association."
But it isn't ridiculous to question the values of a candidate whose political career got its start in the Chicago living room of violent traitors like Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, who have never expressed remorse for the brutal crimes they committed in the Weather Underground. There is nothing unfair about wondering how Obama could have worshipped for 20 years in Wright's church, yet never objected to the fanatic pastor's virulent diatribes: that AIDS was created by the US government as an instrument of genocide, that America is the "US of KKKA," that the 9/11 slaughter was "America's chickens coming home to roost."
Guilt by association? Not when the associations have such deep roots or raise such troubling questions about Obama's character and judgment. It was only in the heat of a presidential campaign that Obama finally repudiated his alliances with Ayers, Wright, and Rezko. It isn't irresponsible to ask what those associations tell us about a man poised to be the next president of the United States. It would be irresponsible not to.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)