Thomas Franks in the Wall Street Journal:
"Waving the bloody shirt"was the phrase once used to describe the standard demagogic tactic of the late 19th century, when memories of the Civil War were still vivid and loyalists of both parties could be moved to "vote as they shot."
In 1896 the Democrats chose William Jennings Bryan as their leader, a man who was born in 1860 and had thus missed the Civil War, but who seemed to threaten the consensus politics of the time. In response, Republican campaign masterminds organized a speaking tour of the Midwest by a handful of surviving Union generals. The veterans advanced through the battleground states in a special train adorned with patriotic bunting, pictures of their candidate, William McKinley, and a sign declaring, "We are Opposed to Anarchy and Repudiation."
The culture wars are the familiar demagogic tactic of our own time, building monstrous offenses out of the tiniest slights. The fading rancor that each grievance is meant to revive, of course, dates to the 1960s and the antiwar protests, urban riots and annoying youth culture that originally triggered our great turn to the right.
This year the Democrats chose Barack Obama as their leader, a man who was born in 1961 and who largely missed our cultural civil war. In response, Republican campaign masterminds have sought to plunge him back into it in the most desperate and grotesque manner yet.
For days on end, the Republican presidential campaign has put nearly all of its remaining political capital on emphasizing Mr. Obama's time on various foundation boards with Bill Ayers, a former member of the Weathermen, which planted bombs and issued preposterous statements in the Vietnam era. Some on the right seem to believe Mr. Ayers is Mr. Obama's puppet-master, while others are content merely to insist that the association proves Mr. Obama to be soft on terrorism. Maybe he's soft on anarchy and repudiation, too.
I can personally attest to the idiocy of it all because I am a friend of Mr. Ayers. In fact, I met him in the same way Mr. Obama says he did: 10 years ago, Mr. Ayers was a guy in my neighborhood in Chicago who knew something about fundraising. I knew nothing about it, I needed to learn, and a friend referred me to Bill.
Bill's got lots of friends, and that's because he is today a dedicated servant of those less fortunate than himself; because he is unfailingly generous to people who ask for his help; and because he is kind and affable and even humble. Moral qualities which, by the way, were celebrated boisterously on day one of the GOP convention in September.
Mr. Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where his work is esteemed by colleagues of different political viewpoints. Herbert Walberg, an advocate of school vouchers who is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, told me he remembers Mr. Ayers as "a responsible colleague, in the professional sense of the word." Bill Schubert, who served as the chairman of UIC's Department of Curriculum and Instruction for many years, thinks so highly of Mr. Ayers that, in response to the current allegations, he compiled a lengthy résumé of the man's books, journal articles, guest lectures and keynote speeches. Mr. Ayers has been involved with countless foundation efforts and has received various awards. He volunteers for everything. He may once have been wanted by the FBI, but in the intervening years the man has become such a good citizen he ought to be an honorary Eagle Scout.
I do not defend the things Mr. Ayers did in his Weatherman days. Nor will I quibble with those who find Mr. Ayers wanting in contrition. His 2001 memoir is shot through with regret, but it lacks the abject style our culture prefers.
Instead I want to note that, in its haste to convict a man merely for associating with Mr. Ayers, the GOP is effectively proposing to make the upcoming election into the largest mass trial in history, with all those professors and all those do-gooders on the hook for someone else's deeds four decades ago. Also in the dock: the demonic city (Chicago) that once named Mr. Ayers its "Citizen of the Year." Fire up Hurricane Katrina and point it toward Lake Michigan!
The McCain campaign has made much of its leader's honor and bravery, but now it has chosen to mount its greatest attack against a man who poses no conceivable threat to the country, who has nothing to do with this year's issues, and who cannot or will not defend himself. Apparently this makes him an irresistible target.
There are a lot of things to call this tactic, but "country first" isn't one of them. The nation wants its hope and confidence restored, and Republican leaders have chosen instead to wave the bloody shirt. This is their vilest hour.