Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler
A reader contest in the spirit of Philadelphia's April 16 presidential debate.
In the April 16 ABC News debate, George Stephanopoulos—following on an idiotic question from Charlie Gibson to Barack Obama asking why he doesn't wear a flag lapel pin more often—posed a question suggested to him the day before by Sean Hannity, the right-wing Fox News blowhard:
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 answered that he scarcely knew Ayers, that they happened to live in the same neighborhood, and that he regarded Ayers' past participation in bombings as "detestable."
I yield to no one in my distaste for Bill Ayers and the fashionably outré image that he and his wife, former Weather Underground coed Bernardine Dohrn, have managed to cultivate. Indeed, I believe I was the first journalist to point out Ayers’ bad timing with that bomb quote, which rolled off the presses mere hours before al-Qaida's planes hit most of their targets. I also panned ( here and here) Ayers' morally clueless memoir and bemoaned the shockingly favorable reception it received prior to 9/11. Bill Ayers: bad guy!
But to call Obama's 1995 visit to the house Ayers shares with Dohrn an "early organizing meeting" is simply dishonest. According to a Feb. 22 article by Ben Smith in Politico, Obama was taken to the Ayers-Dohrn residence by State Sen. Alice Palmer, who wanted Obama to succeed her. The actual purpose of the meeting appears to have been for Palmer to announce to a small group of Hyde Park supporters that she was stepping down. (Don't they employ fact-checkers at ABC News?) At the debate, Hillary Clinton piled on by pointing out that Obama also served with Ayers on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago, a poverty-fighting nonprofit. This gave Obama the opportunity to point out that Hillary's husband commuted the jail sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, Linda Evans and Susan Rosenberg. He might further have pointed out (but didn't) that Rosenberg is strongly suspected of having driven a getaway vehicle in a 1981 Weather Underground robbery in which three members of Hillary's beloved proletariat were killed. Ayers, by sheer luck, seems never to have killed anybody.
Since guilt by association is the emerging theme of campaign '08, I propose that we carry this smear-off to its logical conclusion with a reader contest in the spirit of John Guare's delicious play Six Degrees of Separation(the movie was pretty good, too) and the parlor game it inspired, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. The idea (which journalist Malcolm Gladwell further explored in an essay about, by illustrative coincidence, the mother of Slate's editor) is that every person on planet Earth can be connected to every other person by six steps of association. Guare's character Ouisa Kittredge (Stockard Channing in both play and movie) puts it this way:
I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The president of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names. I find that extremely comforting, that we're so close, but I also find it like Chinese water torture that we're so close because you have to find the right six people to make the connection. It's not just big names—it's anyone. A native in a rain forest, a Tierra del Fuegan, an Eskimo. I am bound—you are bound—to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people. It's a profound thought….
I will call my game Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler. Readers are invited to connect, via documented acquaintanceships—friendly or unfriendly—Der Führer with any one of the three remaining major presidential candidates. Whoever is able to connect a candidate to Hitler with the fewest number of "degrees," or steps, will be named the winner. Send entries to firstname.lastname@example.org (subject heading: Hitler contest) by noon on April 18. Let's show Stephanopoulos and Gibson what rank amateurs they are at the game of character assassination.
[Click here for the winners.]
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.
Photograph of Adolf Hitler portrait by AFP/Getty Images.