ABC News anchor George Stephanopoulos, a co-host of Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, quizzed presidential candidate Barack Obama about his relationship with William Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground, a radical group that conspired to bomb buildings such as the Pentagon in the 1970s.
Prefacing the issue under the “general theme of patriotism,” and previous questions about why Obama has, at times, refused to wear an American flag lapel pin, Stephanopoulos noted, “[Ayers] never apologized for [the bombings]. 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.’” The ABC host pointedly observed that Obama’s campaign has described the relationship with Ayers as “friendly.” Stephanopoulos then asked, “Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
[UPDATE, from Brent Baker. The question enraged MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who charged at the start of his 10 PM EDT live post-debate second edition of Countdown: "The campaign may have seemed dirty. It had nothing on one of the moderators of the debate tonight." He soon elaborated on his anger at Stephanopoulos [audio here]:
The real story of his debate may not be found where they found the answers, but where one of the moderators found his questions: Sean Hannity of Fox News, and separately a local New York right wing radio host [presumably Steve Malzberg], each insisting during interviews this week with George Stephanopoulos of ABC that he ask Senator Obama about his tenuous past link to 60s and 70s terrorist radical William Ayers. Tonight, Stephanopoulos did that.]
Obama’s response included stating that Ayers's actions happened when he was very young and asserted they weren’t relevant. Oddly, he went on to compare a man who was involved in bombings that killed people to his colleague, Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma. Obama stated, “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.”
It should be pointed out that conservative radio host Sean Hannity encouraged Stephanopoulos, who appeared on Hannity's show on Monday, to ask the question about Ayers.
A transcript of Stephanopoulos’s question and Obama’s comment about Coburn follow:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: 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 were “friendly.” Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?
BARACK OBAMA: 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.
*****Update at 10:00 PM by Noel Sheppard: It should also be noted that WOR radio's Steve Malzberg suggested Stephanopoulos ask this question when he interviewed the "This Week" host on Tuesday:
William Ayers is a man who was head of the Weather Underground, a radical group in the 60s and 70s, set bombs at the Capitol, set bombs at the Pentagon, and was quoted in the New York Times oddly enough, ironically on September 11 before obviously the events of that day, saying that he didn't go far enough, and he doesn't regret it at all, and he wished he could have done more. Your campaign has described your relationship with William Ayers as "friendly." How could a man running for the presidency of the United States possibly have anything to do with, or have anything but disdain for a man who did what he has done to this country?
Stephanopoulos responsed to the last query: "It's a damn good question."