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Obama's Links To Ex-Radical Examined

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Obama's Links To Ex-Radical Examined

Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL)

Obama's Links To Ex-Radical Examined

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Guilt by association is the theme of the presidential race today. The McCain campaign is continuing its attack on Barack Obama for his contact with the 1960s radical Bill Ayers. And today, the Obama campaign fired back with a 15-minute web video on John McCain's connection to Charles Keating in the savings and loan crisis that began in the late 1980s.

SIEGEL: We have two reports now seeking the truth behind those attacks. In a moment, NPR's Peter Overby will explore McCain's relationship with Charles Keating. First, NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago on Obama and Bill Ayers.

DAVID SCHAPER: Here's what Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is saying about Barack Obama on the stump.

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska; 2008 Republican Vice Presidential Nominee): Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

(Soundbite of crowd booing)

SCHAPER: She's talking about Bill Ayers, founding member of the radical anti-Vietnam war group known as the Weathermen and later as the Weather Underground. The group bombed targets including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol building. Ayers left the group sometime in the mid-70s. In the 1980s, Ayers became a professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago and worked to reform Chicago's beleaguered public schools. It was in that capacity that he and Obama first met in 1995.

Later that year, Ayers hosted a getting-to-know-you coffee at his house as Obama was preparing for his first campaign, a run for the Illinois senate. But here's how Obama described this connection to Ayers in an April debate.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; 2008 Democratic Presidential Nominee): This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English in Chicago.

SCHAPER: Obama went on to call Ayers' involvement in a Weatherman detestable and something that happened when he was eight years old. Still, some in Chicago who know the truth suggest that, while they may not have been tight, their relationship is certainly closer than Obama allowed. Obama adviser David Axelrod once said Obama and Ayers were certainly friendly.

Obama served as the first chair of the board for the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a $50 million school reform effort that Ayers worked on as well. That board and the broader school reform movement included Democrats, Republicans, and independents who worked with Ayers, says Republican former Illinois State Representative Diana Nelson.

Former State Representative DIANA NELSON (Republican, Illinois): It was never a concern by any of us in the Chicago school reform movement that he had led a fugitive life years earlier.

SCHAPER: Ayers and Obama also served together on the board of another charity, the Woods Fund in Chicago, an organization that also had conservative members, too. And Diana Nelson says Republicans in Chicago and Illinois have never before criticized anyone who associated with Ayers in this way.

Ms. NELSON: It's nonsensical, and it makes me just crazy, David. It's so silly. It's just silly.

SCHAPER: Silly or not, the Obama campaign is taking it seriously enough to fire back at McCain over his connection to the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s and his ties to Charles Keating. David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.

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