The controversy over Sen. Barack Obama’s ties to William C. Ayers took center stage last week during the third and final presidential debate, with Sen. John McCain saying the Democratic nominee had not adequately explained his relationship with the education professor and former member of the radical Weather Underground.
It was the first face-to-face exchange over Mr. Ayers by the two presidential candidates.
The issue has simmered since the primary-election season, but made headlines earlier this month when Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Sen. McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket, accused Sen. Obama of “palling around with terrorists.”
The McCain campaign and other sources turned up the heat with TV and Web ads questioning Mr. Obama’s judgment in associating with Mr. Ayers, who has acknowledged taking part in bombings of the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol during the 1970s, and accusing Mr. Obama of being dishonest about their ties.
During the Oct. 15 debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News touched off a discussion of character attacks by the two campaigns.
During the ensuing back-and-forth, Sen. Obama mentioned Gov. Palin’s comment, as well as his concerns that some people at Sen. McCain’s campaign events had yelled out “terrorist” and “kill him” about the Democratic nominee.
The exchange about negative campaigning continued, and Sen. McCain eventually invoked Mr. Ayers’ name.
“I don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist,” Sen. McCain said. “But as Senator [Hillary Rodham] Clinton said in her [Democratic primary] debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship.”
Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, served together during the 1990s on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an education reform project funded in part by the Annenberg Foundation. The two also served together on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago from 2000 to 2002.
People who were involved with the Chicago Annenberg project have said that the connection between Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers was not close, and that the heads of key philanthropies in Chicago, not Mr. Ayers, were responsible for Mr. Obama’s involvement in the project. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’”, Oct. 15, 2008.)
In the debate, Sen. Obama said that “Mr. Ayers has become the centerpiece of Senator McCain’s campaign over the last two or three weeks,” later saying that “when people suggest that I pal around with terrorists, then we’re not talking about issues.”
He denounced Mr. Ayers’ radical past, as he has before, and noted that the Chicago Annenenberg project’s had board included several conservatives and mainstream educators.
Sen. Obama referred to, though not by name, board members Scott Smith, a former publisher of the Chicago Tribune; Stanley Ikenberry, a former president of the University of Illnois system; and former Northwestern University president Arnold R. Weber, who was then president of the civic committee of the Commercial Club of Chicago, the city’s leading business group. Mr. Weber has given money to Mr. McCain’s campaign.
“Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, [Mr. Ayers] engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group,” Mr. Obama said. “I have roundly condemned those acts. Ten years ago he served and I served on a school reform board that was funded by one of Ronald Reagan’s former ambassadors and close friends, Mr. Annenberg.” (Walter H. Annenberg actually served under President Richard M. Nixon.)
“Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House. So that’s Mr. Ayers,” Sen. Obama concluded.
For his part, Sen. McCain appeared to remain unsatisfied, telling Fox News the morning after the debate that “Senator Obama didn’t tell the whole truth about his relationship with Mr. Ayers last night.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 22, 2008 edition of Education Week