Palling Around With Obama's 'Radicals'

That old video of Barack Obama defending a Harvard professor is a reminder not only of the president's past as an activist and organizer, but also of his opponents' insistence that the president has a crazy extremist past. It also introduces a new character – Derrick Bell – into the web of "radicals" popularized in the blogosphere and by conservative websites.

The conservative Internet publisher Andrew Breitbart, who died last week, had claimed that he had a video of Obama from his days at Harvard that would show just how extreme the president actually is.

Now the video is out (even though it hadn't been a secret and doesn't seem to include a smoking gun into anything), and Obama's opponents are seizing on it as another example of his shady connections.

In case you need a cheat sheet, here's a reminder of just some of the purported radicals said to have shaped Obama before he sat in the Oval Office:

PHOTO: Members of 1960s radical group the Weather Underground, Bill Ayers respond to his latest controversy at the Hyde Park Arts Center in South Chicago in this May 25, 2009 file photo.
Rich Hein/Sun-Times/AP Photo
Bill Ayers

How radical is he?

The University of Illinois professor was a leader of the Weathermen, a domestic terrorist group that claimed responsibility for a number of bombings on federal buildings in the 1970s. Also he's probably a Bob Dylan fan ("You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows").

How did he shape Obama?

Ayers and his like-minded wife hosted Obama at their home once, in 1995, when Obama was running for state senate in Illinois. Obama and Ayers were also both on the board of a Chicago charity. Sarah Palin interpreted those connections to mean that Obama was "palling around with terrorists."

What has Obama said about him?

Obama has condemned Ayers's actions from the 1970s and said during his presidential campaign that the Weatherman was "not somebody who I exchanged ideas from on a regular basis."

PHOTO: Reverend Jeremiah Wright, senior pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, pauses during a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in this April 28, 2008 file photo.
Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Jeremiah Wright

What kinds of "crazy" things has he said?

The Chicago pastor's more inflammatory comments include referring to the country as the "U.S. of K.K.K. A.," saying that blacks should sing "God damn America" instead of "God bless America," suggesting that the United States brought about Sept. 11 by bombing people around the world, and insisting that the government created AIDS as a way to kill blacks.

Is he Obama's best friend?

Obama named his book after Wright's sermon, "The Audacity of Hope," and he was a member of the reverend's congregation until he ran for president. Wright was present at the ceremony when Obama announced he would run for president.

What has Obama said about him?

During the 2008 campaign, controversy surrounding Wright at first compelled Obama to give a big speech about race, in which he said, "I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother." Wright, continued to make inflammatory statements, however. In the end, Obama repeatedly disavowed the comments made by his former pastor. "When I say I found his comments appalling, I mean it," he said at a press conference. "Anybody who has worked with me, who knows my life, who read my books, who have seen what this campaign is about will understand it is completely opposed to what I stand for and where I want to take this country."

PHOTO: Saul Alinsky, a professional organizer with a strong aversion to welfare programs, is shown in this photo dated Feb. 20, 1966
AP Photo
Saul Alinsky

What kind of radical is he?

A Chicago activist who urged community organizers to adopt confrontation as the ideal way to bring about change, the influential author of "Rules for Radicals," and Newt Gingrich's most frequently cited extremist who has a connection to Obama. Also, he embedded himself in Al Capone's gang to study criminology, which isn't exactly radical but is pretty cool.

What's the connection?

Obama and Alinsky never met (he died in 1972 when Obama was 11), but a short essay from 1988 shows that despite being influenced by the activist's radical teachings, Obama preached a more conciliatory approach in theory. Obama led workshops based on Alinsky's practices. Newt Gingrich, on the campaign trail has repeatedly referred to Obama as a "Saul Alinsky radical."

What has Obama said about him?

Nothing really. But here's a portion of an interview that Alinsky gave to Playboy magazine in 1972 about getting in with Capone:

"I went over to the old Lexington Hotel, which was the gang's headquarters, and I hung around the lobby and the restaurant. I'd spot one of the mobsters whose picture I'd seen in the papers and go up to him and say, 'I'm Saul Alinsky, I'm studying criminology, do you mind if I hang around with you?' And he'd look me over and say, Get lost, punk.' This happened again and again, and I began to feel I'd never get anywhere. Then one night I was sitting in the restaurant and at the next table was Big Ed Stash, a professional assassin who was the Capone mob's top executioner. He was drinking with a bunch of his pals and he was saying, 'Hey, you guys, did I ever tell you about the time I picked up that redhead in Detroit?' and he was cut off by a chorus of moans. 'My God,' one guy said, 'do we have to hear that one again?' I saw Big Ed's face fall; mobsters are very sensitive, you know, very thin-skinned. And I reached over and plucked his sleeve. 'Mr. Stash,' I said, 'I'd love to hear that story.' His face lit up. 'You would, kid?' He slapped me on the shoulder. 'Here, pull up a chair. Now, this broad, see . . .' And that's how it started.

Derrick Bell

How radical is he?

The first black Harvard professor to be tenured threatened to resign in 1990 because a black female colleague hadn't been given tenure. In 1992, he told The New York Times: "I certainly don't favor anti-Semitism. But when blacks talk about discrimination and how bad it is, it never gets full value. It's, 'There he goes again, special pleading.' When a black criticizes blacks who have done or said something that upset white folks, it gives them superstanding."

How damaging is his connection with Obama?

Probably not that substantial. An old video being recirculated shows Obama speaking at a protest in support of Bell. "Open up your hearts and your minds to the words of professor Derrick Bell," Obama said before hugging the teacher. Obama included Bell's book his syllabus for students as a law professor.

Is there any other connection?

Actually, yes! Well, it's a little tangential ... but remember Henry Louis Gates Jr., the Harvard professor who was arrested by the Cambridge police in 2009, prompting Obama to say the department acted "stupidly"? And then the beer summit happened? Bell apparently had some beef with Gates 20 years ago.

From that 1992 Times interview: "He is angry at Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor who wrote a long article in The New York Times this year about the danger of black anti-Semitism. Blacks, Mr. Bell says, should be very careful about criticizing each other, because whites love it so much when they do."

Michael Pfleger


Rev. Michael Pfleger is another eccentric Chicago church leader who has drawn attention for his comments on race. He claimed that Hillary Clinton felt "entitled" to the presidency as a white person, among other things. He was suspended by the Catholic Church last year after he threatened to leave the church. Michelle Malkin called him a "prog nutball."

What's the Obama connection?

He was on the Catholics for Obama Committee. Some right-wing critics claim that Obama's membership in the Trinity United Church of Christ (under Rev. Wright) amounts to "decades-long ties to Michael Pfleger."

Frank Marshall Davis

What's his story?

Depending on what you read ... Frank Marshall Davis was Obama's real father, his childhood mentor, a Communist, a labor activist who wrote literature and newspaper articles, and – if you believe the tabloids – a sex pervert.

How much of that is true?

Definitely the labor activist and writer part; in the first half of the last century, Davis reported and edited stories from Hawaii, Chicago and Atlanta, and he was the editor of the Associated Negro Press. In World War II, he wrote commentary about blacks' future and struggle for rights in the United States.

Where does Obama come in?

Obama wrote in his 1995 book "Dreams from My Father" that he would visit Davis to talk about race. He quotes Davis in 1979 describing the role of universities: "Leaving your race at the door. Leaving your people behind. Understand something, boy. You're not going to college to get educated. You're going there to get trained."

Don't read too much into it, though. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that the author of Davis's memoir "said that there was no mention" of Obama in any of Davis's papers.

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