ON Saturday, the New York Times made front-page news of William Ayers' relationship with Barack Obama, catapulting the stuff of talk radio and conservative ire into the mainstream media.
Ayers is the onetime leader of the Weather Underground, a 1970s domestic terrorist organization responsible for bombing several government buildings. He has since become an education professor in Chicago, where his community work has been lauded by Mayor Richard Daley, among others.
Although it seems Obama has attempted to downplay his relationship with Ayers, it also doesn't look like the two were particularly close. They lived in the same neighborhood and worked together on community projects in the 1990s.
Ayers hosted an event for Obama when the Democratic presidential nominee first launched his political career in Chicago. In 2001, he made a $200 donation to Obama's state Senate campaign. Obama, for his part, has condemned the crimes committed by Ayers and the Weathermen.
Like others, I'm troubled by Ayers. If he were indeed a close friend of Obama, it would be a deal breaker. I couldn't cast my presidential vote for a man who befriended a bomber. It's bad enough for Obama to sit passively through the ravings of a guy like Rev. Wright. But to befriend - or even associate with for the purpose of political advancement - a man who actually attacked the country is entirely another.
But if the facts suggest that Ayers is on the periphery of Obama's public life, it raises a different question: Should candidates be held accountable for the conduct of their acquaintances?
Because if we begin to judge people's character based on those in their orbit with whom they have no real relationship, I may as well surrender my pen.
While no one in any circle of my life has bombed a building in the U.S., there are some real characters - a few have done time, some have probably cheated on their wives, one I suspect of tax fraud and quite a number are in the DUI club. Should my acquaintances hinder my ability to be a journalist?
There's even a guy I know who is 50ish and still smokes pot. A better concert companion you will not find.
I have a distant relative who relishes paying the IRS far less than his fair share of taxes.
I remember when a onetime neighbor attempted to off herself. And another who, unfortunately, was successful.
Some guys I went to high school with ran a big bookmaking ring. One former public servant writes to me from prison and I write back.
When I worked in government, I had to fire a guy when it was revealed that he owed casinos hundreds of thousands in gambling debts. I should've known he was too connected down the Shore when he got me front-row seats for Sinatra at the Sands.
Speaking of connected, there was the time I attended a wedding at the Ben Franklin Hotel, where Joey Merlino was also a guest. I think somebody other than the hired photographer took my picture on the way inside. More people paid their respects to Merlino than to the groom.
Obama likes to remind us that he was 8 when Ayers participated in those destructive acts. Well, when I was 10, G. Gordon Liddy broke into the Watergate Hotel. Eight years later, I took him to dinner when he came to speak on my college campus. (And, for the record, I condemn the actions of those involved in Watergate.)
If we start to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon when selecting public servants, we'd better be ready for a diminished pool of candidates. (That might include Sen. McCain, whose dealings on behalf of Charles Keating were enough to garner a wrist slap from the Senate Ethics Committee almost 20 years ago.)
If the vetting process for a presidential candidate now extends to people with whom they've had even minimal contact, it may keep some otherwise qualified individuals out of the system.
I suspect not too many in the seminary or rabbinical school are ready to run for office. *
Listen to Michael Smerconish weekdays 5-9 a.m. on the Big Talker, 1210/AM. Read him Sundays in the Inquirer. Contact him via the Web at www.mastalk.com.