Blogs > HNN > Should Historians (or Anyone Else) Care About the Past (of Barack Obama)?

Oct 26, 2008 10:47 pm

Should Historians (or Anyone Else) Care About the Past (of Barack Obama)?

Past is prologue, or so we often say.

But the consensus among the intelligentsia seems to be that this aphorism does not apply to Barack Obama—at least not when names like William Ayers and Jeremiah Wright come up. Should it?

Let’s be clear that many esteemed politicians at one point or another in their careers have unlovely associations. Harry S. Truman was a loyal henchman of Kansas City’s Pendergast machine in its heyday and never renounced it. Boss Tom’s creative voting manipulations (which ACORN would envy) launched Truman into the U.S. Senate. (Of course, in those days the other side was also creative.) Franklin D. Roosevelt made peace with New York City’s Tammany Hall. As Governor of New York, needing its support for his 1932 presidential run, he desperately tried to avoid prosecution of its multiple corrupt practices.

Roosevelt and Truman almost surely would not have established relationships with Ayers and Wright.

Does that say something about Obama, or about ourselves in the present day?

Rev. Wright is a bitter and polemical black nationalist, who demonstrated in his National Press Club appearance that his “God damn America” line had not been taken out of context. I doubt that Barack Obama bought into his worldview. I suspect that an aspiring young politician looking for a church to affiliate with saw Wright’s large and influential black Chicago congregation as ideal place for networking.

The Reverend’s own crazy and hateful pronouncements extravagantly expressed the suppressed rage many of his congregants felt from the slights—real and imagined—that come with being black in America. And in the Chicago political world of Mayor Ritchie Daley (Daley machine 2.0, a profound leap forward from Richard J. Daley’s primitive machine 1.0), Wright got respect.

Ayers was indeed a revolutionary terrorist dedicated to the overthrow of “the system” through the use of explosives at targets like the Capitol and the Pentagon. He planned at one point to inflict casualties on the enemies of mankind by setting off a couple of pipe bombs at an Army officers dance. He knew he was not tossing firecrackers and has written that he expected to kill and maim people. In the classic mode of revolutionary terrorists, he believed one could not make an omelet without breaking eggs—or limbs or lives. He failed, but not for lack of trying.

The liberal political system he hated let him off because the conclusive evidence of his guilt had been improperly gathered. Northwestern University gave him a doctorate in education. The University of Illinois at Chicago gave him a teaching position that has become the latest redoubt for his continuing war against the system. A well-heeled foundation gave him a large grant to spread his “reform” ideas. Daley machine 2.0 gave him respect. The Mayor has been eloquent on his importance as an educational reformer.

On, of all days, September 11, 2001, the New York Times published a story on Ayers in which he expressed no regret about his “activist” past and wished only that he had done more.

Barack Obama began his first political campaign at a meeting in Ayers house and subsequently served on the board that disbursed his foundation grant to various radical educational programs. Obama, his supporters, and sympathetic journalists deny that the two men had a “close” relationship. “Close” is a flexible term, and we may grant that Barack and Michelle probably did not go out on weekends with Bill and Bernadine. But by most objective measures they had a close and supportive political relationship.

From Obama’s perspective, the relationship made sense. In the world of Chicago, Ayers was a good person to know.

Obama made some bad choices, but they were not his alone. They tell us less about him than about the world of post-Vietnam liberalism in which he chose to get ahead.

One final thought. Suppose Bill Ayers, instead of being a revolutionary Marxist, had been a neo-Nazi attempting to set off pipe bombs in black churches? Would Daley machine 2.0, esteemed educational institutions, reputable foundations, and, ultimately, Barack Obama have had anything to do with him? If not, why not?

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Maarja Krusten - 11/6/2008

Dr. Hamby,

You addressed your posting to historians and asked on what areas they should focus. That question can be interpreted two ways, one scholarly, one political. I'll address the former only.

If you directed your post to historians and future biographers, and are interested in where data might be found, then I would suggest you examine the finding aid to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records to which I link at;bheaders=1#127885
My comments there focus on access to records and what UIC might have done, rather than on purely political issues.

The other option would be to interview associates, if they are willing to speak on the matters under review. Ayers spoke with a reporter on Tuesday, see

Again, the scholarly approach to this issue would be to study the contemporaneous written materials at UIC and elsewhere and also to interview people to get a full picture of the association. And then to publish the results in a book, in a journal article, or in an electronic forum such as this one. To get the widest possible readership for your published results, book or otherwise, I would avoid using partisan forums in which to present them.

If your question was intended to be political rather than scholarly, then wwhat I'm suggesting obviously is not very useful.

Ralph E. Luker - 11/2/2008

That would be "as written by", because "as typed by" might suggest that I am a mere transcriptionist, who has no personal responsibility for what is typed. Glad to teach you something every time, Mr. Jones.

Bill Heuisler - 11/1/2008

Mr. Todd,
McCain is merely the lesser evil.
As a vet I honor his service, but he became a political adversary back in the late '80s when he turned on an unconnected and honest Governor Mecham and helped impeach him for allegedly recinding the AZ MLK Day.

I helped elect that Governor. The Arizona Republican Party has been split ever since. That same Governor was completely cleared after his removal. Eventually a well-connected Republican crook named Symington was elected in the resulting partisan vacuum. Symington was convicted of fraud and removed from office. The present Governor Napolitano can thank Symington (and McCain) for being an elected Dem. in a Repub. state.

We nearly came to blows at a Lincoln Day dinner due to his stupidity, but McCain will make a better President than a Chicago thug with a hidden past, bad connections and no friends.
McCain may be a pain in the ass, but he's honest in his own clumsy way.
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 11/1/2008

Mr. Todd,
McCain is merely the lesser evil.
As a vet I honor his service, but he became a political adversary back in the late '80s when he turned on an unconnected and honest Governor Mecham and helped impeach him for allegedly recinding the AZ MLK Day.

I helped elect that Governor. The Arizona Republican Party has been split ever since. That same Governor was completely cleared after his removal. Eventually a well-connected Republican crook named Symington was elected in the resulting partisan vacuum. Symington was convicted of fraud and removed from office. The present Governor Napolitano can thank Symington (and McCain) for being an elected Dem. in a Repub. state.

We nearly came to blows at a Lincoln Day dinner due to his stupidity, but McCain will make a better President than a Chicago thug with a hidden past, bad connections and no friends.
McCain may be a pain in the ass, but he's honest in his own clumsy way.
Bill Heuisler

Grant W Jones - 11/1/2008

As typed by an apologist for Jeremiah "God damn America" Wright.

Ralph, it's a good thing you don't have any students.

Andrew D. Todd - 11/1/2008

It has been alleged that McCain has used his committee position to block bills in such a way as to advance the Hensley company interests, and as, um, Prince Consort of the firm, he obviously has what amounts to an ownership interest. It is naive to think that a man is not vicariously interested in his children's' enrichment.

Of course, most, or nearly all, politicians are corrupt. That is not in dispute. Obviously, the longer they are in office, the more corrupt they become, with perhaps a slight restraining influence exerted by the hope of higher office. Eventually, as in the case of Ted Stevens, it becomes a form of senility, running petty shakedowns by force of habit rather than asking whether the stakes are worthwhile. I don't suggest that McCain is much more corrupt than the average politician, but I don't think he's less corrupt either. The point is that you are trying to hold McCain up above all that. You are trying to set him up as a kind of Eisenhower figure, to be worshiped without reference to whether people agree with his proposed policies, the kinds of subordinates he hires, etc. McCain is not Eisenhower. Whatever he might have done well in Hanoi in the 1960's has long since been eclipsed by his subsequent actions. The people who work for McCain all seem to be former Bush Administration staffers, not Republican dissidents like James Webb or Lincoln Chafee. In short, he has been taken over by an administration which has an approval rating somewhere in the low twenties.

Parenthetically, all politicians need to be given a Bronx Cheer every now and then, just to remind them that they are not kings.

Bill Heuisler - 10/31/2008

Mr. Shcherban,
To judge the societal balancing act of individual rights vs public rights must compare the results of each side achieving power in the last Century.

Use your "great men" as historic prototypes and you will find the champions of individual liberty were men like Hume, Paine and Washington. Those who championed so-called public rights were men like Hobbs, Marx and Stalin. Compare the human death toll.
Bill Heuisler

Bill Heuisler - 10/31/2008

Mr. Todd,
Honey Fitz was the fountainhead of a great portion of the Kennedy family money. He was a bootlegger. The lace-curtain Boston Irish intermingled and intermarried. Fitz and PJ were in the liquor business during Prohibition and Joe's connections to FDR resulted in his appointment as Ambassador to Britain. Does all this make JFK a problem President? Of course not, but his personal contacts with Sam may cast doubts. Do you perhaps have evidence of McCain benefiting from the Chicago machine or his swapping girlfriends with Gangsters? JFK did. And Obama used the Chicago machine, but only swapped deeds with Rezco.

My reference was correct and goes to a finer point than a Hensley/Marley blot on McCain. The nexus of politics and organized crime has tainted most presidencies/politicians since the Civil War. (FDR-Tammany, JFK-Giancana, Truman-Pendergast etc.)

Hensley was a Democrat during most of his salad days and supported Bruce Babbitt as Governor. Babbitt saved Marley, McCain did not. My point is that your unseemly reach into the in-law connections of political families can lead anywhere and means little.
Bill Heuisler

Andrew D. Todd - 10/30/2008

Well, the online archive of the Phoenix New Times only appears to go back to 1989. I expect that will be when they started using desktop publishing software, and thus had data they could recover reasonably inexpensively. Before desktop publishing software, even if one was using a word processor, there were compatibility problems, so one often had to print off and paste up.

However, as I understand it, you concede that Marley was a bad guy. I take it you would also concede that he was "mobbed up," with connections to Meyer Lansky and company? I am not exactly clear what your position is on Hensley. I gather that you admit that he was a professional bootlegger in 1948. The sources I read, admittedly not definitive, stated that there was a pattern of business dealings between Hensley and Marley, lasting for years afterwards, as late as 1970. For example, there were dealings involving the Ruidoso Downs racetrack in New Mexico. Similarly, there seem to be questions about how a man with a felony conviction managed to get a liquor license in Arizona (the relevant paperwork seems to have vanished), and whether Hensley might have been set up in business by Marley.

I found Ed Reid and Ovid Demaris, _The Green Felt Jungle_ (1963), rather interesting, especially their discussion of Barry Goldwater's connection with Willie Bioff. Given the obviously mob-controlled environment in Arizona, which must have approximated that of Nevada, it is rather difficult to see how a liquor distributor who had once been part of the mob could have avoided being mob-controlled without obvious and visible signs, such as repeated and notorious shootings. As Nicholas Gage put it, "the Mafia is not an equal-opportunity employer." One would expect that a man who had determined to go straight would have shifted to a different line of business where he would not be obliged to have a modus vivendi with the mob, or, possibly, he would have moved somewhere else to get a fresh start. Hensley apparently went on trading at the same old stand, in the same business environment, without any visible disturbance, and we are expected to believe that he was not a sleeping partner?

McCain hooked up with Hensley about four years after the Boles killing, when it was still a matter of public notoriety, and when it was recent enough not to be safely in the past. He had to accept the possibility that there might be more assassinations of reporters. He chose to be associated with that kind of thing.

Incidentally, I believe you would be referring to Joseph P. Kennedy (1888-1969) in respect to bootlegging during Prohibition, not the maternal grandfather, John F. "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald (1863-1950). It seems that indefinite stories circulated, but by the 1920's, Kennedy was doing business on the stock market on a much grander scale than a mere bootlegger could manage. If Kennedy had fancied a life of crime, his crime of choice would have been stock manipulation after the manner of Alexander Stavisky or Ivar Kreuger, or someone like that. Old Bostonians, Boston Brahmans, Puritans, came-over-with-the-Mayflower types, tended to circulate derogatory stories about upstart Irish politicians as a general principle, as late as the 1970's. Joseph Kennedy's father, P. J. Kennedy (1858-1929) had in fact been a saloonkeeper who eventually graduated into a whiskey importer, and that was probably the origin of the tale, a means of taunting Joseph Kennedy for his low birth. However, as JFK was born in 1917, he was not old enough to be part of whatever took place.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/30/2008

Grant, I haven't the faintest idea what Kimberly-Clark has to do with the discussion and *neither do you*. Are you capable of carrying on a coherent discussion?

Bill Heuisler - 10/30/2008

Mr. Todd,
Trying to smear McCain with Marley and Hensley shows only ignorance.

Don Bolles was killed years before McCain came to Arizona. Hensley and Marley were convicted of avoiding wartime liquor rationing in 1948. Hensley's arrest is significant to McCain the way Honey Fitzgerald's bootlegging arrests were to JFK.

As to Bolles, most Arizonans in law enforcement believe Marley paid for his murder, but was never tried and convicted because Bruce Babbitt, Arizona's Democrat Attorney General, refused to designate a Grand Jury, interfered with witness subpoenaes, gave immunity deals to conspirators and impeded the investigation after Adamson and Dunlop were arrested for planting and triggering the bomb.
Babbitt covered for Kemper Marley. And Babbitt never made the short list for President or Supreme Court for that very reason. The June, 1986 New Times Special Report is illustrative.

Your comment is naive.
Bill Heuisler

Louis Nelson Proyect - 10/30/2008

Clearly, the willingness of "esteemed educational churches" to forgive Ayers relates to his goal, which was ending a criminal war. The goal of intimidating Black people from voting, etc. has never been embraced by such institutions. More to the point, the Weathermen made a point of never causing casualties with their bombs-- they focused on buildings. Even though their acts were counter-productive, they were not murderous.

Grant W Jones - 10/30/2008

That's okay, Ralph. The administration at K-State is spending their valuable time dealing with the scourge of Scott toilet paper.

Ralph should study the nature of fascism, so he will stop supporting it in the guise of "progressivism."

Andrew D. Todd - 10/29/2008

It is alleged that John McCain's father-in-law, Jim Hensley, was an associate of a man named Kemper Marley. It is undisputed that he continued all his life in much the same business he had been in when he was convicted of conspiracy as an associate of Marley. One can judge the improbability of his being able to continue in that same business if there had been an actual break. It is not all that easy to break off relations with the Mafia. It is further alleged that in 1976, Marley commissioned the contract killing of an Arizona Republic reporter named Don Boles. Likewise it is alleged that Marley had ties to such Las Vegas mafia figures as Gus Greenbaum and Willie Bioff, and of course, indirectly, to national mob kingpins such as Meyer Lansky and Al Capone. I gather that these allegations are rather more firmly grounded than anything which has been dredged up against Obama.

McCain was not a child when the Boles killing took place. He was a middle-aged man. It was only about four years afterwards that he married his present wife, and a year after that, he went to work for his father-in-law's firm. This firm had suspicious connections. Mob connections.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/29/2008

Lord have mercy on Grant Jones. He has long been one of my biggest fans. One of his teachers ought to teach him some elemental lessons -- like what "national socialism" is. Pitiful.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/29/2008

I would like whoever freely applies this term to left-wing terrorists, find any call for terrorist activity (in its common sense interpretation) in Marxist revolutionary theory or in the works of any major Marxist theorist.
On the contrary, it is well known that second only to Marx such theorist - V. Lenin - decisively rejected terrorism, even political assasinations, as means of class struggle.

Arnold Shcherban - 10/29/2008

Absolutely right (no pun intended), Mr Kennedy!
I was making exactly the same point about McCain (and H. Kissenger) being of no hero, but a war criminal, from the point of view of international law.
Henry Kissenger is, in his own right, an unrepentant criminal, not only by the overwhelmingly accepted international standards, but according to the Constitution of the USA, as well.
And that is just to name a few of our "great leaders" and "heroes"...

Arnold Shcherban - 10/29/2008

And what are those "indispensable" rights of an individual? Who establishes them if not a society (ultimately - the "great men" of that society) in question?
The interaction of individual and public rights is a much more complicated (actually, one of the oldest ones in social discourse) issue
than the uncontested predominance of the former over the latter principle accepted in the American society.
History demonstrates this profound complexity all the time and too often
not in favor of the individual rights to be ignored.

Grant W Jones - 10/29/2008

"Reactionaries" anyone who disagress with Ralph Luker.

The past matters. That the American people are left with this gruesome choice next week, is the result of a bankrupt education system. There are tens of millions of Americans who believe it is the mission of the federal government to establish a socialist welfare state.

Obama wants national SOCIALISM. McCain want NATIONAL socialism.

Obama wants to "change" America into a European style welfare state. McCain wants to channel Teddy Roosevelt and create his version of a "strong" progressive America. Either way, the American people will be shorn of their liberty. And the Ralph Lukers, wallowing in their Christian guilt, will be cheering the process along.

Mike A Mainello - 10/29/2008

John Keating Five - Per the democrat lawyer investigating the case, Senator McCain should not have even been part of the case, but his name remained to make it appear bi-partisan. The guilty ones were the democrats - as usual.

Sarah Palin - Great choice, if you disagree I will meet you at Senator Biden's favorite diner and we can discuss it. Please let me know when it reopens after its 20+ year remodel. Maybe we can visit in Lebanon next time America kicks out Hamas.

Rod Parsley / John Hagee - Was a regular church member for 20 years?

AQ Endorsed - Does that rank right up there with toasting a PLO terrorist, supporting a thug regime in Kenya, and receiving questionable illegal donations through his web site, or in 2001 comparing America to Nazi Germany on NPR?

Senator McCain may lose, but he can hold his head high.

Ralph E. Luker - 10/29/2008

It's interesting to see the reactionaries rally under Lon Hamby's banner -- before they take their beating next Tuesday. Of course, the past matters. It also matters for John Keating Five, Sarah Palin-nominating, Rod Parsley-, John Hagee-, and Al Quaeda-endorsed McCain.

Charles Lee Geshekter - 10/28/2008

Several African commentators, such as Mukoma wa Ngugi, have pointed out that Obama's "story" would have been utterly impossible in Africa itself, especially in Kenya where virulent ethnic politics would have doomed his efforts.

But only in America, his story is plausible and possible, despite his questionable and deeply suspect liaisons with rabble rousers and faux armchair revolutionaries like the despicably racist Rev. Wright and Mr. Ayers.

Mike A Mainello - 10/28/2008

I agree with you on this. Until a citizen recognizes that he/she is American first and race second, then then this rift will continue to separate us.

The article I referenced highlights this fact.

I enjoy your comments.

Grant W Jones - 10/28/2008

Obama's support for reparations a la "redistributive change" will only make race relations worse.

Mike A Mainello - 10/28/2008

Look, I will probably be skewered by the likes of all the brilliant minds at POTUS, but I wholeheartedly believe the past matters.

Senator Obama has very little record to evaluate. His results as a community organizer are hard to quantify. He has never run a company or been in charge of many people. As a Senator (state or federal) his record is very liberal, but still it is very thin.

So you have to go back and look at past relationships and actions. I did not become wary of Reverend Wright until the sermons surfaced early this year and then I began to research and listen to what the man said.

He was not taken out of context but does believe what he says. It is tragic because his words were endorsed by Senator Obama's actions - staying in the pew and calling him his "mentor". Even Oprah found his preachings over the top.

Read this attached link about Black Liberation Theology, try not shoot the messenger, but read and rebut the facts.

I believe that Senator Obama has a chance to heal the racial rift that continues to widen; however, his past actions don't support his healing words

John D. Beatty - 10/28/2008


Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 10/27/2008

There is every reason to believe Obama did buy into the world view of Jeremiah Wright, and no reason to doubt it. His wife did, too, from many of the remarks she's made. This will become crystal clear if he is president, although he will probably try to continue to mask it in hopes of a second term.

I have trouble with your calling the foundations which funded William Ayers "reputable." Walter Annenberg was quite reputable, unlike his father Moe who left him "The Daily Racing Form," but the epigones who run many of these foundations today are red as geraniums--cut from the same cloth as Ayers, Wright and Obama. For instance, stench from Pew is terrific today, as evidenced by their illegal role in passing McCain-Feingold, yet no family was ever more patriotic than the Pews of Sun Oil. Henry Ford II walked out of the hard-left board which had taken over the Ford Foundation and started using its money to undermine capitalism--years and years ago. I can't believe John T. MacArthur, of Bankers Life fame, would be happy with the way his money is being spent today.

We should not confuse many of those who made the foundation money with most of the swine who are now spending it.

Nancy REYES - 10/27/2008

the ones who care about Ayers are the ones his bombs aimed at: Those who played by the rules...

They are the ones your fellow Historians call racist and dumb.

Ben Alpers - 10/27/2008

In addition, Sarah Palin refuses to even acknowledge that abortion clinic bombers--who unlike William Ayers have actually killed people--are terrorists.

Kevin Eric Kennedy - 10/27/2008

William Ayers promoted violence to achieve political aims. That makes him a terrorist. As the Vietnam protest movement showed, it was possible to bring an end to a criminal war through non-violent means, and Ayers should be condemned for any harm his actions caused. But Barack Obama was a little boy when this was going on. Obama's association with Ayers was partly concidental (the school board) and partly unwise (fundraising). It was, however, in no sense ideological.

McCain association with politcal terrorism, on the other hand, is far more immediate. To endow Sarah Palin, with foreign-policy credentials, he sent her to New York to meet with, among others, Henry Kissenger, architect of the secret bombing of Cambodia and crucial supporter of the overthrow of Salvadore Allende. The innocent blood on Kissenger's hands reveals the Ayers controvery to be what it is: a farce.

And why was McCain in that Vietnamese prison? Because he was carpet-bombing North Vietnam. That is, he participated in the premeditated killing of innocent men, women and children. Of course, that doesn't excuse the horrible treatment he experienced as a prisoner. All P.O.W's have to be treated humanely --something McCain himself asserted before he sold his soul to the crypto-fascist Republican base -- still, many Vietnamese would no doubt consider John McCain a terrorist. And from their point of view, they would be no good reason for them to feel any other way.

Michael Davis - 10/27/2008

Here, here.

Grant W Jones - 10/27/2008

This is why Obama thinks that the Constitution's limitations on the power of the government over the individual is its "fundamental flaw."

It seems to be a stubbling block for fascists on both the left and right in running my life for me.

Grant W Jones - 10/27/2008

"It's entirely possible to pursue Marxist goals -- redistribution of wealth, radical egalitarianism, worker empowerment and class struggle -- within a democratic capitalist [?] system without violence and without violating any of the basic tenets of civilized, legal behavior."

Is this an admission of Obama's and the leftwing of the Democratic party's agenda?

Actualy this agenda requires jettisoning the foundation of civilized, legal behavior: individual rights. As with fascism, the "progressive" agenda must ultimately flow from the barrel of a gun. Its purpose is to strip individuals of their basic rights in return for state rations. In the "class struggle," violence will be attributed to those individuals who wish to live a life free of egalitarians with guns.

N. Friedman - 10/27/2008


It seems to me that there is a distinction to be drawn between associations and alliances. And, with alliances, there is a question whether the alliances were part of careerism or were due to an ideological commitment.

All of this is not at all clear with Obama, at least based on the information that has come to my attention. The most interesting piece of information I have seen is that he was in the New Party, which suggests a commitment to causes beyond mere interest in using people to get ahead. After all, there was no career forward being part of a political party which was on the very fringes of American politics.

There is also the autobiographical material consisting of Obama's books. Those suggest, if he is telling the truth, that he was not just close with his preacher in order to advance himself. I recall the word "mentor" or something of the sort. And, most people do not give over $20,000 to an organization - his church - with which there is no ideological affinity. Maybe Obama is different.

I think that there is enough here for someone to investigate carefully. But, in this very political season, that is not going to happen. And, were it to happen, partisans would line up for and against whatever the scholar discovered, as if it were politics and not scholarship.

On your assessment of the difference between neo-Nazism and left wing causes, I think you are being naive, something unusual, in my view, for you given the high quality of everything you write here. The neo-Nazis need the right messenger and the right circumstances. Perhaps, the economic meltdown with provide it. We can hope and pray that such does not occur.

Moreover, at present, there is a truly dangerous movement within the Left, aptly described and critiqued in Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism by Bernard- Henri Lévy. If Obama is at all sympathetic to this neo-progressive viewpont, he would be a grave danger to liberal democracy. That Obama's past allies seem likely to be advocates of, more or less, neo-progressivism, there is something serious to examine. That is my view, for what it is worth.

Bill McWilliams - 10/27/2008


Jonathan Dresner - 10/27/2008

Suppose Bill Ayers, instead of being a revolutionary Marxist, had been a neo-Nazi attempting to set off pipe bombs in black churches?

Well, we have a few (mostly repentant) former Klansmen in politics, still, as well as their proteges and allies; there are nativist groups and isolationist nationalists with strong ties, alliances or endorsements to and from "mainstream" conservatives; there are closely related White Power groups that are considerably more dangerous than Jeremiah Wright and Bill Ayers put together. John McCain worked with a group that was complicit in the Iran-Contra scandals, and has a good, close friend who's made incendiary public statements about shooting government agents. Balance?

Now that I've gotten the tu quoque out of the way, I'd also like to try to answer the question, by making a proposition: It's entirely possible to pursue Marxist goals -- redistribution of wealth, radical egalitarianism, worker empowerment and class struggle -- within a democratic capitalist system without violence and without violating any of the basic tenets of civilized, legal behavior. It's not possible to pursue neo-Nazi/white power goals without fundamentally violating the civil and human rights of at least some minority of otherwise decent citizens.

Finally, I'd like to end by shifting the whole debate into irrelevancy. The question of past associations assumes influence or complicity. Absent evidence of either of these, a decent historian should, in fact, leave them aside as coincidental to more important issues.