In the liberal blogosphere, the question is dismissed out of hand, viewed as nothing more than a partisan attack. In the conservative blogosphere, the question is debated intensely, pitting those who those who believe it exposes Obama’s liberal ideology against those who believe that ordinary voters don’t (and therefore shouldn't) care about the issue.
It’s a tough question. On the one hand, powerful people have many friends; to take one example, does Mother Teresa deserve calumny for having been flown to Haiti and meeting Papa Doc Duvalier? On the other hand, the company a powerful figure keeps reveals something about his or her character; surely Mother Teresa regretted accepting the Haitian dictator’s hospitality.
So who better to provide a good answer than Dick Morris (!), the legendary and slightly infamous political consultant. Morris cast Obama’s ties to Ayers in a broader context:
So let’s sum up Obama’s Chicago connections. His chief financial supporter was Tony Rezko, now on his way to federal prison. His spiritual adviser and mentor was the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, of “God damn America” fame. And the guy who got him his only administrative job and put him in charge of doling out $50 million is William Ayers, a terrorist who was a domestic Osama bin Laden in his youth …
Why did Obama put up with Ayers? Because he got a big job and $50 million of patronage to distribute to his friends and supporters in Chicago. Why did he hang out with Jeremiah Wright? Because he was new in town, having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and having been educated at Columbia and Harvard, and needed all the local introductions he could get to jump-start his political career. Why was he so close to Rezko?
Morris here isn’t attacking Obama’s ideology as much as he is his character. He’s suggesting that Obama lacks moral fortitude. As fortitude is a key point in this post, it is useful to read the Catechism’s definition of this cardinal virtue:
Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. "The Lord is my strength and my song."70 "In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."71
Fortitude should be distinguished from perseverance or endurance. Nobody can doubt that Obama lacks those qualities, especially as he is the first African American to win a major party’s presidential nomination. Yet does Obama really possess constancy in the pursuit of the good?
I have my doubts. If he did, he would have stopped associating with an unrepentant domestic terrorist and a shady financier; to his credit, he has cut ties with Wright. Of course, Obama’s knowledge about his friends is unclear. But certainly, he knew Ayers better than he has let on.
It is tempting to think that Obama’s questionable moral fortitude is largely irrelevant. This would be a mistake. High-level politicians deal with interest groups and lobbyists every day; whether they stand up or give in to them matters.
Take the issue of abortion. For all of the talk about Obama’s interest in reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies, he has not stood up to the abortion industry a single time; he always gives in to their requests and demands. Obama’s lack of moral courage was most evident in his votes, as an Illinois state senator, against the born-alive infant protection act. As Steven Waldman, the pro-choice founder of Beliefnet, wrote of Obama’s record on this issue,
The episode does show him to be a down-the-line pro-choice legislator. In fact, the charge that Obama is the most pro-choice candidate in years may well be true (though the other Democrats were pretty pro-choice too). When I read through the legislative history, I came to believe that Obama's general impulse was: when it doubt, side with NARAL. If you're ardently pro-life, you are absolutely justified in being scared of Obama for that reason alone, without having cast him as a serial killer.
When in doubt, side with NARAL: that impulse shows as much moral fortitude as always siding with the neighborhood bully or far worse.