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The influence test

We should distinguish between who candidates know and who helps shape their views.

April 18, 2008

When is it fair to judge a presidential candidate by his friends or her associates?

It's a reasonable question now that Barack Obama's relationships with both his controversial pastor and an unrepentant former Weatherman are being scrutinized -- along with John McCain's friendship with a lobbyist and Hillary Rodham Clinton's influence over her husband while the former president pushed through NAFTA and commuted the sentences of two other '70s radicals who had been convicted on explosives and weapons charges.

These are gray areas for voters and for the news media, which must decide when a politician's ties are the stuff of legitimate scrutiny or guilt by association. So we offer a standard: the influence test. We can learn about a candidate from the people who have had demonstrable influence on his or her thinking. Such people include personal and political mentors, business partners and major donors, lovers, spouses, close friends and, especially, advisors. It's certainly fair to judge politicians by who they've worked for, hired, appointed or fired. And in the age of spin, we can glean insight into a candidate's true political instincts by watching whose speaking invitations and endorsements they accept and whose they shun. But it's unfair and unwise to judge a candidate by family members (remember Roger Clinton?), or by constituents they're sure to rub shoulders with, or by casual associates who run in the same crowd.

By this standard, we believe the scrutiny given to the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., who brought Obama to his faith and presided at his marriage, is legitimate. Most people go to church to be influenced (for the better) by what they hear there. Because Obama was not offended enough by what he heard to stop attending, Wright's sermons do offer at least a window into the candidate's world, his cultural, religious and political milieu.

By contrast, there is no evidence that Obama was spiritually or politically influenced by the Weatherman-turned-education professor William Ayers. They sat on a charity's board and appeared on panels together. Ayers donated $200 to Obama's Senate campaign, and they may have had some social contact. That proves that Obama was a Chicago liberal who associated with other Chicago liberals. That's not news, it doesn't elucidate the candidate’s views on terrorism and it shouldn't occasion a revival of the culture wars.

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