Dust off those SAT skills, boys and girls.

Question: OBAMA : AYERS :: MCCAIN :

a) PALIN b) GRAMM c) KEATING d) BUSH

If you picked c) Keating, you would be right and wrong. Going on attack this week, Sarah Palin has dusted off the old story about Obama’s association with Weather Underground cofounder Bill Ayers. In response, the Democrats are talking about McCain’s involvement with Charles Keating and the late-’80s savings and loan scandal.

The media has picked up on the symmetry of Obama’s approach—one old fact deserves another—but they’re missing the point. By mentioning Ayers and Keating in one breath, like this CBS/AP headline, ”Campaigns Do Battle Over Ayers, Keating”, the media falsely implies that both men are chapters from history books, both irrelevant factoids dredged up by campaigners in order to damage their opponents. Keating matters. Ayers doesn’t. Let’s keep it straight.

On Saturday, The New York Times delved into the relationship between Obama and Ayers and found that “the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers.”

Obama was eight when Ayers engaged in his infamous acts of terrorism, and by the time the two men met in 1995, he was working as an educator and education activist in Chicago.

Since earning a doctorate in education at Columbia in 1987, Mr. Ayers has been a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the author or editor of 15 books, and an advocate of school reform. …“He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said in an interview this week, explaining that he has long consulted Mr. Ayers on school issues.

To put another way, there is NO connection whatsoever between Ayers’ wrongdoing and Obama. He was in no way involved.

The logic behind the GOP argument is tenuous. Obama “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” So, the Obama-Ayers connection reflects on the Illinois senator’s character (ah, that pesky, amorphous thing), because their association lends Obama’s credibility to Ayers’ past sins, or because Obama, the responsible, patriotic politician, ought to have shunned Ayers based on his past. This is preposterous. The version of Ayers that Obama met and worked with isn’t the same person as the 1960s radical Ayers that the McCain campaign recalls so vividly. People change. The world isn’t black and white. Pick your cliche. Obama didn’t work with Ayers to reform education because he hates America and thinks it’s “imperfect.”

In fact, Obama was willing to work with someone who didn’t have a squeaky clean past toward a goal of getting something good accomplished, in this case, for education in Chicago.

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.