Ancient History

Let’s be clear about what Ayers and Keating mean

Dust off those SAT skills, boys and girls.

Question: OBAMA : AYERS :: MCCAIN :


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.

Now, onto the Charles Keating affair, which the Times explained last February in its otherwise tainted piece about McCain’s alleged affair with a lobbyist.

During Mr. McCain’s four years in the House, Mr. Keating, his family and his business associates contributed heavily to his political campaigns. The banker gave Mr. McCain free rides on his private jet, a violation of Congressional ethics rules (he later said it was an oversight and paid for the trips). They vacationed together in the Bahamas. And in 1986, the year Mr. McCain was elected to the Senate, his wife joined Mr. Keating in investing in an Arizona shopping mall.

Mr. Keating had taken over the Lincoln Savings and Loan Association and used its federally insured deposits to gamble on risky real estate and other investments. He pressed Mr. McCain and other lawmakers to help hold back federal banking regulators.

For years, Mr. McCain complied. At Mr. Keating’s request, he wrote several letters to regulators, introduced legislation and helped secure the nomination of a Keating associate to a banking regulatory board.

By early 1987, though, the thrift was careering toward disaster. Mr. McCain agreed to join several senators, eventually known as the Keating Five, for two private meetings with regulators to urge them to ease up. “Why didn’t I fully grasp the unusual appearance of such a meeting?” Mr. McCain later lamented in his memoir.

When Lincoln went bankrupt in 1989 — one of the biggest collapses of the savings and loan crisis, costing taxpayers $3.4 billion — the Keating Five became infamous. The scandal sent Mr. Keating to prison and ended the careers of three senators, who were rebuked by the Senate Ethics Committee in 1991 for intervening. Mr. McCain, who had been a less aggressive advocate for Mr. Keating than the others, was reprimanded only for “poor judgment” and was re-elected the next year.

McCain’s experience with the Keating affair is significant, relevant, and important, because it reveals his attitude on how the banking industry should be governed.

A few weeks ago, Bill Press at The Hill put it thusly:

McCain co-sponsored legislation relaxing regulations on savings and loans and allowing them to gamble investor funds on certain highly risky financial ventures. Sound familiar?

For his role in aiding Keating, McCain received only a reprimand for “poor judgment” from the Senate Ethics Committee. But, ever since, the “Keating Five” has been the symbol of how much influence money can buy in Washington. And McCain, having learned nothing from the experience, then turned around and repeated the same tricks on Wall Street.

In 2000, McCain supported legislation authored by Sen. Phil Gramm that forbade federal agencies from regulating financial derivatives that greased the skids for passing along risky mortgage-backed securities to investors. Today we’re suffering the consequences.

Gramm’s legislation was the key. Without it, AIG could never have veered from the solid ground of life insurance onto the shaky ground of sub-prime mortgages. And John McCain championed that legislation.

So just to sum up, Obama-Ayers is irrelevant because Obama wasn’t involved in any wrongdoing; McCain-Keating means a lot because McCain was reprimanded, and because it exemplifies the dangers inherent in his deregulatory economic philosophy. Not equal. Apples and oranges.

Today, New York Times columnist David Brooks joined the herd in equating Ayers and Keating:

Today, leaders around the world have to figure out how to stabilize economies amid volatile global capital flows. … This is the test. This is the problem that will consume the next president. Meanwhile, the two candidates for that office are talking about Bill Ayers and Charles Keating.

Alas. We should be talking about Keating, and not about Ayers. There are substantial parallels between the resolution of the Keating mess and the current bailout, wherein the federal government stepped in to absorb losses on behalf of S&L banks then, and mortgage lenders, now.

The old adage is the those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The moral of the Keating scandal is that McCain is guilty of this very sin. Having seen firsthand the harm of regulation, he could have actually sounded the warning bells —not just claim he did as a stump speech.

Obama’s sin is working sporadically with a man who, long ago, engaged in substantial wrongdoing. These two things are not analogous, and any implication that they are is wrong, wrong, wrong.

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Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.