This is my eighth presidential election, but the first I can remember in which a candidate's friends and associates were such an issue. Perhaps that's because this is the first time I actually know one of these "old friends": Rashid Khalidi, former spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization and friend of Sen. Barack Obama.
To set the record straight, I'm voting for Sen. John McCain because I believe he will make the better president. I am not, however, voting against Obama because of his friends.
And, to be fair, this "guilt by association" issue is very successfully used by both sides. The Democrats actually started it by associating all of McCain's policies with President Bush. Early bumper stickers proclaimed a McCain presidency a third Bush term.
It was much later that the Republicans began looking into Obama's friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, former Weather Underground member Bill Ayres and my friend Khalidi, formerly a professor of Middle East History at the University of Chicago and now a distinguished professor at Columbia University.
The implication that Obama, the man, and Obama, the possible president, is an amalgamation of all the people he has ever sat on boards with or toasted on video or asked to baby-sit his children is flawed.
It is flawed because it misses the point. The point is not how he knew and how he treated these people, or how being friendly with lots of liberals reflects on his judgment. We know he's liberal. He's made no secret of that.
The point is how the beliefs of these people may or may not have influenced the candidate and, by extension, what he will do in the White House.
I do not like what I have heard Wright say in broadcast sound bites about our country, but I recognize that there must be much more to the man than these radically offensive statements. I also recognize an anger I saw in friends of mine 20 years ago. I don't feel that anger now, and I don't believe Obama does, either.
Twenty years ago, I lived another life. I, too, worked for the PLO. I opened and operated the first public-relations office to represent the interests of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. I lobbied Congress, wrote articles and conducted fact-finding tours into the Israeli military-occupied territories.
We advocated then what we advocate now: a just, two-state solution.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of the intifada — the Palestinian uprising in which teenage Palestinians threw stones at teenage Israelis who fired M-16s — the official policy of the U.S. government was to never recognize the PLO as representative of the people's interests.
Just a few years later in 1993, then-President Bill Clinton hosted PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat at the White House in the historic signing of the U.S.-brokered Oslo Accords. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and soon-to-be Palestinian President Arafat shook hands in the Rose Garden.
It became official U.S. policy to help the creation of a democratic Palestinian state. That's all Khalidi has ever advocated, meaning Obama is longtime friends with a man who supports what has been official U.S. policy since 1993.
I see nothing to indicate that an Obama presidency would change that. Nor do I see that Israel, the other partner in the Oslo Accords, has anything to fear from Obama, Khalidi or me.
Do we really want a pool of candidates who have vetted every relationship for potential political impact? Do we really want candidates who have not evolved over 20 years?
In fact, the strangest thing about the Ayers controversy is that he seems to be the same guy at 60 that he was at 20. I think Obama must find that odd, too.
Oddly enough, Jesse Jackson spoke to the heart of the issue of a Khalidi-Obama friendship. He said an Obama presidency wouldn't automatically default to a pro-Zionist position as have most presidencies in the past 60 years.
Obama felt the need to quickly dismiss Jackson as someone not authorized to speak for his campaign. But, I think what he said is true and needs to be examined.
The relevant outcome of Obama's associations with prominent Palestinians is an understanding that at least for the past 15 years, the United States has wanted justice for both sides and that Palestinian peace partners don't want the whole cake — they just want a decent slice.
The question is: What has he learned from his other friendships?
Lesley Cissell (formerly Abukhater) of Lexington is a writer and music teacher. She owns The Academy for the Creative Arts and teaches and performs throughout the state.