Consider this abbreviated list of unseemly associations, and decide if you would vote for this person. The stories are all true, and they have been verified. For now, we will call the person “Candidate X.” But further in this article the person will be exposed, by name.

One long term friend of Candidate X was sent to prison for financial malfeasance. On at least one occasion, Candidate X was involved with a convicted murderer. The pastor of Candidate X’s church was arrested on a Saturday night for rape and was thus providentially hindered from preaching the next morning. The candidate flew across the country with an exotic ex-model for a self-described “business meeting.”

I’m glad I’m not actually running for president, because I am “Candidate X.” I crafted the above true stories with the same lurid tinges of innuendo and mystery that are being used to vandalize the reputations of our real candidates. Add quotation marks to a phrase like “business meeting” and you leave the impression that the candidate is lying. Throw in a comment like “refused to answer our calls,” and the implication is that they are hiding something. “Involved with”? Obviously something rotten in the state of Denmark. Describe a mysterious woman friend as “an exotic ex-model,” leaving out the fact that she was currently a hospice nurse sent to L.A. with me for a conference on bereaved children, and salacious imaginations go wild with the sounds of headboards slamming the walls in a resort hotel room.

The fact is, despite the slanted accounts and purple rhetoric I deliberately used, not a single person in the suspicious sounding list above did one thing wrong, morally, legally, or ethically (except for the rapist and the murderer, neither of whom I actually knew personally). I did absolutely nothing that I would not be perfectly comfortable describing, in full, to my parents, grandparents, children, or grandchild.

Over the course of your lifetime, how many people have you dealt with, directly or indirectly? In my case, I would estimate fifty to one hundred thousand. Some of them have suspicious histories, and more than a few have been real scoundrels. If you are over 15, you probably could write your own “sordid” history of connections.

And so could every candidate who has ever run for president. They have each met more people in their careers than you and I combined. Most of these connections are with politicians and businesspersons, some with less than sterling track records.

So with regard to guilt by association, how far do we carry this nonsense?

Is it really fair to blame Senator Obama for receiving an endorsement from the likes of Louis Farrakhan? Does that make Obama an anti-Semite? Has your rabbi or pastor or priest ever taken a position you strongly disagreed with? I’ve had pastors and “spiritual mentors” who believed all gays are going to hell and the Jews are under a curse for murdering Jesus. I have angrily disagreed with them. They will have to answer to God for those particular beliefs. I will not.

Is Senator Clinton responsible for the financial shenanigans of Jim McDougal just because they were associated in the same land deal? She has been convicted of nothing, so she should be presumed innocent. Is she responsible for everything that happened in her law firm? Is she responsible for the behavior of her husband? Not even Bill Clinton seems to be able to control Bill Clinton. Is that Hillary’s fault?

With the stupefyingly complicated lobbying and campaign finance laws, is it reasonable to cast aspersions on the integrity of Senator McCain if something doesn’t smell just exactly like some journalist or political opponent thinks it ought to smell?

Of all the candidates who could have the most to lose if held accountable for guilt by association, it would be Hillary Clinton, whose past and present are checkered with many, many suspicious characters. Using her line of reasoning, her close association with Governor Spitzer should force her to interrupt her campaign to make a speech rejecting and denouncing the practice of prostitution. And–oh my God–she’s Methodist! There are thousands of Methodists who don’t believe Jesus was the Son of God or that he rose from the dead. How would this play with the evangelical voters? Does she have to stop her campaign to give another speech rejecting and denouncing her Methodist friends?

Yet with breathtaking chutzpah, she is playing this guilt-by-association card against Obama. You’ve got to wonder–is Obama so clean that the only way to bring him down is by criticizing people he knows? If his campaign is dumb enough to let her continue to throw him off message like this, then they are not savvy enough to help Obama preside over the federal government. If Senator Clinton’s campaign is dishonest enough to continue this practice, then she and her people are morally disqualified.

 Are any of us responsible for the behavior of the people around us? Do any of us have control over who “endorses” us or decides to call us friend? Do we really have to “reject and denounce” the statements and beliefs of every creep, crook, and crackpot who has ever rubbed elbows or done business with us?

Don’t we all have our hands full dealing with our own faults, failings, mistakes, and character defects? The candidates certainly do. Wouldn’t you hate to be a politician before a bank of microphones trying to defend yourself, under the presumption of guilt, against something one of your 10,000 lifetime contacts has done or said?

Where there is smoke, is there fire? Probably not. In politics, it is often just some ambitious candidate blowing smoke.

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