By James V. Grimaldi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008
When Hillary Rodham Clinton questioned rival Barack Obama's ties to 1960s radicals, her comments baffled two retired Bay Area lawyers who knew Clinton in the summer of 1971 when she worked as an intern at a left-wing law firm in Oakland, Calif., that defended communists and Black Panthers.
"She's a hypocrite," Doris B. Walker, 89, who was a member of the American Communist Party, said in an interview last week. "She had to know who we were and what kinds of cases we were handling. We had a very left-wing reputation, including civil rights, constitutional law, racist problems."
Malcolm Burnstein, 74, a partner at the firm who worked closely with Clinton during her internship, said he was traveling in Pennsylvania in April when Clinton attacked Obama for his past interactions with William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, members of Students for a Democratic Society who went on to found the bomb-making Weather Underground.
"Given her background, it was quite hypocritical," Burnstein said. "I almost called the Philadelphia Inquirer. I saw what she and her campaign were saying about Ayers and I thought, 'Well, if you're going to talk about that totally bit of irrelevant nonsense, I'll talk about your career with us.' "
In her campaign for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, Clinton has said little about her experiences in the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s, including her involvement with student protests and her brief internship at the law firm, Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein. She has said she worked on a child custody case, although former partners recall her likely involvement in conscientious objector cases and a legal challenge to a university loyalty oath.
But her decision to target Obama's radical connections has spurred criticism from some former protest movement leaders who say she has opened her own associations to scrutiny.
"The very things she's accusing Barack of could be said of her with much greater evidence," said Tom Hayden, a leading anti-Vietnam War activist, author and self-described friend of the Clintons.
Robert Reich, who went to Yale Law School with Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton and later served in the Clinton administration, called Hillary Clinton's attack on Obama "absurd," adding: "That carries guilt by association to a new level of absurdity. Where does guilt by association stop? I mean, she was a partner of Jim McDougal in the 1980s, for crying out loud." Reich is now an Obama supporter.
In response to the assertion that Clinton is a hypocrite for calling out Obama's ties to Ayers, campaign spokesman Philippe Reines said: "The comparison is patently absurd." The campaign played down her friendship with a noted student protest leader and defended her work with the Oakland firm. "At the time she worked there, the firm was primarily at the forefront of civil rights advocacy cases, which was a good fit with Senator Clinton's long-standing interest in civil rights and constitutional law," Reines said.
Clinton's associations date to her years as a student leader at Wellesley from 1965 to 1969. It was the height of student opposition to the Vietnam War, and Carl Oglesby, the president of Students for a Democratic Society, came to campus to speak.
"I gave a talk at Wellesley, where she was a student," Oglesby said in a telephone interview from Amherst, Mass., where he is recovering from a stroke. "I can't say that I was a close friend of hers. It was more of a passing acquaintance. I liked her. I think of her as a good guy. I think she has a good heart and a solid mind. And I support her in the current primary."
Oglesby had been close to Ayers and Dohrn, but the couple split with the more moderate SDS factions to form the Weather Underground, which engaged in a bombing campaign to try to stop the Vietnam War. The FBI monitored Oglesby throughout the period.
The Clinton campaign suggested last week that she did not meet Oglesby until the 1990s, long after his activist years. But in recent interviews, Oglesby has made clear that she stood out in his memory as he traveled across the country speaking at rallies.
In 1994, Clinton told Newsweek that Oglesby's writings in the 1960s helped persuade her to oppose the Vietnam War and to become a Democrat. She visited Oglesby in 1994 in Massachusetts, a meeting that was omitted from the First Lady's official schedule. Oglesby told the Boston Globe at the time, "We mostly discussed the '60s. I may have been a little gushy in my praise of the administration, but she was extremely impressive."
Oglesby now talks warmly about Clinton. In an interview with Reason magazine, he called their association "a friendship, a comradeship, within the context of the movement. She and I, for a while, were warm with each other. She and I were semi-close."
But Oglesby said he has not contacted Clinton because he is afraid that he could harm her candidacy.
"A friend of mine mentioned me to her not long ago, and according to him she got a case of the shakes. I think it was because she could imagine if any of her considerable enemies on the right wanted to do her in, they would be happy to discover a relationship between her and me," he told the magazine.
Clinton interned at Treuhaft, Walker and Burnstein while attending Yale Law School. The firm defended the Black Panthers, including Angela Davis, and Clinton had been editor of the Yale Review of Law and Social Action, which included articles about Black Panther leader Bobby Seale's murder trial in New Haven, Conn.
Author Gail Sheehy wrote about the internship in her book "Hillary's Choice." Sheehy, who also wrote a 1971 book about the Black Panthers, interviewed firm partner Robert Treuhaft, who described Hillary Rodham attending a New Haven fundraiser for Seale's defense that he threw with his wife, author Jessica Mitford. Treuhaft -- who, with his wife, left the Communist Party in 1958 -- died in 2001.
Clinton kept up correspondence with the British-born Mitford through the early 1990s. "Top students like Hillary were much sought after by huge prestigious Wall Street-type law firms -- some, like Hillary, were far more interested in left-wing firms," Mitford wrote to a friend in 1992.
In her autobiography, "Living History," Clinton details little of the firm's background. She wrote that she "spent most of my time working for Mal Burnstein researching, writing legal motions and briefs for a child custody case."
But members of the firm have different recollections. Burnstein recalled her working on a case involving Stanford University students who refused to sign an oath attesting that they had never been communists.
Walker said that Clinton probably worked on cases to help young men avoid the draft. "We did a whole lot of conscientious-objector work," she said.
Hayden, one of the Chicago Seven who were acquitted of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, said he is disappointed that Clinton has tried to taint Obama with guilt by association.
"Once you introduce the concept of guilt by association, everyone is in trouble because there is no end to it," he said. "The goal is to render Barack so unelectable that the party has to turn to her. Because the goal is so narrow and obsessive, she's not aware that she's also going to be collateral damage."
Researcher Madonna Lebling and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.