Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Tony Rezko

A "gotcha" that wasn't for one candidate, a need to "come clean" for another.

Published January 25, 2008 6:58PM (EST)

Hillary Clinton appeared on the "Today" how Friday morning, and Matt Lauer had an ambush waiting for her. After showing a video clip of Clinton going after Barack Obama for his relationship with "slum landlord" Tony Rezko, Lauer put up an undated photograph of Bill and Hillary Clinton posing with ... Tony Rezko.

As "gotcha" moments go, it wasn't much of one.

Someone in Clinton's line of work -- the wife of a governor, a first lady, a senator, a presidential candidate -- poses for photographs with thousands and thousands of people, most of whom she has never met before and will probably never meet again. Unless there's other evidence of a relationship -- as there was, say, when Time obtained a photograph of Jack Abramoff with George W. Bush -- it's pretty unfair to read anything into a single, undated, context-free grip 'n' grin. As Clinton explained -- and we've got no reason to doubt her -- "I don't know the man, I wouldn't know him if he walked in the door, I don't have a 17-year relationship with him. There's a big difference between standing somewhere taking a picture with someone you don't know and haven't seen since, and having a relationship."

There is. And to the extent Lauer or his producers at NBC were trying to suggest otherwise, their attempt was pathetic.

Nearly as lame, however, are Obama's attempts to downplay his relationship with Rezko. When Clinton said at this week's debate that Obama had worked as a lawyer on Rezko's behalf, Obama responded by saying that he'd done "about five hours' worth of work" on a Rezko-related project while an associate at a Chicago law firm. That's fairly accurate as far as it goes, but it doesn't go very far.

Obama has known Rezko, who has been indicted in what prosecutors call "two separate and extensive fraud schemes," since 1990, when Obama was a law student and Rezko offered him a job. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Rezko was one of Obama's earliest supporters when he ran for the Illinois Senate in the mid-1990s and later served on Obama's finance committee -- and held a fundraiser for Obama -- when he ran for the U.S. Senate. After Obama was elected to the Senate, he and Rezko's wife bought adjoining pieces of property, then she turned around and sold him hers for just a fraction of what she'd paid for it. According to the Sun-Times, it was "widely known" at the time of that deal that Rezko was under federal investigation; he was indicted less than a year later.

Asked on CBS Wednesday to explain his "relationship" with Rezko, Obama said: "Well, my relationship is he was somebody who I knew and had been a supporter for many years. He was somebody who had supported a wide range of candidates all throughout Illinois. Nobody had an inkling that he was involved in any problems. When those problems were discovered, we returned money from him that had been contributed. And what is true is that I also purchased a piece of land from him. Everything was above board, and there's been no allegations that there wasn't."

Move along, nothing to see here?

That's not how the Sun-Times' Mark Brown sees it. Brown, who says he has "always expected to be voting for Obama this year," says it's time for the candidate to "come clean" about his relationship with Rezko. "Most troubling to me is how Obama keeps handling this, a continuing lapse in judgment that leaves me wondering if there's more here than meets the eye instead of less," Brown writes. "From the start," he says, "Obama's approach to the Rezko situation has been to minimize and avoid, as if it would eventually just go away. It won't."

Correction: As a reader notes, Rezko's wife sold Obama only a portion of the property she purchased. Obama has insisted that he paid Rezko's wife fair market value for the strip of land, but he has also called the deal a"boneheaded" mistake because it allowed people to think that Rezko had "done me a favor."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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