Obama and the ‘Weatherman Connection’ : In Defense of Bill Ayers

William Ayers, left, in 1980 with wife, Bernardine Dohrn. Photo by Knoblock, via Associated Press.

‘The Bill Ayers I knew in the late 1960’s was a very thoughtful and serious person.’
By David P. Hamilton / The Rag Blog / October 6, 2008

See ‘Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths’ by Scott Shane / New York Times, Below.

John McCain couldn’t hold Bill Ayers’ jock strap.

I left graduate school at the Univ. of Texas in September of 1968 and headed north to work for the Radical Education Project (REP) in Ann Arbor. REP had been founded by Tom Hayden and was responsible for selecting, printing and distributing literature to be used by SDS chapters. The staff was an SDS chapter and we shared offices with the Michigan Regional Office of SDS. The main people running the Michigan Regional were Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton. They were a couple at the time and both devoted to education issues. Together they worked at the Children’s Community School in Ann Arbor, a progressive private school for underprivileged children based on the Summerhill model.

The Bill Ayers I knew in the late 1960’s was a very thoughtful and serious person. Besides working at the school, he traveled the region organizing SDS chapters. He also was prominent in the developments within SDS on a national level and attended National Interim Committee meetings at the Chicago national office and all our quarterly conventions. Although we were not close friends, my observation was that Bill was highly conscientious and not particularly involved in the more cultural aspects of those times. Sex, drugs and rock-n-roll were not his passions. Instead, he was an unswerving opponent of the Vietnam War and the American imperialism of which it was a manifestation.

I ran with Bill in a street “affinity group” at Nixion’s inauguration, January 20, 1969. By this time, militancy and defying the cops had become a principal strategy. I’ll omit the details of what we did that day, but we had the cops running, the tear gas flying and we all got away. I last saw him at the fateful final SDS national convention in the summer of 1969. Weather took over the national office. Most of the REP staff sided with the Revolutionary Youth Movement II faction, but supported Weather against the Progressive Labor faction. In September, I returned to UT.

The Weather analysis was largely correct. They recognized that there was a worldwide struggle going on against American imperialism, with Vietnam as the leading edge of the struggle, but only one theater of operation. We had just experienced the May Days in France, the student uprising in Mexico, dozens of major riots in black communities coast to coast and multiple assassinations of progressive American leaders among many other revolutionary events. American imperialism was being attacked on many fronts. Weather’s position was that another front in the struggle should be opened within the US. My problem with their position was largely tactical. They did not see the need to mobilize masses. Instead, they sought to engage in violent acts carried out by small groups in solidarity with the Vietnamese, hopefully forcing the US government to deploy its military domestically and, thus taking pressure off the Vietnamese. My own position was that the movement having an armed wing was not necessarily a bad idea, but I wasn’t willing to be part of it. But Bill and others had that level of commitment. They put their lives on the line.

The Weather Underground (WUO) committed dozens of bombings over the next several years. They bombed the memorial statue dedicated to the police who killed striking workers during Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket Riot (twice), the NY City police headquarters, the US capitol building, the Pentagon and many Bank of America branches. It should be pointed out that they went to great lengths to avoid killing innocent people, but cops were not considered innocent. They are blamed for killing a policeman in a bombing in San Francisco in 1970, but a SF grand jury in 1999 refused to indict anyone. Another person was killed during a bombing of a Defense Department lab at the Univ. of Wisconsin. The victim was in the building at 3 am when the explosion occurred and that bombing was reputedly carried out by Weather copycats, not the WUO itself. The most people who died in a WUO bombing were the three Weather members, Diana Oughton, Ted Gold, and Terry Robbins, who died while making a bomb in a Greenwich Village townhouse in 1970.

It must be pointed out that at the same period, John McCain was flying bombing missions over Vietnam in support of American aggression. The number of people he killed in the process is unknown, but with a doubt, it is considerable. He was shot down when he broke Navy rules by flying back over his bombing target to admire the carnage.

When Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn turned themselves in 1980, most of the charges against them were dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct, primarily searches without warrants carried out by the FBI. All charges against Ayers were dropped. Dohrn received probation and a fine.What the Weather Underground did between 1969 and the end of the Vietnam War must be seen in the context of the times. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy and Fred Hampton had all been assassinated. The American invasion was responsible for the deaths of roughly 2 million Vietnamese. Cambodia and Laos were mercilessly bombed – in secret. In Indonesia, the Sukarno government was overthrown with US support and subsequently an estimated 500,000 “communists” were killed. In 1973, the CIA instigated the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile. It also illegally spied on US citizens. Hundreds of African Americans were killed by police and National Guard during the insurrections in black communities. These events are just a few examples of the voraciousness of American imperialism during that period. By comparison, the actions of the WUO hardly merit mention.

Ayers was asked in a January 2004 interview, “How do you feel about what you did? Would you do it again under similar circumstances?” He replied: “I’ve thought about this a lot. Being almost 60, it’s impossible to not have lots and lots of regrets about lots and lots of things, but the question of did we do something that was horrendous, awful? … I don’t think so. I think what we did was to respond to a situation that was unconscionable.” On September 9, 2008, journalist Jake Tapper reported on the comic strip in Bill Ayers’s blog explaining the soundbite: “The one thing I don’t regret is opposing the war in Vietnam with every ounce of my being….’When I say, ‘We didn’t do enough,’ a lot of people rush to think, ‘That must mean, ‘We didn’t bomb enough shit.'” But that’s not the point at all. It’s not a tactical statement, it’s an obvious political and ethical statement. In this context, ‘we’ means ‘everyone.'”[Bill Ayers in now a Distinguished Professor at the Univ. of Illinois, Chicago. He worked with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley in shaping the city’s school reform program and was one of three co-authors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge grant proposal that in 1995 won $49.2 million over five years for public school reform. Since 1999 he has served on the board of directors of the Woods Fund of Chicago, an anti-poverty, philanthropic foundation established as the Woods Charitable Fund in 1941.

Bernadine Dohrn is an associate professor of law at Northwestern. She also serves on the board of numerous human rights committees and since 2002, she has served as Visiting Law Faculty at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam. Her legal work has focused on reforming the much criticized juvenile court system in Chicago and on advocating for human rights at the international level. Dohrn is director and founder of the Children and Family Justice Center, which supports the legal needs of adolescents and their families. It is instructive that the media, in its attempts to link Ayers with Barack Obama, has generally ignored Bernadine.Bill and Bernadine have two children. They also raised, Chesa Boudin, child of imprisoned WUO members, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert. Chesea Boudin later graduated at the top of his class at Yale, became a Rhodes Scholar and has written a recent book on the Venezuelan revolution.

Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths
By Scott Shane / October 4, 2008

CHICAGO — At a tumultuous meeting of anti-Vietnam War militants at the Chicago Coliseum in 1969, Bill Ayers helped found the radical Weathermen, launching a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and United States Capitol.
Twenty-six years later, at a lunchtime meeting about school reform in a Chicago skyscraper, Barack Obama met Mr. Ayers, by then an education professor. Their paths have crossed sporadically since then, at a coffee Mr. Ayers hosted for Mr. Obama’s first run for office, on the schools project and a charitable board, and in casual encounters as Hyde Park neighbors.

Their relationship has become a touchstone for opponents of Mr. Obama, the Democratic senator, in his bid for the presidency. Video clips on YouTube, including a new advertisement that was broadcast on Friday, juxtapose Mr. Obama’s face with the young Mr. Ayers or grainy shots of the bombings.

In a televised interview last spring, Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, asked, “How can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings that could have or did kill innocent people?”

More recently, conservative critics who accuse Mr. Obama of a stealth radical agenda have asserted that he has misleadingly minimized his relationship with Mr. Ayers, whom the candidate has dismissed as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood” and “somebody who worked on education issues in Chicago that I know.”

A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63. But 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, whom he has called “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”
Obama campaign aides said the Ayers relationship had been greatly exaggerated by opponents to smear the candidate.

“The suggestion that Ayers was a political adviser to Obama or someone who shaped his political views is patently false,” said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman. Mr. LaBolt said the men first met in 1995 through the education project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and have encountered each other occasionally in public life or in the neighborhood. He said they have not spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail messages since Mr. Obama began serving in the United States Senate in January 2005 and last met more than a year ago when they bumped into each other on the street in Hyde Park.

In the stark presentation of a 30-second advertisement or a television clip, Mr. Obama’s connections with a man who once bombed buildings and who is unapologetic about it may seem puzzling. But in Chicago, Mr. Ayers has largely been rehabilitated.
Federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges against him were dropped in 1974 because of illegal wiretaps and other prosecutorial misconduct, and he was welcomed back after years in hiding by his large and prominent family. His father, Thomas G. Ayers, had served as chief executive of Commonwealth Edison, the local power company.

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. Mr. Daley, whose father was Chicago’s mayor during the street violence accompanying the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the so-called Days of Rage the following year, said he saw the bombings of that time in the context of a polarized and turbulent era.

“This is 2008,” Mr. Daley said. “People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.”

That attitude is widely shared in Chicago, but it is not universal. Steve Chapman, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, defended Mr. Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his longtime pastor, whose black liberation theology and “God damn America” sermon became notorious last spring. But he denounced Mr. Obama for associating with Mr. Ayers, whom he said the University of Illinois should never have hired.

“I don’t think there’s a statute of limitations on terrorist bombings,” Mr. Chapman said in an interview, speaking not of the law but of political and moral implications.

“If you’re in public life, you ought to say, ‘I don’t want to be associated with this guy,’ ” Mr. Chapman said. “If John McCain had a long association with a guy who’d bombed abortion clinics, I don’t think people would say, ‘That’s ancient history.’”

Mr. Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University Law School who was also a Weather Underground founder, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The Schools Project

The Ayers-Obama connection first came to public attention last spring, when both Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic primary rival, and Mr. McCain brought it up. It became the subject of a television advertisement in August by the anti-Obama American Issues Project and drew new attention recently on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page and elsewhere as the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge at the University of Illinois were opened to researchers.

That project was part of a national school reform effort financed with $500 million from Walter H. Annenberg, the billionaire publisher and philanthropist and President Richard M. Nixon’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Many cities applied for the Annenberg money, and Mr. Ayers joined two other local education activists to lead a broad, citywide effort that won nearly $50 million for Chicago.

In March 1995, Mr. Obama became chairman of the six-member board that oversaw the distribution of grants in Chicago. Some bloggers have recently speculated that Mr. Ayers had engineered that post for him.

In fact, according to several people involved, Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama’s appointment. Instead, it was suggested by Deborah Leff, then president of the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based group whose board Mr. Obama, a young lawyer, had joined the previous year. At a lunch with two other foundation heads, Patricia A. Graham of the Spencer Foundation and Adele Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation, Ms. Leff suggested that Mr. Obama would make a good board chairman, she said in an interview. Mr. Ayers was not present and had not suggested Mr. Obama, she said.

Ms. Graham said she invited Mr. Obama to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Chicago and was impressed.

“At the end of the dinner I said, ‘I really want you to be chairman.’ He said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll be vice chairman,’ ” Ms. Graham recalled, and she agreed.

Archives of the Chicago Annenberg project, which funneled the money to networks of schools from 1995 to 2000, show both men attended six board meetings early in the project — Mr. Obama as chairman, Mr. Ayers to brief members on school issues.

It was later in 1995 that Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn hosted the gathering, in their town house three blocks from Mr. Obama’s home, at which State Senator Alice J. Palmer, who planned to run for Congress, introduced Mr. Obama to a few Democratic friends as her chosen successor. That was one of several such neighborhood events as Mr. Obama prepared to run, said A. J. Wolf, the 84-year-old emeritus rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue, across the street from Mr. Obama’s current house.

“If you ask my wife, we had the first coffee for Barack,” Rabbi Wolf said. He said he had known Mr. Ayers for decades but added, “Bill’s mad at me because I told a reporter he’s a toothless ex-radical.”

“It was kind of a nasty shot,” Mr. Wolf said. “But it’s true. For God’s sake, he’s a professor.”

Other Connections

In 1997, after Mr. Obama took office, the new state senator was asked what he was reading by The Chicago Tribune. He praised a book by Mr. Ayers, “A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court,” which Mr. Obama called “a searing and timely account of the juvenile court system.” In 2001, Mr. Ayers donated $200 to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.

In addition, from 2000 to 2002, the two men also overlapped on the seven-member board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago charity that had supported Mr. Obama’s first work as a community organizer in the 1980s. Officials there said the board met about a dozen times during those three years but declined to make public the minutes, saying they wanted members to be candid in assessing people and organizations applying for grants.

A board member at the time, R. Eden Martin, a corporate lawyer and president of the Commercial Club of Chicago, described both men as conscientious in examining proposed community projects but could recall nothing remarkable about their dealings with each other. “You had people who were liberal and some who were pretty conservative, but we usually reached a consensus,” Mr. Martin said of the panel.

Since 2002, there is little public evidence of their relationship.

If by then the ambitious politician was trying to keep his distance, it would not be a surprise. In an article that by chance was published on Sept. 11, 2001, The New York Times wrote about Mr. Ayers and his just-published memoir, “Fugitive Days,” opening with a quotation from the author: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”

Three days after the Qaeda attacks, Mr. Ayers wrote a reply posted on his Web site to clarify his quoted remarks, saying the meaning had been distorted.

“My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy,” he wrote. But he added that the Weathermen had “showed remarkable restraint” given the nature of the American bombing campaign in Vietnam that they were trying to stop.

Most of the bombs the Weathermen were blamed for had been placed to do only property damage, a fact Mr. Ayers emphasizes in his memoir. But a 1970 pipe bomb in San Francisco attributed to the group killed one police officer and severely hurt another. An accidental 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village town house basement killed three radicals; survivors later said they had been making nail bombs to detonate at a military dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And in 1981, in an armed robbery of a Brinks armored truck in Nanuet, N.Y., that involved Weather Underground members including Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed.

In his memoir, Mr. Ayers was evasive as to which bombings he had a hand in, writing that “some details cannot be told.” By the time of the Brinks robbery, he and Ms. Dohrn had emerged from underground to raise their two children, then Chesa Boudin, whose parents were imprisoned for their role in the heist.

Little Influence Seen

Mr. Obama’s friends said that history was utterly irrelevant to judging the candidate, because Mr. Ayers was never a significant influence on him. Even some conservatives who know Mr. Obama said that if he was drawn to Ayers-style radicalism, he hid it well.

“I saw no evidence of a radical streak, either overt or covert, when we were together at Harvard Law School,” said Bradford A. Berenson, who worked on the Harvard Law Review with Mr. Obama and who served as associate White House counsel under President Bush. Mr. Berenson, who is backing Mr. McCain, described his fellow student as “a pragmatic liberal” whose moderation frustrated others at the law review whose views were much farther to the left.

Some 15 years later, left-leaning backers of Mr. Obama have the same complaint. “We’re fully for Obama, but we disagree with some of his stands,” said Tom Hayden, the 1960s activist and former California legislator, who helped organize Progressives for Obama. His group opposes the candidate’s call for sending more troops to Afghanistan, for instance, “because we think it’s a quagmire just like Iraq,” he said. “A lot of our work is trying to win over progressives who think Obama is too conservative.”

Mr. Hayden, 68, said he has known Mr. Ayers for 45 years and was on the other side of the split in the radical antiwar movement that led Mr. Ayers and others to form the Weathermen. But Mr. Hayden said he saw attempts to link Mr. Obama with bombings and radicalism as “typical campaign shenanigans.”

“If Barack Obama says he’s willing to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions,” Mr. Hayden said, “I can imagine he’d be willing to talk to Bill Ayers about schools. But I think that’s about as far as their relationship goes.”

Source / New York Times

Also see Obama allies warn GOP to back off attacks by Charles Babington / Oct. 5, 2008 / AP / Google News

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1 Response to Obama and the ‘Weatherman Connection’ : In Defense of Bill Ayers

  1. Brian--Old SDSer says:

    Hamilton misses the point in his defense of Bill Ayers circa ’68. The problem with the Weather line was not just tactical. Their hatred of working people in the U.S.–considering them (us) as part of the bribed enemy class and bombing many of their work places–was a strategic blunder stirring up a reaction to the movement that is still with us today, 40 years later. The most chilling statement in Hamilton’s adulation of Weather, is:

    “It should be pointed out that they went to great lengths to avoid killing innocent people, but cops were not considered innocent.”

    Of course you can’t equate that to the wholesale slaughter rained down on the Vietnamese people by McCain and his bomber boys. But going “to great lengths” and having a small group of white U of M students playing out their rage and deciding who among the population is “innocent” or not, smacks of fascism and terrorism.

    Hamilton’s defense of Bill Ayers is a poor one. He’s right to defend Bill against the the attacks from the McCain (and Clintons) and Obama from the guilt-by-association tactics used by the right-wingers. But there’s no call to glorify his anti-people politics (thoughtful or not) of 40 years ago.

    Bill has obviously turned away from the “going to great lengths” not to kill civilians line and has become a great educator while remaining a radical and anti-war activist. We should judge a person by their whole life and not just by their worst mistakes.

    But Hamilton’s testimony only adds to the case against Bill.

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