Political Hay

Why Ayers Still Matters

No one knows that better than the nervous Obama and his fellow dissemblers.

By 10.10.08

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Like many of his Big Media colleagues, Scott Conroy of CBS News thinks Governor Palin's recent criticism of Senator Obama for associating with terrorist-turned-education-professor-and-curriculum-guru Bill Ayers signals Republican willingness to "make the election a referendum on Obama's character, rather than the issues facing the country."

Get a load of the "rather than," which cloaks refusal to admit that the character of a major party nominee for the presidency might actually be one of the issues facing the country,

Conroy goes on to write that "Palin has increasingly focused her remarks on tearing down Obama." Like the CNN panelist who stopped analyzing the second presidential debate to fret that "what Sarah Palin is doing is so dangerous," Conroy seems to think it would be better to build up the junior Senator from Illinois than to criticize his judgment.

Why affirmation of all things Obama is a task that belongs even to his opponents, or how silencing argument squares with the First Amendment, no Palin critic will say.


WITH EARLY VOTING already under way in many states, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod now tiptoes up to questions about Ayers by recycling the defense that his boss first used to distance himself from Rev. Jeremiah Wright. What Axelrod told the New York Post can be paraphrased as "Bill Ayers the unrepentant terrorist is not the Bill Ayers whom Obama (barely) knows."

To hear Axelrod tell it, Obama was ignorant of Ayers' past when he launched a state senate campaign at a fundraising party in the home that Ayers shares with his wife, fellow Weather Underground terrorist Bernadine Dohrn. After all, the defense goes, Ayers and Dohrn were well into their second careers by 1995, and the bombings that sprang from their zealous opposition to the Vietnam War happened when Obama was only eight years old.

As a chronology of tactical adjustments by members of the Weather Underground and a nod to the blame-shifting impulse of violent hippies, that is correct as far as it goes. But it is also more like a scene from Forrest Gump than the Obama campaign probably intends.

The "too young to know" line tries to absolve Barack Obama of surprising ignorance while soft-pedaling the explosive rage of the man who helped launch his political career. In both respects, it fails in the same way that "the war and that lying son of a bitch Johnson" cannot justify sucker-punching a girlfriend.

Ayers and Dohrn are professors in a neighborhood where the local coffee shop almost doubles as a faculty lounge for the University of Chicago. Their jobs, in other words, are unremarkable. But they are celebrities of sorts because they bombed whatever they could back in the day.

Nearly forty years after the crimes for which he and his associates became notorious, "Ayers sees his education work as carrying on his radicalism in a new guise," writes Stanley Kurtz.

That Obama knew none of this as a rising politician fails even the smell test at Democrat-friendly CNN. Long past his eighth birthday, Obama publicly endorsed Ayers' book on juvenile justice. The two men worked together against a 1998 juvenile crime bill that neither liked. And Ayers' memoir of life on the run has striking tonal similarities to Obama's Dreams From My Father.


EVEN IF WE ACCEPT the argument from ignorance, we know that Barack Obama had heard about Ayers' past by 2001, as a campaign spokesman recently admitted to Mark Halperin of Time magazine. That year, Ayers was photographed stomping on an American flag, He also reminisced about his bomber days in a profile that the New York Times had the misfortune to publish on September 11. People have parted company with each other for lesser reasons, but nothing Ayers did or said caused Obama to resign from the board of the comically progressive foundation on which they both served at the time.

Moreover, as Stanley Kurtz points out, when a New York Times reporter writes that Obama has never expressed sympathy for Ayers' radicalism, "he's flat wrong," In fact, Obama helped bankroll that radicalism via grants to school projects and community organizing groups that teach what Ayers calls his "small-c communist" philosophy.

Because it is now impossible to ignore a story that they were never troubled by, Big Media has adopted the fallback position of referring to Ayers as a "former" radical or an "alleged" terrorist. The Associated Press even turns the odometer back to call Ayers a "60s" radical, as though his career ended before the Beatles broke up. "Former" and "alleged" are weasel-word adjectives for a man who called himself "guilty as sin" and has never repudiated the radicalism of his youth. Far from going the way of bell-bottom pants and mutton chop sideburns, that radicalism simply earned academic credentials while morphing from "Kill the pigs" into "Leave the gun. Take the cannolli."

All of this has received less attention than it deserves, partly because Hillary Clinton let Obama wax indignantly about an Ayers question early this year, and partly because John McCain whiffed his own chance to ask Obama about Ayers on live TV. McCain could have raised questions about Ayers in the context of people like Jeremiah Wright and Tony Rezko, but he remains reluctant to look at the crowded asphalt under Obama's bus, or glance overseas at the likes of Obama supporters like Kenyan Communist Raila Odinga, and so he left that line of inquiry to his running mate.


WHEN AYERS WAS ELECTED this past March to a leadership role in the nation's largest organization of education school professors and researchers, Sol Stern was one of the few journalists who sprinted for the bell tower to warn the rest of us about the Hyde Park drifter coming to paint the curriculum red. "Ayers is widely regarded as a member in good standing of the city's civic establishment, not an unrepentant domestic terrorist," Stern wrote. "But Obama and his critics are arguing about the wrong moral question. The more pressing issue is not the damage done by the Weather Underground 40 years ago, but the far greater harm inflicted on the nation's schoolchildren by the political and educational movement in which Ayers plays a leading role today."

Stern had a point. Ayers would be the "distraction from real issues" that Obama supporters make him out to be if he were an aberration in the senator's life, but he's just another angry mentor in a long string of associates whose political views range from Old Left to New Left. Even Obama's chief blogger is an avowed socialist. And the impetus for worrying about this striking lack of diversity, for those who have forgotten, is that socialism depends on coercion.

It may seem unfair to pick on Obama for his willingness to hobnob with disreputable characters, knowing that his more fervid supporters misread even naked opportunism as attention to messianic duty, but the candidate does no better if you look exclusively at his policy prescriptions. Forget finger-pointing over war strategy and tax plans: we've already seen Obama say in two debates that he's going to go "line by line" through the federal budget, "ending programs that don't work and making those that do work more efficient." It's "stroke of the pen; law of the land," as performed by an honors graduate of the "Magick School of Problem Solving" who really seems to have it in for the country he calls "Pockeestan."

In short, neither personal nor political lenses do Obama's vaunted judgment any favors. Barnum and Bailey built a big-top empire on fewer delusions, and that is why the last word on whether any relationship between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers should be considered a legitimate subject for discussion properly belongs to John M. Murtagh, one of the people whom Bill Ayers tried to kill.

Writes Murtagh: "Nobody should hold the junior senator from Illinois responsible for his friends' and supporters' violent terrorist acts. But it is fair to hold him responsible for a startling lack of judgment in his choice of mentors, associates, and friends, and for showing a callous disregard for the lives they damaged and the hatred they have demonstrated for this country."

You think Murtagh is wrong?

Me, neither.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.