Deconstructing Bill Ayers
In early October 1969, during my first year as a grad student at Purdue, I attended an outdoor rally featuring prominent Weatherman Mark Rudd, the Beach Boy look-alike who achieved notoriety a year earlier during the takeover of Columbia University.
Rudd was on his way to Chicago, two hours north on I-65, there to help guerrilla hottie Bernardine Dohrn and the then obscure Bill Ayers lead the Weather troops on a rampage through Chicago streets soon to be known as the "Days of Rage." That rampage would leave scores of police injured and one attorney paralyzed. Rudd was looking for recruits. I was not to be among them.
I knew the Rudds and Ayerses of the world too well. I went to school and worked at summer camps with them. In my experience, they were to a person smug, self-righteous, indulged, affluent, and more than a little insecure about their very softness. By 1969 I knew that when the barricades went up, we would be on opposite sides.
My "we" included all the friends and family I had grown up with in Newark, New Jersey. We were the children of cops (me), mailmen, plumbers, machinists, bartenders, cab drivers, house painters. We didn't romanticize poverty. We were struggling to get out of it. We didn't celebrate black people. We played basketball with them (or were them). We didn't denounce the American dream. We pursued it. In fact, everyone I have kept up with it has actually achieved it, including my cousin Mickey, who spent years thirteen through eighteen in "juvie" and who now lets me stay at his shore house.
What impressed me about Rudd that day were two things. One was his failure to see the world as it actually existed, and the second was his willingness to make stuff up to justify the worldview he espoused.
In reading Bill Ayers's new book, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, I am reminded that Rudd's pathology was endemic in Weather World. A genuinely talented writer and a careful observer of the world (especially its menus), Ayers will never write a good book, however, until he commits to writing a truthful one.
As was true in his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days, Ayers deceives in ways big and small. This book would not have been published were it not for Ayers's relationship with Barack Obama, but he refuses to come clean about that relationship. "We lived a few blocks apart, and he and I had sat on a couple of nonprofit boards together[.]" That's how Ayers sums up their connection. "So?"
So why not talk about the most salient of the boards on which they sat, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC)? Ayers co-founded the CAC with fellow traveler Mike Klonsky. Ayers talks at some length about his service with Obama on the board of the Woods Fund, a small Chicago do-gooder foundation hardly worth fretting about, but not a word about the CAC.
The Annenberg Foundation had breathed the CAC to life with a $50-million grant, to be matched by $100 million from other sources. The money was to fund educational reform projects. In 1995, Ayers plucked Obama from obscurity to chair this mega-slush fund. In 2008, the Obama camp felt the need to lie about this relationship.
"Ayers had nothing to do with Obama's recruitment to the Board," said an Obama spokesman at the time. But National Review's Stanley Kurtz shredded that lie, and even the Obama-friendly biographer David Remnick conceded, "Ayers helped bring Obama onto the Annenberg board."
What caught my attention about his anointing of Obama was the timing. Ayers maneuvered Obama onto the board in February 1995. He admittedly hosted a campaign kick-off for Obama in September 1995, and Obama's memoir Dreams from My Father was published in June of 1995. Ayers chides me for saying, "Ayers saw the potential in Obama, and he chose to mold it," but he does not refute what I said.
As to his own role in the crafting of Dreams, a subject I first wrote about at length in American Thinker in October 2008, Ayers dedicates a half-dozen pages of ironic evasion. After reviewing several of my points of comparison between his books and Obama's, Ayers asks ambiguously, "Empirical proof or crackpot confirmation[? Y]ou decide."
Having buried their mutual involvement in the CAC, Ayers, not surprisingly, fails to mention my assertion that in Dreams Obama perfectly mimics Ayers's sentiments on education. In fact, Obama reproduced virtually meme for meme the specific ideas Ayers outlined in a 1994 essay titled "Navigating a restless sea: The continuing struggle to achieve a decent education for African American youngsters in Chicago."
A one-time merchant seaman, Ayers had a penchant for words like "navigating." He ribs me as the "great brain" who discovered "those infamous maritime references" -- an apparent laugh line. As Ayers knows, however, those references are not so easily dismissed.
At the end of the day, I found in both Dreams and in Ayers's books the following shared words: fog, mist, ships, sinking ships, seas, sails, boats, oceans, calms, captains, charts, first mates, floods, shores, storms, streams, wind, waves, waters, anchors, barges, horizons, harbor, bays, ports, panoramas, moorings, tides, currents, voyages, narrower courses, uncertain courses, and things howling, wobbling, fluttering, sinking, leaking, cascading, swimming, knotted, ragged, tangled, boundless, uncharted, turbulent, and murky.
Empirical proof or crackpot confirmation? You decide. If nothing else, I suspect my exposure of this nautical tic made Ayers at least a little self-conscious. Public Enemy is all but devoid of such references.
As a rule, Ayers has been able to ignore people like me. For him and his pampered comrades, we were road kill on the revolutionary highway -- easy to mock, easy to murder. This becomes clear in his discussion of the Brinks robbery in 1981, a year after Ayers and Dohrn surfaced.
Although Ayers and Dohrn claim no knowledge of the robbery -- "We never killed or hurt anyone" -- two of their Weather pals, Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert were involved. They had joined forces with the Black Liberation Army and together killed one Brinks guard and two police officers and left another three cops wounded.
"Poor, dear David," Ayers says of seeing Gilbert soon after the massacre, "he looked so badly beaten down and diminished in shackles." This was a recurrent theme. Later, Ayers links the fate of Gilbert and Boudin to that of other of the world's oppressed, "relentlessly demonized and shunned." Lest she lend credence to the "marauding witch hunt" that followed the Brinks murders, Dohrn refused to honor a grand jury summons. She was imprisoned until her prominent lawyer friends won her release.
Ayers and pals have always known what strings to pull. He, Dohrn, Boudin, and Gilbert all came from affluent families. Dohrn and Ayers adopted Gilbert's and Boudin's infant son Chesa. The grandparents all chipped in. Today, Boudin is an adjunct professor at Columbia. Dohrn had similar status at Northwestern University School of Law. Ayers retired as a distinguished professor from the University of Illinois, Chicago. Chesa went to Yale and Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. Brinks victims Peter Paige, Waverly Brown, and Edward O'Grady are still dead, unmourned in the pages of Public Enemy.
Although Ayers likes to think of himself as a dissident -- the book's subtitle claims he is one -- Dr. Spock tended to Baby Chesa. Robert Redford nodded to Ayers at the Sundance Film Festival. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins shared a "group hug" with him on the red carpet before the Oscars. Academic superstars Edward Said and Stanley Fish palled around with him. Famed conductor Zubin Mehta hung out with him occasionally. Barbara Walters and ABC's Robin Roberts chatted him up. And, my favorite, the president of the McArthur Foundation just happened to stop by on September 11 when he and his Weather bride were having dinner with their best pals, the Rashid Khalidis. Dissident, my ass.
All of this would be amusing enough, save for the fact that Ayers portrays himself as the victim of a new McCarthyism, his book tour cruelly disrupted by the anti-terror sentiments that emerged after September 11, his speaking gigs shot to hell by his sudden toxicity during the 2008 campaign. He spends countless pages on his cancelations, seemingly unaware that conservatives don't even get invitations to college campuses, let alone group hugs on the red carpet.
Like so many on the left, Obama included, Ayers feels free to embellish his grievances to heighten his sense of martyrdom. The one in Public Enemy that stands out is his claim that when his name was mentioned at a Sarah Palin rally -- she a "Joe McCarthy on steroids" -- "folks [were] chanting 'kill him.'" Ayers claimed to have seen these chanters on a video looking "a little dazed."
What actually happened is that at a rally in Florida, Palin quoted the New York Times to the effect that Ayers "launched a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and our U.S. Capitol." The crowd then booed, and one person, at least according to the Washington Post, yelled, "Kill him." There was no chanting, no video, and the Secret Service did not hear the yell at all. This led to headlines like the following in Huffington Post: "Obama Hatred at McCain-Palin Rallies: 'Terrorist!' 'Kill Him!'" At least Ayers understood that the mystery yell was aimed at him, not Obama.
What Ayers fails to acknowledge is that his association with terror only heightened his reputation long-term. His words and deeds have not undone him the way, say, Paula Deen's have, or Todd Akin's. They have just changed the trajectory of his ascendancy.
And ascendant he is. He can call our war in Vietnam "despicable," talk about "our indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese," denounce our "massive gulag," celebrate real killers like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, ignore the monstrous crimes of his idols like Mao and Lenin, and still get invited onto Morning Joe to chat about his new book.
"We always stood up somehow for fairness," writes Ayers, and in his world, where truth is what you can get away with, that "somehow" covers a lot of sins.