Ayers Controversy First Smoldered, Now Flares Bright

By Michele McNeil — October 10, 2008 7 min read
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Months after conservative commentators began hammering Sen. Barack Obama over his connections to William C. Ayers, the Vietnam War-era radical who is now a well-known education professor, Sen. John McCain is clearly making the controversy a part of his campaign strategy.

The rhetoric ratcheted up Oct. 4, when the Republican vice presidential nominee, Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska, issued her sharpest attacks yet against Sen. Obama, declaring in a campaign speech that he was “palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”

Sen. John McCain’s television commercial, “Ayers.”

Although Sen. McCain did not raise the issue in the Oct. 7 presidential debate, he later addressed it in nationally televised interviews, citing Sen. Obama’s ties to Mr. Ayers as a way of questioning the Illinois senator’s character.

The McCain campaign last week first posted a Web ad highlighting the connections, then turned up the volume on the attacks on Oct. 10 in a biting television ad to be broadcast nationally criticizing Sen. Obama as having “blind ambition,” “bad judgment,” and working with “terrorist Bill Ayers” when convenient. Also last week, the Republican National Committee launched television ads in Indiana and Wisconsin that link the two.

The ties are no secret, however, to people in Chicago educational and political circles, where Mr. Ayers is an established figure whose work sometimes intersected with that of Mr. Obama. Most notably to educators, Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers both worked on the Chicago portion of the Annenberg Challenge school reform initiative in the 1990s. (“Backers Say Chicago Project Not ‘Radical’,” Oct. 15, 2008)

Mr. Ayers holds the status of distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and he is the incoming vice president of the curriculum-studies division of the American Educational Research Association. A frequent commentator on education reform issues, he has been quoted, profiled, and published over the years in the pages of Education Week.

But his militant anti-war activities long before he earned his professional credentials—and the belief that he is “unrepentant” about his past embrace of violent tactics—have vaulted Mr. Ayers into the glare of a closely fought presidential election.

Conservative critics have made an issue of Sen. Obama’s ties to Mr. Ayers, who has acknowledged taking part in bombings of the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon during the Vietnam War as a member of the Weather Underground.

The escalating attention is no accident, according to Thomas B. Edsall, a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, in New York.

“The real goal is to portray Obama as outside of the mainstream,” Mr. Edsall said. The only question, he said, was whether a third-party group or the McCain campaign itself would make the connections an issue.

Volume Rises

William C. Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, were members of the radical Weather Underground and longtime fugitives. Mr. Ayers, a focus of 2008 campaign controversy, is now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The Ayers-Obama story has taken many twists as it moved from a topic in right-leaning media circles earlier this year to its recent prominence in the Republican ticket’s campaign. (“Slow-Building Controversy,” Oct. 15, 2008)

As late as February, discussion seemed limited to the political blogosphere. Conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh also began giving attention to the Ayers-Obama ties, and momentum picked up.

The story jumped prominently into the media mainstream when George Stephanopoulos of ABC News asked Sen. Obama about it during an April 16 Democratic debate in Philadelphia.

Sen. Obama, in the nationally broadcast debate, downplayed their connection, referring to Mr. Ayers as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” and “not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.” He would later more explicitly condemn Mr. Ayers’ past actions.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s last remaining rival for the party’s presidential nomination, said that the question was legitimate, and she predicted: “I think that this is an issue that, certainly, the Republicans will be raising.”

In fact, four days later, Sen. McCain appeared on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” and said Sen. Obama’s connection to Mr. Ayers was “open to question.”

Hitting a Plateau

Biography: William C. Ayers

Born: Dec. 26, 1944

Undergraduate Education: B.A., American Studies, University of Michigan, 1968

Radical Activities:

• Member of Students for a Democratic Society, a leftist political organization active in the 1960s; a founder of the group’s radical Weatherman faction, later known as the Weather Underground.

• Went underground after three people were killed in a March 6, 1970, explosion at a New York City townhouse where members of the group were making bombs. Indicted with others in the group on charges of conspiring to commit bombings.

• Claims responsibility in his 2001 memoir, Fugitive Days, for involvement in a number of bombings, including at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 1971, and at the Pentagon on May 19, 1972.

• Bombing-conspiracy charges dropped against him and other members of the group Oct. 15, 1973, after a federal court ordered disclosure of any illegal techniques used to investigate the group.

• Came out of hiding after the Dec. 3, 1980, surrender of his now-wife Bernardine Dorhn, a fellow member of the Weathermen, who pleaded guilty to other charges related to her activities. A lawyer and law professor, she is director of Northwestern University’s Children and Family Justice Center.

Education Career:

• M.A., Early-Childhood Education, Bank Street College of Education, 1984; Ed.D, M.Ed., Curriculum and Teaching, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1987.

• Distinguished Professor of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago. Vice president-elect, curriculum-studies division, American Educational Research Association.

• Active in small-schools movement, which views small schools as a path to more personalized learning environments. Advocate for “social justice” teaching, defined by an AERA group as a way to cultivate “intellectual rigor, creativity, critical engagement, and active participation in the world.”

SOURCES: The New York Times; the Federal Bureau of Investigation; Fugitive Days: A Memoir, by Bill Ayers

Research Librarian Rachael Delgado contributed to this report.

At that point, the flap over the Obama-Ayers connection appeared to plateau rather than catch fire—a sharp contrast to the furious reaction involving controversial comments from Sen. Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

One reason, Mr. Edsall speculates, may be that the subject of Mr. Ayers had been brought up by the moderator of the Philadelphia debate, not by Sen. Clinton. That may have dampened the reaction from both a media and a campaign-strategy perspective, he said.

“If Hillary brought it up, it gives McCain more justification,” Mr. Edsall said, “that ‘we’re just raising a point a Democrat raised.’ ”

To be sure, the issue never really disappeared.

During the summer, two critics of Sen. Obama published books about him, devoting some of their pages to the Ayers-Obama issue—and ending up on the New York Times bestseller list.

One of them, The Obama Nation, by Jerome R. Corsi, the author of a book critical of Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry in 2004, examines Mr. Ayers in a section titled “The Making of a Radical Politician.” David Freddoso’s book The Case Against Barack Obama gives eight pages to the topic of Mr. Ayers and other purported influences, in a chapter called “The Radical Influences.”

But the most recent explosion of attention was set off by a New York Times article on Oct. 4 that traced the Ayers-Obama connections in some detail, concluding that “the two men do not appear to have been close.” The same day, Gov. Palin cited that article in accusing Sen. Obama of associating with terrorists.

On Oct. 10, the McCain campaign released 30-second television ad asserting: “When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied. Obama. Blind ambition. Bad judgment.”

Ultimately, some politicial analysts suggest, the McCain campaign wants to take attacks that have been largely pressed by conservative pundits and expose the charges to a broader audience.

“The strategy is to get these issues picked up and reported on by the free media,” said American University political science professor James A. Thurber, who is also the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies.

There are two distinct strands in the efforts to make an issue out of Sen. Obama’s connections to Mr. Ayers.

One strand attacks the senator for links to a “domestic terrorist.”

The other strand, pursued by such commentators as the blogger and law professor Stephen F. Diamond and the New York City education reform writer Sol Stern, suggests the focus on Mr. Ayers’ Weather Underground activities is a distraction from a more relevant issue: whether Sen. Obama buys in to what critics see as Mr. Ayers’ radical notions on education.

‘Sensational Argument’

“It’s a sensational argument, but it misses the point,” said Mr. Diamond, a professor at Santa Clara University in California, referring to the attacks focusing on Mr. Ayers’ Weatherman past. Mr. Diamond says that his own political views align with the left, but that he’s not voting for Sen. Obama or Sen. McCain.

Mr. Diamond, who writes in detail about Mr. Ayers and Sen. Obama on his Global Labor and Politics blog, sees Mr. Ayers’ continued support of small schools, “social justice” approaches to teaching, and “race-based” approaches to curriculum as more of a problem than his radical past.

“Obama and Ayers share these similar views on education,” he asserted.

Mr. Stern, in a blog posting on Oct. 6, put it this way: “Calling Bill Ayers a school reformer is a bit like calling Joseph Stalin an agricultural reformer.”

Sen. Obama’s education platform calls for merit-pay programs for teachers, smaller schools, expansion of prekindergarten, more learning time before and after school, and more funding for charter schools.

It remains clear, however, that factors other than educational theory are keeping the Ayers story alive.

One example: Mr. Ayers’ comments in a New York Times article shortly after publication of Mr. Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days—an article that was published, coincidentally, on Sept. 11, 2001. In the article, Mr. Ayers said he didn’t regret setting politically motivated bombs, saying, “I feel we didn’t do enough.”

“What happened when Obama was 8 years old is in some ways irrelevant,” said Mr. Edsall, the Columbia University journalism professor and a former longtime reporter for The Washington Post. But the publication of Mr. Ayers’ memoir and the Times interview in 2001 “put it much more into the spotlight and [it] potentially became a more serious problem for Obama.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 15, 2008 edition of Education Week as Ayers Controversy First Smoldered, Now Flares Bright


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