10 things to know about Bill Ayers. A primer
from the Oct. 12, 2008 Chicago Sun-Times
BY ABDON M. PALLASCH AND CHRIS FUSCO
Sun-Times Staff Reporters
John McCain is hammering Barack Obama about his ties to Chicago educator Bill Ayers, co-founder of the Weather Underground, a group that used violence in the 1960s and 1970s to try to end the Vietnam War.
For a week now, the McCain-Palin ticket has been making Ayers an issue. And the attacks continued Friday, with an ad that calls Ayers the “leader of a terrorist group that bombed the U.S. Capitol.” The ad also says “Obama’s first campaign was launched at a gathering at Mr. Ayers’ home.”
Bill Ayers has declined to comment to the Sun-Times or any other media since Sen. Hillary Clinton first raised his name in the Democratic primary.
Who is Bill Ayers? Obama responds to ad tying him to '60s radical What did Obama know about Ayers, when?
But is everything the Republicans are saying true? Here’s a look at the Obama-Ayers relationship.
1. Was Ayers the leader of a terrorist group?
The FBI labeled the Weather Underground “a domestic terrorist group” whose members took credit for bombings of the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon and other government buildings. The bombings were designed to cause property damage, not hurt people. Ayers never has been accused of killing anybody.
But three Weather Underground members accidentally killed themselves while making bombs in New York City in 1970. In 1981, two police officers and a security guard were killed when other members of the group committed an armed robbery.
2. How long was Ayers “underground”?
Ayers and his wife, Weather Underground member Bernardine Dohrn, were on the lam 10 years before surrendering in 1980.
3. Were they ever convicted of “terrorism” charges?
No. Ayers faced federal riot and bombing-conspiracy charges, but those charges were dropped because of illegal wiretaps, break-ins and mail interceptions by authorities. Dohrn served less than a year behind bars for non-bombing activities tied to the group.
4. How are Ayers and Dohrn viewed now?
At least before this campaign, they were mainly seen as respected college professors. After getting his doctorate in education at Columbia University, Ayers joined the University of Illinois, where he gained a national reputation pushing innovative – some say controversial – approaches to educating at-risk youth. Dohrn has a national reputation for pushing reforms of the juvenile justice system. Ayers has published 15 books. He sits on civic boards with Mayor Daley, who in 1997 awarded Ayers the city’s “Citizen of the Year” award. Ayers and Dohrn live in Hyde Park, not far from the Obamas.
5. So how well do Ayers and Obama know each other?
Ayers and Obama served on separate boards associated with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an education-reform group that Obama began chairing in March 1995 and continued to work with through 2000. Ayers served on the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, which made recommendations to the board on grant awards during those years. Ayers and Obama occasionally would see each other in those roles.
Also, Ayers served alongside Obama between December 1999 and December 2002 on the board of the not-for-profit Woods Fund of Chicago. That board met four times a year, and members would see each other at dinners the group hosted.
The RNC’s statement that “Obama’s first campaign was launched at a gathering at Mr. Ayers’ home” stems from a 1995 “meet-and-greet” coffee that Ayers and Dohrn held for Obama at their home when Obama was making his first run for the Illinois Senate. Obama’s presidential campaign has described the event as an opportunity for Ayers and Dohrn to introduce Obama to their neighbors.
In 2001, Ayers gave $200 to Obama’s campaign. A year ago, the two met walking through the neighborhood where they both live.
6. How does Ayers respond to the Republicans’ charges?
He doesn’t. He has declined to comment to the Sun-Times or any other media since Sen. Hillary Clinton first raised him as a potential problem for Obama in April during the Democratic primary.
7. What does Obama say about Ayers?
During a primary debate, Obama underplayed his relationship with Ayers: “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know, and who I have not received some official endorsement from,” Obama said. “He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis. The notion that somehow, as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense.”
8. Is it fair for McCain to criticize Obama on this issue?
Factcheck.org has this take: “Voters may differ in how they see Ayers, or how they see Obama’s interactions with him. We’re making no judgment calls on those matters. What we object to are the McCain-Palin campaign’s attempts to sway voters – in ads and on the stump – with false and misleading statements about the relationship, which was never very close. And Ayers is more than a former ‘terrorist,’ he’s also a well-known figure in the field of education.”
9. Has Ayers ever apologized for what he did with the Weather Underground?
Not exactly. In 2001, Ayers told the Sun-Times he regretted that “people were hurt, that three of my dear friends were killed, that we were stupid, immature, intolerant and unwise. I regret that I hurt people’s feelings.” He did not regret “throwing myself as wholeheartedly as I could figure out into opposition to war and to the system of racial injustice.”
A review of Ayers’ memoir Fugitive Days that appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, quoted Ayers saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Three days after the terrorist attacks, Ayers clarified: “My memoir is, from start to finish, a condemnation of terrorism . . .”
10. Are all former alleged terrorists/radicals shunned?
No. Former IRA bomber Gerry Adams is welcomed at the White House as a peacemaker. Former PLO leader Yasser Arafat was too. Former Students for a Democratic Society member and Ayers friend Tom Hayden was elected to the California State Assembly. Former Black Panther Bobby Rush is a congressman representing Chicago, as is former Puerto Rican independence activist Luis Gutierrez.