Bill Ayers talks back

Sarah Palin called him a terrorist, Barack Obama called him an acquaintance. A Salon editor who knew Ayers back when talks to the ex-Weather Underground member turned Republican talking point.

Published November 17, 2008 11:30AM (EST)

Proving yet again that there are indeed second and even third acts in American lives, Bill Ayers had transformed himself over a quarter of a century from an on-the-run-from-the-law member of the Weather Underground to a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But because of a single event -- a 1995 coffee that he and his wife gave for fledgling state Senate candidate Barack Obama -- Ayers again found himself in the cross hairs of history.

John McCain targeted his rival's associations with radicals like Ayers, and Sarah Palin hyperbolically accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists." Ayers rebuffed interview requests throughout the campaign, but has dropped his reticence with the republication of his 2001 book, "Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist."

After appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America" last Friday, Ayers sat down for a 55-minute interview with Salon's Washington bureau chief, Walter Shapiro. During the late 1960s at the University of Michigan, Shapiro knew Ayers as a "guy in the neighborhood." The following interview, conducted in Shapiro's apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has been edited for length.

We had not seen each other in something like 39 years until you walked in. All through the 2008 campaign, I have been telling this story. I ran into you on South University Street in Ann Arbor maybe three or four days before the 1968 convention. And you asked me, "Are you going to Chicago?" And I said, "No, they're going to nominate Hubert Humphrey." And you replied, "You've got to be there. Great shit's going to be happening in the streets."

And you missed it.

Of course, I missed it.

The interesting thing about an event like that or Woodstock ...

Which you missed.

Which I did miss, but in a funny way I felt like I was there. Chicago '68 was a relatively small demonstration for its time, but I've talked to millions of people who claim they were there because it felt like we were all there. Everyone from our generation was there and was at Woodstock. Interestingly, 24 years from now, everyone will have been in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, because it was another exciting moment when we came together.

Were you there in Grant Park for Obama?

I was there for hours and I couldn't leave and I'll tell you why. I've been in larger crowds of people before, but I've never been in a crowd that large where there was no edge of anger, there was nothing that people were trying to push against, no one was drunk, there was no gluttony. It was simply a gathering of pure joy. Something that would have seemed unimaginable just a couple of years before was now inevitable and unforgettable. Everyone wanted to be there. And the sense of unity and the sense of hope was really palpable and lovely.

So I take it you voted for Barack Obama.

Of course, what were the choices? I voted for Obama and I was delighted that he's been elected. And, of course, we have to embrace the moment. It was a moment when the American people overwhelmingly rejected the politics of fear, the politics of war and militarization, paranoia and the acceptance of the shredding of our constitutional rights. It was a sense of "let's move beyond that." And so, of course, I wanted to be a part of that, and we need to embrace that. I also think -- and this is where we need to move in the future -- that we cannot believe that presidents save us. They cannot save our lives. We have to do for ourselves the important work of transformation, the important work of reframing the last eight years, the last several decades, into something more hopeful.

Let's come back to Obama. I'm curious. How many conversations have you had with him over the years? Fifteen? Twenty?

A dozen or 15 perhaps. There was a big thing made this morning [on "Good Morning America"] that I was coming out of my silence. Nothing could be further from the truth. I haven't been silent. I teach, I lecture at universities, I write, I'm not silent.

But I e-mailed you during the campaign and asked, "Do you want to talk about this?" And you said, "Thanks, great to hear from you, but not at this time."

Well, what I didn't want to comment on was the political campaign. I didn't want to enter into that. The reason is simple: I thought that I was being used as a prop in a very dishonest narrative -- and I didn't want to be part of the narrative and I couldn't find a way to interrupt it. Anything that I said was going to feed that narrative. So I felt that part of this was the demonization of me -- certainly that I'm some kind of toxic agent that has to be feared.

The second thing, and perhaps more important, is that I was being used to try to bring down this promising new leader by the old tactic of guilt by association. The idea that somehow -- and this is deep in the American political culture -- that if two people share a bus downtown, have a cup of coffee, have several conversations, that somehow means that they share an outlook, a perspective, responsibility for one another's behavior. And I reject that. That guilt by association is wrong and we shouldn't buy into it.

Do you feel diminished by Obama repeatedly referring to you throughout the campaign as just some "guy from the neighborhood"?

Not in the least; I am a guy from the neighborhood. And I'm proud of it ... And the neighborhood being Hyde Park, which is a very close-knit, very friendly, very politically diverse, very racially diverse. You have all kinds of poles there. You have [conservative] Judge Richard Posner on one pole and Louis Farrakhan on the other. And everything in between. It's an interesting neighborhood, a college town [the University of Chicago]. It's close-knit. It's kind of like Wasilla, Alaska, except that it's different.

What have your impressions been of Obama over the years?

I met him sometime in the mid-1990s and, as I said, I know him about as well as thousands and thousands of other people do. And like millions of other people, I wish I knew him a lot better now. My impression of him from the start was that this was the smartest person who walks into any room he walks into. An incredibly bright, an incredibly quick person. A compassionate, kind person. And everyone who knew him thought that he was politically ambitious. For the first two years, I thought, his ambition is so huge that he wants to be mayor of Chicago. And that's where my imagination ran out of steam, apparently, because clearly he had his sights on something else and I'm delighted for him and for the country and the world that he was able to accomplish this.

The Obama campaign insisted that when you and your wife gave a coffee for Obama in 1995, he had no idea of your radical background, he just thought that you were a leading educator in Chicago.

I'm certain that's true.

Why are you certain that's true?

This morning I was on "Good Morning America." I got a phone call from a student an hour afterward saying, "I had no idea." I said, "You didn't notice the political campaign?"

The issue of my past in the Weather Underground or my past in the student movement has become so big in the last few months that people think it's a sign that I wear on my chest. That's not true. My students don't know this about me and it's not what I talk about. I talk about education, I talk about youth, I talk about social justice. These are all the issues that I write about and talk about all the time.

When "Fugitive Days" first came out [in 2001], I think it was surprising to most of my colleagues that I had this past. It's not that I hide it. It's just not that it's of immediate relevance to anybody. That was one of the things that Obama correctly was trying to say during the campaign. Why is this relevant? What relevance does this have? And what is interesting is that everyone went along with the idea that this connection was worth exploring. Until Colin Powell said no. I found that fascinating that this conservative Republican said, "Enough. What's the point of it?" It's clear that Obama has a mind of his own -- and he talks to people from a wide range of backgrounds and he decides for himself. But I never remember having a talk with Barack Obama that focuses on politics per se or my past per se. Why would I? What's the point of it?

Do you have a strong sense of what his views are on your subject -- education?

I don't have a strong sense of his views on education ... The only foundation that we were active in together was the Woods Fund in Chicago, which is a small foundation that is focused on supporting community organizing. Which is a grand tradition in this country. The Woods Fund in particular is interested in supporting democracy, interested in the participation of people in issues like job creation, housing, against predatory lending. Things like that. Those were the issues that we talked about in those board meetings. And the board included Republicans, conservatives, me. But we came to a consensus around the idea of supporting marginalized poor people in their efforts to get organized and get the things that they need and deserve.

During the campaign, how many clips did you see of people like Sarah Palin denouncing Bill Ayers, "the terrorist pal" of Barack Obama?

I'm not a big consumer of television, so I didn't see a lot. I also felt from the beginning that this is a cartoon character that's been cast up on the screen and I didn't feel personally implicated in that character. One of the delicious ironies of a campaign filled with ironies was that the McCain campaign tried to use me to bring Obama down -- and every time that he mentioned my name his poll numbers dropped. Again, I think that's a big credit to the American people. But I did see a few clips. I saw the clip where she [Palin] first talked about Barack Obama palling around with terrorists and the crowd shouted, "Kill him, kill him." That was sent to me by my kids.

I don't know if you remember the Two Minutes Hate in George Orwell's "1984"? In Two Minutes Hate, the party faithful gather in front of a television screen and the image of Emmanuel Goldstein is cast up on the screen and they work themselves into a frenzy of hatred and they begin to chant, "Kill him." That's how I felt. I felt a little bit like I was this character cast on the screen. It bore no relation to me. And yet it had a serious purpose and potentially serious consequences.

I was in New York when this was shown and my alderman from Chicago called -- worried -- and wanted to know how I was taking care of my safety. I was touched that she would do that.

Did you follow the right-wing blogger, I believe it was, who was totally convinced that you wrote Barack Obama's books?

I saw that because my oldest son, who is a writer, sent it to me. It was something that struck us as very, very funny. Barack Obama is a brilliant man, obviously. He is a talented and well-educated and erudite and articulate guy and he wrote two really brilliant and well-written memoirs. But somebody did a textual analysis that proved that the nautical images in "Fugitive Days" were similar to his work and I was the ghostwriter.

Ho Chi Minh also played a big role in Obama's "Dreams of My Father."

It's amazing where the paranoid mind can take you. I got an e-mail recently that said that Philip Lopate, who was my teacher at Bennington where I got my master's in fine arts, was the ghostwriter for "Fugitive Days." So now we have Philip writing my book and me writing Obama's book and it all seems quite preposterous.

Which seemed more unlikely a few decades ago: that you would be the most famous graduate of 1960s radicalism in America or that you would appear on "Good Morning America" along with a segment about a pregnant man?

I really wanted a segment about the two-headed monkey to follow. That's exactly how I think of most of the mainstream media. It's amazing when you think about that this broad and amazingly diverse and committed and passionate antiwar movement of 40 years ago gets reduced in the narrative put up by the Republican campaign to a single organization which was tiny and on the margins [the Weather Underground] and a single individual who was co-founder of that and a single sentence that individual said. The parallel to that is that the powerful black freedom movement gets reduced to a single preacher in a single church and a single phrase.

Martin Luther King?

No, I'm talking about the reduction of the civil rights movement to Jeremiah Wright. So the civil rights movement becomes Jeremiah Wright and the antiwar movement becomes me. It all seems entirely preposterous to me -- and I think that we should reject that.

You mention a single sentence about you. I have here a printout of what probably was the worst bit of book publicity in the history of American letters. It's the article about you that appeared on Sept. 11, 2001, in the New York Times. And the opening sentence is: "'I don't regret setting bombs,' Bill Ayers said. 'I feel we didn't do enough.'"

In the afterword to the new edition of "Fugitive Days" you write, "I'm nowadays often quoted as saying, 'I don't regret setting bombs. I wish we'd set more bombs. I don't think we did enough.' I never actually said that I 'set bombs' nor that I wish there were 'more bombs.'"

But the "I don't regret setting bombs" quote was the lead of the New York Times piece. Did the Times misquote you in 2001?

Yes. And the wonderful thing about "fact-checking," such as it is, is that the fact they check is their own misquote of what I said.

If you read the book, it is a book that is really full of regret and full of wonder about what went on. It's also a memoir and not a manifesto. What I did say and the theme of all the press coverage when "Fugitive Days" was first released in September 2001 was all based on this idea of "no regrets." Different magazines and journals said different things about it, but the fascination was that I wasn't sorry.

The New York Times headline on the morning of Sept. 11 was "No Regrets for a Love of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life with the Weathermen."

That headline "No Regrets" was also the headline of the Chicago magazine article a week earlier and it was the headline of several articles. And remember all these interviews were done before 9/11. What I have said continually, and I still say, that while I regret many things (you can't be 63 years old and not have many, many regrets), what I don't regret is opposing the war in Vietnam. A murderous, violent, terrorist war against an entire population. I don't regret resisting that war with every ounce of my being.

Now having said that, that's not a tactical statement. That's a sense of both hope and despair and rethinking. In 1965, I was first arrested in Ann Arbor for opposing the war in Vietnam. And at that time, something like 60 to 75 percent of Americans supported the war in Vietnam. Three years later, in 1968, something like 65 percent of Americans opposed the war. A lot of things happened in those three years. But by 1968, when we really had won the argument about Vietnam, we thought that the war would really come to an end. Especially when Lyndon Johnson announced that he would step down.

I wrote the front-page editorial in the extra edition of the Michigan Daily that came out on April 1, 1968, after the most amazing presidential speech of my lifetime.

It absolutely blew me away. I was watching in my little apartment. We poured out of our house, as did hundreds of other students, we swirled around the campus and landed on Robben Fleming's front yard.

The president of the University of Michigan.

What I remember so clearly from that night was that there were maybe a thousand of us in his front yard. And he came out with a bullhorn. I had a bullhorn and we had a bit of a discussion. I think I was entirely inarticulate and cursing. But what he said that night, "Congratulations. You won a great victory. Now the war will end." And what I remember was this great feeling that we had brought about this phenomenal substantive change. And that peace would come. Four days later, King was dead. Two months later Kennedy was dead. And a few months after that, Henry Kissinger emerged with a secret plan to extend the war. And, at that point, the question that pressed itself on us, was how do you end this war?

This is where we probably part company. One of the reasons, in my view, that Nixon got away with pursuing the war was that, in part, the violence of the Weather Underground -- and some of the other extreme parts of the antiwar movement -- discredited the overall antiwar movement. And that led to a further polarization of American life, which led to the first round of demonology involving yourself.

I don't see it that way. You could be partly right. I don't know how to make those cause-and-effect relationships. I would posit a different explanation. I think what happened was cynical and thought through and it was deliberate. And I think what happened was that the Nixon administration determined that they could keep the war going without a domestic upheaval that they couldn't handle. So they stopped bringing dead soldiers home. So they made it an air war and a sea war that was no longer a ground war. So they withdrew troops and they punished Vietnam and pounded it into the ground. When I say it was a war of terror, that is not idle talk. There were entire areas of Vietnam that were designated free fire zones. If you were a pilot and had leftover ordinance, you could just drop it in those villages and they did. So a couple of thousand people every month were dying, innocent people ...

It was a crime against humanity on an enormous scale. We were trying to end it. In the six years that the Weather Underground existed, we did everything we could to end it. We never hurt or killed anyone -- by design. We didn't want to. Was it risky, were we a little nuts, were we a little off the track? Yes. Did we cross lines of legality and propriety and common sense? I think we did. On the other hand, I don't think we were the cause of any kind of reaction. I think we were a small part of an upheaval against war and against killing.

How many of the Weather Underground bombings did you personally know about?

I can't even remember. But I wouldn't say if I could.

Why not? It was 40 years ago.

There are certain things, as I say in the memoir, that are not worth saying since you implicate other people.

My book is, in many ways, a discussion of all of those events, all those times and happenings. But I don't go into detail about stuff because partly I don't remember it ... I think the book is worth reading now. But it has to be read as a memoir, not a manifesto. See what brought this kid, from this background, into this historic moment and see the choices that he made. I don't defend those choices in the book. I describe them. I explain them. And I think it's understandable. It's not an advocacy book or a defensive book.

Having read it, I came to the conclusion that the sex was better than the revolution.

It was the sexual revolution.

Judging from your silence, I'm not going to get any more from you on that. But there is a larger question about this period, which was when the Weather Underground was making bombs and taking credit for bombings. As you explain in the book, none of you were getting any sleep, you were all living on amphetamines and you were all constantly talking to each other in revolutionary jargon. In hindsight, how crazy were you then?

I think we were off the tracks, definitely. And I think we were jacking ourselves to do something that was unthinkable and that none of us could ever imagine ourselves getting into. We were driven, I think, by a combination of hope and despair. And in one chapter, I imagine two groups of Americans. One slightly off the tracks and despairing of how to end this war and penetrating the Pentagon and putting a small charge in a bathroom that disables an Air Force computer. An act of extreme vandalism, but hard to call, in my view, terrorism.

Meanwhile, another group of Americans -- also despairing, also off the tracks -- walks into a Vietnamese village and kills everyone there. Children, women, old men. They kill every living thing, even livestock, and burn the place to the ground.

And the question is, What is terrorism? And what is violence?

In the book you also state that a phone call was made to the Pentagon a half-hour in advance warning them to evacuate that part of the building. But reading this entire passage -- and remembering the era -- what baffles me is how could you possibly ever believe that doing things like this would be an effective way to getting what you wanted?

What we thought we were doing was to raise a screaming alarm -- to try to wake up anybody who was still sleepwalking to the reality of what was going on in our name. Frankly, I look back at it, and I don't claim or claim in the book, any particular heroism or status as leaders in any sense. What I do try to point out is that 1968 comes and the war is massively unpopular and our democracy can't grapple with that. It can't end the war somehow. And those of us who are committed to ending the war did many, many different things. Some went to Europe and Africa to get away from the madness. Some went to the communes of Vermont and California to start an alternative life. Some went into the factories of the Northeast to organize the workers. My younger brother actually enlisted in the Army and tried to build a serviceman's union. You talk about nuts. Was that nuts? It was admirable and a little unrealistic.

And a small group of us decided that we wanted to survive what we thought was an impending American fascism. We saw this in the murders of black leaders close to us. The murder of Fred Hampton [of the Black Panthers] had a huge impact on us. We wanted to survive that -- and make the making of the war painful for the war makers. So, looking back, it was hard for me to say that anybody had a purchase on the right thing to do ...

History is always lived looking forward not backward. What are we doing now to end two unpopular wars? Two wars without end. What are we doing? And I would argue that we're not doing enough, those of us who see the war as illegal, immoral, unwinnable. What are we doing to stop it?

One of the puzzling things during this campaign is that your wife totally disappeared from the narrative. Even though Bernadine Dohrn was certainly J. Edgar Hoover's favorite Weatherperson. And she certainly had a VIP role on the "Most Wanted" list. And her short skirts are still memorable to those of us from that era. But she disappeared from the narrative. Do you have any theories why?

I have no theory. Maybe it's sexism. I have no idea why. But there's no doubt that what you say is true: Bernadine Dohrn was the leader of the Weather Underground. She is my partner of 40 years. Mother of our children. And grandmother of our grandchildren. She's an extraordinarily talented and brilliant woman. She was on the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" list. And, as you say, J. Edgar Hoover allowed his insanity to be based on whatever fantasies he had about her as a threat to America. He called her at one point "La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left." I told her that she should put that at the top of her [curriculum] vita because what a recommendation.

Yeah, I don't understand it either. That I got picked out to play this role and put on the stage. It was a role that I refuse to play. And it is a dishonest and inaccurate role.

Particularly since both you and she hosted the get-acquainted coffee for Barack Obama in 1995.

Really a non-event. But we were both there.

I think part of the reason that you became Barack Obama's only terrorist pal was that it was so easy for television to put up on the screen the quote that you now say is a misquote from the New York Times with "Bill Ayers, 9/11/2001."

It is hard for me to understand, though I take some heart from the fact that the Republican campaign had so little to say about the issues of the day that they went from Jeremiah Wright to Bill Ayers to [historian of the Middle East] Rashid Khalidi. And each one fell kind of flat for them and didn't take them where they thought it would. And the sweet irony is that every time they shot at me, they hurt themselves. I think that's a helpful sign...

Would you like to consult with Barack Obama on education?

I'd love to consult with him on any number of things. I doubt it's going to happen. I think, like millions of other people, I could get in line and try to consult with him. But I don't think it's in the cards...

What's your biggest hope for an Obama presidency?

Most of all, what I really hope is that we put an end to the era of 9/11, the era of fear and war -- and that's what I think most people hope. That spirit in Grant Park was that spirit of hope and that spirit of "yes, we can." "Yes, we can put an end to this." "Yes, we can reimagine the future." I think it's a time when we could redefine what are we basing our foreign policy on, what are we basing our education policy on. I think this election is automatically a historic moment. It automatically restores a certain amount of goodwill in the world. I hope he uses it. I hope he closes Guantánamo immediately. I hope he withdraws from Iraq immediately. But those hopes aren't idle. They are built on building an irresistible social movement to see that those things happen...

One of the delicious ironies of being in Grant Park on Nov. 4, 2008, was that I was weeping for a lot of reasons. But one of them was that I couldn't help remembering 40 years earlier I was beaten bloody in that same park. And there's something sweet about 40 years later, something unimaginable happening...

We [Ayers and Dohrn] got there around 10:00. We were so glad that we had because it was a moment that we wanted to share. We didn't want to be by ourselves. It was just too sweet. It felt like a page of history was being turned. And, of course, there are going to be challenges, obstacles, setbacks, disappointments, reversals up ahead. But who doesn't want to savor that? Who doesn't want to wish this young man and his beautiful young family all the best in the world because it's their moment. We invest a lot of hope in them. Let's not lose hope in ourselves. But let's wish them all the best.

By Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

MORE FROM Walter Shapiro

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2008 Elections Barack Obama Chicago Terrorism