Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, best known recently as friends of Barack Obama, disappeared in 1969 after two of their colleagues in the Weather Underground died while building a bomb. Ayers and Dohrn spent 11 years setting off bombs and putting out statements threatening violent revolution. They promised to kill innocent Americans and praised the lunatic murderer Charles Manson. In 1981 two policemen and a security guard were killed in the botched holdup of a Brinks truck. Fake IDs used to rent getaway cars in an earlier robbery had been traced to a store where Dohrn worked. A grand jury wanted her testimony. She refused. Said she didn't believe in grand juries. Spent seven months in jail, and then the matter was dropped. Other charges against Ayers and Dohrn were dropped because the evidence was tainted by the Nixon Administration's illegal wiretaps. Ayers put it well: "Guilty as hell, and free as a bird. It's a great country."
Years later, Ayers threw a fund-raising party for Obama. They sat together on the board of a community group. Is this association between Obama and these dangerous radicals a scandal? Or is the scandal digging up all this ancient history? Those have been the options in the debate. But the truth is a third option: Ayers and Dohrn are despicable, and yet making an issue of Obama's relationship with them is absurd.
In America we believe in redemption and even self-reinvention. And we don't usually require stagy Stalinesque recantations. But Dohrn and Ayers test the limits of that generosity. They remain spectacularly unrepentant, self-indulgent, unreflective--still bloated with a sense of entitlement, still smug with certainty. They are dead to irony. Dohrn declared her contempt for the judicial system but wanted into the bar association. The two of them encourage young people to "be outraged."
Ayers and Dohrn never posed any real threat to U.S. national security. Their asinine chatter about killing people and their anti-American sloganeering were as ineffective as their bombs. But they did real harm. Their victims were liberals: the millions of people who were part of the mainstream antiwar movement and who later voted against Ronald Reagan. These people opposed the Vietnam War but didn't hate their country. They were horrified by violence and sincerely wanted the war to end. They believed in democracy, even when dismayed by the result. The slogan of the Underground, by contrast, was "Bring the war home." For strategic and psychological reasons, the Underground wanted the Vietnam War to go on. They wanted the killing and dying to continue and spread, along with anarchy, dope and free sex.
The notion of doctrinal divisions among opponents of the Vietnam War must seem ridiculously arcane to most people today. But perhaps you can imagine how infuriating it was to the organizers of the big marches on Washington--struggling to keep them peaceful--that there were people of the left effectively in cahoots with the Nixon Administration, determined to undermine all those efforts.
When it became clear even to them that there would not be violent revolution in America, Ayers and Dohrn shrugged and rejoined society in Chicago, where he had grown up. It wasn't difficult. While he was in hiding, his father was CEO of Commonwealth Edison, the big utility. Ayers the elder sat on every Establishment board in town--Northwestern, the Tribune Co., the Chicago Symphony. Ayers the younger and his wife were welcomed back into the fold.
This is the second insult that emerges from the story of Bill and Bernardine. They set off bombs and talked about killing their parents, and the Chicago establishment didn't even care. The important thing is that he was Tom Ayers' boy. In a way, the joke is on Ayers and Dohrn. For heaven's sake, what does it take to upset these Brahmins? But in a bigger way, the joke is on the rest of us. We thought they meant what they said.
If Obama's relationship with Ayers, however tangential, exposes Obama as a radical himself, or at least as a man with terrible judgment, he shares that radicalism or terrible judgment with a comically respectable list of Chicagoans and others--including Republicans and conservatives--who have embraced Ayers and Dohrn as good company, good citizens, even experts on children's issues. Northwestern created a "family justice" center for Dohrn to run. Ayers is a "distinguished professor" at the University of Illinois. They write Op-Eds and are often quoted in the Tribune, where, if they are identified at all beyond their academic titles, it is usually as "activists" who have never abandoned their noble ideals. In 1995 the Trib reported on a party at their home to celebrate a new progressive website, designed by the person who designed President Bill Clinton's website. The designer said, "There is a lot of room for different ideas in progressive politics, and we're proud to be associated with Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers." Hillary, over to you.