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Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2008

The Real Bill Ayers

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Given the state of politics, it’s understandable how both presidential campaigns are handling the phony issue of Sen. Barack Obama’s connection with Bill Ayers, a University of Illinois-Chicago
education professor who, 40 years ago, helped found the militant anti-war group the Weathermen.

McCain is blanketing Wisconsin and other key states with a massive automated telephone campaign claiming that Obama “has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge’s home and killed Americans.”

The reason McCain is spending so much money on deceptive charges that have nothing to do with the real issues in the presidential race is that McCain is on the wrong side of the real issues. On the economy, McCain supports continuation of Bush’s tax cuts overwhelmingly going to the richest 1% in our country (tax cuts McCain originally voted against because he said they were too tilted toward the wealthy), and on the Iraq war that has taken 4,200 American lives. McCain wants to continue sacrificing American lives indefinitely.

Obama, on the other hand, can only point out that he was 8 years old when the Weathermen engaged in radical anti-war activities. And that his association with Ayers amounted to sitting on two boards distributing funds to improve Chicago schools and to support worthwhile community projects.

The Truth About Ayers

What Obama is not free to say during the campaign is what anyone who knows the work of Ayers over the past 25 years knows to be true—that Ayers is a good man doing good work and no one running for president should have to apologize for associating with him. If Obama were to utter that truth, it would immediately appear in another negative McCain ad, “Obama Praises Terrorist Bomber!” Since it’s politically impossible for Obama to give Ayers the accolades he deserves right now, allow me. I know Bill Ayers a little bit. I don’t pal around with him or anything, as the know-nothing Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin claims about Obama.

But I interviewed Ayers in the late-’90s when I was editor of the Shepherd Express, after he published a book, A Kind and Just Parent, about the need for reform in the juvenile justice system. Later, Ayers participated in a conference on criminal justice reform at the University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee organized by my wife, Kit, who is executive director of the Benedict Center, an organization that advocates for fairness in the criminal justice system and effective community alternatives.

Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, an honors graduate from Whitefish Bay High School, know about criminal justice firsthand. They lived in hiding for 11 years to avoid federal charges connected to the 1969 Days of Rage anti-war protest in Chicago.

As a Milwaukee Journal reporter, I covered the emergence of Ayers and Dohrn from the underground in 1981 when they turned themselves in to then Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Daley, the son of their ’60s nemesis. All charges against the two ended with a legal whimper after Dohrn pleaded guilty to a reduced misdemeanor charge and was fined $1,500.

How does all that square with McCain’s inflammatory charge that Ayers bombed the Capitol, the Pentagon and killed Americans?

All bombings are to be deplored because anyone who crosses that line is literally playing with dynamite. Anti-war protesters in Madison, Wis., blew up a campus building in the middle of the night when it was supposed to be empty and ended up murdering an innocent graduate student working late.

No such deaths were attributed to any bombs connected to Ayers. The so-called bombing of the Pentagon amounted to a small bomb placed in the drain of a restroom toilet.

But in 1970, a townhouse in Greenwich Village where bombs were being assembled exploded. The Americans killed were three friends of Ayers and Dohrn, idealists like themselves whose passion against the Vietnam War somehow began echoing the violence of the war makers.

That event, more than any other, helped shape the rest of Ayers’ life. “My deepest regret,” Ayers told me in 1997, “is the townhouse explosion where three very, very dear people were killed. I feel culpable. I feel responsible. And I don’t know what to do about that responsibility except to live forward. To make a fairer, more just, more humane world as they would have.”

Later that same year, the second Mayor Richard Daley presented Ayers with Chicago’s Citizen of the Year Award.

When McCain began demonizing Ayers, I checked to see what Ayers had written in our copy of his memoir, Fugitive Days. It says: “To Joel and Kit, With admiration for all you do for social justice, and with hope— wounded but alive—for a world at peace.

Best wishes, Bill Ayers.” The same to you, pal.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.

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