Janesville67.1°

A little insight into the real Bill Ayers

Print Print
Joel McNally
October 20, 2008

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 education professor who, 40 years ago, helped found the militant anti-war group, the Weathermen.


McCain is blanketing Wisconsin and much of the rest of the nation with a massive automated telephone campaign claiming 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 in the presidential race.


Obama, on the other hand, can only point out 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.


What Obama is not free to say during the presidential campaign is what anyone who knows the work of Bill Ayers over the past 25 years knows to be true—that Bill Ayers is a good man doing good work and no one running for president should ever 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 Shepherd Express alternative weekly, 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 UW-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 first hand. 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 States 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 Pentagon, U.S. Capitol and killed Americans?


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 Bill and Bernardine, 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’s 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.”


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.


Joel McNally is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is jmcnally@wi.rr.com.

Print Print