No Regrets for a Love Of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life With the Weathermen
''I don't regret setting bombs,'' Bill Ayers said. ''I feel we didn't do enough.'' Mr. Ayers, who spent the 1970's as a fugitive in the Weather Underground, was sitting in the kitchen of his big turn-of-the-19th-century stone house in the Hyde Park district of Chicago. The long curly locks in his Wanted poster are shorn, though he wears earrings. He still has tattooed on his neck the rainbow-and-lightning Weathermen logo that appeared on letters taking responsibility for bombings. And he still has the ebullient, ingratiating manner, the apparently intense interest in other people, that made him a charismatic figure in the radical student movement.
Now he has written a book, ''Fugitive Days'' (Beacon Press, September). Mr. Ayers, who is 56, calls it a memoir, somewhat coyly perhaps, since he also says some of it is fiction. He writes that he participated in the bombings of New York City Police Headquarters in 1970, of the Capitol building in 1971, the Pentagon in 1972. But Mr. Ayers also seems to want to have it both ways, taking responsibility for daring acts in his youth, then deflecting it.
''Is this, then, the truth?,'' he writes. ''Not exactly. Although it feels entirely honest to me.''
But why would someone want to read a memoir parts of which are admittedly not true? Mr. Ayers was asked.
''Obviously, the point is it's a reflection on memory,'' he answered. ''It's true as I remember it.''
Mr. Ayers is probably safe from prosecution anyway. A spokeswoman for the Justice Department said there was a five-year statute of limitations on Federal crimes except in cases of murder or when a person has been indicted.
Mr. Ayers, who in 1970 was said to have summed up the Weatherman philosophy as: ''Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at,'' is today distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. And he says he doesn't actually remember suggesting that rich people be killed or that people kill their parents, but ''it's been quoted so many times I'm beginning to think I did,'' he said. ''It was a joke about the distribution of wealth.''
He went underground in 1970, after his girlfriend, Diana Oughton, and two other people were killed when bombs they were making exploded in a Greenwich Village town house. With him in the Weather Underground was Bernardine Dohrn, who was put on the F.B.I.'s 10 Most Wanted List. J. Edgar Hoover called her ''the most dangerous woman in America'' and ''la Pasionara of the Lunatic Left.'' Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn later married.
In his book Mr. Ayers describes the Weathermen descending into a ''whirlpool of violence.''
''Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon,'' he writes. But then comes a disclaimer: ''Even though I didn't actually bomb the Pentagon -- we bombed it, in the sense that Weathermen organized it and claimed it.'' He goes on to provide details about the manufacture of the bomb and how a woman he calls Anna placed the bomb in a restroom. No one was killed or injured, though damage was extensive.
Between 1970 and 1974 the Weathermen took responsibility for 12 bombings, Mr. Ayers writes, and also helped spring Timothy Leary (sentenced on marijuana charges) from jail.
Today, Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn, 59, who is director of the Legal Clinic's Children and Family Justice Center of Northwestern University, seem like typical baby boomers, caring for aging parents, suffering the empty-nest syndrome. Their son, Malik, 21, is at the University of California, San Diego; Zayd, 24, teaches at Boston University. They have also brought up Chesa Boudin, 21, the son of David Gilbert and Kathy Boudin, who are serving prison terms for a 1981 robbery of a Brinks truck in Rockland County, N.Y., that left four people dead. Last month, Ms. Boudin's application for parole was rejected.
So, would Mr. Ayers do it all again, he is asked? ''I don't want to discount the possibility,'' he said.
''I don't think you can understand a single thing we did without understanding the violence of the Vietnam War,'' he said, and the fact that ''the enduring scar of racism was fully in flower.'' Mr. Ayers pointed to Bob Kerrey, former Democratic Senator from Nebraska, who has admitted leading a raid in 1969 in which Vietnamese women and children were killed. ''He committed an act of terrorism,'' Mr. Ayers said. ''I didn't kill innocent people.''
Mr. Ayers has always been known as a ''rich kid radical.'' His father, Thomas, now 86, was chairman and chief executive officer of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, chairman of Northwestern University and of the Chicago Symphony. When someone mentions his father's prominence, Mr. Ayers is quick to say that his father did not become wealthy until the son was a teenager. He says that he got some of his interest in social activism from his father. He notes that his father promoted racial equality in Chicago and was acceptable as a mediator to Mayor Richard Daley and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1966 when King marched in Cicero, Ill., to protest housing segregation.
All in all, Mr. Ayers had ''a golden childhood,'' he said, though he did have a love affair with explosives. On July 4, he writes, ''my brothers and I loved everything about the wild displays of noise and color, the flares, the surprising candle bombs, but we trembled mostly for the Big Ones, the loud concussions.''
The love affair seems to have continued into adulthood. Even today, he finds ''a certain eloquence to bombs, a poetry and a pattern from a safe distance,'' he writes.
He attended Lake Forest Academy in Lake Forest, Ill., then the University of Michigan but dropped out to join Students for a Democratic Society.
In 1967 he met Ms. Dohrn in Ann Arbor, Mich. She had a law degree from the University of Chicago and was a magnetic speaker who often wore thigh-high boots and miniskirts. In 1969, after the Manson family murders in Beverly Hills, Ms. Dohrn told an S.D.S. audience: ''Dig it! Manson killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they shoved a fork into a victim's stomach.''
In Chicago recently, Ms. Dohrn said of her remarks: ''It was a joke. We were mocking violence in America. Even in my most inflamed moment I never supported a racist mass murderer.''
Ms. Dohrn, Mr. Ayers and others eventually broke with S.D.S. to form the more radical Weathermen, and in 1969 Ms. Dohrn was arrested and charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer during the Days of Rage protests against the trial of the Chicago Eight -- antiwar militants accused of conspiracy to incite riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
In 1970 came the town house explosion in Greenwich Village. Ms. Dohrn failed to appear in court in the Days of Rage case, and she and Mr. Ayers went underground, though there were no charges against Mr. Ayers. Later that spring the couple were indicted along with others in Federal Court for crossing state lines to incite a riot during the Days of Rage, and following that for ''conspiracy to bomb police stations and government buildings.'' Those charges were dropped in 1974 because of prosecutorial misconduct, including illegal surveillance.
During his fugitive years, Mr. Ayers said, he lived in 15 states, taking names of dead babies in cemeteries who were born in the same year as he. He describes the typical safe house: there were usually books by Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara's picture in the bedroom; fermented Vietnamese fish sauce in the refrigerator, and live sourdough starter donated by a Native American that was reputed to have passed from hand to hand over a century.
He also writes about the Weathermen's sexual experimentation as they tried to ''smash monogamy.'' The Weathermen were ''an army of lovers,'' he says, and describes having had different sexual partners, including his best male friend.
''Fugitive Days'' does have moments of self-mockery, for instance when Mr. Ayers describes watching ''Underground,'' Emile De Antonio's 1976 documentary about the Weathermen. He was ''embarrassed by the arrogance, the solipsism, the absolute certainty that we and we alone knew the way,'' he writes. ''The rigidity and the narcissism.''
In the mid-1970's the Weathermen began quarreling. One faction, including Ms. Boudin, wanted to join the Black Liberation Army. Others, including Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers, favored surrendering. Ms. Boudin and Ms. Dohrn had had an intense friendship but broke apart. Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn were purged from the group.
Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers had a son, Zayd, in 1977. After the birth of Malik, in 1980, they decided to surface. Ms. Dohrn pleaded guilty to the original Days of Rage charge, received three years probation and was fined $1,500. The Federal charges against Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn had already been dropped.
Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn tried to persuade Ms. Boudin to surrender because she was pregnant. But she refused, and went on to participate in the Brink's robbery. When she was arrested, Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers volunteered to care for Chesa, then 14 months old, and became his legal guardians.
A few months later Ms. Dohrn was called to testify about the robbery. Ms. Dohrn had not seen Ms. Boudin for a year, she said, and knew nothing of it. Ms. Dohrn was asked to give a handwriting sample, and refused, she said, because the F.B.I. already had one in its possession. ''I felt grand juries were illegal and coercive,'' she said. For refusing to testify, she was jailed for seven months, and she and Mr. Ayers married during a furlough.
Once again, Chesa was without a mother. ''It was one of the hardest things I did,'' said Ms. Dohrn of going to jail.
In the interview, Mr. Ayers called Chesa ''a very damaged kid.'' ''He had real serious emotional problems,'' he said. But after extensive therapy, ''became a brilliant and wonderful human being.'' .
After the couple surfaced, Ms. Dohrn tried to practice law, taking the bar exam in New York. But she was turned down by the Bar Association's character committee because of her political activities.
Ms. Dohrn said she was aware of the contradictions between her radical past and the comforts of her present existence. ''This is where we raised our kids and are taking care of our aging parents,'' she said. ''We could live much more simply, and well we might.''
And as for settling into marriage after efforts to smash monogamy, Ms. Dohrn said, ''You're always trying to balance your understanding of who you are and what you need, and your longing and imaginings of freedom.''
''Happily for me, Billy keeps me laughing, he keeps me growing,'' she said.
Mr. Ayers said he had some of the same conflicts about marriage. ''We have to learn how to be committed,'' he said, ''and hold out the possibility of endless reinventions.''
As Mr. Ayers mellows into middle age, he finds himself thinking about truth and reconciliation, he said. He would like to see a Truth and Reconciliation Commission about Vietnam, he said, like South Africa's. He can imagine Mr. Kerrey and Ms. Boudin taking part.
And if there were another Vietnam, he is asked, would he participate again in the Weathermen bombings?
By way of an answer, Mr. Ayers quoted from ''The Cure at Troy,'' Seamus Heaney's retelling of Sophocles' ''Philoctetes:'' '' 'Human beings suffer,/ They torture one another./ They get hurt and get hard.' ''
He continued to recite:
History says, Don't hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up
And hope and history rhyme.
A prominent article by the New York Times this weekend purporting to investigate the connections between Sen. Barack Obama and former Weathermen radical Bill Ayers omits key associations between the two and in some cases seems to minimize their relationship.
One law professor and blogger who was interviewed for the Times says he provided the newspaper with key documentation showing Ayers was directly involved in the formation of the board of an education organization on which Obama served as chairman.
But the Times did not present that information and instead made the claim Ayers was not involved in the selection of Obama as chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, or CAC, which was founded by Ayers.
The Times article in question was first released online under the title "Obama had met Ayers, but the two are not close." That title was soon changed to, "Obama and the '60's Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths."
The piece purports to present the scope of Obama's relationship with Ayers, an increasingly public point of contention during this campaign season, with Gov. Sarah Palin just yesterday highlighting the controversial relationship.
News reports, archived records, interviews and Ayers' own curriculum vitae document that Ayers was the founder of CAC, which bills itself as a school reform organization. Documentation shows Ayers led the application process to apply for the original grant that funded the CAC.
Ayers served as co-chairman of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, one of the two operational arms of the CAC, from its formation in 1995 until 2000. In 1995, Obama was appointed as the CAC's first chairman.
The Times, though, does not mention Ayers' role in founding the CAC, documented in several articles in 1994 and 1995 in the Chicago Tribune, which detail Ayers' extensive work to secure the original grant from a national education initiative by Ambassador Walter Annenberg, as well as Ayers' molding of the CAC guidelines.
Many argue it would have been unusual for Ayers not to have been involved in the selection of the chairman of the group he himself founded.
The Times claims that "according to several people involved, Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama's appointment (to chair the CAC)."
The newspaper says Obama was suggested as a nominee to lead the CAC board by Deborah Leff, then president of the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based group whose board Obama, a young lawyer, had joined the previous year.
Reported the Times: "At a lunch with two other foundation heads, Patricia A. Graham of the Spencer Foundation and Adele Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation, Ms. Leff suggested that Mr. Obama would make a good board chairman, she said in an interview. Mr. Ayers was not present and had not suggested Mr. Obama, she said."
The Times did not quote either Leff or Graham as directly stating Ayers was not involved in the selection of Obama, just that Leff originally suggested Obama. The article then continued to other matters.
Steve Diamond, a political science and law professor and a blogger who has posted on Obama, said he was interviewed for the Times piece. He said he provided Times writer Scott Shane with documentation that proves Ayers was directly involved in forming the board and leadership of the CAC.
Among the documents is a letter from November 18, 1994 in which Vartan Gregorian, president of Brown University and a member of Annenberg's selection committee, asked Ayers to compose the governing board and the Collaborative, to engage people who reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago."
A copy of the letter and Ayers' reply are available on Diamond's blog.
On December 1, 1994, Ayers and Anne Hallett, who co-chaired a CAC branch with Ayers, wrote back to Gregorian:
"Thank you for your letter of November 18, 1994. We are continuing to build a broad base of consensus and support for the main thrust of the proposal. ... We have given careful thought to the issues raised in your letter. We are working with Adele Simmons, Deborah Leff, and Pat Graham on issues of management and governance to ensure that Chicago's Annenberg Challenge initiative is successful.
"We offer the following responses: ... Board of Directors. A five-to-seven person Board of Directors of highly respected Chicagoans is being assembled. Pat Graham, president of the Spencer Foundation, has agreed to serve and is willing to work with the Board. The duties of the Board will be to approve grants, to help raising matching funds, and to hire the executive director. ... The Board and the Collaborative will reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of Chicago."
Diamond concluded that Ayers, who conceived and led the organization, submission and implementation of the CAC grant application, was viewed as responsible for composing the board on which Obama served.
But that information was not included in the Times piece, which bases its claim that Ayers was not involved in the appointment of Obama largely on Leff's statement that she first suggested Obama.
But documents from 1994 that Diamond said he provided to the Times indicate Leff viewed Ayers as in charge of the CAC:
Wrote Leff: "The Joyce Foundation strongly supports the proposal for the Annenberg Challenge Grant submitted from Chicago. At its meeting just two weeks ago, our Board of Directors approved a grant of $80,000 to Professor William Ayers at the University of Illinois at Chicago to establish the Chicago School Reform Collaborative - the working group that Ayers organized to develop and submit the CAC grant proposal and that would become an arm of the CAC once established in 1995."
Also missing from the times is information, first exposed by WND, that Obama and Ayers used the CAC grant money to fund organizations run by radicals tied to Ayers, including Mike Klonsky, a former top communist activist who was a senior leader in the Students for a Democratic Society group, a major leftist student organization in the 1960s from which the Weathermen terror group later splintered.
National Review Online writer Stanley Kurtz pointed out the Times article also ignored individuals connected to Ayers and the CAC he said helped block his original attempts to obtain the CAC archives housed at the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It was Kurtz who found that along with Leff and Graham, Ayers was one of a working group of five who assembled the initial board of the CAC, which hired Obama.
The documents obtained by Kurtz showed Ayers served as an ex-officio member of the board that Obama chaired through the CAC's first year. Ayers also served on the board's governance committee with Obama, and worked with him to craft CAC bylaws, according to the documents.
Ayers made presentations to board meetings chaired by Obama. Ayers also spoke for the Chicago School Reform Collaborative before Obama's board, while Obama periodically spoke for the board at meetings of the collaborative, the CAC documents reviewed by Kurtz show.
The Times piece goes on to document what it titles "other connections" between Obama and Ayers.
It reported that in 1997, after Obama took office, the new state senator was asked what he was reading by The Chicago Tribune. He praised a book by Ayers, "A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court," which the Times noted Obama called "a searing and timely account of the juvenile court system."
The Times, though, did not report Ayer's book could easily be characterized as anti-American, comparing the U.S. to South African apartheid and dismissing the notion the U.S. is a just nation while questioning whether America should maintain a prison system.
The Times also reports that in 2001, Ayers donated $200 to Mr. Obama's re-election campaign.
It then recognized - as WND first exclusively reported - that Obama served on the board of the Wood's Fund, a liberal Chicago nonprofit, alongside Ayers.
But the newspaper got the dates wrong and here again seemed to minimize the pair's relationship, saying Obama and Ayers "overlapped on the seven-member board." It claimed the two served together on the Wood's Fund from 2000 to 2002, while the Fund's own website documents indicated Obama and Ayers served together beginning in 1999.
The Times ignored altogether that Obama and Ayers appeared together as speakers at several public events, including a 1997 University of Chicago panel entitled, "Should a child ever be called a 'super predator?'" and another panel for the University of Illinois in April 2002 entitled, "Intellectuals: Who Needs Them?"
The Times article seemed to go to great lengths to argue Ayers, once a domestic terrorist, is currently rehabilitated.
"In Chicago, Mr. Ayers has largely been rehabilitated," the Times article stated.
"Federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges against him were dropped in 1974 because of illegal wiretaps and other prosecutorial misconduct, and he was welcomed back after years in hiding by his large and prominent family," stated the article.
Toward the end of the piece, the article acknowledges it was the New York Times which on 9/11 profiled Ayers and quoted from his just-published memoir, "Fugitive Days," in which he write: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
Ayers posed for a photograph accompanying the 9/11 piece that shows him stepping on an American flag.
In response to controversy following the Times piece and the 9/11 attacks, the Times this weekend noted Ayers wrote on his blog in 2001 that his memoir "is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism."
But unreported is that just last month, Ayers wrote on his blog he still feels not enough was done to oppose the Vietnam War, although he clarified, "I don't think violent resistance is necessarily the answer, but I do think opposition and refusal is imperative."