Speaking from the well-heeled confines of the University of Chicago’s International House on Wednesday, Bill Ayers said he was “amazed” to see himself on TV “cast as some kind of public enemy” with close ties to Barack Obama during one of the 2008 election’s biggest controversies.
At the event meant to promote his new book Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, Ayers slammed the “opportunistic media” and the “eager campaign staffs of the right, the middle, and even the moderate left” for resurrecting the Weather Underground, a radical far-left group Ayers co-founded which bombed government property and banks throughout the 1970s.
“Bernadine and I had hosted the initial fundraiser for Obama and uncharacteristically donated a little money to his campaign,” said Ayers, reading an excerpt. “We lived a few blocks apart and sat on a couple nonprofit boards together. So what? Who could have predicted it would blow up like this?”
Ayers’ association with Obama, first brought to the mainstream by TV host George Stephanopoulos, ultimately sparked Sarah Palin’s famous accusation the Democratic nominee was “palling around with terrorists.” Ayers, who has never apologized for the Weather Underground’s violent past, devised a strategy of “turn away, no comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response” in the heat of the controversy.
But during his event at the University of Chicago, Ayers frequently brought up the “unexpected love” and support he received from his family and friends during the tumultuous 2008 election.
He regaled his audience of mostly elderly supporters by detailing several domestic scenes with his wife, Northwestern University law professor Bernadine Dohrn, and their three adult children, Malik, Zayd, and Chesa. For example, he recalled a “long slow lunch” during a summertime retreat in the mountains in which his sons offered to create a “fully protected financial escape pod” in case things went sour.
Ayers said his new book is ultimately not about the election but rather about “teaching and parenting” and living a life that “doesn’t make a mockery of your values.” He urged his audience to “try to be good citizens, try to be moral people.”
Ayers’ wife Bernadine Dohrn was also at the event, with Ayers introducing her as his “partner in crime,” adding, to laughter from the audience, “she hates it when I say that. It’s a metaphor.”
Dohrn was another prominent member of the Weather Underground, and spent almost a year in jail after she and Ayers turned themselves in to the authorities in 1980. She was released with most of her charges dropped due to prosecutorial misconduct and was later hired by a prestigious Chicago law firm whose head at the time was a family friend, paving her way to academia.
Speaking next to her husband, Dohrn addressed the paradox of having once been on the run from the law and her current position as a law professor by saying that “the academy is filled with people who’ve committed violence.” As examples, she cited Ann Coulter and generals who “tortured at Abu Ghraib” getting invited to speak at colleges across the country.
“The academy does not have clean hands, let’s just agree,” said Dohrn.
Charles Rollet is a senior at Northwestern University, and was a summer 2013 College Fix Fellow at The Daily Caller.