Friday, October 10, 2008

Obama's Bill Ayers Problem... And McCain’s

The McCain-Palin campaign has made much of the charge that their opponent, Barak Obama, "pals around with terrorists." The "terrorist" in question is Bill Ayers, a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois who has written numerous books on education and school reform, as well as served on several Chicago charity boards.

Ayers is also a political progressive who once organized a house party for Obama during his first campaign for public office. Ayers even donated $200 towards Obama's campaign for the U.S. Senate. Obama, who has a long-standing interest in school reform, also served on two nonprofit charity boards in Chicago with Bill Ayers, a man who is considered one of the top experts in the field by many educators, politicians, and philanthropists. Indeed, in 1997, Bill Ayers was named “Citizen of the Year” by the City of Chicago.

What are we to make of this? One of the odd things I have in common with Barak Obama is that I've also met Bill Ayers. I had a long dinner with him at Luca’s Restaurant in Keene, New Hampshire, after he came to Antioch University New England to give a talk on school reform. Ayers was articulate, thoughtful, and deeply committed to improving the lives of all our nation's children, including poor kids and inner city students of color. He was also charming and witty at the dinner table. We even spent a fair amount of time talking about his complicated past during the 1960s and 1970s--an era when he and I shared similar concerns.

In the mid-1960s, for example, Ayers actively supported the nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Like King, Ayers also came to believe that the U.S. government's war against Vietnam was an unjust war of aggression in which the U.S. government committed horrendous war crimes everyday, year after year. After a time, as Ayers himself admits, he was increasingly traumatized by the U.S. government's relentless campaign of torture, imprisonment, assignation, mass defoliations and bombings, forced relocations of civilians, out-of-control massacres, and the systematic murder of over two million Vietnamese people.

His basic position on the war was simple and I think correct. The war was a monstrous evil and all the people of this country had a moral duty to stop it. To this day, Ayers wishes he had done more to stop the war. To his credit, Ayers actually engaged in countless nonviolent demonstrations, teach-ins, and citizen lobbying drives against the war. He also became an influential national student leader in the peace movement, which was growing rapidly in this country by the end of the 1960s.

Yet, just around this time, Ayers began to despair that nonviolent resistance would ever be sufficient to end America's immoral war of aggression against the Vietnamese people. Like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pacifist German Lutheran minister who ultimately joined an underground group that carried out acts of property sabotage and even attempted to kill Adolf Hitler, Ayers ended up co-founding a clandestine group called the Weather Underground. In the early 1970s, this group began to plan and execute bombings of public buildings like the U.S. Congress and the Pentagon, where decisions were being made daily that caused mass murder halfway across the world.

This was not Ayers' shining moment. In his memoir, Fugitive Days, he writes that his actions with the Weather Underground were understandable, but misguided acts of temporary insanity--even though no one was ever killed in any of the building bombings he planned and arranged. When reflecting back on his days with the Weather Underground, he’s said he is "embarrassed by the arrogance, the solipsism, the absolute certainty that we and we alone knew the way." This is a man who seems aware of the mistakes he made as a passionate young idealist gone awry in the face of a colossal evil.

I was also interested to hear that Ayers had even written an apology to the one person he ever injured, a lawyer caught up in the "Days of Rage" anti-war riot that Ayers helped organize in Chicago back in 1969 when the Weather Underground was just getting organized. Contrary to what McCain and Palin would have you believe, Ayers has also long condemned "all forms of terrorism--individual, group, and official." When quoted in a New York Times article in 2001 as saying "I don't regret setting bombs," a phrase the McCain-Palin Campaign trumpet over and over again in their speeches and television ads, he quickly wrote a letter to the paper and said that this was a "deliberate distortion" by the journalist and not what he believes at all.

As we sat together at dinner a couple years after this news report, Ayers talked soberly about leaving the Weather Underground in the mid-1970s and being surprised that all the criminal charges against him were soon dropped. He talked to me about how this allowed him to rebuild his career as an educator and a scholar, restore his ties with his family, raise his kids in a calmer setting, and find his way back to a nonviolent, progressive political outlook. This guy had clearly been through a lot, learned from many of his mistakes, and changed his life in profound ways. Frankly, I was impressed with his journey back from this very misguided and useless period in his early twenties.

Today, I think it is important to remember that Barak Obama was just an elementary school kid when Ayers was in the Weather Underground, and Obama has only known Ayers professionally since Ayers dramatically turned his life around and became a respected figure in Chicago school reform efforts. Furthermore, Obama has frequently said he finds Ayers actions with the Weather Underground 40 years ago "detestable." Given this, I just don't see how Obama's work on two charity boards with Ayers in the 1990s is a legitimate campaign issue.

My wish for the McCain-Palin campaign is that they immediately turn away from such guilt-by-association smears based on such half-truths. What I think this country really needs is a genuine debate about each candidate's future visions, goals, and policy approaches so we can judge which candidate has the better program to resolve the economic crisis, help the poor and middle class, create a good universal health care system, end the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq, deal with the real terrorist threat, and promote climate protection and the creation of millions of new green jobs for those who are currently unemployed or under-employed.

That was the campaign high road we were promised by McCain months ago. Unfortunately, we are just not getting that from either McCain or Palin. That's John McCain’s Bill Ayers problem.

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