By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

William Ayers reconsidered

In my latest for the Guardian, I argue that the McCain-Palin campaign’s careless, ugly lies about Barack Obama and William Ayers did not merely smear Obama — they also smeared Ayers, a founder of the radical Weather Underground movement in the 1960s.

There is no evidence that the Weather Underground ever killed or injured anyone other than themselves. For instance, despite what you may have heard, Katherine Ann Power and Susan Saxe, the radicals who were responsible for the 1970 death of Boston police officer Walter Schroeder, were not affiliated with the group.

Now, despite his McCarthyite tactics, John McCain has been welcomed back into polite society, while the Ayers family must content with death threats that Ayers himself says have only escalated since Election Day.

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Give it up, Chuck


The fourth letter in “originality”


  1. Dan Kennedy

    I try not to be defensive about such things, but I thought I would make a few assertions about my Ayers column in the Guardian before the comments start rolling in. These are intended in good faith, so please read carefully before you comment.1. I make it quite clear in the Guardian that I am not an admirer of Ayers’s. I do think more highly of him today than I did before his interview with Terry Gross, but my observation that he has led a “useful life” does not mean I’m ready to nominate him for secular sainthood.2. My entire premise is based on the proposition that neither Ayers nor the Weather Underground ever killed or injured anyone other than themselves. If you assert without evidence that I am defending a killer or some such thing, then you have not read what I’ve written and you don’t deserve to be taken seriously.3. If, on the other hand, you can offer some documentation that the WU was involved in killing or injuring people, I’m all ears. But don’t bother telling me that the three radicals who blew themselves up were intending to kill people — I already know that, and Ayers spoke about it in some depth in his “Fresh Air” interview.Now, then. Let’s have at it.

  2. O-FISH-L

    Buried in paragraph ten is this footnote, “Still, it’s a matter of record, which Ayers doesn’t deny, that the Weather Underground bombed the Pentagon and the Capitol.”Nowhere is it mentioned that Obama held a fundraiser in Ayers’ living room. To acknowledge that the bombings and the fundraiser happened, but it was wrong for Obama’s opponent to make them a campaign issue is utterly ridiculous. McCain’s only mistake was not going far enough.Since you take pains in the Guardian and the first comment to point out that no civilians died as a result of WG bombings, pray tell what control mechanisms other than sheer luck were in play that guaranteed this? It’s akin to finding new respect for the chronic drunk driver upon learning that he destroyed property but never killed anybody.And what of Obama distancing himself from Ayers throughout the campaign? Was that a smear or just good strategy? McCain was welcomed back to polite company because Obama himself knows what McCain could have done with Ayers if he wanted to.

  3. Rich

    Sorry, Dan, but your “didn’t kill anyone other than themselves” qualifier is really sleazy, because it allows you to ignore the fact that they were working working on plans to kill others when their experimentation backfired on at least one occasion.It’s pretty disgusting that you casually equate failure to carry out a killing with lack of intent to kill.You really should be ashamed of yourself. Of course, that kind of blindness is just what one would expect from the Obamaton crowd.

  4. Bill N1VUX

    The irony of The Crucible having relevance again is sad but telling. Lovely that someone is producing it in Essex County. Even better that kids are involved. I reject Rich’s personal attack on you but support his point that that one incident is crucially different.I reject W’s overly broad use of “Terror” and “Terrorist” to cover any and all irredentists, anarchists, and freedom fighters who aren’t allies. One may be an illegal combatant (one neither claiming nor granting the Geneva Conventions) without being an agent of terror (attacking the civil populace at random to provoke terror).First, “Never conclusively attributed” would be a pretty lame denial, but I see those are Time’s words not his. They did have a MO of issuing warnings or statements for their petty property bombings “as retaliation for” or rather to air some grievance or other, so it’s believable that the SF incident was someone else. But even if it was them, even though it went beyond property crime with officer casualty because no warning was received, it was not an attack on the public, so not an act of Terror under the strict definition, however agitated some sectors may have been.There is only one act of Terror even alleged against them, and that failed. But they had crossed the line.The Ft.Dix attack his “then-girlfriend” died preparing for was apparently intended to be an escalation that would have maimed and killed NCOs and their dates. Nail bombs are not used for attacks on property. A nail bomb at a dance, even a NCOs’ Dance, is real terror ala Omagh and Palestine and Baghdad, unlike merely explosive attacks against property or uniformed authority armed and on duty.I concur with professor Klehr regarding that plot, “The only reason they were not guilty of mass murder is mere incompetence. I don’t know what sort of defense that is.*That they rethought that heinous shift and returned to property crime after only an “own goal” (? red on red ?) incident (or should I say only after?), is some slim credit to their warped ethics, but having crossed the line to construction of antipersonnel weapons would be sufficient stain on their souls even if it hadn’t cost his girlfriend’s and 2 others’ lives in a most gruesome way. Did he express regret, remorse for her, them? Did he express regret for ever developing antipersonnel terror devices? At Law, I don’t know if death of a co-conspirator in a crime is Murder 1. But morally, any who approved a nailbomb plot bear the burden of at least all the fruits thereof, and intended consequences as well if unrepented.

  5. Dan Kennedy

    Bill: Ayers spoke quite eloquently about the murderous attack his then-girlfriend had been involved in preparing at the time that she was accidentally killed. I am not an expert on the Weather Underground, and I don’t know whether Ayers was being disingenuous. But I found him convincing in arguing that he, at least, remained firmly committed to targeting property rather than people. It’s hard to summarize, but if you get a chance to listen to Ayers’ interview with Terry Gross, you should.I strongly suggest to Rich that he listen to it as well. Enough of the ad hominem — we had plenty of that from McCain and Palin. If Ayers is lying about his beliefs and activities during that era, show us evidence.While I’m at it, here is the relevant section of the interview. A little confusing, but you’ll get the gist. All of this is Ayers talking:[T]he Weather Underground really begins with the deaths of these three people. And we were uncertain about what territory we were entering into, and after the events of the townhouse and the deaths of our three friends, we began to really rethink what path we were on.We felt — we thought that those folks were building a bomb that was going to hurt people, and we were the first people to kind of call that question and to ask whether that was true and to kind of expose it. We spent the first couple of years underground, among other things, trying to get people to see that there was a huge difference between hurting people and attacking property. And we ourselves never went down that road. So I imagine Diana out and being a voice because she was a pacifist, because she had come up a pacifist. I imagined her trying to stop the kind of use of any kind of weapon against people. That’s what I do in the book. I try to re-imagine that.It was devastating for me personally. It was also a time when we really, really began to take stock and pull back from what might have been a really disastrous direction. And we made the decision in the weeks and months after the townhouse that while we were all wanted by the FBI and we didn’t intend to give ourselves up, and while we were determined to go forward in our opposition to the war, we were equally determined not to become terrorists.

  6. Tunder

    “Nowhere is it mentioned that Obama held a fundraiser in Ayers’ living room.”Right, and nowhere does O-Fish or other Republicans mention that their fellow brethren sat on boards and educational task forces with Ayers. At the same time, regarding him as an innovative and forward-thinking educator.All of those Republican terrorist sympathizers out there and no public outcry. Although I don’t think that O-Fish or Rich would have the patience to sit through a Terry Gross interview (NPR being part of the big, bad liberal media), it was a good listen and a good interview as Gross pressed him many times.

  7. mike_b1

    The whole thing is such nonsense. There’s literally hundreds of people in Chicago that worked alongside Ayers. He’s not in jail. He’s an college professor. So in other words, the GOP is complaining that the president-elect lived in the same neighborhood as a high-level educator. Which I suppose is criminal, if you think being neighbors with Keating or Kozlowski or Lay makes you a candidate for sainthood. Talk about trying to make a mountain out of what’s not even a molehill — and yes, I’m looking at you, GOP extremists.And, Fish, the reason Traitor John didn’t pursue it further is because he sold his country and fellow servicemen out to the VietCong and then covered his tracks with the McCain Bill.

  8. Dunque

    Dan – As a journalist, I would have expected you to do a little more research and questioning than you apparently did before posting this.Surely you’ve heard of John Murtagh and his account of the Weather Underground’s bombing of his family’s home?I’m not the first to point this out but have to add to the chorus that I can’t believe you are willing to equate failure to achieve their goal with intent to not injure or kill. That is particularly offensive. You are a parent. Surely you’ve taught your children that one’s intent doesn’t matter. One owns the consequences of their actions.You also fail to point out the irony of William Ayers seeking help from the police. You also fail to do even the most rudimentary investigation into whether or not these death threats actually exist.Instead of journalism in your piece what I find is the rankest sort of offensive apologia.

  9. Dan Kennedy

    Dunque: If you read contemporary coverage of the Murtagh bombing, as I have (have you?), you will see that no one at the time drew a link between that incident and the Weather Underground. The crime remains unsolved to this day. Thus the opinion Murtagh holds with respect to who was responsible for an event that took place when he was 9 years old is of no consequence.In his commentary for City Journal, Murtagh cites a book by Ron Jacobs as his source for WU involvement. In fact, the Jacobs book has been the subject of a heated debate at Wikipedia, as those who have read Jacobs’ book argue that he simply asserts the connection on the basis of no evidence.There does seem to be little doubt that the three who blew themselves up were planning some very bad stuff indeed. It’s possible they were involved in the Murtagh bombing. I found Ayers utterly convincing in his interview with Terry Gross that he was a staunch opponent of the direction in which those three were going.

  10. Dunque

    Dan – you left a bit out. It’s more than just Jacobs who makes this assertion. One of the cited sources, Cathy Wilkerson, was a member of the Weather Underground;The son of Justice Murtagh claims that the Weatherman were responsible for the attempted arson,[14] based on a letter promising more bombings sent by Bernadine Dohrn to the Associated Press in late November, 1970,[16] although that letter is generally assumed to refer to an October bombing of a Queens courthouse.[17] While nobody ever claimed responsibility, or was caught or tried, for the arson attempt,[14] a number of historians[18][19][20][21] state that the arson attempt was enacted by the Weathermen but was considered a failure.

  11. Dan Kennedy

    Dunque: I love this: “While nobody ever claimed responsibility, or was caught or tried, for the arson attempt,[14] a number of historians[18][19][20][21] state that the arson attempt was enacted by the Weathermen but was considered a failure.” No doubt some very impressive scholarship there.You are lost in the weeds. Here are some uncontradicted facts:1. William Ayers has never been even remotely linked to any injuries or deaths.2. The Weather Underground has never been linked to any injuries or deaths.3. The WU has never been linked to the Murtagh bombing you refer to, although it is possible that there was a link.4. Based on what we know, Ayers was opposed at the time to the tactic of targeting people rather than property. There is no evidence that would contradict that.5. After having built a useful life of service, and after many years of working on education issues with Democrats and Republicans alike, the McCain campaign singled out Ayers as a “terrorist” and made him the subject of television ads, solely on the basis of Obama’s rather tangential relationship with him. (Ayers has said that he didn’t even know Obama when he was asked to host the now-infamous fundraiser.)6. Some have pointed out that Hillary Clinton raised the Ayers issue first. It should be noted that, during the 1988 campaign, Al Gore raised the Willie Horton issue first. There is a useful parallel here. Just as Gore did not attempt to turn Horton into a racial issue, Clinton did not try to smear Ayers and Obama as terrorists. The more rancid attacks came later, in the general election campaigns, at the hands of George H.W. Bush in 1988 and John McCain in 2008.7. Ayers is now under police protection because of death threats he has received as a result of the McCain campaign’s attacks.

  12. Rich

    Re: “The Weather Underground has never been linked to any injuries or deaths”So the Ft. Dix nail bomb (which karmically blew up in the WU’s own hands, killing a few of them (Ayers’s girlfriend being one of them, IIRC)) just gets ignored, eh?Care to explain away an attempted nail bomb as not being an attempt to kill or maim people?

  13. Dan Kennedy

    Rich: I wrote, “There is no evidence that the Weather Underground ever killed or injured anyone other than themselves.” Care to tell us how that’s wrong?

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