A slander against the ‘60s

October 13, 2008

Elizabeth Schulte exposes the Republicans' lies about the struggles of the 1960s as John McCain's presidential campaign reaches a new low.

"WANTED BY FBI" and "DON'T REGRET SETTING BOMBS" flash across the screen. A deep voice warns, "Barack Obama. He launched his political career in the home of William Ayers, a 1970s domestic terrorist, a founder of the Weather Underground in the '60s."

A quote flies onscreen from a Wall Street Journal opinion article by conservative Stanley Kurtz: "The Obama campaign has cried foul when Bill Ayers comes up, claiming 'guilt by association.' Yet the issue here isn't guilt by association; it's guilt by participation."


With his campaign sagging and Obama surging ahead, the McCain campaign was getting desperate last week. McCain let vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin denounce Obama for "paling around with terrorists" (as New York Times columnist Frank Rich pointed out, note the plural on "terrorists").

Then it was McCain's turn. As he told ABC's Charles Gibson, "I think it's a factor about Senator Obama's candor and truthfulness with the American people. I don't care about Mr. Ayers, who on September 11, 2001, said he wished he'd have bombed more. I don't care about that. I care about [Obama] being truthful about his relationship with him. And Americans will care."

Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn with son Zayd in 1982
Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn with son Zayd in 1982

McCain's McCarthyite story about Obama's ties to "terrorism" couldn't be more obvious as a bottom-feeding attempt to distract from the disaster of the economy and chip away at Obama's lead.

However, to the geniuses of the right, it was a political masterstroke. For columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, McCain's only mistake was not doing it sooner:

McCain has only himself to blame for the bad timing. He should months ago have begun challenging Obama's associations...[E]ven more disturbing than the cynicism is the window these associations give on Obama's core beliefs. He doesn't share the Rev. Wright's poisonous views of race nor Ayers's views, past and present, about the evil that is American society. But Obama clearly did not consider these views beyond the pale. For many years, he swam easily and without protest in that fetid pond.

It's important to recall that the Ayers connection isn't just a Republican line of attack. It was Hillary Clinton who first publicized the accusation back in April during the campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, rescuing this bit of trivia from the corners of right-wing blogosphere where it lurked.

SO WHAT is the Ayers-Obama connection?

Obama worked with Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, on the board of the not-for-profit Woods Fund of Chicago from 1999 through 2002. According to its Web site, the fund provides support to "those organizations and initiatives that focus on enabling work and reducing poverty within Chicago's less-advantaged communities."

Pretty subversive stuff.

Today, the Woods Fund board includes such shadowy figures as a former Illinois state senator and executives from the BP oil company, UBS investment bank and Sahara Enterprises.

Ayers has also sat on boards with Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, whose father sicced the cops on antiwar protesters like Ayers 40 years ago at the Democratic National Convention. In 1997, Daley gave Ayers the city's "Citizen of the Year" award.

In 1996, Ayers hosted a get-together at his home to introduce neighbors to Obama, who was then running for state senate. Obama's presidential campaign was launched elsewhere. As the Obama campaign points out, Obama was 8 years old when Ayers was in the Weather Underground.

What the Obama campaign refuses to take on, however, is the slander of 1960 radicals as bloodthirsty terrorists. Maybe this mischaracterization of the social movements of that era is enough for Sarah Palin and Charles Krauthammer, but it flies in the face of the facts.

Ayers was a leading member of the Weather Underground, one organization out of many during the radicalization of the 1960s and '70s that included the antiwar struggle, the women's movement, the Black Power movement, and the gay and lesbian liberation movements.

The strategy proposed by the Weathermen--that the participation of the masses in the antiwar struggle could be sparked by bold action, such as exploding a bomb--was just one road that a few activists took. Such tactics proved to be not just ineffective, but counterproductive. Rather than draw people to the movement, they drew more police repression on activists.

Even so, the right wing's attempt to tie the Weather Underground to latter-day terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda is bogus.

The Weathermen took credit for bombings at the U.S. Capitol, Pentagon and other government buildings, but as the Chicago Sun-Times noted, "The bombings were designed to cause property damage, not hurt people. Ayers never has been accused of killing anybody...three Weather Underground members accidentally killed themselves while making bombs in New York City in 1970. In 1981, two police officers and a security guard were killed when other members of the group committed an armed robbery."

After 10 years in hiding, Ayers turned himself in to authorities in 1980. The charges against him related to the Weathermen's bombings were dropped because the authorities used illegal means, such as wiretaps, break-ins and mail interceptions, to gather evidence.

The depiction of 1960s activists and radicals as bent on violence is grossly inaccurate. There may have been many different ideas about how change would come about--some more positive, and some, like Ayers', less so--but there was a common thread among those who participated in the actions and the protests that a more just world was not only possible, but worth struggling for. For many, it was the beginning of a lifelong commitment to a different vision of society.

Ayers has renounced the tactics of the Weather Underground, but not the determination to stop the barbaric U.S. war on Vietnam and to make a new world. But his words from a New York Times interview--coincidentally published on September 11, 2001--have been systematically distorted. "I don't regret setting bombs," Ayers told the reporter. "I feel we didn't do enough."

Ayers felt it was important to clarify the meaning of his comments in a follow-up letter to the editor:

I never said I had any love for explosives...I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told her that in light of the indiscriminate murder of millions of Vietnamese, we showed remarkable restraint, and that while we tried to sound a piercing alarm in those years, in fact, we didn't do enough to stop the war.

While the front-page news is about McCain's attempts to paint Obama as "other" for his association with radicals like Ayers who opposed the Vietnam War, the real crime is painting the activists and organizations of the 1960s as "other" to the millions of people who today oppose the war in Iraq.

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