By Cory Franklin
November 20, 2008
"There are no second acts in American lives," F. Scott Fitzgerald
wrote shortly before he died.
So what would the great American novelist think of former radical
William "Bill" Ayers, who gained a measure of notoriety during the
presidential campaign, and recently appeared on "Good Morning
America" to promote the reissue of his 2001 memoir "Fugitive Days"?
The original release of "Fugitive Days" did not cause a great stir,
occurring as it did on Sept. 11, 2001, not a propitious date for new
book releases, especially ones about setting bombs. Now, Chicago
magazine reports that Ayers and his wife, fellow former radical
Bernardine Dohrn, will have a new book out in February. The couple
delayed publication until after the election.
Consider what a wonderful country we live in. Only in America could
one witness the unique story of Ayers and Dohrn. By their own
admission, their résumé includes years of committing violent crimes
against the state as dedicated revolutionaries. They set bombs in
public buildings, publicly advocated the overthrow of the government
and exhorted others to join them in violence.
After a decade of living underground, using aliases obtained from the
graveyards of long-dead children, they finally surrendered. Ayers
avoided jail completely and Dohrn got off with only a light sentence.
In the aftermath, they were able to obtain postgraduate degrees and
secure academic positions at prestigious universities. Besides the
recent television appearance, their future might include book tours,
speaking engagements, and, who knows, possibly a stint on The New
York Times best-seller list.
Imagine this story arc in any other country; it would literally be
inconceivable. What would happen to Ayers and Dohrn once in custody
after committing their crimes, in say, the totalitarian states of
Hitler, Stalin or Mao? Without question, instant liquidation. How
about Saddam's Iraq, Pinochet's Chile or Mugabe's Zimbabwe? Probably
certain torture before being made to "disappear."
Even in the relatively tolerant democracies of Western Europe or
Canada, the couple most likely would have served
long prison terms and any notion they would be eligible to obtain
prestigious academic positions would be considered ludicrous.
In "Fugitive Days," Ayers said of his journey: "Guilty as hell, free
as a bird, America is a great country," an attempt at an off-hand,
tongue-in-cheek remark. Despite his well-documented past disdain for
America, the truth of that observation is indisputable. Whether one
thinks of Ayers and Dohrn as a despicable couple or alternatively
rehabilitated sinners, they are the foremost testimony to our grand
tradition of free speech.
Potential young revolutionaries take note. The civics lesson of the
Bill and Bernardine story is that the greatness of America permits
not only tolerance of such subversive activities (make sure you're
prepared to go underground and have expensive lawyers) but accords
the perpetrators the possibility to accrue wealth and fame.
Hopefully, Ayers and Dohrn appreciate what America has done for them.
The rest of us should be proud of that feature of America.
It's been said a good slogan can resist analysis for 100 years. In
that vein, Fitzgerald's no-second-acts remark can be interpreted
differently from the way it is commonly understood. After all,
Fitzgerald was intimately aware of second acts in his own life and
work. His most famous character, Jay Gatsby, the protagonist of "The
Great Gatsby," reinvented his own character from petty criminal to
wealthy aristocrat and bon vivant. Fitzgerald himself went from
brilliant novelist living luxuriously in Paris to hack Hollywood screenwriter.
Some critics see Fitzgerald's no-second-acts not as a denial of
self-reinvention, but as the absence of resolution in life. No matter
how one reinvents himself, his past always remains and can't be
escaped. A dissolute Fitzgerald may have meant, after squandering his
career and his life through alcohol, that only in America can you
remake your past but still be forced to live with the consequences.
For Bill and Bernardine, even now as educators and advocates, they
are trapped forever in a first act without resolution.
Cory Franklin is a physician who lives in Wilmette.