October 31, 2008
BEFORE HE BECAME a campaign issue, before John McCain called him an
"old, washed-up terrorist," I found Bill Ayers a source of fascination and awe.
He set off bombs and said he didn't regret it. He rioted in the
streets of Chicago and thumbed his nose at the authorities after the
charges were dropped.
"Guilty as hell. Free as a bird. America is a great country," Ayers
told an interviewer for Rolling Stone.
To a guy like me, a child of working-class parents in Brooklyn, the
statement summed up Ayers's audacity as a cool hippie bomber. It
brought rushing back to mind the student radicals I encountered when
I was an undergraduate at Columbia during the late 1960s brash
upper-middle-class kids who shut down the university, then demanded
amnesty, assuming correctly, as it turned out that their parents'
money and status would shelter them from the consequences of their acts.
So I was surprised in 1982 when I stumbled across Ayers working at
B.J.'s Kids, a day-care center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
and asked a question that seemed to scare him.
Ayers was a former leader of the Weather Underground, the violent
faction that split from the Students for a Democratic Society faction
in 1969 and conducted a nonlethal bombing campaign that had among its
targets the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon. I was a reporter for an
upstate New York newspaper writing about an armored-car robbery that
left three people dead and led to the arrest of longtime Weather
Underground fugitive Kathy Boudin.
It was rumored that Boudin's year-old child, Chesa, was at B.J.'s
Kids. Could Ayers confirm that?
Ayer's eyes went wide with apprehension. He looked away and said, "I
don't think that's a good idea."
More than 25 years have passed since then. Ayers would enroll in
Columbia's Teacher's College, earn a Ph.D. in education and return to
Chicago with Bernardine Dohrn, another former Weather Underground
leader. He would marry Dohrn and raise three children with her two
of their own, plus Chesa, the little boy Boudin and her Weather
Underground partner David Gilbert effectively orphaned when they went
off together to rob an armored car.
Chicago is where Ayers's father, Thomas G. Ayers, was chief executive
of Commonwealth Edison, the local power company. Ayers and Dohrn
would pursue careers as college professors. They would take part in
local philanthropic activities, mingling easily in the liberal Hyde
Park neighborhood circles where political neophyte Barack Obama was
about to begin his meteoric rise. In 1997, Ayers would be named the
city's Citizen of the Year.
But all that was in the future. At the moment, Ayers was face-to-face
with a reporter who could cause him a world of trouble by disclosing
Chesa Boudin's whereabouts. He was fretting about the grand-jury
subpoena that had landed Dohrn, suspected of supplying the radical
gang that committed the Brink's robbery with false identification, behind bars.
In other words, Ayers suddenly had something to lose. Three children
to take care of, a partner locked up as a grand-jury resister, had
sobered him, making it clear a slip of the tongue could have terrible
It was a lesson he would forget every now and then. On Sept. 11,
2001, the day of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and
Pentagon, he had the bad timing to have his just-published memoir
about life in the Weather Underground profiled in The New York Times.
The article quoted him as saying, "I don't regret setting bombs. I
feel we didn't do enough."
But it was a lesson he learned well enough to put into practice now
that McCain and his running mate have made Ayers's friendship with
Obama an issue in the election. Since the issue was first raised, by
Hillary Clinton during the Democratic primaries, Ayers has been
uncharacteristically quiet. Aware that anything he says could sink
Obama's chances of getting elected, the same former student radical
who crowed, "Guilty as hell. Free as a bird. America is a great
country," has been keeping his mouth shut. It must be tough.
A freelance writer and former Providence Journal reporter, John
Castellucci is the author of The Big Dance (Dodd, Mead, 1986), an
account of the deadly armored-car robbery committed by a coalition of
black nationalists and former members of the Weather Underground.