Not that we were good friends. Or even close colleagues. But for a while there in the late 80s, Bernadine Dohrn and Bill Ayers and I shared the same stage.
They had come back to claim their pre-Weatherman lives as upper-class citizens, causing a swirl of controversy that was hard to ignore in Chicago’s progressive political community, to which I belonged because I taught Women’s Studies in a university collective and was also an officer in Illinois NOW. Even harder for me to ignore, because I worked at the University of Illinois at Chicago in a multi-disciplinary program in which Bill Ayers had some involvement.
I also knew Barack Obama. Again, not well, but I had a good observation platform for his early career because I was first President of Illinois NOW, then Chair of The Illinois NOW PAC, during the years in which he was launching his political career in the state Senate.
As Assistant Director of the Public Policy Analysis Program, I managed meetings and a lot of paperwork and interacted a bit here and there with Ayers. And one day, I walked into my graduate seminar in Women’s Studies to see Bernadine sitting two chairs away from my usual seat. Our professor had invited her to speak to us about her current work in social justice programs. (Being a bit older than the other graduate students, I spent some time explaining to other students her notoriety from her “Brig the revolution home. . . kill your parents” days to paraphrase.) I was interested to find her much more subdued than I expected, and also about as guarded as I think anyone would be who had been on the lam from the law in their lives and raised children while doing so.
Later, we all had occasion to see each other in less formal settings. I attended a seminar in which Bill presented his latest research to other faculty, and one or two others in which he sat in while other faculty did the same. We chatted and compared notes a few times. I think he came to a few of our program meetings, which meant I probably talked to him on the phone. During a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert at the university, my son played with Kathy Boudin’s child, whom Bill and Bernadine were raising while Kathy served her sentence jail for that heist in which a police officer died. I remember wondering if I wanted to let my son become friends with their child, and decided that I couldn’t punish the children for what their parents had done. But I admit to being relieved when my son forgot a digit in scribbling down the phone number the Boudin child gave him. I am admitting to him now that I surely could have gotten the correct number, but didn’t.
As for Obama, I met him on a few occasions, most notably when he came before the PAC seeking an endorsement as he ran for Congress against Bobby Rush. And I watched his careers and his votes personally and through the observations of the Illinois NOW state lobbyist.
So it would be fair to say that I was casual acquaintances with the Ayers-Dohrns; enough, probably, to get me blackballed during the McCarthy era, not enough to make me a material witness to any events in their lives. And enough, probably to get some mud slung at me if I were running for President of the United States. (Perish the thought!)
When I met Barack Obama, he had already performed his feat of squeezing Alice Palmer out of a race for the Senate seat she had briefly decided to vacate, before Jesse Jackson, Jr, announced at the last minute for the Congressional seat she had her eye on. She then changed her mind and tried to run again for her Senate seat, but Barack challenged her hastily gathered petitions and found enough irregularities to disqualify her. (Some of those irregularities were as simple as people printing their names where they should have signed, and vice versa. Ever done that on a petition? I have.) No one runs against a Jackson in Chicago, no one.
When Obama refused to step aside for that brilliant, and much admired woman, it did not sit well with me. The whole situation felt like a coup by two wet-behind-the-ears youngsters against a woman of considerable accomplishment. He did not show respect. And I grew very tired of having his staff tell me that I should make exceptions for him because “he’s brilliant.”
He didn’t help himself by coming before my committee with an extremely arrogant attitude, demanding special treatment by refusing to fill out the questionnaire required of all candidates and insisting on coming into the endorsement session when he chose, rather than when we had him scheduled (which caused another candidate to have to wait.) He eventually did submit the questionnaire; we eventually endorsed him.
I’m voting for Obama but not because I like him personally. I suspect that it requires intense belief in one’s self in order to become the first African –American president, as it will to become the first female president. Those who criticize both Obama and Hillary Clinton on this score might consider how much effort has been spent already trying to undermine these two candidates with criticisms that are tinged by racism and sexism. Having to rise above nearly every day of one’s life makes one tough.
I think that Obama’s conceit may have matured into self-confidence that is strong, but does not eclipse his purpose. Certainly, he has maintained his cool despite many unnerving events and setbacks. I admire his perseverance. When he stood up and calmly faced the credit crisis, I cheered. I am wholeheartedly on his side, for so many reasons.
My dealings with Ayers, on the other hand, were quite the opposite. He was friendly, thoughtful, and quite amusing. I have a very fond memory of his suggestion to another male faculty member who was complaining that, although he was a very attentive and loving father and husband, changing diapers, making meals, and playing games, his infant daughter still preferred her mother, and the mother didn’t seem inclined to “let him in” to their shared time. Bill suggested to the unhappy papa that he ask the mother how he could be helpful without competing with her, give his daughter a chance to determine the nature of their interactions, and let events take their course. He said it with a twinkle in his eye, no doubt enjoying pricking the professor’s pompous self-assessment of his parenting skills.
When my son played with the Boudin kid, and briefly with the other Ayers-Dohrn kids, at a Sweet Honey in the Rock concert, both Bill and Bernadine kept a watchful eye, coming back to check on the boys, smiling, and listening to them. The kids were all well behaved. Frankly, I was more than impressed with their parenting skills. They obviously had a warm relationship with each other and with their children.
But I am also not a fan of Bill and Bernadine’s early career. The day I met Bernadine, I was as repulsed as the day I read her most damaging speech in a newspaper. I can remember still, standing there with the paper flapping in my hand, wondering how a person could be so hate-full. At the time, they were part of a supposed “vanguard” that were willing to use violent means to achieve the big social change we all were seeking. I was not then and never have been tolerant of violent means to an end.
I will not make excuses for them. They made some very bad choices early in their lives that led to some people losing their lives. The Boudin child lost his mother to jail. No good that I can see came from their early actions,
But their later careers were altogether different. Bill and Bernadine have made very positive contributions, his in Education, hers in law and services to children and the indigent. My friends who know them better tell me that Bernadine has condemned her earlier remarks and actions on several occasions. Has Bill? Well, some interviews say not, but, despite some fairly defiant rhetoric, spoken while he was trying to sell a book, he has not, so far as I know, called for violence recently.
What do we do if people turn away from violence and begin to contribute positively to their communities? Should we hold a grudge? Should we continue to condemn them, to punish them? If I stand back and say that I can never forgive them, it will not bring back the officers and revolutionaries who died, nor heal the Boudins, nor do our country any good.
Many people in Chicago’s progressive political community became friends with Bill and Bernadine and took them into their own activities. I deliberately chose to avoid that, because I felt their characters were not such that I could trust them. But that doesn’t mean I think they should be banished from society.
Was Obama close friends with them? There seems to be no indication that he was. In any case, his interactions with them came long after their transgressions and during the period when they were both working in a positive way with a focus on others. We can’t condemn people before the act.
Much has been written about the media’s fawning coverage of Obama. I am not proud of the way they have behaved in many instances. But in this case I think they've got it about right. Announcing his run for office in Bill Ayers—and Bernadine Dohrn’s living room was a bad choice. I think to understand it you have to understand the insular nature of the Hyde Park community, which is populated largely by professors and other professionals who are extremely liberal. The word “enclave” could have been invented to describe it. To have repudiated those former radicals whom the community had embraced would likely have been a strike against Obama in the community which he was seeking to serve in the State Senate. As he often does, he did the thing that would advance his career.
But guilty of “paling around” with terrorists? Well, if he’s guilty, so am I, and so is everyone who dealt with the Ayers-Dohrns without moral indignation. Does that mean that Chicago is a hotbed of terrorist sympathizers—including Richie Daley, the mayor, which should have you rolling on the floor about now– or just a community with some sense that people who are freed by the legal system get another chance and should be judged on what they do after that?
* I really had to laugh when several pundits pointed to Obama's run against Rush as evidence that he ran against the Chicago political machine in his first years in politics. Booby Rush is a former Black Panther elected in spite of the Daley machine. There is no way that running against him is anything but a boon to the machine. Michelle Obama worked for Richard Daley, Mayor of Chicago. The Obamas are, if not owned by the “machine,” at least on very friendly terms with it.