Can it be that the washed-up Weatherman Bill Ayers is the last big obstacle remaining between Barack Obama and the White House? And how, I wonder, does Ayers feel about that?
Of course we know there are many reasons that John McCain and Sarah Palin would invoke the name of this terrorist-turned-educator, trying to slime Obama with guilt by association as recently as the debate Wednesday night. The Republican team, even as it attacks the Democrats for talking about the recent past (the continuing, worsening record of the current Republican administration), is itself focused obsessively on the distant past—the Vietnam war of 40 years ago and the counterculture that grew up in opposition to it.
Never mind that Obama was in elementary school back then. The 1960s were the crucible that forged McCain's image of himself and gave him the political credentials he's built his career on. His conduct as a prisoner of the Vietnamese is his badge of honor, and while McCain was being tortured in Hanoi, Ayers was doing his damnedest to give aid and comfort to the enemy. If I were McCain, I'd have a whole lot of trouble with that.
The Weather Underground Organization to which Ayers belonged was a handful of self-appointed, self-described American Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries, all of them white, many of them the sons and daughters of privilege. They grew famous for tossing around incandescent rhetoric and incendiary devices, but much of their time was spent in self-righteous bull sessions, dropping acid or coupling at random in what their doctrinaire language described as "smashing monogamy."
That Ayers had given up the bomb throwing and emerged from the underground into mainstream academia long before Obama met him in the 1990s is little comfort to an emotional McCain, and of little interest to the notably incurious Palin. The Alaskan governor's charge that Obama was "palling around with terrorists" is so deeply fraught with sinister subtexts that she clearly finds it irresistible, and it sure helps work up rage on the right-wing fringe.
But what about Ayers himself? Again, how does he feel about the political problem posed by his ephemeral association with Obama? He's not giving interviews, and his Web site is Delphic. The latest entry, from Sept. 25, reads: "EMERGENCY!!! Suspend the Debates! And if that sounds remotely reasonable, think of it as a dress rehearsal, a practice run, a prelude: EMERGENCY!!! Suspend the Elections!" Probably this is an inside joke. Maybe someone finds it funny. As I say, it's hard to know what Ayers is thinking just now.
Yet it is clear from his own 2001 book, "Fugitive Days" (Beacon), and from other more recent tomes by his erstwhile comrades, as well as the excellent 2004 documentary movie "The Weather Underground," directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, that Ayers still thinks like a revolutionary, if not a terrorist.
If you have spent much time with radical leftist revolutionaries, real apostles of class war, as I have over the years, you know there is no class of people they hate more than liberals like Obama. The reason is simple. Revolutionaries want confrontation and crisis; they want to exacerbate the contradictions, as they say, so their struggle is well defined and people have to choose sides. They hate The Man, but they don't know what to do without him.
In one revealing passage of his 2001 memoir, Ayers writes about charging a police line in Chicago during a demonstration: "Spinning again, I sailed back toward the light and into the waiting arms of three pink pigs in bright blue uniforms, one with prickly whiskers, another with rippling fat from jowl to hoof, all three glistening and welcoming as they broke my fall with their padded embrace on that hot and fiery night, carried me gently off the stage, and then beat the s--t out of me in the soft green grass of Grant Park. It was sheer joy and wild relief to be there cherishing every lovely blow, bleeding a bit, but neither broken nor murdered on the IC tracks below."
The liberals of this world, the Obamas, favor persuasion, compromise and accommodation. "Those tendencies have to be totally discredited, smashed, and destroyed," Ayers wrote in 1969 as the Weatherman organization was taking shape. Cathy Wilkerson, another member of the group, recalled in her 2007 memoir "Flying Close to the Sun" (Seven Stories), that this meant "rather than engage with our friends who questioned aspects of Weatherman's analysis or tactics, we should shout them down or ignore them." As Wilkerson put it, "We had become a voice of outrage whose single-mindedness had cut us off from the movement, from reality."
Such arrogance is true of just about all firebrands, whether Leninist, nationalist, fascist or, for that matter, Islamist. Which is why it is so easy for them to slide into terrorism. In the Green and Siegel documentary, Ayers says the Weather Underground planted bombs in government buildings in the early 1970s to draw attention, not to kill people. But one of the first big operations they planned was the bombing of a dance for noncommissioned officers at Fort Dix, N.J.
Ayers was not there, but his girlfriend, Diana Oughton, was helping cobble together the explosives for that attack in the basement of a Greenwich Village townhouse when the dynamite detonated unexpectedly. Successive blasts erupted up through the building, destroying the house and killing Oughton along with two other members of the group. (Wilkerson, whose father owned the house, escaped. So did Kathy Boudin, who had been in the shower and struggled naked into the street as the walls collapsed.) Only after that horrific own goal did Ayers and the other leaders of the group decide it was time for symbolic, not deadly, attacks.
Eventually Ayers married Bernardine Dohrn, the impassioned poster girl of the Weather Underground. They had children of their own and, when Kathy Boudin and her partner were jailed for killing cops during an armored car robbery in 1981, Ayers and Dohrn raised their baby boy.
Maybe as their days of rage gave way to years of aging, Ayers and Dohrn lost interest in terror tactics. But they never lost their self-righteousness or, I suspect, a revolutionary fervor that burns in them like a hot red coal under cool white ashes. Even when Ayers was embarrassed by a New York Times profile claiming that he had loved explosives—an interview that appeared in the issue of September 11, 2001, as it happened—his "clarification" published later on the Web hardly seemed a mea culpa: "I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength. I told [the reporter] 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." Interestingly, the Vietnamese never asked for that help, and didn't need it.
The saga of the Weather Underground is a compelling story, I guess, if you were an American student in college or a GI in Vietnam back then. But if you were in elementary school? It must seem like ancient history. And what is most striking about the Weatherman story now is how completely irrelevant those passions of four decades ago are to the vast majority of voters.
Is Bill Ayers the last real obstacle to Obama's election? If so, then Obama's probably home free. But in the contradictory world of revolutionary thought, of worse is better and liberals be damned, the triumph of a moderate like Obama might just be another something that Ayers actually regrets.