Former '60s Radical Is Now Considered Mainstream in Chicago

Bill Ayers is shown in 1982 with wife Bernardine Dohrn and their son, Zayd Dohrn, then 4.
Bill Ayers is shown in 1982 with wife Bernardine Dohrn and their son, Zayd Dohrn, then 4. (By David Handschuh -- Associated Press)
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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 18, 2008

CHICAGO, April 17 -- In the 1960s, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn saw themselves as urban guerrillas who just might be able to overthrow the U.S. government and force an end to the Vietnam War. They were members of the Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the antiwar movement, who went into hiding for a decade after a bomb accidentally exploded, killing three members of the group.

Nearly 30 years after surrendering to police, Ayers and Dohrn, both in their 60s, are tenured university professors whose work on school reform and juvenile justice have won them bipartisan respect.

Ayers is an informal adviser to Mayor Richard M. Daley and has been awarded more than $50 million in charitable grants for his promotion of small schools as a solution to a crisis in education. Dohrn lectures widely on children's law and serves on a variety of boards and committees. Together, they have raised three boys in the intellectual haven of Hyde Park, where Sen. Barack Obama is a neighbor.

For months, their connection to the Democratic presidential candidate -- they hosted a gathering for him in 1995 when he first ran for the state Senate and later contributed $200 to his reelection campaign -- has been a source of growing anger among conservatives. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign picked up on the connection to suggest skeletons in Obama's closet. On Wednesday night in a televised debate with her rival, Clinton (N.Y.) mentioned it as "an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising."

In Chicago, however, Ayers is considered so mainstream that Daley issued a statement on Thursday praising him as a "distinguished professor of education" and a "valued member of the Chicago community."

"I don't condone what he did 40 years ago, but I remember that period well," said Daley, an Obama supporter whose father, Richard J. Daley, was a favorite target of the antiwar movement when he was mayor in the '60s. "It was a difficult time, but those days are long over. I believe we have too many challenges in Chicago and our country to keep refighting 40-year-old battles."

Their pasts have hardly escaped Ayers and Dohrn. After Sept. 11, 2001, alumni at the universities where the two teach protested their presence and said the couple were unrepentant. Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Dohrn is a law professor at Northwestern University.

Yet among politicians and activists in Chicago, what happened in the 1960s has long been overshadowed by what colleagues consider their mainstream liberal good works.

This is a community that has regularly elected former Black Panther Bobby Rush (D) to Congress and mostly sees Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., as the onetime heart of an established African American church with thousands of members.

"It's kind of laughable for people who have worked with Bernadine and Bill in the most boring and mundane settings and recognize that they're absolutely upstanding establishment citizens today," said Lawrence C. Marshall, a Stanford University law professor. He recalled a juvenile justice project: "Judges who were lifelong ardent conservatives had no trouble recognizing that the work that Bernadine and Bill are now doing is completely divorced from anything in their background."

Ayers and Dohrn did not return calls or e-mails seeking comment. In an April 6 posting on his blog, Ayers described his reaction to his intermittent celebrity as conservative pundits hammered him for his Weather Underground past and his comment in a New York Times profile, published by coincidence on Sept. 11, 2001, that he did not regret his militant tactics.

"Day in and day out," he wrote, "I go about my business, I hang out with my kids and my grandchildren, take care of the elders, I go to work, I teach and I write, I organize and I participate in the never-ending effort to build a powerful movement for peace and social justice."

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