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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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The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for roughly a dozen bombings. Targets included the Pentagon, the Capitol, police stations, banks and courthouses. Beyond the three conspirators killed in 1970 when a bomb exploded prematurely, no one was injured in a campaign defined by what one critic has called "immensely bad ideas and dreadful tactics."

Ayers was a son of privilege -- his father was the chairman of the utility Commonwealth Edison -- who decided in the late 1960s that violence was needed to transform the country. After he disappeared, he was charged with joining the bombing conspiracy and with crossing state lines to incite a riot. The charges were later dropped because of prosecutorial misconduct.

Ayers and Dohrn turned themselves in shortly after their second son was born. They raised Chesa Boudin, the son of Weather Underground parents imprisoned for a 1981 Brink's robbery that left three dead. Boudin won a Rhodes Scholarship in 2002.

Dohrn pleaded guilty to a state charge and later served seven months for refusing to give a handwriting sample to federal authorities. She told a reporter that the FBI already had a sample, and that she considered grand juries "illegal and coercive."

Stanley Fish, a former university dean who worked with Ayers, recalled eclectic gatherings at their home. The guests "might be academics, they might be people working in the city in a variety of ways, they might be corporate management people," he said. "There was no sense of a party line or a particular ideology that was necessary to be invited."

When Obama was asked about Ayers during Wednesday's debate, he described him as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood." He said he does not exchange ideas with him "on a regular basis."

The two men served for three years on the board of the Woods Fund, an anti-poverty group. The board, which Obama has since left, was small and collegial, said chair Laura Washington, who served with them. It met four times a year for a half-day, mostly to approve grants, she said. The atmosphere was "friendly but businesslike."

Washington praised Ayers as "an admired and respected member of Chicago's civic community" and "a very big proponent of self-determination in education: Community schools and for the community to have a role in improving education."

Under fire on Wednesday, Obama questioned the relevance of Ayers's past to his candidacy: "The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense."

When Clinton disputed that assertion, Obama noted that President Bill Clinton had commuted the prison terms of Weather Underground members Susan L. Rosenberg, arrested with 740 pounds of dynamite and weapons, and Linda Sue Evans, convicted of participating in eight bombings, including the one at the Capitol.

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