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."
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.