Ayers Decries GOP Tactics, Says He Is Not Close to Obama

Former radical William Ayers became an anti-Obama symbol for Sen. John McCain.
Former radical William Ayers became an anti-Obama symbol for Sen. John McCain. (By Peter Slevin -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 5, 2008

CHICAGO, Nov. 4 -- William Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader who became an issue in the 2008 campaign, said Tuesday that he is not close to Sen. Barack Obama and that Obama's opponents had turned him into "a cartoon character."

Ayers, an author and education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said he thought the accusation by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that Obama had been "palling around with terrorists" was absurd.

"Pal around together? What does that mean? Share a milkshake with two straws?" Ayers said in his first interview since the controversy began. "I think my relationship with Obama was probably like thousands of others in Chicago. And, like millions and millions of others, I wish I knew him better."

Republicans have tried to make Ayers into Obama's Willie Horton. A mug shot from Ayers's anti-Vietnam War days appeared in campaign advertisements across the country. The story of his radical past, as told by his critics, is a cable television fixture.

Yet Ayers, 64, said he does not "feel very victimized." Although he declined media interviews and received hate mail, he continued to teach and write, postponing the release of a book because of the controversy.

"I didn't do anything. It's all guilt by association. They made me into a cartoon character; they threw me up on stage just to pummel me," Ayers said. "I felt from the beginning that the Obama campaign had to run the campaign and I had to run my life."

Although Ayers served with Obama on the boards of two foundations, he said he had no contact with the Obama campaign. "That's not my world," he said.

On an uncommonly warm and sunny Election Day afternoon, Ayers came to the door of the Hyde Park rowhouse he shares with his wife, former Weather Underground partner Bernardine Dohrn, a Northwestern University law professor. Wearing jeans, running shoes, a T-shirt, and hoop earrings in both ears, Ayers greeted neighbors as they passed by.

"Palling around! You guys are palling around," he joked to a couple out walking their dogs. Referring to an open house he and his wife hosted for Obama during his 1995 campaign for the state Senate, he said: "Everybody, including you, wants to have a coffee here. I don't know what the [expletive] I'm going to do."

Across the street from Ayers's front stoop was the polling place where an eclectic group of neighborhood residents cast their ballots, among them Ayers, Obama and Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. As Ayers spoke, groups of schoolchildren chanted "O-ba-ma!" and "Yes, we can!"

In the late 1960s, the Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the antiwar movement, asserted responsibility for roughly a dozen bombings. Among the targets were the Pentagon, the Capitol, police stations, banks and courthouses.

Three of the conspirators were killed in the 1970s when a bomb exploded prematurely, but no one else was injured in a campaign described by one critic as "immensely bad ideas and dreadful tactics."

In a story that appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, Ayers was quoted as saying that he did not regret setting bombs. He told the reporter, "I feel we didn't do enough."

The depiction of Ayers as an "unrepentant terrorist" caught on.

Asked Tuesday if he wishes he had set more bombs, Ayers answered, "Never." He also said he had regrets.

"I wish I'd been wiser," he said. "I wish I'd been more effective. I wish I'd been more unifying. I wish I'd been more principled."

History has shown of the Vietnam War that "those who opposed it were on the right side," Ayers said. But he said some of his early rhetoric was "juvenile."

Ayers blames the "liberal media" for failing to dismiss the Republican assaults. He called the media's performance "kind of shameful" and likened the situation to the 2004 episode when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth created a narrative that helped doom the candidacy of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

"The dishonest narrative," Ayers said, "is that guilt by association has some validity."

Ayers said he has "a lot of sympathy for Jeremiah Wright," Obama's former pastor, who was vilified as anti-American. "I felt he was treated grotesquely and unfairly."

One day this summer, Ayers said, two e-mail threats reached his office computer. One told him that a posse was coming to shoot him; another said a gang would kidnap and waterboard him.

A university police officer who had known Ayers for years arrived and joked, "Gosh, I hope the guy who's coming to shoot you gets here first."

Ayers described Obama's expected victory as an "achingly exciting moment" and said he would mingle with the crowd at the election night rally in downtown Chicago. He was not an invited guest.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company