Bill Ayers Delivers Two Speeches in Washington
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
William Ayers, the Weather Underground founder, popped up in Washington yesterday from his self-imposed no-publicity, no-comment underground and looked like he was loving the sunshine.
He gave two speeches, took questions, told jokes, described his Facebook page, signed autographs. He hugged some old friends from his student days in Ann Arbor and came this close to actually palling around.
Clearly the guy to whom Sarah Palin was referring when she said Barack Obama had been "palling around with terrorists" had a lot of pent-up points to make. For months during the presidential campaign, he said, he had watched himself turned into a "cartoon and a caricature." He said he had been "an unwitting and unwilling participant in this election." But he had remained inscrutable. He had refused "to give a sound bite to the sound-bite culture."
Now, with Obama safely on his way to the White House, at last he could be Ayers the unmuzzled and unbound. Free at last. He seemed delighted and oh-so-ready when a student at the Georgetown University Law Center stood up and asked him a tough, accusatory question. The young man said he was on his way to the Navy after graduation, and asked if the former antiwar militant wished "harm" on him. The young man declared it a "disgrace" that Ayers was allowed on campus.
Ayers, 64, just smiled and invited the young man to sit down. He had a lot to say, he said, and this was going to take some time. "I'll talk for a while and then you can respond."
"Not only did I never kill or injure another person, but the Weather Underground in its six-year existence never killed or injured another person," he said. "We did something that was extreme. Some of you would call it not only extreme but kind of nuts. You might call it off the track. You might call it crazy. You might call it defying of common sense. It was certainly illegal. To call it terrorism stretches the definition of terrorism to everything you don't approve of." (He was referring to the Weather Underground's claim of planting several bombs, including in the Capitol and Pentagon, that caused no injuries. But members of the group have also been tied to attacks that killed several people.)
"As long as I've opened the door about terrorism, let me say one other thing," Ayers added, before saying several other things -- such as the Sept. 11 attacks were "vile," but the "flattening of Fallujah" by the U.S. military was also a form of "terrorism."
Not too long ago, a guy with Ayers's résumé was just the type the Secret Service might want to keep away from a president. The Republicans made him the sinister star of campaign ads -- while he remained virtually silent.
Now at last that he is opening his mouth, the voice that comes out is . . . surprisingly soft. Professorial, yes, of course, because that's what he is now, a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His wife -- Bernardine Dohrn, another former leader of the Weather Underground -- is now a law professor at Northwestern University. He was citizen of the year in Chicago in 1997. Ayers and Obama served on charitable boards together, and Ayers and Dohrn hosted a coffee for the young politician in 1995.
"The demonization of me, the creation of me as a fearsome person, somebody to worry about, is false," Ayers said.
The ex-Weatherman spoke to about 60 students at the law center and about 400 people last night at All Souls Unitarian Church. He was wearing jeans and a dark corduroy sports coat, sipping from a red water bottle.
The event had been planned months ago, before the height of the controversy. Ayers had been invited to Busboys and Poets as a respected authority on education. But because of the crushing media interest and huge turnout, the event had to be moved to the church.