“It was a surreal moment,” said Bill Ayers of the experience of hearing his name first mentioned on live television during the 2008 primary election debate between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
When I met Ayers in person recently for an interview about his new book, “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident,” he seemed like anything but the terrorist he is often cast as by right-wing media. The closest this white-haired, soft-spoken bespectacled man came to appearing radical was the pair of silver hoop earrings he sported. It was hard to imagine that once upon a time he was considered a dangerous fugitive and wanted by the federal government.
The nearly 70-year-old education theory professor was in his home surrounded by his students watching the television screen when the debate moderator, George Stephanopoulos, asked Obama about his relationship with the co-founder of the Weather Underground movement, a radical organization that sought to end the Vietnam War through acts of property destruction and civil disobedience.
Recalling how he felt when his name came up, Ayers told me, “It was a bizarre moment because I think my students all felt that they knew me quite well two minutes before this. Now they felt they didn’t know me at all. And I felt the same way. I kind of knew myself, but …” he trailed off. “Damn! It was a strange moment!”
For Ayers that moment was indeed bizarre. And yet it was familiar because he had been in the spotlight so often before. Ayers’ life has been marked by various flashpoints, starting with his involvement in the Weather Underground in the ’60s, followed by a decade on the run from the law. Then, in 1980 in Chicago when he and his partner, Bernardine Dohrn, turned themselves in to federal authorities, they were once more thrust into public view. In 2001, when Ayers’ memoir of the Weather Underground years, “Fugitive Days,” was released, his New York book tour coincided with the Sept. 11 attacks, causing various commenters on the right to associate him with that terrorist act. And finally, his latest and perhaps most dramatic brush with notoriety came in 2008 when vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of “palling around with terrorists” like Ayers.
Ayers told me, “The phenomenon of a national American presidential election is so beyond anything any of us has ever experienced that being a little sideshow in that story makes you a mega-story.” He mused, “I think the Weather Underground was never more dangerous, never more well known, never more threatening than during the 2008 campaign.”
Being a “mega-story” has come with a heavy price—Ayers told me matter-of-factly, “The threats came and came … and they still come.” He even joked about how Sarah Palin would get her crowds riled up during the election campaign, chanting “kill him, kill him.” Ayers said, “I was never sure who they wanted to kill—me or the candidate. But probably both!” Right before our interview in Los Angeles, he was even confronted at O’Hare Airport in Chicago when a man apparently came up to him and quietly said right to his face, “Go back to Russia, you bastard.”
What provokes such vitriol? One of the right wing’s prevailing critiques of Ayers is that he is an “unrepentant terrorist.” Twelve years ago, Ayers detailed his years in the Weather Underground in his memoir. He explained to me that he certainly has regrets: “This idea that there are no regrets is silly. [Journalist] Thomas Frank reviewed that book and said it reads like it’s one long regret. Nobody can live as long as I have without having regrets. Nobody did the right thing because we couldn’t end the Vietnam War and we didn’t end the war—it went on for seven more years.”
But then Ayers clarified that he remains proud of his motives, saying, “What I don’t have is regret for opposing that illegal, immoral, destructive, genocidal war with every fiber of my being. I can’t regret it. I crossed lines of legality, crossed lines maybe of common sense, but I can’t regret destroying property to try to stop the murder of 6,000 people a week. I just can’t regret it.”
The fact that his detractors fixate on his radical activism while ignoring the destructive legacy of the Vietnam War angers Ayers. He contextualized it: “I don’t think what we did was brilliant—I’m not advocating anything. But I will say that what we did was a mosquito bite compared to what the government was doing.”
Despite being labeled a “communist terrorist bomber” by the right wing, Ayers says he does not consider himself a radical. He told me, “I think on the 10 issues that I care most about, I’m in the majority in this country. A lot of radicals and revolutionaries feel that they’re a barricaded minority. I’ve never felt that way and I know part of that could be my own genetic makeup and my own delusional thinking. But I’ve always felt that I was in the majority!”
The decades of activism and experience that Ayers brings to the pages of his new book, “Public Enemy,” are a reality check on the nostalgia many of us have of the 1960s, even those of us who didn’t live through that decade. Ayers is wary of romanticizing the ’60s, saying, “I don’t believe there was any such thing as the ’60s. I think it’s a myth and a symbol and I think it’s not a particularly helpful myth in some ways because I think for young activists today they’re always reminded that nothing measures up to the ’60s. We had the ‘best demonstrations,’ the ‘best actions,’ the ‘best music,’ the ‘best sex,’ and I’m always reassuring young people that it’s all still good. … We were as confused and delusional and wandering around as anybody ever is in life.”
Ayers has moved on from that time in his life even if the right wing hasn’t. While he is known primarily for his early radical anti-war activism, it is the years after 1980 in Chicago that he spent as a parent, educator and community activist that form the majority of his life’s work. And it is that part of his life he writes about in his new book.
Ayers began the new and less dramatic phase of his life as a husband and a father and discovered his passion for research into early childhood education through a quirky day care center that his children attended. On the surface, this story is far less romantic and exciting than the one told in “Fugitive Days.” But moving easily through Ayers’ eloquent storytelling in “Public Enemy” is a crucial theme that a life of political significance permeates both the personal and the professional.
Ayers seemed relieved to discuss with me something other than the Weather Underground or President Obama. He told me, “This book is primarily about teaching and parenting and that’s because those acts also are social acts. They are political acts. They are acts we need to look at through a moral and an ethical lens.”
Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, had two sons, and then adopted a third little boy whose parents—colleagues from their days in the Weather Underground—found themselves in prison. Their early years of parenting included making political demonstrations a normal part of their children’s lives and discussing political issues at the dinner table each night. In the course of their family life, Ayers and Dohrn formed strong social bonds with their neighbors, Rashid and Mona Khalidi. Rashid Khalidi is a prominent Palestinian writer who, like Ayers, was also invoked by right-wing commentators to undermine Obama. Ayers describes regular family meals with the Khalidis that formed a crucial part of his immediate community. He uses Hemingway’s phrase of “a moveable feast” to characterize their large joint family dinners at one or the other’s houses.
Ayers describes a life that may seem mundane in its domesticity, but is rather enviable in its richness of family and community. What happens in the White House and on Capitol Hill is something he seems to care little about even though Web searches of his apparent associations with Obama reveal “Ties to At Least Ten People in The White House Administration” (commieblaster.com) and that he ghost-wrote Obama’s memoir, “Dreams From My Father,” among other equally ludicrous claims.
I asked Ayers, the man many Americans know as the “unrepentant domestic terrorist,” to share his advice for young Americans today. He had three basic tenets. First, “Each one of us is a work in progress. I always say that to my students—I know I’m 68 years old, but I’m a work in progress too.”
Second, according to Ayers, “We are swimming through a living history. That history is not decided. Even if existentially it feels like we’re at the end of something, a brief glance backwards shows that that couldn’t possibly be true. We’re plunging forward into the unknown and so what we do or don’t do makes a difference.”
And the third pillar of advice Ayers shared with me is, “you need no one’s permission to interrogate the world. You go out there and interrogate the world and stand up for what you believe. Open your eyes, be astonished at the brilliant, lovely and ecstatic parts of life and also the great injustices and the terrible things we do to one another. And then act. And then doubt, and start over. Keep opening your eyes, keep being astonished, then act, and then doubt. And if you do that for a lifetime you’ll lead a pretty good life.”
Coming from a man whose deep satisfaction of living a principled life seems to have outweighed the constant threats and vilification, that sounds like pretty good advice to me.