The problem of Barack Obama’s relationship with Bill Ayers will not go away. Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn were terrorists for the notorious Weather Underground during the turbulent 1960s, turning fugitive when a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally exploded in a New York townhouse. Prior to that, Ayers and his cohorts succeeded in bombing the Pentagon. Ayers and Dohrn remain unrepentant for their terrorist past. Ayers was pictured in a 2001 article for Chicago magazine, stomping on an American flag, and told the New York Times just before 9/11 that the notion of the United States as a just and fair and decent place “makes me want to puke.” Although Obama actually launched his political career at an event at Ayers’s and Dohrn’s home, Obama has dismissed Ayers as just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood,” and “not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.” For his part, Ayers refuses to discuss his relationship with Obama.
Although the press has been notably lax about pursuing the matter, the full story of the Obama-Ayers relationship calls the truth of Obama’s account seriously into question. When Obama made his first run for political office, articles in both the Chicago Defender
and the Hyde Park Herald
featured among his qualifications his position as chairman of the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a foundation where Ayers was a founder and guiding force. Obama assumed the Annenberg board chairmanship only months before his first run for office, and almost certainly received the job at the behest of Bill Ayers. During Obama’s time as Annenberg board chairman, Ayers’s own education projects received substantial funding. Indeed, during its first year, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge struggled with significant concerns about possible conflicts of interest. With a writ to aid Chicago’s public schools, the Annenberg challenge played a deeply political role in Chicago’s education wars, and as Annenberg board chairman, Obama clearly aligned himself with Ayers’s radical views on education issues. With Obama heading up the board and Ayers heading up the other key operating body of the Annenberg Challenge, the two would necessarily have had a close working relationship for years (therefore “exchanging ideas on a regular basis”). So when Ayers and Dorhn hosted that kickoff for the first Obama campaign, it was not a random happenstance, but merely further evidence of a close and ongoing political partnership. Of course, all of this clearly contradicts Obama’s dismissal of the significance of his relationship with Ayers.
This much we know from the public record, but a large cache of documents housed in the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), is likely to flesh out the story. That document cache contains the internal files of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The records in question are extensive, consisting of 132 boxes, containing 947 file folders, a total of about 70 linear feet of material. Not only would these files illuminate the working relationship between Obama and Bill Ayers, they would also provide significant insight into a web of ties linking Obama to various radical organizations, including Obama-approved foundation gifts to political allies. Obama’s leadership style and abilities are also sure to be illuminated by the documents in question.
Unfortunately, I don’t yet have access to the documents. The Special Collections section of the Richard J. Daley Library agreed to let me read them, but just before I boarded my flight to Chicago, the top library officials mysteriously intervened to bar access. Circumstances strongly suggest the likelihood that Bill Ayers himself may have played a pivotal role in this denial. Ayers has long taught at UIC, where the Chicago Annenberg Challenge offices were housed, rent-free. Ayers likely arranged for the files of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge to be housed in the UIC library, and may well have been consulted during my unsuccessful struggle to gain access to the documents. Let me, then, explain in greater detail what the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC) records are, and how I have been blocked from seeing them.
Initially, as I said, library officials said that I could examine the CAC records. I received this permission both over the phone and in writing. The subsequent denial of access came with a series of evolving explanations. Is this a politically motivated cover-up? Although at this stage it is impossible to know, it is hard to avoid the suspicion. I also have some concerns for the security of the documents, although I have no specific evidence that their security is endangered. In any case, given the relative dearth of information about Barack Obama’s political past, there is a powerful public interest in the swift release of these documents.
When I learned that the CAC records were housed at UIC Library, I phoned and was assured by a reference librarian that, although I have no UIC affiliation, I would be permitted to examine the records. He suggested I phone the Special Collections section of the library and set up an appointment with a special collections librarian. This reference librarian also ran a search for me and discovered that, in addition to the CAC records, one file folder in the UIC Chancellor’s Office of Community Relations archive contains information on CAC from 1995.
I then spoke with a special-collections librarian and was again assured that I would have access to the CAC records. I was told that, while I could not personally make copies of the material, I could identify documents of interest and have copies made by the library, for a fee. I set up an appointment to meet with the special-collections librarian, and she suggested that I e-mail her the information on the CAC-related chancellor’s documents the reference librarian had discovered, and confirm my appointment time. After I did so, this special-collections librarian forwarded my message to a graduate assistant.
The graduate assistant then e-mailed to let me know that, while the CAC collection had been “processed,” the “finding aid” had not yet been put online. (The “finding aid” is a detailed document of over 60 pages specifying the topics covered by each of the 947 folders in the collection, and showing which boxes hold which folders.) Because the finding aid was not yet online, the graduate assistant attached a copy to her e-mail, inviting me to browse it and identify documents of particular interest, so that the library could have some of the CAC material out and ready for me immediately upon my arrival. I wrote back indicating that I would like to see the single CAC-related folder from the chancellor’s archive, and further identifying 14 boxes from the main body of CAC records containing folders of special interest. Having received clear and repeated representations from the UIC library staff that I would be granted access to the CAC records, I arranged a trip to Chicago.
What follows is more detail than some readers may want to know, but it seems important to get it on record. If a body of material potentially damaging to Barack Obama is being improperly embargoed by a library, the details matter.