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.
Just before my plane took off, I received an e-mail from the special-collections librarian informing me that she had “checked our collection file” and determined that “access to the collection is closed.” I would be permitted to view the single CAC-related file from the Office of the Chancellor records, but nothing from the CAC records proper. I quickly wrote back, expressing surprise and disappointment. I noted that I had arranged my trip based on the library’s assurances of access, and followed up with questions about whether access was being denied because I was unaffiliated with UIC. I also asked who had authority over access to the collection, suggesting that I might be able to contact them and request permission to view it.
After arriving in Chicago, I found a message, not from the special-collections librarian, but from Ann C. Weller, professor and head, Special Collections Department. In answer to my question of who had authority over access to the collection, Weller said, that “the decision was made by me” in consultation with the library director. Weller stated that no one currently has access to the collection and added that: “The Collection is closed because it has come to our attention that there is restricted material in the collection. Once the collection has been processed it will be open to any patron interested in viewing it.”
I responded to Weller by recounting the clear and repeated representations I had received from library staff that I would be granted access to the collection, adding that I had arranged my trip in large part because of these assurances. I then noted that I had studied the CAC finding aid with considerable care. It was clear from that finding aid, I said, that only five out of the 947 folders were in any way restricted. Four folders, containing auditor’s reports, where clearly marked, in bold type, “THESE FOLDERS ARE RESTRICTED VIA ANNENBERG CHALLENGE until further notice.” A fifth folder, containing records of eight CAC Board of Directors meetings in 1995, when CAC was first set up, had a notation nearby with the word, “Consent.” It would be a simple matter, I said, to pull these five folders, allow me access to the remaining 942 folders, and contact the relevant authority for consent to view the records of the 1995 board meetings. After all, I added, Weller herself had said that, other than the restricted folders, the collection ought to be open to all patrons.
I also pointed out to Weller that she had not quite entirely answered my earlier question about who has authority over access to the collection. So I asked who, precisely, holds the authority to bar or permit access to the restricted folders. I added the following thought: “Libraries, of course, exist, not to restrict information, but to make it available to the public. I would hate to think that UIC library was doing anything less than all it could to permit public access to these important materials.”
Weller replied to this message by dropping the restricted documents issue and saying instead that the donor of the CAC records “has alerted us to the fact that we do not have a signed deed of gift.” According to Weller, this means that UIC’s library has no legal right to make the material available. The donor, said Weller, is now working with UIC library to resolve the problem, and “we hope to be able to provide access within the next few weeks.”
Replying to Weller, I briefly noted some elements of her account that I found puzzling. I added that Weller had still not answered my question about who the donor is, and/or who holds controlling authority over the collection. I closed by alerting the library to my intention to come in that day to examine the single CAC-related folder from the chancellor’s records that I did have permission to see. Later that day, I examined that one folder, took notes, and asked for the entire folder’s contents to be copied and mailed to me. I have received no further reply to my reiterated question about the identity of the donor.
There are a number of disturbing elements to this story. Recall that, according to the graduate assistant, the collection had, in fact, already been “processed.” Yet Weller’s initial message to me used the unprocessed state of the collection as a reason for restricting access. And when I pointed out how easy it would be to remove the restricted files, Weller quickly came up with yet another reason to block access. At the moment, I have no way of verifying Weller’s claim that the library has no signed deed of gift, but how likely is it that a collection of such size and importance would have been housed in the library, and listed in publicly accessible international library catalogues, without this very basic detail having been attended to? It’s also puzzling that UIC now raises the absence of any formal agreement with the donor — and thus the absence of any formal restrictions by the donor — as a reason to deny access to a collection placed in library custody precisely to facilitate public access.
The question of who the donor is and/or who holds formal authority over access to the collection, is also critical. It’s notable that after trying to ascertain this information several times, I have still not received a proper reply. One obvious question is whether Bill Ayers and perhaps even Barack Obama himself may be connected to the donor. Obama began his CAC board chairmanship in early 1995, and stepped down from the chairmanship in late 1999, though he remained on the board until CAC phased itself out of existence in 2001. At that time, CAC handed over its remaining assets to a permanent new institution, the Chicago Public Education Fund. Obama served on this Fund’s “Leadership Council,” from 2001 through 2004, overlapping with council service by Bill Ayers’s father, Thomas, and Ayers’s brother, John. Bill Ayers, as noted, was a CAC founder, its guiding force, and co-chaired CAC’s powerful “collaborative.” CAC appears to have been housed at UIC because of Ayers’s connection to the school.
So informally, and perhaps formally, it would appear that both Ayers and Obama may be closely connected to the donor of the CAC records. In fact, Ayers himself may be the donor. In raising her belated point about the absence of a signed deed of gift, Ann Weller indicated that she had been alerted to the fact by the donor, and would henceforth be working with the donor to provide access “within the next few weeks.” One can at least speculate that Weller might have been in touch with her UIC colleague, Bill Ayers, either because he actually holds formal authority as donor, or because he is granted de facto authority over the papers by whatever entity has formal control. One can also speculate that, as former CAC board chair, board member, and as an official of CAC’s successor organization, Barack Obama himself might have had, or may still have, some sort of formal or informal role in this process. Could this help explain why I have never received a clear answer to my question about the identity of the donor?
Obama and Annenberg
I expect to follow up this piece with an examination of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and what it suggests about Obama’s personal, financial, and ideological ties with Bill Ayers. I will also discuss what Obama’s CAC connection might suggest about Obama’s links to various radical groups, about the political character of his service at various foundations, and about his leadership record. I treated some of these issues in “Inside Obama’s Acorn,” and have just explored them, using new material, in an article in the current issue of National Review, entitled “Senator Stealth.” Further information on the Obama-Ayers connection can be found in “Barack Obama’s Lost Years.” Of course there is no substitute for access to the CAC records, but at over 60 pages, the extremely detailed “finding aid” to the CAC records by itself provides important new information that helps extend our understanding of Obama’s political past. I will shortly have more to say about what the finding aid reveals. And while there were no major revelations in it, the contents of the folder from the chancellor’s archive are also of some interest.
We already know a good deal about Obama’s service at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. That information paints a disturbing picture, and one sharply at odds with Obama’s claim that Bill Ayers was just “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” A number of bloggers, including, for example, Tom Maguire, at Just One Minute, have done excellent work on the CAC issue. (See here and here.) But the key reporting on the Obama-Ayers connection via the Chicago Annenberg Challenge has been done by Steve Diamond, at Global Labor and Politics. (See especially this important post of June 18, 2008.) Sad to say, the mainstream media has almost entirely ignored the issues so powerfully raised by Diamond, and discussed at length by various bloggers, even though Obama’s service at the Chicago Annenberg Challenge raises serious questions about the veracity of his account of his relationship with Ayers. Access to the CAC records promises to provide a treasure trove of documentary evidence fronting on this and many other critically important issues, from Obama’s policy views, to his political-ideological alliances, to his leadership abilities.
Access and Security
There will be time for substantive discussion later. The immediate concern is to swiftly gain public access to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records, and to ensure the security of these documents in the meantime. Despite UIC library’s claim that it hopes to be able to provide access within the next few weeks, the apparently shifting and contradictory character of their reasons for denying access have left me with a low level of confidence in these assurances.
I intend to continue my efforts to examine the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records, to take notes, and to order extensive photocopies, to be mailed to me and/or received personally by me, in a timely fashion. I call on the UIC library to take extraordinary steps to secure the documents until such time as this issue is resolved. The public needs clear assurances that none of the CAC records have been, or will be, damaged or removed. I call on UIC library to reveal the name of the donor of the CAC records and/or to specify the person, persons, or body that currently hold authority over these records. I also call on Barack Obama to voice support for the swift release of these records.
Libraries are designed, not to unduly restrict information, but to make it available to an interested public. This country is now mere months away from a momentous presidential election in which a central issue is the political background and character of a relatively young and unknown senator. The Chicago Annenberg Challenge records almost surely contain important information on Senator Obama’s political associations, policy views, ideological leanings, and leadership ability. His role as board chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge is the most important executive experience Obama has held to date. Given this, the public has an urgent right to know what is in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records.
If you agree, then please write to the president of the University of Illinois system, B. Joseph White. Ask him to take immediate public steps to insure the safety of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge records, to release the identity of the Collection’s donor, and above all to swiftly make the Collection available to me, and to the public at large. You can find an email link for White here. Telephone, fax, and mailing addresses for White’s offices can be found here.
– Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.