The Corner

Does Obama Read His Hometown Paper?

As discussed quite a bit around here, David Axelrod says Obama didn’t know about Ayers’  past when Obama first started allying himself with the former terrorist. Ayers was “just a guy in the neighborhood” — which, if true,  says something just plain awful about that neighborhood if you ask me. But anyway, just out of curiosity, I decided to see if the Chicago Tribune had written anything about Ayers and his terrorist past during the period of Obama’s plasible deniability. The Tribune is basically the paper of record in Chicago and also probably a good bellweather of other media coverage in the region (i.e. local TV news, the Sun-Times etc). And, yep, it turns out the Trib ran quite a few pieces on Ayers and his work as a founder of the Weather Underground, including a few before Obama’s fundraiser at Ayers’ home and a great many during Obama’s tenure on the Woods Foundation board. Indeed, Ayers’ memoir came out during that period and received national coverage, including a big story in the NYT. So presumably Obama heard something about that. If I wrote a memoir that received that kind of coverage, my guess is most of my professional friends and colleagues would have a pretty good idea of what it was about.

Anyway, here’s a pretty good example of what I mean, from page 1 of the Tempo section of the July 8, 1993 Chicago Tribune,  headlined: “Weathering change ’60s revolutionary Bill Ayers says he has always been a teacher, but he no longer uses bombs as study aids”

Convinced that stronger efforts were needed to derail the war, an SDS group, including Ayers, formed the Weather Underground. Plotting to blow up Ft. Dix in New Jersey and police headquarters in New York and Detroit, they set up a bomb factory in a townhouse in New York’s Greenwich Village, owned by the unsuspecting parents of one group member, Cathlyn Wilkerson.

On the night of March 6, 1970, a bomb blew up, apparently when Terry Robbins, following instructions in a book, crossed a pair of wires. The blast, which badly shook neighbor Dustin Hoffman, leveled the townhouse and killed three people.

Rather than face the legal fallout, as well as long trials on charges stemming from the “Days of Rage” activities, the Weather Underground members, including Ayers and another friend, Bernardine Dohrn, went underground. Over the next four years, the group took credit for a dozen bombings, including one at the U.S. Capitol, to protest the war. No one was injured.

There was a lot more. In 1990, when Obama was splitting time between Chicago and Harvard, both Clarence Page and Mike Royko wrote pieces on Ayers. The Royko column was pegged to a Weekly Reader profile of Ayers in which Ayers apparently wore a t-shirt that read “America is like a melting pot: the people at the bottom get burned and the scum floats to the top.” (Which at minimum suggests Ayers wasn’t the sort of guy who kept his views a closely guarded secret). In  the mid 1990s there was a lot of stuff in the Trib on various 60s radicals who’d made good, turned themselves in, etc. They all mentioned Ayers.


In 1997, Clarence Page wrote another column related to Ayers. It begins:

When you’re talking to Bill Ayers, it is hard to believe the soft-spoken, bespectacled education professor is the same guy the FBI was chasing for 11 years as a dangerous radical.

Nor is it easy to believe his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, also was a member of the Weather Underground back in the ’60s. They married while underground and resurfaced during the 1980s. Now he is an adviser to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s nationally acclaimed education reform effort and she heads a family and children’s justice program at Northwestern University Law School.

Judging by the headlines they were making years ago, I would have thought them to be too dangerous for such respected positions.

In 1999, Ayers and his wife wrote an op-ed for the Trib on the issue of — wait for it! — school violence. This prompted an angry response from readers, including an op-ed length complaint in the editorial section. An excerpt:

I am a believer in redemption and reform, and I am glad that Bill Ayers’ family was able to welcome the prodigal son home. I remain skeptical, however, of a pair that has never fully accounted for their years of association with a sinister organization. The Weather Underground faction of Students for a Democratic Society, while considerably less competent in its terrorism than right-wing wackos like Timothy McVeigh, was at least as intent on rejecting the sanctity of the most precious possession of a free people, the peaceful elections in which we choose our own government.

Bombings–even if the Weathermen had a tendency to blow themselves up–organized widespread vandalism of private property (including my college girlfriend’s mother’s beauty shop window at State and Division Streets during the Days of Rage), in addition to public buildings. They even robbed armored cars and murdered guards to finance the revolution.

As recently as 1998, Dohrn waxed nostalgic about the salad days of the “movement,” including the seizing and ripping up of the administration building at Columbia University in 1968.

Little wonder that these two aging radicals feel a little queasy when it comes to zero tolerance of violence in the schools. It may hit a little close to home.

Now, I have my own doubts about zero tolerance, largely because some school officials seem unable to make simple logical distinctions. A Minnesota school district that does not allow a girl to appear in the yearbook because the aspiring army enlistee sat for a photo atop a howitzer in front of the VFW hall simply does not get it.

And then of course there was Ayers’ own autobiography, the profile in the NY Times in which Ayers casually said he’d wished he’d made more bombs etc.

I don’t know Chicago well. But my sense of the place is that they take politics pretty seriously there. Young, very smart and hyper ambitious politicians like Obama tend to read the local paper (never mind the New York Times, which ran a couple dozen stories mentioning Ayers and his terrorist ties between 1990 and 2004). The political class in Chicago knows who everybody is, where they came from, what they believe. They tend to learn about people who give them jobs, money and political opportunities.  And, people like Ayers don’t exactly keep their views or radical past a closely guarded secret, particularly when they remain unreprentant.

In short, I think it’s a lie — and a pretty stupid one — to say that Obama didn’t know about any of this. The obvious answer is he just didn’t care.


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