November 4, 2008
Mr. Ayers's Neighborhood
Early this morning, the Obama family had voted at the Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School, in Hyde Park. Long after they had gone, the lawn out in front of the school was filled with reporters, mostly Europeans, filming voters. While I was doing my duty, talking to an eight-year-old kid dressed as George Washington, my colleague Peter Slevin of the Washington Post was across the street knocking on the door of someone else who had voted at the Shoesmith School this morning: William Ayers.
Ayers has avoided reporters since he became an election talking-point, scratch-pole, and general sensation. But now he answered the door of his three-story rowhouse, and I came to join the discussion. Ayers is sixty-four and has earrings in both ears. He wore jeans and Riley t-shirt--Riley the kid from "Doonesbury." The day was fall-bright and 50th Street was filled with fallen gold leaves. Ayers waved to neighbors and kids as they went by on the sidewalk. He was, for the first time in a long time, in an expansive mood, making clear that in all the months his name has been at the forefront of the campaign, he and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn--ex-leaders of the Weather Underground and longtime educators and activists in the community--have been watching a lot of cable television, not least Fox.
One night, Ayers recalled, he and Dohrn, were watching Bill O'Reilly who was going on about "discovering" Ayers's 1974 manifesto, "Prairie Fire." "I had to laugh," Ayers said. "No one read it when it was first issued!" He said he laughed, too, when he listened to Sarah Palin's descriptions of Obama "palling around with terrorists." In fact, Ayers said that he knew Obama only slightly: "I think my relationship with Obama was probably like thousands of others in Chicago and, like millions and millions of others, I wished I knew him better."
Ayers said that while he hasn't been bothered by the many threat--"and I'm not complaining"--the calls and e-mails he has received have been "pretty intense." "I got two threats in one day on the Internet," he said about an incident last summer as he was sitting in his office at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where he has taught education for two decades. "The first one said there was a posse coming to shoot me and the second said they were going to kidnap me and water-board me. This friend of mine, a university cop, said, 'Gosh, I hope the guy who's coming to shoot you gets here first.'"
Ayers seemed curiously calm and cheerful about the way he had been made an issue in the campaign. He seemed unbothered to have been part of what he called "the Swiftboating" process of the 2008 campaign.
"It's all guilt by association," Ayers said. "They made me into a cartoon character, they threw me up onstage just to pummel me. I felt from the beginning that the Obama campaign had to run the Obama campaign and I have to run my life." Ayers said that once his name became part of the campaign maelstrom he never had any contact with the Obama circle. "That's not my world," he said.
As the polling day drew into the late afternoon, the level of security in Hyde Park matched the level of anticipation. Obama's house, four blocks away, was surrounded
Ayers said he felt "a lot of sympathy" for the Reverend Jeremiah Wright "who was treated grotesquely and unfairly" by the media. He said that, in his time, Martin Luther King Jr. had been far more radical than Wright: "Wright's a wimp compared to Martin Luther King--he had a fiercer tone." Ayers was referring to King's speeches given late in his life in opposition to the Vietnam War and on the subject of economic equality. "Martin Luther King was not a saint," Ayers said. "He was an angry pilgrim." Ayers said that he had commiserated recently with yet another former Hyde Park neighbor (and fellow Little League coach), the Palestinian scholar Rashid Khalidi, now at Columbia University, who had also been a punching bag of the right wing in recent weeks.
Across the street, neighborhood kids chanted "O-ba-ma! O-ba-ma!" and "Yes We Can!" for the cameras. Ayers smiled, looking a little like a more boomer Fred MacMurray in an episode of "My Three Sons."
Ayers said that he had never meant to imply in an interview with the Times, that was coincidentally published on 9/11, that he somehow wished he and the Weathermen had committed further acts of violence in the old days. Instead, he said, "I wish I had done more, but it doesn't mean I wish we'd bombed more shit." Ayers said he was never responsible for violence against other people and was acting to end a war in Vietnam in which "thousands of people were being killed every week."
"While we did claim several extreme acts, they were acts of extreme radicalism against property," he said. "We killed no one and hurt no one. Three of our people killed themselves." And yet he was not without regrets. He mocked one of his earlier books, co-written with Dohrn, saying that while it still is reflective of his radical and activist politics today, he was guilty of "rhetoric that's juvenile and inflated--it is what it is."
"I wish I had been wiser," Ayers said, "I wish I had been more effective, I wish I'd been more unifying, I wish I'd been more principled."
Ayers said that his life hasn't been much altered by recent months, though he decided to postpone the re-release of his memoir, "Fugitive Days"--"I didn't want it to be put in the meat grinder of this moment." He is also re-publishing soon two books he co-edited: "City Kids, City Schools" and "City Kids, City Teachers."
It was late afternoon and Ayers was talking about his plans for the evening: he was heading to Grant Park with some friends for what they assumed would be a mass victory party. "This is an achingly exciting moment," Ayers said.
As we were getting ready to go after a hour of front-stoop conversation, a neighbor came by and ironically reminded Ayers of the time he and his wife held an event for Obama in 1995 when he was making his run for the Illinois state senate. "Everyone, including you, wants to have a coffee here," he joked to the neighbor. "I don't know what the fuck I'm going to do!"