CHICAGO – In his first interview since he became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, said Tuesday that he had a distant relationship with Barack Obama and that Obama’s opponents had turned him into “a cartoon character.”
Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said he thought the accusation by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that Obama had been “palling around with terrorists” was absurd.
“Pal around together? What does that mean? Share a milkshake with two straws?”Ayers said. “I think my relationship with Obama was probably like thousands of others in Chicago. And, like millions and millions of others, I wish I knew him better.”
Republicans have tried to make Ayers into Obama’s Willie Horton. His name and face – a mugshot from his radical anti-Vietnam War days – have appeared in campaign advertisements across the country. His story, as told by his critics, is a cable television fixture.
Yet Ayers, 64, said he does not “feel very victimized.” Although he declined media interviews and received reported death threats, he continued to teach and write, postponing the release of one book because of the controversy. “I didn’t do anything. It’s all guilt by association. They made me into a cartoon character, they threw me up on stage just to pummel me,” Ayers said. “I felt from the beginning that the Obama campaign had to run the campaign and I had to run my life.”
He said he had no contact with the Obama campaign. “That’s not my world,” he said.
On a sunny election day afternoon, Ayers came to the door of the Hyde Park rowhouse he shares with his wife and fellow former Weather Underground partner Bernardine Dohrn.
Wearing jeans, running shoes, a T-shirt and hoop earring in both ears, Ayers called out to friends as they passed by. To one couple out walking their dogs, he called out, “Palling around! You guys are palling around.”
Ayers talked about the fact that he and his wife, a Northwestern University law professor, held an open house for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois state Senate in 1995.
In the late-1960s, the Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the antiwar movement, claimed responsibility for roughly a dozen bombings. Among the targets were the Pentagon, the Capitol, police stations, banks and courthouses. Beyond the three conspirators killed in the 1970s when a bomb exploded prematurely, no one was injured in a campaign described by one critic as “immensely bad ideas and dreadful tactics.”
In a story that appeared by coincidence in the New York Times on September 11, 2001, Ayers was quoted as saying that he did not regret setting bombs and, “I feel we didn’t do enough.”
Obama served on a pair of foundations with Ayers and the couple held a gathering for him when he first entered state politics in 1995. The depiction of Ayers as an “unrepentant terrorist” caught on.
Asked Tuesday if he wishes he had set more bombs, Ayers answered, “Never.”
He also said he had regrets.
“I wish I’d been wiser,” he said. “I wish I’d been more effective. I wish I’d been more unifying. I wish I’d been more principled.”
Ayers said he blames what he called liberal media outlets for failing to dismiss Obama’s acquaintance with him as a case of guilt by association, likening it to the way the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth created a narrative that helped doom Sen. John Kerry four years ago.
“The dishonest narrative is that guilt by association has some validity,” Ayers said, saying the performance of the media was “kind of shameful.”
One day last summer, Ayers said, he received two threats on his office computer while he was in his downtown office. One said a posse was coming to shoot him; another said a gang would kidnap and waterboard him.
Ayers said Obama’s expected victory is an “achingly exciting moment.” He planned to join the throngs at Obama’s election night rally in Grant Park.
He was not an invited guest.