A complicating factor: Bill Ayers always was —still is —a good and decent educator. Even before he made his disastrous entrance into American left-wing politics, he helped run a hippie-style pre-school center in Manhattan, and his pre-school center was first rate, by all accounts. Left-wing politics of a lunatic variety led him into an underground existence for a while, armed and on the lam. But when he re-emerged, he resumed his educational work, and he became a professor of education. And, again by all accounts, or at least by some respectable accounts, he has applied himself with admirable sincerity and skill to his educational work.
Ayers has got to be, even so, the stupidest man in America, politically speaking. Always was; and is. In the 1960s the big left-wing student organization on campus was called Students for a Democratic Society, or SDS. At the beginning of the decade, SDS was an organization with a sturdy social-democratic or democratic-socialist pedigree, roughly in the style of the British Labor Party. Then SDS moved leftward, and kept on moving.
Obama never shared, not even for the briefest second as a kid in high school or college, the political imagination of Bill Ayers.
By the time Ayers became prominent in the organization, SDS could claim 100,000 members. Ayers rose among those 100,000 because he came from an extremely wealthy background, which gave him an aura of command. He was also several years older than most of the members, which allowed him to manipulate his younger followers unscrupulously. By the time he and his faction were done, they had dismantled SDS in favor of their own mini-organization, the Weather Underground, which called itself "revolutionary communist." And Ayers and the Weather Underground launched a Che Guevara-type war in the United States, than which nothing could be more idiotic.
Armed left-wing movements like the Weather Underground cropped up all over the world in the late 1960s, and failed everywhere. In France, Italy, Germany and other places, a good many earnest souls with backgrounds in the armed left-wing movements of that time, or in the wider circles that lent support to those movements, long ago owned up to their own crimes and errors —not just their violent tactics, but their goals, which were a communist revolution. Some of those people managed to establish their democratic bona fides, too, and have made their way in the political world. But not Ayers. He has learned nothing. He is still proud of himself.
How did Barack Obama get involved with such a person? Out of naiveté. You would have needed to know the past pretty thoroughly to understand that Ayers, for all his prestige among serious-minded grade-school teachers, had once upon a time tried to impose his own political views on everyone else through acts of organized violence. Obama, when he met Ayers, knew the past less than thoroughly. Obama was young. Ayers was old, and he had found another young person whom he could deceive, for the moment.
Obama never shared, not even for the briefest second as a kid in high school or college, the political imagination of Bill Ayers. A few hot-headed moments in someone's youth may well testify to a sturdy character. But Obama is authentically Mr. Cool. Hot-headed moments have passed him by. Nonetheless he is saddled with Ayers, and for an obvious reason: the Republicans have found a stick and are using it, as anybody would do in a political election. But Obama is saddled with Ayers also because of a culture of mendacity on the far left in America —the mendacity that allows Ayers to go on proclaiming his own nobility and ideals, quite as if his own principles were those of any liberal-minded person, which they are not.
Just now, some 3,247 people (at the time that I am writing) have signed a statement called "Support Bill Ayers," describing Ayers as a victim of McCarthyite slurs. The statement contains a laughable passage: "The current characterizations of Professor Ayers —`unrepentant terrorist,' `lunatic leftist' —are unrecognizable to those who know or work with him. It’s true that Professor Ayers participated passionately in the civil rights and antiwar movements of the 1960s, as did hundreds of thousands of Americans..." But, hey, Prof. Ayers is, in fact, an unrepentant terrorist. As for "lunatic leftist," why, if this phrase does not apply to Ayers, it applies to no one. The 3,247 signatories of "Support Bill Ayers" nonetheless include a number of well-known professors and writers, not to mention a number of my own friends.
Dear 3,247 signatories, and, for that matter, dear Bill Ayers (who may or may not remember me, but I remember you): allow me to remind you of some of the consequences of the armed left-wing movements that were influenced by the Weather Underground. In California, the Symbionese Liberation Army, of which Patty Hearst was first a victim and then a member, succeeded in assassinating the first black schools chancellor of Oakland. In New York in 1981, an offshoot of the Weather Underground staged a hold-up in Nyack, N.Y., that managed to kill the first black person to win a job in the Nyack police department. The armed left-wing movements of those years claimed to be the champions of black advancement, and yet made a point of destroying the actual black people who were advancing.
Barack Obama's prospects appear right now to be good. But if he loses? Dear 3,247 signatories, and dear Bill: if Obama loses, one of the reasons will be your moronic and dishonest refusal to draw a distinction between the democratic ideals of the left, and terrorist notions of totalitarian communism.
Paul Berman has written a two-volume history of the generation of 1968, A Tale of Two Utopias and Power and the Idealists.