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Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident


IT’S NOT HARD to understand what Bill Ayers and his friends in the Weather Underground were thinking in the early 1970s, when they made plans to bomb the Capitol and other sites. The Vietnam War was raging, Nixon was president, the antiwar movement seemed stuck. The people in power were causing immense destruction, but the system seemed impervious to challenge.

The government was supposed to be democratic, but the American people were so distracted by the media, or blinded by ideology, or bought off by consumerism that they would never wake up; except, that is, for Bill Ayers and his friends. They saw what was going on. They knew that the hour was getting late, that too many people had died, and that it was time to get serious — no more fun and games. Although they were few, they felt they were not powerless. Because they were white and privileged, they could strike back from within the heart of the empire. And by the strategic use of targeted violence, they could make sure their actions were not ignored. Their violence, they hoped, would create images that would be irresistible to the media, and they would thereby turn the ideological weapons of the powerful against them. They would reveal the system’s vulnerability. They would bring a bit of fear to the hearts of the rulers, show them that they would pay a price for their crimes.

The oppressed and the excluded would see the same thing. They would learn from Bill Ayers and his friends that they were not alone, and not as powerless as they had been told they were. And although the Weathermen were few within the United States, they saw themselves acting on the global stage, in solidarity with the great majority of the world’s suffering people. Those on the left who felt queasy about violent tactics needed to understand that the violence of the Weathermen was mostly symbolic; it was nothing compared to the daily mass murder practiced by those in power. Therefore, Bill Ayers and his friends concluded, their cause was just, and their actions were necessary.

I was in SDS the same time Ayers was, and argued with friends about what I later called “the Weatherman temptation." At the time I thought they were helping to wreck SDS, and that we should keep trying to win people to the antiwar cause, instead of dismissing them as hopeless. I still think so.

In Ayers’s new book of “confessions” you find some semi-apologies for the Weather Underground bombing campaign, including the statement that he has “a thousand regrets.” You also find some self-justification, including the statement that “the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone.” That is not quite true. The Weather Underground killed Ted Gold, Terry Robbins, and Diana Oughton — their own members, who died when the pipe bomb they were building exploded. That was March 6, 1970, in a Greenwich Village townhouse.

It was a huge bomb, stuffed with dynamite and studded with roofing nails. The police were still finding body parts in the rubble nine days later. What was the intended target? Other former Weathermen later said they planned to bomb a dance for noncommissioned officers and their dates at the officers’ club at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Cathy Wilkerson, who had survived the townhouse explosion and escaped, wrote a memoir in 2007 (Flying Close to the Sun) in which she explained their thinking at the time: “The nails would wound people, too, and, in their suffering, perhaps they would develop more empathy for how the Vietnamese felt when the United States dropped daisy bombs.” It’s a horrifying idea, but we should thank the author for owning up to it. The Confessions of Bill Ayers says nothing about the Weatherman plan to bomb the dance for noncommissioned officers and their dates at Fort Dix.

Ayers was famous for a while in the early 1970s as a leader of the Weather Underground; he participated in the bombings of New York City Police Department headquarters in 1970, the US Capitol building in 1971, and the Pentagon in 1972. He surfaced in the mid-1970s, when the government charges against him were dismissed for prosecutorial misconduct. Eventually he became a professor of education at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, and receded from public view.

He became famous again in 2001 because of his 9/11 interview. He had just published a memoir, Fugitive Days. Every author dreams of an interview in The New York Times, and Ayers got one. It happened to be published on 9/11 — just a coincidence, but a terrible one for Ayers, because the lede of the piece read as follows: “‘I don't regret setting bombs,’ Bill Ayers said. ‘I feel we didn't do enough.’”

In his new book Ayers revisits that episode and describes The New York Times writer on that piece, Dinitia Smith, as a “seductive betrayer” who had an “irritating superior air.” He quotes literary critic Stanley Fish, saying, “this kind of reporting ‘can only be unauthentic, can only get it wrong, can only lie.’”

Did Smith lie when she quoted Ayers? I asked her — she’s an old friend -– about Ayers’s complaints. “After I wrote the article,” she replied, “and before it was published, I went over every aspect of the piece carefully with Ayers, including his quote saying: ‘I don't regret settings bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.’ He didn't dispute any of it.”

Let’s note one other thing. In his new book Ayers does not deny saying “I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.” Also, one fact-check footnote: When Fish wrote about writers who “can only lie,” he was not talking about the “kind of reporting” Smith was doing. Fish was criticizing biographers.

Ever since that 9/11 interview Ayers has been explaining what he meant when he said “we didn’t do enough”: he meant not enough to end the war in Vietnam. He’s not quite right about that. In many ways he did too much — too much of the wrong thing: all those mostly symbolic bombings that drove the FBI crazy but didn’t do anything to end the war. And he didn’t do enough of the right things: working to win more of the American people to take action against the war.

The new book begins not with the 9/11 interview, but seven years later, with the 2008 presidential campaign, where Sarah Palin memorably described Barack Obama as “palling around with terrorists” — i.e., Bill Ayers. (Obama explained that he remembered Ayers as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood” — the two had served at the same time on the board of a small Chicago foundation that supported community organizing, and then when Obama first ran for state senator, Ayers and his wife and fellow Weather Underground leader, Bernardine Dohrn, hosted a fund-raiser for him. That was in 1996.)

Ayers is delighted to recount all the media attention he received that year, and gleefully recounts how often his name was mentioned on Fox News, where he proudly says he was regarded as “public enemy number one” — the phrase, however, is his, not theirs. Some of the attacks Ayers describes are pretty hair-raising. For example when he was invited to speak at the University of Wyoming in 2010, a campaign was mounted — no surprise here — to get him disinvited. It included, he says, a letter to the university written by Frank Smith, “who was active in the Wyoming Patriot Alliance,” which said “Maybe someone could take him out and show him the Matthew Sheppard [sic] Commerative [sic] Fence and he could bless it or something.” I tried to find an independent source for this, but didn’t succeed. The best source seems to be the lawsuit Ayers filed against the university. But there’s no “Frank Smith” in Wyoming going after Ayers anywhere on Google other than in quotes from Ayers. In any case, we had a happy ending in Wyoming: the court ruled that Ayers had a right to speak at the university, and he did.

Ayers enjoys recounting the attacks on him coming from the right, but he’s not so happy about his critics on the left, including those at The Nation, where columnist Katha Pollitt sharply criticized a 2008 New York Times opinion piece where he took up Palin’s “palling around” remark. Pollitt called Ayers’s piece a “sentimentalized, self-justifying whitewash of his role in the weirdo violent fringe of the 1960s-70s antiwar left.” (Disclosure: I’m a contributing editor at The Nation and a friend of Katha’s.) “I wish Ayers would make a real apology for the harm he did to the antiwar movement and the left,” she wrote.

Not another “regrets, I've had a few,” “we were all young once,” “don't forget there was a war on” exercise in self-promotion […]. I'd like him to say he's sorry for his part in the destruction of Students for a Democratic Society. He's sorry he helped Nixon make the antiwar movement look like the enemy of ordinary people. He's sorry for his more-radical-than-thou posturing.

Ayers quotes many of the attacks on him, but not that one — he doesn’t even mention Pollitt’s name.

Ayers did do one wonderful thing after surfacing in the 1970s. When his one-time Weather Underground comrades Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert were arrested in 1981 and then convicted of the murder of two police officers and a security guard in an attempted robbery of a Brinks armored car, Bill and Bernadine adopted and raised Kathy and David’s then-one-year-old son, Chesa. It’s an act of generosity that recalls Abel and Ann Meeropol adopting and raising the two sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Robbie and Michael, after their parents were executed as “atom spies” in 1953. Ayers can’t resist reminding readers of the parallels, quoting Robbie telling him “you’re doing a wonderful thing.” It might have been better to let readers come to that conclusion on their own. But the chapter on Chesa is the most compelling in the book. (Chesa went on to graduate from Yale, become a Rhodes Scholar, and write about his travels in Latin America.)

I don’t like most of Bill Ayers’s new book, Public Enemy, but some people I really admire do. Junot Díaz wrote a blurb calling it “spellbinding” and “brilliant.” Aleksandar Hemon’s blurb says it is “inspiring” and “a ripping read .” So I went back over it, but found only more of what I didn’t like: a sentence that began “Like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Rick and I felt …” and the statement that, during the decades when angry, bitter people were attacking him, “I’d loved and changed and worked and built a house, and loved some more — every day.” He says there’s also been quite a bit of laughter in his life. I couldn’t find the spellbinding and inspiring parts.

Jon Wiener is a regular contributor to LARB, The Nation, and other periodicals. His most recent book is How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across America.  

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