Five years after the 2008 election, former domestic terrorist William “Bill” Ayers is quipping about Sarah Palin’s “palling around with terrorists” comment and remembering how candidate Barack Obama threw him “under the bus.”
“There was no way to prepare for what was about to hit me, of course, and at the outset I could barely glimpse it on the far horizon of my imagination—the great speeding locomotive designed to derail Obama would run me and others down as just some unavoidable debris or collateral damage, the inevitable road kill,” Ayers says in his new memoir, “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident,” according to an excerpt published in Salon. “No one really knew its shape or its power yet, no one could guess at its velocity. I grasped a couple of small things right away, but my family understood a lot more, and they were in fact already gearing up.”
As a state legislator in Illinois, Obama ran an education nonprofit with Ayers in the 1990s called the “Chicago Annenberg Challenge.” Obama also visited the Ayers home when he began his state Senate campaign in 1995. Thus, the family anticipated Ayers would be an issue in the presidential campaign and devised a media strategy: going into hiding — at least as far as media access went.
“The consensus from them, in line with Bernardine’s steady and consistent basic instinct, was that whatever happened on the web or in the press, we should simply turn away,” Ayers writes. “No comment, no elaboration, no clarification, no response. Be completely quiet, they said, and stay calm.”
He wrote about scattered headline appearing early in the presidential campaign in 2007 when Obama was not considered a likely nominee of the Democratic Party.
“My dad, a big-capitalist Republican, had loved Obama and had sent him many small checks over the years, but the smart money had Obama in Kucinich-Gravel land then,” Ayers wrote, referring to long-shot Democratic candidates of that year, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former U.S. Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska.
Ayers is a retired professor at the University of Illinois Chicago. As a member of the Weather Underground in the 1960s, he participated in bombings, and was a fugitive along with wife Bernardine Dohrn. Federal charges were dropped against the two in 1973 because of FBI overreach in the investigation.
His status as an academic is one reason, he wrote, he believed he could weather the political storm of 2008.
“If somebody had to be thrown into the path of the dark and onrushing train at that moment—if the locomotive of the Lord was set to run someone down—I was in many ways as good a prospect as any, and in better shape than most,” he writes. “True, I’d tried to make a revolution, I had a dubious and hazardous history, and I’d ‘committed detestable acts forty years ago,’ as Obama had so delicately put it, which was, after all, kind of the point of the whole messy muddle.”
He continues, “I’d dealt with the legal problems associated with the disorder decades before, and I’d publicly accounted for those dicey times in books and articles and interviews. I’d come under withering media attention and a sustained attack, complete with death threats, seven years earlier. And yet none of that captured how I actually experienced my life, and here I was, still standing, still happily putting one foot in front of the other.”
He claims he became more mature, while not shedding his political views.
“I’d become an unlikely academic at a research university, written about teaching and learning and the requirements of education in a democracy, published several scholarly articles and monographs and books—all the things professors are expected to do—and been recognized, promoted, and steadily rewarded,” Ayers writes. “I was a lot older now, and while my political views were still radical and my activist enthusiasm undiminished, I felt that I’d learned something of the perils of political passion and dedication without either withdrawing my commitments or making idiotic counter-commitments.”
Obama’s was first account about Ayers came during an ABC News debate with Hillary Clinton during the primary season. Obama dismissed Ayers as an English professor – he was actually an education professor – who just happened to live in the same neighborhood.
Ayers recalls his children sending him messages saying, “Pops! You’re under the bus,” another saying, “I loved Obama calling you an ‘English’ professor – brilliant! It’s about to get weirder,” and the advice he held on to, “Just hang in there, man—the longer you say nothing, the calmer your world will become. You can do this!”
He believed it did get weirder when Palin, John McCain’s running mate, brought his name up on the stump that Obama is “someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.”
“There it was: the punch line that would resonate no matter what else was said or done— palling around. It had a special creepy ring to it, for sure,” Ayers wrote.