Back when retired professor Bill Ayers hosted potluck seminars with his partner Bernardine Dohrn at their Hyde Park home, some University of Illinois at Chicago graduate students might have seen their mentor as simply a pleasant, aging lefty with a love for sharing meals and ideas. Others might have noted the incongruity of their hosts' hospitality with their notoriety, earned in the '70s as members of the Weather Underground, a group that bombed government property in protest of the Vietnam conflict. But any such gap disappeared in 2008 when after a seminar one night, a student turned on the Ayers' TV to catch the Democratic presidential primary debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
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Moderator George Stephanopoulos followed up a question about the Illinois senator's relationship with his increasingly controversial pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr., by describing, "A gentleman named William Ayers (who) bombed the Pentagon, the Capital and other buildings. … An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house. ... Can you explain to Democrats why that won't be a problem?"
Though his students' jaws dropped, Ayers couldn't have been surprised as the future commander in chief shrugged off the relationship, describing the former Weatherman as simply, "a guy who lives in my neighborhood." Considering his previous lives as a young revolutionary and an underground fugitive, 2008 was hardly the most important year of Bill Ayers' life. But it was an interesting one. Right wing politicians and pundits demonized Ayers as a "domestic terrorist," and death threats and media attacks became everyday occurrences.
"Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident," Ayers' new memoir, is a necessary follow-up to his 2001 account of underground life in "Fugitive Days," precisely because the attacks by presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, his running mate, Sarah Palin, and Fox News were nothing new. The publication date for "Fugitive Days" coincided with 9/11; the unfortunate timing led to a New York Times piece labeling Ayers an unrepentant bomber just hours before al-Qaida struck.
Had Ayers aired grievances about his personal challenges at the height of the subsequent wars, it may have seemed inappropriate, his death threats trivial in comparison to more than 100,000 actual deaths overseas. But the absurdity and ineffectiveness of Palin accusing Obama of "palling around with terrorists" allows "Public Enemy" to be personal and broad; he covers everything from child rearing to the Oscars to Mexican restaurant recommendations (Nuevo Leon). Obama's victory provides a framework that justifies elements of the book that might otherwise seem like flaws.
Ayers writes passages that sound like a proud papa recounting the darndest things his toddlers say, injecting a charming mundanity that convincingly casts Ayers as just a "guy in my neighborhood." His all-star lefty name-dropping, in which every prominent academic, radical, journalist, or left-leaning lawyer runs into our protagonist, indicates that the inevitability of encountering Ayers makes Obama's association nothing special. I'm not sure what to make of his many detailed descriptions of delicious Middle Eastern meals, although Ayers does diffuse the supposed threat of fellow Fox News villain Rashid Khalidi by presenting the Columbia University professor as a family man notable for locating the best olives in Woodlawn.
Even with its culinary asides and loose style, "Public Enemy" remains engaging because it tells the tale of an unlikely winner. Despite challenging power structures for decades, no force has successfully conspired to ruin Ayers. He is thrilled with his family, loyal to his friends, amused by his own jokes and proud of his work. His rich life has him hosting a dinner party for right-wing pundits one day and squatting with Greek anarchists another.
While Ayers will never apologize for his most notorious deeds, he does repent for that era's hyperpartisanship. "Dialogue disappeared," he recalls "speaking became more geared toward posturing and performing than persuading." The wiser Ayers chats up neighborhood cops, poses for pictures with anti-Ayers protesters, and seems more interested in meeting open-minded opponents than preaching to the choir. Sympathetic to the Tea Party's distrust of government, he's thrilled to find common ground with, or challenge misconceptions, of right-wing ideologues. In the book's best vignette, after hostile, libertarian Hells Angels fill the first row of a lecture to intimidate Ayers, the gang ends up debating the government's ills with Ayers and colleagues all night at a Chinese restaurant.
The Bill Ayers presented in "Public Enemy," seems like a man who loves the sound of his own voice, not unlike many lecturers and intellectuals. But what distinguishes him is a sincere love of other voices. A man like that accumulates countless cohorts, abundant acquaintances and many, many friends. So be careful around Bill Ayers. You, too, could find yourself guilty by association.
Jake Austen is editor of Roctober magazine and co-author of "Darkest America."
By Bill Ayers, Beacon, 228 pages, $24.95Copyright © 2015, CT Now