Two weeks after the elections during which he dominated the media with speculations about his relationship with President-elect Barack Obama, Weather Underground veteran Bill Ayers has taken to the lecture circuit.
In the campaigns, Republican presidential nominee John McCain and his pick for vice president, Sarah Palin, had argued that Obama lacked judgment. They cited his campaign for the U.S Senate, allegedly launched in Ayers’ living room, and serving on a similar board with him despite the latter’s documented links to the Weather Underground.
Members of the Weather Underground, a left-wing movement he co-founded in 1969, were accused of bombing sensitive public buildings and riots and jail-breaks in the 1960s and 1970s.
At Georgetown Law School Monday November 17, the University of Illinois at Chicago professor of education revisited his radical past, suggesting that his behavior and actions in the 1960s may have been “illegal and extreme” but not terrorist. What he had billed to be a talk about wrongful convictions and their place in conversations on social justice turned into a post-mortem on his politics and association with Obama.
“I would love to be remembered as a good father, a good grandfather. The Associated Press should write that if it is here,” he said, while responding to questions from nearly 50 law students, whom he asked to help bring closure to the debate about the 1960s.
Some had their backs to the wall in protest as he spoke.
He advised those still poring over the recent elections and Obama’s victory to turn off the “television and go read a novel.”
He asked the audience to be intellectually curious, listen with the possibility of being changed and speak with the possibility of hurting others. “Let us not mind-read the Obama administration. I even do not know what they are going to do next,” he said, when asked to speculate on possible decisions by the new regime in coming days.
But he cautioned his listeners against thinking that Obama has some magic wand.
“No president ever delivers us to the promised land. We must do so ourselves. Yes we can,” he said.
He argued that Obama was coming into office following in the footsteps of previous presidents who had defied expectations. “Lyndon Johnson was never a civil rights leader, yet consider what he did for the movement. Franklin Roosevelt was never a labor leader, yet consider what he did for workers. Abraham Lincoln was never a member of the abolitionist movement, yet consider what he did for slaves. Obama’s context will matter just as much, if not more,” he said.
He expressed hope that “the metaphor of the war on terror” and other salient aspects of the outgoing administration could finally be expunged from the public lexicon.
“I would love to introduce proposition 9 in California to ban opposite sex marriage,” he said, expressing outrage that voters had not made what he considered to be sweeping changes in November.
But he had a trying moment with one particular member of the audience, Georgetown law junior Luke Lagera, who is a member of the United States Navy. Lagera told Ayers he found the former’s presence at Georgetown distasteful, that his previous activities were terrorist, and that his present positions on the subject were unrepentant and anti-military.
Ayers argued that he needed no political litmus test to speak anywhere in America, that he had come on the invitation of the law student group, and that he did not hate the military having had a Vietnam war veteran for a brother.
“I remain aware of endless and crazy threats against me. But most of these have been coming from young people ventilating behind computers in their mom’s basements,” he said to some laughter in the audience.
Fox News, he argued, had thrust him into this year’s presidential campaigns by playing up his past activities and associations with Obama which he said are innocent, a position he reiterated in an interview with a Fox News crew immediately afterwards.
“This gave the campaign a delicious irony. Linking me to Obama’s campaign implied that he also would be guilty of my past by association, revealing the blunted nature of our politics. This demonizing of my person began in 1984,” he lamented.
He called for closure to the debate over the 1960s, arguing that those insisting he accounts for his past activities should demand the same of retired senior government officials of the time, saying the United States is the greatest violator of human rights in the world.
“Let us have a truth and reconciliation process. Let us get to hear some accounts from Henry Kissinger who killed three million people and Bill Moyers who kept lying for the president as people died. Let us hear from Robert McNamara. Let us hear the truth from John McCain and John Kerry about the Vietnam war,” he said before leaving for another speaking engagement under heavy campus and government security.