OP-ED December 6, 2008

The Real Bill Ayers
New York Times



IN the recently concluded presidential race, I was unwillingly thrust upon the stage and asked to play a role in a profoundly dishonest drama. I refused, and here’s why.

Unable to challenge the content of Barack Obama’s campaign, his opponents invented a narrative about a young politician who emerged from nowhere, a man of charm, intelligence and skill, but with an exotic background and a strange name. The refrain was a question: “What do we really know about this man?”

Secondary characters in the narrative included an African-American preacher with a fiery style, a Palestinian scholar and an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.” Linking the candidate with these supposedly shadowy characters, and ferreting out every imagined secret tie and dark affiliation, became big news.

I was cast in the “unrepentant terrorist” role; I felt at times like the enemy projected onto a large screen in the “Two Minutes Hate” scene from George Orwell’s “1984,” when the faithful gathered in a frenzy of fear and loathing.

With the mainstream news media and the blogosphere caught in the pre-election excitement, I saw no viable path to a rational discussion. Rather than step clumsily into the sound-bite culture, I turned away whenever the microphones were thrust into my face. I sat it out.

Now that the election is over, I want to say as plainly as I can that the character invented to serve this drama wasn’t me, not even close. Here are the facts:

I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s, and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. I became a full-time antiwar organizer for Students for a Democratic Society. In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after an accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village. The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices — the ones at the Pentagon and the United States Capitol were the most notorious — as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation.

The Weather Underground crossed lines of legality, of propriety and perhaps even of common sense. Our effectiveness can be — and still is being — debated. We did carry out symbolic acts of extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism, and the attacks on property, never on people, were meant to respect human life and convey outrage and determination to end the Vietnam war.

Peaceful protests had failed to stop the war. So we issued a screaming response. But it was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately, spreading fear and suffering for political ends.

I cannot imagine engaging in actions of that kind today. And for the past 40 years, I’ve been teaching and writing about the unique value and potential of every human life, and the need to realize that potential through education.

I have regrets, of course — including mistakes of excess and failures of imagination, posturing and posing, inflated and heated rhetoric, blind sectarianism and a lot else. No one can reach my age with their eyes even partly open and not have hundreds of regrets. The responsibility for the risks we posed to others in some of our most extreme actions in those underground years never leaves my thoughts for long.

The antiwar movement in all its commitment, all its sacrifice and determination, could not stop the violence unleashed against Vietnam. And therein lies cause for real regret.

We — the broad “we” — wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.

The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook, influences and, especially, responsibility for each other’s behavior. There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our political culture, and at crucial times we’ve been unable to rise above it.

President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the bookstore. We didn’t pal around, and I had nothing to do with his positions. I knew him as well as thousands of others did, and like millions of others, I wish I knew him better.

Demonization, guilt by association, and the politics of fear did not triumph, not this time. Let’s hope they never will again. And let’s hope we might now assert that in our wildly diverse society, talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.

12 Responses to OP-ED December 6, 2008

  1. Bill Lileas says:

    Dear Mr. Ayers:

    As a Barack Obama supporter, I was never swayed by the rhetoric of the Republican party during the campaign, but I was happy to see your article today. It was poignant and thorough. And I could not agree more that “talking and listening to the widest range of people is not a sin, but a virtue.” Well said. I wrote a short poem years ago on the steps of the Met in NYC. It reads:

    In the world there is a race,
    An arms race.
    In the city there is a race,
    A rat race.
    People are concerned,
    About race.
    The human race,
    Should not.

    Thanks again,

    Bill Lileas

  2. James Becraft says:

    Thanks for your excellent piece in the NY Times this morning, 12/06/08.

    It’s about time you were able to get your point across. I’m 60 years old and wish I would have been more peacefully protesting our nation’s unfortunate policies in the 1960’s.

    Thanks for your service to America. All of us our age as you said can look back and see things we would do differently now.

    May Obama the Obama team generally live up to our expectations. May the country give him the support and pushback that is most appropriate.

    We need a superb President, focused on peace, the economy, and human rights.


  3. Stacy in Atlanta says:


    This was a very well written article. But I have good news and sad news.

    The GOOD NEWS is that objective people will read this and cleary respect your perspective such as myself.

    The SAD NEWS is that there are people who will always soundbite pick you to the day you die even this editorial as Fox News did today. They distorted your comments and did not acknowledge your apologies at all. Let’s face it, 40 years later, we still have a society/culture of selective listeners. To such a degree that has nurtured the ongoing ignorance of America (e.g. Billy Martin).

    Please stay true to your convictions. In retrospect, it’s not so much about where you been but where you are going. Keep putting the education of our society first and Goodness is sure to follow you for the rest of your days.

    Afterall, you only have to answer to God on judgement day.


  4. Thank you for your forbearance in not coming forth during the campaign. Thank you once more for writing such a clear and concise op ed piece. I was a vet against the war when I returned in 1966. I went because I thought that I should, my family had fought in every war since the war with King George. I was disheartened to return home and find the government lying to us about so much of what was happening in Viet Nam. I think it is one thing that Obama may do better, be truthful with the people, I hope so. Thank you again for your piece, best wishes for the holidays, Tim

  5. Carol says:

    Thank you.

    For refraining until now

    For your life (yes, we all have regrets)

    For speaking at this time

  6. Geoff Pietsch says:

    After reading your op-ed, I forwarded it to a bunch of friends plus my brother – who doesn’t use a computer. He asked me if I could find a way to contact you. In 2003 he self-published: “They Stole Our Country: We’re Taking Her Back.” Its sub-title: “How To Create a True Democracy Which Values All Human Life and Removes the Causes of Terrorism.” Phil Berrigan wrote a blurb for the back cover of the 2nd printing and Howard Zinn was kind enough to write a 4 page forward for it. Zinn’s first sentence sums the book up well: “This is a small book by a man with a large heart.”
    My brother wanted me to contact you to see if he could send you a copy. If you wish, I would be happy to tell you more about him – and his many decade efforts (he’s 72) – in the cause of social justice.

  7. Wendy John says:

    Excellent rebuttal, Bill. Thank you for your courageous stand, then and now.

  8. joe dan says:

    Guilt by association: not only in politics. just more prevalent in politics. from the time we are able to run off with friends without parental supervision. we are subject to those 3 words. even if we are not our friends or acqaintenses. our government on the other hand bares the true meaning of those 3 words. guilty of civil, moral, inhumane, and war crimes is the short list. most politicians didn’t start out that way. but the associations that they made created this beast. from porkbelly to earmarks. from the ever so greedy capitalists, to the newcomer just trying to fit in to a new game.

    as i wrote in another blog on this site. John the Baptist was a murderer. forgivin by God. chosen to be an apostle by Jesus. and now sits happily in Heaven. it’s not up to me (or anyone else for that matter) to judge anyones past but my own past. we all have done things in life that are less desirable. doesn’t make us wicked people. who we were is not who we are. if i had lived in the 60s i may have joined mr ayers movement. truthfully i’d like to know where those anti-gov movements are today. i’m sickened by the fact that the U.S. government has forgotten who they serve. the people of this once great nation. not just the greedy capitalists, ( ceo’s, board members, or anyone else that fills their [government} fat pockets). i’m sickened by the fact that people spend countless yrs of their lives working so someone else gets to see the american dream. yet rarely get to enjoy much of the dream themself. if they get to enjoy any of the dream at all.

  9. Shana says:

    Not long after Ms. Palin dragged your name into the arena, I took some time to find out who you are… and spent the balance of the campaign season trying to temper the rhetoric with a touch of reality. I had already come to have great respect for you by the time November 4 finally came.

    Since you’ve broken your silence, I’ve come to not just respect but really *like* you…. and my mom sends her regards, as well as her thanks for having been the catalyst to my finally reading about an era she couldn’t bring herself to fully explain to me.

  10. newteacher says:

    Dr Ayers,
    I am too young for it to have been possible for me to have supported the vietnam anti-war movement, although what I have seen of Abbe Hoffman, et al, I am sure that I would have (I’m a deadhead afterall!)

    But, I can relate to my current experience in opposing this nation’s last two “wars” in the middle east, and I think my stance would have been the same then, as it is now, and here is how I see it as differing from yours, and from what I can deduce, from that of the majority of protesters in the 60s-70s:
    I reject so much of what the current administration (and previous ones) have done, but unlike you, I do not see that as a rejection of the core principles of this nation, or of market economics.
    I believe I would have during vietnam, as I do now, view a restoration of our founders’ core libertarian principles as the solution to every international abuse we are guilty of, and as the solution to every social ill we can point to in this country.
    I argue that our federal govt’s straying from its intended constitutional limitations are what have magnified, if not outright created, the instances of inhumanity one finds in our culture.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: