In December, 2011 a tiny but wondrous Chicago program of the Illinois Humanities Council (IHC) launched an on-line auction to raise needed cash for its public programming. The Public Square was celebrating its Tenth Anniversary, and Bernardine and I had been on its Advisory Board from the start. We kicked in what money we could, and we donated two items to the auction: choice seats at a Cubs game and an afternoon at beautiful Wrigley Field with Bernardine—an ardent and unruly fan—and dinner for six, cooked by team Ayers/Dohrn. We’ve done the dinner thing two dozen times over the years— for a local baseball camp, a law students’ public interest group, alternative spring break, immigrant rights organizing, and a lot of other worthy work—and we’ve typically raised a few hundred dollars. There were many more attractive items on that year’s list: Alex Kotlowitz was available to edit twenty pages of a non-fiction manuscript, Gordon Quinn to discuss documentary film projects over dinner, and Kevin Coval to write and spit an original poem for the highest bidder.
We paid little attention as the online auction launched and then inched onward—a hundred dollars, two hundred, and then three—even when a right-wing blogger picked it up and began flogging the Illinois Humanities Council for “supporting terrorism” by giving tax-payer money to us. He was a little off on the concept, because we were actually donating money and services to them, not the other way around, but this was a rather typical turn for the fact-free, faith-based blogosphere, so onward and upward, no worries.
There was a little button on our dinner item that someone could select and “Buy Instantly” for $2500.00, which seemed absurdly high. But in early December the TV celebrity and self-described conservative bad boy, Tucker Carlson, hit the button, and we were his.
I loved it immediately. Surely he had some frat boy prank up his sleeve—his signature gesture a kind of smug and superior practical joke or an ad homonym put down —but so what? We’d just raised more for the Public Square in one bid than anyone thought would be raised from the entire auction. We won!
Well, not so fast—this did mean we had to prepare dinner for Tucker plus five, and that could become messy. But, maybe not, and anyway, we argued, it’s just a couple of distasteful hours at most, and, bingo! Cash the check!
Right wing blogs lit up, some writers tickled with Tucker’s entertaining sense of humor, others earnestly saluting his willingness to enter the den of dodgy enemies of the state and sit in close quarters, an unmistakable act of courage and daring in the service of “the cause.” But some took a grimmer view: Don’t do it Tucker, they pled, this will legitimize and humanize “two of America’s greatest traitors.”
Tucker Carlson got a letter from the IHC: “Congratulations,” it began. “You are the winning bidder for The Public Square’s 10th anniversary auction item: Dinner for six with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Thank you very much for your payment of $2500 for this item.”
The letter went on to offer ten potential dates for the dinner, and to note that “all auction items were donated to the IHC [which] makes no warranties or representations with respect to any item or service sold…” and that “views and opinions expressed by individuals attending the dinner do not reflect those of the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Illinois General Assembly.” I imagined the exhausted scrivener bent at his table copying out that carefully crafted, litigation-proof language—does it go far enough? How about the governor or the Joint Chiefs of Staff? But then I’m no lawyer.
Tucker chose February 5, Super Bowl Sunday as it happens.
We were besieged by friends clamoring to come to dinner—“I’ll serve drinks,” wrote one prominent Chicago lawyer, “Or, if you like, I’ll wear a little tuxedo and park the cars. Please let me come!”
Everyone saw it as theater, but not everyone was delighted with the impending show. A few friends called Carlson and company “vipers” and argued that we should never talk to people like them, ever. We disagreed; talk can be good. Others began distancing themselves from us, wringing their hands the moment they saw themselves mentioned on the right-wing blogs, and instantly, almost instinctively, assuming a defensive crouch.
Things quickly got weirder: two board members resigned from the IHC, complaining that the organization was now affiliated with people who “advocate violence,” presumably Bernardine and me, not Tucker Carlson or his friends, not the Mayor, the Governor, the State Legislature, the Cabinet, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The paid stenographers at the Chicago Tribune duly reported the two resignations, quoting the outraged quitters, and leaving it at that.
(Parenthesis here on the art and science of fact-checking: Had the Tribune in fact checked the facts, the fact-checker would have checked the fact that the quitters used the term “advocates violence.” Check. Had he or she dug a little deeper, the fact-checker might have discovered that, yes, we’d been described that way before, even in the pages of the Tribune. Check. And so it goes in the hermetically-sealed, narcissistic echo chamber—a characterization becomes a fact with enough repetition, check, the fact-checker simply reviews the work of previous fact-checkers with no felt-need to analyze primary sources or inquire up-close or in-person. Check. Presumably another fact-checker did that already, and if not, so what? Oh, and for the record, we don’t advocate violence—we’re not with NATO or G8. Check. End parenthesis)
Some winced and stooped a little deeper; no one was apparently moved to speak up publically to defend the idea of dialogue, controversy and conversation as essential to the culture of democracy and to the vitality of the humanities, and no one condemned the most knee-jerk instance of demonization and far-fetched guilt-by-association.
Dinner with Tucker seemed cheery and worthwhile compared to counseling a bunch of cringing liberals. Where is the back-bone or the principle? No wonder the tiny group of right-wing flame-throwers with a couple of email accounts feels so disproportionately powerful—liberals seem forever willing to police themselves to the point of forming an orderly line right into the slaughterhouse.
So on January 12, 2012, I wrote Tucker a quick letter:
We’re looking forward to seeing you all for dinner in Chicago on February 5, 2012, and what we assume will be a spirited and enlightening conversation. We salute you for making such a generous contribution to the Public Square, a tiny program that works mightily to promote public dialogue in unlikely places, and bases its efforts on a core belief that in our wildly diverse democracy, talking to strangers is an essential way forward. Our dinner surely fits that bill.
We’ve received lots of messages from friends who can’t quite believe this is happening, and find it surreal at best. Some want to serve drinks or wait tables, but others insist it’s all a silly publicity stunt. We disagree, and point to both the importance of conversation across a variety of orientations, as well as your good comment to the Tribune: “I bought the auction dinner because I support the important work of the Illinois Humanities Council.”
It appears that you’re taking some heat yourself from far-right pundits and bloggers for agreeing to sit down with us at all, and that some of your political allies argue that you are undermining “the until-now-airtight argument that Obama was wrong” to have any associations with people like us who hold quite different political beliefs, or who likely won’t agree on a wide range of issues. We’re glad to see that you disagree with these folks, and that you believe, as we do, that we can all share a dinner, have a lively conversation about the spirit and direction of our country and the world, perhaps learn something from one another, and still maintain the integrity and independence of our own views.
We heard that you were kidding around about the dinner with Dennis Miller on his radio show, and said with a laugh, “When I hear the word ‘humanities’ I draw my gun.” It was a joke, of course, but please leave your guns at home!
So, this is a note of welcome. Come and dine, enjoy the food, the company, and the exchange, and travel safely with hope in your heart and a good appetite.
Thanks a lot for this. I’m looking forward to Sunday. Just bought plane tickets and reserved a hotel for myself and one of our reporters, Jamie Weinstein. I haven’t finished the rest of the guest list—I’ve been on the road for these primaries nonstop—but I’ll send you the names as soon as I have them. Where’s dinner? I want to make sure we’re not staying too far away.
We exchanged several notes on the next day:
We’ll meet up and you’ll be dining be in the proverbial Undisclosed Location—ten minutes by cab from any down town hotel. It’s a lovely home with a perfect kitchen for me to prepare something sensational. Keep me updated on the guests and on any dietary issues. You know, of course, that the Super Bowl begins at 5:20 Chicago time.
On another note: poor you, slogging through those particularly unattractive primaries. I’m eager to hear true stories from the front, Hunter Thompson style if possible!
Undisclosed location? Holy smokes. Are you guys in hiding again?
Nope! We’re open and easily accessible. But if we did meet in the proverbial undisclosed location I like to think we would engage the ghost of Christmas past.
I’ve got a really nice dinner planned, so bring an appetite as well as people who enjoy good food.
That’s a riot. And have no fear: I have an appetite like a golden retriever.
Raw meat? Gosh, I was going a cut above Alpo, but maybe I should scale back.
You could probably serve kibble. I’m not very discerning about dinner.
If I’d been feeling mean-spirited I might have responded that he’s not very discerning about a lot more than dinner, but what the heck?
A few days later Tucker sent us the guest list: Jamie Weinstein, Andrew Breitbart, Matt Labash, Audrey Lowe, and Buckley Carlson. “Entertaining, civil people all of them, guaranteed,” he concluded.
I figured Jamie and Matt were his young associates at the Daily Caller, Buckley his brother, and Audrey his random reader who had won the privilege in some kind of contest Tucker held on-line. Andrew Breitbart, self-described “media mogul,” entertaining perhaps, but not civil, I thought, performed the role of grinning and menacing bomb-thrower of the radical right—Breitbart’s record included active assistance in the demise of ACORN, efforts to damage Planned Parenthood, and the deeply dishonest discrediting of Shirley Sherrod at the Agriculture Department which led to her being fired (followed by an apology).
Entertaining and civil! Guaranteed!
A couple of nights before the dinner I was hosting a meet-and-greet coffee at home for a young friend and former student running for the Illinois Senate (True! He told me he too had aspirations to be president someday—the first Mexican-American in the White House—and a coffee at our house seemed like the perfect launching pad!). Bernardine was away for work, so I was on my own. As the event wound down and people began to drift away, an old and very dear friend took me aside and told me it was foolish of me to have offered the dinner to the Public Square in the first place—an act of “left adventurism” she called it—and going through with it now would be provocative and stupid. What? I said, my voice rising and cracking; we’ve done this dozens of times, so how is this particular dinner/donation adventurism? “Oh, please,” she said, annoyed. And we’ve been on their board for a decade, I continued, and they asked us to do it, so how is that provocative?
“But not in this context,” she explained. “They’re vulnerable, and this is not good for them.” I was stunned.
I’m innocent and I didn’t do anything wrong, I said, but that sounded whiny and ridiculous the moment it left my mouth—I’m not “innocent” in the least, and I do wrong things all the time. Still this dinner just didn’t seem like one of my many terrible or even tiny transgressions. I felt rattled and alone.
But this all had a clarifying effect as well. Friends came into sharper focus, well-defined and evident, and those who understood the importance of standing on principle—friends or not—on issues like resisting the grotesque demonization of individuals and whole social groups, or fighting the toxic use of guilt-by-association in political discourse, also became dazzlingly obvious. Those who were confused or confounded, duped or bamboozled faded toward the background. It occurred to me once more that the good liberals I know would surely do the right thing if zealots began burning young girls as witches in Massachusetts, for example, or if the government said, in a time of fear and threat, “We are rounding up all Japanese-Americans, and placing them in prison camps.” I’m sure they all cheered watching the movie “Spartacus” as every slave who’d been lined up on the field stepped forward in solidarity and said, “I am Spartacus,” and in “Point of Order” when the courageous Joe Walsh stood up to the bullying Joe McCarthy, and in a voice breaking with emotion uttered the famous line, “Have you no shame, Senator? At long last, have you no shame?” If only we’d lived in that more perfect time.
It’s pretty easy to be a hero generations gone by—we’re all Abolitionists and Freedom Fighters now, we’re all heroes in retrospect—but that settles nothing for today: several state legislature want teachers right here, right now to compile lists of students with questionable immigration status; several people right here, right now are being interrogated, persecuted, and jailed for giving money or medical supplies to charities disapproved of by the state department; citizens are legally barred by the US government right here, right now from free travel to a single country in the world, that terrifying island ninety miles from Miami. Where is the outrage, right here and right now? Oh, but these things are quite complicated and so very controversial that it’s hard to know what to do now—it was all so obvious and a little too easy back then. I mean McCarthy’s name itself was a dead giveaway: McCarthy/McCarthyism…who couldn’t see that shit coming a mile away?
I shopped; I cooked; I set up for dinner. But it felt mostly like a heavy slog through thick mud. I was cold; I was lonely; I was tired. Not at all the mood or the tone I’d wanted.
Things got better inside my head when Bernardine returned to Chicago. She went right to work making the carrot-ginger soup, chilling me out, and when a wondrous collection of our closest folks assembled at a friend’s beautiful home to help out and serve, mostly to be present at the dinner party, I felt fine. There was lots of wine and beer, and we set an elegant table with a placecard depicting six different “great Americans”—Rosa Parks, for example, and Gertrude Stein, as well as Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin—at each place-setting, along with a menu printed on card stock they could each keep as a souvenir: Hoisin Ribs and Cucumbers, Carrot Ginger Soup, White Fish with Black and Red Quinoa, Midwest Farmhouse Cheeses, Apple Pie and Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream Ice Cream. At the bottom of the menu I’d included two quotations about the humanities: “I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities.”—David McCullough (Awarded the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush); and, “When I hear the word humanities, I draw my gun.” —Tucker Carlson. It was, of course, a joke.
I meditated on Rilke:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final.
And then they arrived: Let the rumpus begin!
Spirited greetings and introductions all around, laughter at the improbability of the whole thing, a flurry of separate conversations as wine was poured and glasses lifted. I proposed a toast to Tucker thanking him for his generous gift of $2500 to the Public Square, and I reminded everyone that this was a dinner party, not an interview or a performance (of course, dinner is always a performance, and this one more than most), and they were at the table, first course served.
Friends had warned us that they would try to create a gotcha moment, but not much happened. We ferried food in and out, pulled up chairs periodically to chat while they ate. Tucker Carlson and Bernardine gazed out the windows for a time at the Chicago skyline, and discovered a shared Swedish background (Christmas cookies!). Jamie Weinstein acting the intrepid cub-reporter, note-book in hand, scribbled the titles of books from the book shelves, questions flying in a steady stream, but perhaps his manic, in-your-face manner was the result of jet-lag (“I’m just off the plane from Israel,” he said half a dozen times.”My third trip!”). Carlson and Breitbart had been on the road covering the primaries, and each expressed deep disdain for the Republican candidates seeking the presidency; when Jamie complained that none was a bona fide conservative, I asked him to define “conservative” for me. “Small government,” he said. That’s it? I asked. “Yes.” It certainly makes thinking easier, if not completely beside the point. I pointed out that Somalia, to take an example, was a small government paradise.
Tucker told me at one point that his kids went to the same boarding school that he’d attended, and asserted that the only difference between his kids’ school and a failing school in Chicago was that at the prep school they could fire the bad teachers. I laughed out loud, and he smiled weakly.
Meanwhile at the other end of the table, Bernardine was saying that the US should close all foreign military bases immediately, begin to dismantle the Pentagon, and save a trillion dollars a year—a small government proposal if ever there was one. The boys weren’t buying it at all, clamoring for violence here, violence there, violence (normalized, routine, and taken-for-granted) practically everywhere. Andrew Breitbart, humid and heating up, argued noisily for US military interventions in Iran and Syria, and then, egging himself on, North Korea and China (!)—on humanitarian grounds, of course—while Bernardine, that notorious poster child for violence, steadfastly urged disarmament, peace on earth, good will toward all. It was utterly surreal.
We gave each guest a SWAG bag with candy kisses and one of my books, autographed. Tucker took my comic book about teaching, and I signed it “To my new best friend!” I had bought his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, with an epigram (returned to again and again in the text) from Larry King: “The trick is to care, but not too much. Give a shit—but not really.” I asked him to please autograph it for me and he wrote: “Thanks for the fantastic ribs! Please read every word of this—the truth lies herein.” Perhaps he was being ironic as well.
As they were leaving Breitbart told Bernardine that he was thrilled to know her, and he noted that we had at least one thing in common: we were all convenient caricatures in the “lame-stream” media.
It was all over in an hour and a half. Andrew Breitbart tweeted from the taxi ferrying them back to their hotel: Shorthand: Ayers, a gourmand, charmer. Dohrn, hot at 70, best behavior. Potemkin dinner. Pampered by their coterie. Kicked out by half-time.
He elaborated in a long radio interview later that night from his hotel bar: “We were exposed to the two most sophisticated dinner party-throwers in the world…This was their battlefield and they couldn’t have been more charming…I think I’m going to try and reach out to Bill Ayers and try and figure out if I can maybe do a road trip across the country with him—him and me—and he can show me his America, and I can show him my America, and maybe we can film it and let people decide. Because I’ve got to be honest with you, I liked being in the room with him, talking with him.”
That road trip was never a likely prospect, but it’s no longer even a distant dream or a far-out possibility—a few days after our dinner Andrew Breitbart died suddenly outside his home at the age of 43, too young.
Life—short or long—always ends in the middle of things.