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Spring 2008, Chicago
It was a mid-April evening, the sweet smells of springtime upon us and the last light reluctantly giving way outside the front window, when my graduate seminar ended and everyone pitched in to clean up. A dozen of my students were spread out in our living room, cups and dishes scattered everywhere, small piles of books and papers marking specific territory. Until a moment before, all of us had focused intensely on the work at hand: thesis development, the art of the personal essay, and the formal demands of oral history research. As a professor for two decades, my favorite teaching moments often popped up during these customary potluck seminars at our home—something about sharing food in a more intimate personal setting, perhaps, or disrupting the assumed hierarchy of teacher authority, or simply being freed from the windowless, fluorescent-lit concrete bunkers that passed for classrooms at my university. But the seminar was done for this evening, and as students began to gather their things, a self-described “political junkie” clicked on the TV and flipped to the presidential primary debate, well under way by now, between Hillary Clinton and the young upstart from Chicago, Barack Obama.
ABC was broadcasting the debate to a record-setting audience, and the debate moderators Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos seemed to be doing their best to make a mess of things, avoiding anything of substance in favor of a kind of weird political cage fighting— bloody performance art—throwing up little bits of trivia and gossip and “gotchas,” inviting snarls and cuts without any serious illumination or thoughtful reflection. I wandered in and out from the kitchen, muttering that no one watching would be the wiser for the time spent, but my students didn’t pay me any mind. The only explicit response I got was from one of the youngest, who glanced at me impatiently as she emphatically shushed me. Everyone, it seemed, was captured by the theater riot beaming from the screen, political junkies all, fascinated by what was being framed by the big brains of punditry as a “historic contest.” I stood near the back of the room.
Stephanopoulos, a former aide to President Bill Clinton, turned to Senator Obama and said, “On this . . . general theme of patriotism in your relationships . . .” The general theme in question was becoming central to the dramatic narrative spun by everyone now running against Obama, and Stephanopoulos was about to press him about his former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, whose most impassioned statements about racism, war, and the American government (“God damn America!”) had been widely disseminated and discussed.
“But do you believe he’s as patriotic as you are?” he asked. Obama replied, “This is somebody who’s a former Marine. So I believe that he loves this country. But I also believe that he’s somebody who, because of the experiences he’s had over the course of a lifetime, is also angry about the injustices he’s had.”
Now Stephanopoulos was bearing down on the “general theme of patriotism in your relationships.” “A gentleman named William Ayers,” Stephanopoulos began. “He was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol, and other buildings. He’s never apologized for that. . . . An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are ‘friendly.’ Can you explain that relationship for the voters and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?”
I thought Obama looked slightly stricken, temporarily off-balance, and uncharacteristically tongue-tied. I was probably projecting, because I felt suddenly dizzy, off-balance, and tongue-tied myself. But I know for sure my students were thunderstruck. Their heads snapped in my direction and a few literally dropped to the floor, one with both hands over her mouth. Obama replied: “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. . . . The notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts forty years ago, when I was eight years old, somehow refl ects on me and my values doesn’t make much sense, George.”
He had us at “he’s a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”
An explosion of laughter ricocheted around the room. Some were genuinely amused, some disbelieving and a bit horrified; everyone clamored to make sense of the bombshell that had just dropped into our little seminar, and by extension, reverberated around the country and the world. I sat down, and the student who had shushed me a moment ago turned to me and said, “Oh my God, that guy has the same name as yours.” Another explained to her excitedly that that’s because we were indeed the same guy: “Bill’s the guy, and we’re in the neighborhood George is talking about!”
No one in our living room really heard Hillary Clinton raise the stakes. She was concerned about Obama’s association with someone who, she pointed out, said in an interview published in the New York Times on
September 11, 2001, that he didn’t regret bombing government buildings even though, Clinton claimed, “in some instances people died,” and “he was just sorry they hadn’t done more,” and that the relationship continued after 9/11. No one heard Obama match her poke for poke: Your husband, he charged, “pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me serving on a board with somebody.” Neither candidate really knew what they were talking about, and each seemed simply to be following fact-free scripts written by pollsters or aides assigned the dirt detail. Clearly, both camps had done some shabby opposition research, and each was busy, busy, busy spinning its particular phony narrative. Each candidate threw a few more chips on the fi re before moving on, and no one listening or watching learned anything substantive from the exchange.
My students were amazed to see me cast on TV as some kind of public enemy, and even though I knew the connection was a story that had been percolating in the fever swamps of the right-wing blogs for months, I was amazed too. My partner, Bernardine Dohrn, and I had hosted the initial fund-raiser for Obama and uncharacteristically donated a little money to his campaign for the Illinois senate; we lived a few blocks apart, and he and I had sat on a couple of nonprofit boards together. So? Who could have predicted it would blow up like this?
“A guy around the neighborhood”—as funny as it sounded, I thought he got it exactly right.
Before Obama became a US senator and then a presidential candidate, Bernardine and I thought of him as a guy around the neighborhood, too. Even though lots of people have said to me something like, “Oooo-oooh!!!” remembering that he’d called me “a guy around the neighborhood,” I didn’t take it that way at all. After all we knew him then not as the huge, all-caps, super-accomplished, unbelievably successful, transcendent person he would become but as someone you might run into at the bookstore or the market. A guy . . . around the neighborhood.
Bernardine knew Michelle Obama as a smart, dignified, and community-minded advocate from the time they overlapped at a Chicago law firm, and when we later met Barack, she thought he was almost, if not quite, Michelle’s match. He too was brilliant, “the smartest guy in any room he walks into,” I said repeatedly, and later added, “Including the US Senate.” And not only hugely intelligent but also kind and sturdy and compassionate—a great combination. No one could miss another quality either: political ambition. For years I said to Bernardine—in a real display of the low horizon of my own imagination—“Barack’s obviously going places. . . . I think he wants to be the mayor of Chicago someday.”
He and I served together on the board of the Woods Fund, a small Chicago foundation that supported community organizing in the belief that ordinary people have the keys to making a more just and joyful world for all. The people with the problems are also the people with the solutions, we said. Community organizing was the foundation of the Black Freedom Movement, the women’s movement, and the labor and immigrant rights movements, the fight for safe workplaces and the forty-hour workweek, and much more. Barack came to the foundation because of his experience as a community organizer and as a lawyer at a civil rights fi rm. I came as an education professor and school reform activist, as well as someone who wrote about urban problems and city kids.
In our modest boardroom Barack was steady and cool, always a quick study and always a serious practitioner of conversation in search of common ground. Several of the grants we gave out were adventurous and unpredictable, and most of us felt that was exactly our job: to set a learning agenda and to provide teachable moments, times of disequilibrium where new and innovative solutions to old problems might emerge. That meant not all of our grants were successful in any conventional sense, and that board meetings were lively and sometimes contentious, even raucous.
At one meeting, the board split on a small arts grant to a theater group that performed plays challenging bias against gay and lesbian students, largely in schools. The young program officer who presented the grant was interrogated sharply by a senior board member, who said that it offended his personal moral views and his religious convictions. The younger man fought back quietly but bravely, defending it as a question of social justice and community ethics, and simply as the right thing to do. The grant passed, barely.
When we took a break, Barack pointedly told the program officer that he admired him for his steadfastness in a difficult situation. Then he stepped outside with the dissenting board member and told him he understood how hard it must be to see the value of this proposal through his own perspective, but that over time we would all be glad we had stood up against discrimination and for equal rights. Pure Barack.
When Bernardine and I were asked by our state senator, the redoubtable Alice Palmer, to host a coffee for Barack Obama as he launched his first campaign for public office, we said yes. Our home was always open for a rendezvous or two and for all kinds of gatherings, meetings, book talks, seminars, campaigns, salons, fund-raisers, discussion groups, get-togethers, play-readings, and round tables. It was a pretty routine Sunday afternoon: a few dozen folks—colleagues from the university, lawyers, Hyde Park neighbors—with coffee and cake and cookies. When Bernardine stopped the informal conversation, welcomed people to our home, and introduced Alice and Barack, the afternoon took on an unmistakable passing-of-the-torch vibe. Alice was stepping down from the Illinois senate to run for Congress, she wanted to see her seat go to someone who would continue in a progressive direction, and she thought Barack was the one.
Barack praised Alice for her work in and out of government, then spoke about the need to develop a bottom-up, top-down strategy for moving any progressive agenda forward. “Without organized power from the grassroots, nothing will advance; without political leaders who will respond wherever possible, those good efforts are stifled,” he said. A South Side minister said a kind word about Barack’s work, a couple of other politicians from Alice’s generation agreed, and then Bernardine gave a modest pitch for donations—we raised a few hundred bucks. Obama won Alice’s seat in the Illinois state senate, and the rest is history.
Of course, years later, on the night of the Stephanopoulos surprise, none of my students knew any of this, and no one in our living room could have seen this coming. By the time everyone settled down, the debate was done. My students stuck around for quite a while, a bit dazed, I think. Someone pointed out helpfully that I wasn’t a professor of English, and someone else wondered aloud how this line of attack might impact Senator Obama’s chances. Most were super considerate, asking what I needed and attending to me as if I’d been hit by a truck—which was a bit how I felt. How are you? Can I get you some tea? And then: how well did you know him? Are you thrilled to be associated like this? Are you scared? I think for some of them there was an abrupt awareness that, while they’d known me quite well a few minutes before, they had suddenly ceased to know me at all. That made sense to me, because for a moment I wondered who I was as well. When they finally trickled out, some still shaking their heads in marvelous disbelief, others smiling in wonder, each offered a hug or a handshake. It was a bizarre end-of-seminar moment, but quite tender.
The evening became even more surreal: no sleep, of course, and lots of phone calls from family and friends, lots of disbelief and laughter and support, as well as some sense of foreboding and apprehension. Bernardine and I held each other a little closer, trying to regain our balance and come to terms with the sudden sense that this cartoon character, Bill Ayers, who looked exactly like me and shared my name, address, and Social Security number, was about to become a punching bag in a presidential campaign, a character who might actually have an impact on the outcome of a national election. It felt altogether too big and, all in all, too strange.
Fantastic, unreal, crazy—Bill Ayers had been quiet and still, fermenting on a dusty shelf in an unused laboratory for decades, when he was abruptly plucked from a jar of brine. Suddenly, there he was, a little wrinkled, dripping and smelling of vinegar and garlic, but alive! And the Weather Underground, suspended in amber all these years, was reborn out of the blue, not only active and breathing fire but all of a sudden more menacing and dangerous—and far, far better known—than it had ever been before. Mouth-to-mouth resuscitation had been administered by the fringe, but its resurrection now lay in the hands of an opportunistic media and eager campaign staffs of the Right, the middle, and even the moderate Left.
Opponents had found it devilishly difficult to generate an effective blow against the smart and charismatic senator from Illinois, anything that might gain traction, score points, and derail this young, forward-charging politician. Hillary Clinton was blazing the trail that night, generating an attack with a murky story line built on a detestable political sleight of hand: old, reliable guilt by association.
Barack Obama emerged out of nowhere, she implied, as if in a dream. While he was certainly a man of charm, smarts, and skill, we should all have been asking, Who is he really? Admire the man’s undeniable strengths, to be sure, but plant the doubt: he’s an unknown with an “exotic background” and a strange name, a man who may knock everyone out but remains a mystery. The repeated and dramatic refrain came in the form of a question: “What do we really know about this man?” Uncertainty, innuendo, and the scent of fear: a long-standing poisonous brew in American electoral politics. And, of course, in the case of Obama, the venomous signifier of color—the smear that dare not speak its name—seethed and percolated just below the surface. Is he one of us?
A set of shadowy supporting actors added teeth and a little zing: an African American preacher with a Black liberation theology message, a social justice agenda, and a fiery style; an activist white priest identified with the Black community on Chicago’s fabled South Side; a scholar with an Arabic name and a record of advocacy on behalf of the Palestinian people; and eventually an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.” That last bit part would be played by me or my stunt double, and if I refused to cooperate, fading pictures of me recovered from my blazing youth would have to do. Each of us was cast as a public enemy, an opponent, and a treacherous foe of the decent people.
I had joined the civil rights movement in the mid-sixties, true. I’d later resisted the draft, become a full-time community organizer and antiwar activist with Students for a Democratic Society, and at the end of the decade, in the ashes of a Greenwich Village explosion that took the lives of three comrades, was one of the team that cofounded the Weather Underground. However, not only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence, the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either. We crossed lines of legality to be sure, of propriety, and perhaps even of common sense, but it was restrained, and those are the simple, straightforward facts.
Never mind—Senator Obama, contaminated by his links with these dodgy characters, must immediately and repeatedly denounce, deny, and dissociate. The dramatic action involved selectively highlighting the histories and outrageous perspectives of these “un-American” eccentrics, ferreting out every secret tie and dangerous affiliation, and then insisting that the senator defend his associations. It was a war, and bloggers, commentators, and intrepid aspiring Jimmy Olsens on steroids began to man their forward outposts 24/7.
There had been a lot of chatter for several months on right-wing blogs about Hyde Park, the now-notorious “neighborhood,” which was in fact a close-knit community on Chicago’s South Side where folks actually knew one another; about the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the school that all of our kids had attended; and about the Woods Fund. Somehow, these scraps of facts were whipped into a toxic gobbledygook, including a story with growing traction in the self-referencing chat rooms of the Right that we were secret Muslims sharing a shadowy masjid in Hyde Park (proof: one of our kids was named Malik; one of theirs, Malia!), and another that I had ghostwritten his two wildly successful memoirs (proof: maritime allusions appear both in his book Dreams from My Father and in my first memoir, Fugitive Days!).
On Fox News, Sean Hannity quickly made me into a special project, asserting again and again that Barack Obama had blurbed one of my books and chalking that up as one of his many sins. In reality, the
Chicago Tribune had run a feature in its book review section for many years in which they called people and asked them on the phone what they were reading. When Barack Obama was contacted, he was reading my book A Kind and Just Parent, and he had called it “a searing and timely account of the juvenile court system, and the courageous individuals who rescue hope from despair.” Hannity never bothered to find out if the book was indeed searing and timely.
Hannity had thrashed around for a time, trying out a wide range of other fantastic plot points. I had written an editorial extolling the terrorist attacks of 9/11, he claimed, and I had killed several police officers. None of this was true. In the end, he simply adopted the story as it was crafted first by Hillary Clinton and eventually by John McCain and Sarah Palin: Barack Obama and I knew one another—no more than that.
Slightly more surprising was George Stephanopoulos’s willingness to parrot Hannity’s story. Stephanopoulos, an old friend of Clinton’s, denied he was doing Hillary’s or Hannity’s bidding, but the day before the debate, in a radio interview, Hannity prompted him: “There are. . .questions that I don’t think anybody has asked Barack Obama, and I don’t know if this is going to be on your list tomorrow. . . .The only time he’s ever been asked about his association with Bill Ayers, the unrepentant terrorist from the Weather Underground . . . David Axelrod said that they have a ‘friendly’ relationship, and that they had done a number of speeches together and that they sat on a board together. Is that a question you might ask?” Stephanopoulos’s response: “Well, I’m taking notes right now.”
Later, under intense criticism for the shoddy stupidity of the debate generally, Stephanopoulos defended himself, predictably claiming to “have been researching this for a while,” and protesting that the “questions we asked were tough and fair and appropriate and relevant.”
Hillary Clinton knew better, but wicked ambition apparently released the forces of opportunism, and she selectively forgot her own New Left leanings—research, writing, and friendships she could have been proud to claim. But nothing about her past affinities raises the question “Is Hillary Clinton a communist?” any more than Obama’s association with me suggests that he was a Weatherman. Still, it’s a long if sad tradition: Bob is a bank robber; Bob is close to Jesse; Clint is friends with Jesse; ergo, Clint is a bank robber.
The fallout for me was immediate and intense. Dozens of requests for interviews rolled in, as did an avalanche of threats from reactionaries happy to dispatch me to my final judgment right away—“Someone should shoot you in the head, you leftist fuck”—and lots of hate mail and denunciations from liberals who worried that I would bring Obama down simply by living. The weirdest of the liberal hate started that very night, a trickle that would soon became a flood of blogs, e-mail blasts, and mailers from a couple of other guys around the neighborhood. One was a longtime Communist Party organizer who had been to our house on a number of occasions for meetings and fund-raisers, and the other a former high school principal I’d worked closely with in the Chicago school reform efforts two decades earlier. Both urged voters to ignore the smears against Obama because I was a “distraction” and someone they suddenly regarded as a public enemy, a “dreadful person” who “had committed detestable acts forty years ago” and who, they were increasingly certain, had “no real links to the Senator.”
It took work even for me—and I was motivated and focused—to keep it straight. The Bill Ayers introduced that night on television was a one-dimensional cartoon, while the other Bill Ayers was a contradictory, messy, three-dimensional flesh-and-blood work-in-progress putting one foot in front of the other as best he could, exactly like every human being I’ve ever met. While Bill Ayers may have been marinating up there on a shelf, I’d actually lived in the storm surges and the sunlight every day of those last forty years. I’d loved and changed and worked and built a house, and loved some more—every day. I was wrinkled, to be sure, and perhaps a little vinegary—I was then in my mid-sixties—but I was also living large and leaning forward, hopefully right up to the end. For a moment, I questioned why they’d selected Bill Ayers and wondered why they hadn’t crafted a terrific-looking Weather avatar from his smarter, more radical, better-known, and more notorious partner of almost forty years, Bernardine Dohrn. I’d have chosen her. Well, that’s not really fair—she was much too good for this.
I thought for a moment about pitiable Gregor Samsa, who awoke one morning after disturbing dreams to find himself transformed in his bed into an enormous cockroach. The metamorphosis was, of course, incomplete because Gregor was still Gregor inside himself—same mind, same memories, same consciousness—and he remained painfully aware of the revulsion he induced in everyone around him, including his beloved family. Poor Gregor. And I thought about the professor in Don DeLillo’s White Noise, who experienced the shock of a major toxic event engulfing his small town, the panic spreading as a poisonous chemical cloud drifted overhead and people were forced to evacuate, and the weird dislocation he experienced when he was proclaimed officially, statistically dead in spite of being very much alive. What could he say to explain himself? Who would listen to him now? How could he adequately grasp his situation, split at the core of his being and stumbling through a familiar landscape unexpectedly made strange? I knew that I didn’t want to be that professor; I knew that I didn’t want to become some character from Kafka flailing around as I tried to set the record straight for a hundred years.
There was a lot of unexpected love from the start, too. The sweetest and quirkiest came from a colleague at the University of Illinois at Chicago who was a Democratic Party activist.
For several months, Espie Reyes had stopped by my office—right next door to hers—with the current gossip or insights or hopes or fears from the Democrats, and always with the latest combat from within her own family. She and her daughter were die-hard for Hillary, her husband and son-in-law equally strong for Barack. She suspected a deep sexist attitude in her husband, mysteriously undetected somehow in decades of marriage. I always listened a bit bemused: I’m glad I’m not a Democrat, I would invariably say. I can watch and not worry. She would smile impatiently. “It’s Hillary’s turn, Bill, and you know it. . . .Obama’s so young, and he can come next,” she’d say, or, “For women of a certain age this is a dream come true,” or, “She can beat whoever the Republicans put up, but Obama’s a kid and he’ll get crushed.”
One day she reported that the tension at home over the primary had finally reached a fever pitch and boiled over, and that John was now sleeping on the couch. I sympathized: Now I’m really glad I’m not a Democrat, I said.
I flew to California the morning after the Stephanopoulos moment to do some work with my brother Rick. When I finally got settled and could open my e-mail, I found four messages from Espie that she’d sent over a span of eighteen hours. The first was a magical note of friendship and love and sympathy for what she imagined I must be going through. The second, sent many hours later, was a copy of a long letter she’d drafted to Hillary Clinton detailing how much money she’d donated and how many weekends she’d devoted to organizing on her behalf, explaining who I really was in her “humble opinion,” and encouraging, then demanding, that the campaign apologize to me personally and denounce the smears—or else she would have to rethink her commitments. The third letter was another copy, this one of a message fired off in haste and anger to the Democratic National Committee and its chairman, Howard Dean, in which she proposed a détente and insisted that Dean resolve the escalating warfare for the good of the party—oh, and apologize to me, of course. She attached a copy of my CV so that Howard Dean could see what a great guy I was—in her “humble opinion.”
The fourth and final e-mail was sent after she’d had “a good night’s sleep” and was just this, in full: “I let John come off the couch and back to bed. Hope you’re OK.”
Ah, love: I was at that moment happily beyond OK. All the attacks that had come, all the nonsense hovering just beyond the horizon, seemed for that moment a small price to pay for the ecstasy of reunion and the many blissful years ahead beckoning to Espie and John.
But when I returned to Chicago, I found that things had changed for the worse. The university had received hundreds of messages, mostly criticisms for having a public enemy in its midst, and heated threats to rectify the situation with vigilante justice as soon as possible. This was not the first time my notoriety had surfaced and stirred some creepy reactions, but it was more forceful and frenzied than ever before. My university assigned a campus police officer to stay close whenever I taught or had office hours. Officer Muhammad (true—his parents had been Black Nationalists and close to the Panthers back in the day) was a good guy with a happy heart and an open mind, and while he always wanted to walk with me on campus, he was never a heavy or a menacing presence.
The threats poured in, and I would dutifully turn them over to Muhammad. Eventually, he had a pretty fat file in his desk drawer. Once when he came by I’d gathered two gruesome notes that had just arrived into a folder. The first was signed by “The Waco Justice League,” who said they would be in Chicago soon—they planned to grab me, take me to an undisclosed location (“already in operation”), and water-board me, the infamous torture technique employed by US forces at Guantanamo Bay and military bases abroad that painfully simulated the experience of drowning for its victims. The second, from the “Avenger,” announced that I was already in his sights (my home address was listed as authentication) and that soon I would be “blasted front and back—dead before you hit the ground you piece of shit.” Muhammad read them slowly, shook his head thoughtfully, and as he tucked them away put a friendly hand on my shoulder. He joked, “I hope the Avenger gets here first, Bill—you don’t want to be water-boarded by the Waco Justice League in that undisclosed location, only to come home and get shot. Better to get shot first.” I, of course, agreed.
Muhammad sometimes followed me home in the evenings, and the police kept a car close by on the street. One morning I came out quite early, and a cop I didn’t know was under my car with a flashlight. Years earlier, he might have been planting a surveillance device, or worse. But now he stood up, smiled, and shook my hand. “Just checking,” he said.