Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist
With a New Afterword
by the Author
Beacon Press: 316 pp., $15 paper
With time running out on his bid for the White House, John McCain used the final presidential debate to play his Bill Ayers card. "I don't care about an old washed-up terrorist," McCain proclaimed, disingenuously, to Barack Obama. "But as Sen. Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship."
Ayers could be forgiven for being offended -- not just a terrorist, but an old, washed-up one -- but in truth McCain posed the wrong challenge. We know everything we need to know about Obama's passing relationship with his neighbor and fellow board member (on a school reform commission packed with such infamous terrorists as Ronald Reagan's old friend Walter Annenberg).
They sat together on a committee. Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, held a fundraiser for Obama when he was a young politician. They talked a bit. That's trivia, not a relationship, and it all adds up to one of the scores of such glancing associations that populate the life of any political figure.
No, Obama owes us no more of that. Rather, in light of the rerelease of Ayers' 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Antiwar Activist," what we deserve to understand better is the reservoir of patience that could allow Obama to suffer this humorless egoist for more than a few minutes.
Throughout the campaign, Ayers displayed uncommon good sense by ignoring the right-wing attempt to denigrate Obama by linking him to the former radical, now a respected professor in Chicago. No sooner had that moment passed, however, than he leaped at the chance to capitalize on it.
"Fugitive Days" is all that one might expect from a now-settled radical interested in reliving his youth but worried about discrediting himself to his modern peers. It's self-consciously cool -- the free love, the clenched fists, the running through the streets, the overbearing self-seriousness -- but purposefully guarded.
The writing is overwrought and inane. Ayers regularly mines his cliché pile and comes back with mixed metaphors and jumbled thinking. "The truest map of Viet Nam for Americans," he writes, "would soon rise up as a scribble of psychic scars." Rampaging through the streets of Chicago, he recalls that "I felt oddly like a kite cut from its string. For a moment, from where I hung, an odd calm enveloped me as if I were watching all this on a screen."
Throughout his memoir, Ayers maintains a remove that's frankly creepy. He affects an alienation from his own actions even as he spends much of the book ordering readers to take responsibility for their world. Take this passage on the Weather Underground's most infamous bomb:
"Everything was absolutely ideal on the day I bombed the Pentagon," Ayers writes, and for that moment, it appears he will finally own up to his role in that bombing. Nope. He continues: "I say 'I' even though I didn't actually bomb the Pentagon, we bombed it, in the sense that Weathermen organized it and claimed it -- but I've had difficulty writing this, and I thought if I just said it boldly -- 'I bombed the Pentagon' -- that might liberate me to go on." And, now liberated, on he goes.
Ayers does score a few points. In his new afterword, he convincingly notes that he and his radical colleagues did not set out to take lives with their bombs -- they warned security guards and others to clear the area before their devices went off, with the result that the group's only victims were its own members, three of whom were killed when a bomb they were building in a New York City town house exploded. That hardly makes Ayers a hero, but it distinguishes him from Al Qaeda. He is not a killer.
Where he fails to demonstrate even a shred of self-awareness is in analyzing, of all things, violence and politics. "Terrorists terrorize," he writes, "they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated." So far, so good, but not for long. He continues: "Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond."
That's nonsense. Al Qaeda chose its targets meticulously, not randomly; indeed, one was the same target the Weathermen picked -- the Pentagon. "Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate." Really? The Weathermen had a political objective -- the end of the Vietnam War or, more precisely, victory to the North Vietnamese. They pursued that objective through violence intended to frighten and intimidate those with whom they disagreed; there is, as surely even Ayers recognizes, a world of difference between a teach-in and 3 pounds of dynamite packed into a restroom.
If Ayers' memoir is a bust, its history is a fascinating case study in modern media politics. The release of "Fugitive Days" could not have been more cursed, debuting as it did just days before 9/11 and accompanied by a fateful New York Times piece in which Ayers wistfully declaimed that he wished he and his colleagues had done more to end the Vietnam War. The timing of that article -- it appeared on Sept. 11, 2001 -- pretty much ensured that "Fugitive Days" would repel its audience. But when McCain and his vice presidential sidekick cynically manipulated Ayers' relationship with Obama, the wheel turned again: Yesterday's unrepentant bomber became today's right-wing victim.
So now Ayers is back, sporting a new edition of his book with a couple of nice blurbs, including one from Studs Terkel, who's praised in the text and returned the favor before he died in October. Ayers has become a sought-after interview, proudly displaying the lashes inflicted by a desperate and unprincipled campaign that turned on him when it couldn't run effectively against Obama.
After decades of screaming and protesting, writing and teaching, getting arrested and blowing up stuff, he finally received from John McCain, of all people, that which he has so fiercely sought: the attention of an audience. It's too bad he doesn't have more to say.
Newton is editor of The Times' editorial pages.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times