Much More Than You Want To Hear About Ayers

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Ben Smith and my colleague Jamie Kirchick have made some fair points in response to my item about Obama's alleged connection to the former Weather Underground members William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, which was the subject of a piece Ben published on Friday.

First, Ben and Jamie say I'm playing down the crimes Ayers and Dohrn committed as Weathermen. I don't mean to do that. I think they're seizing on an analogy I draw to a once violent anti-abortion activist, where I imply that the Weathermen "attempted, but never succeeded in" bombing various government installations. That was imprecise. As Ben and Jamie point out, the bombing attempts succeeded in doing plenty of damage. They just didn't kill or (I think) injure anyone, other than some members of the group when a bomb went off at their (ostensible) safehouse.

Anyway, my point isn't to dispute the facts surrounding Ayers' and Dohrns' past. When you look over my abortion-activist analogy, assume all the relevant details of their records match up.

Second, Jamie disputes my statement that "Ayers and Dohrn have tried to rehabilitate themselves," citing Ayers quote to the Times in 2001 that, ''I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.'' I think quoting my full riff here will shed light on what I was getting at: "Since then [their Weatherman days], Ayers and Dohrn have tried to rehabilitate themselves, and have succeeded in at least becoming semi-respectable figures in liberal Chicago circles, though they still make a lot of liberals (and non-liberals) uncomfortable. Ayers teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is some sort of progressive education advocate; Dohrn is a law professor at Northwestern." The point wasn't that Ayers and Dohrn had become moral exemplars; just that it was possible to be associated with them for reasons other than their violent pasts. I stand by that assessment.

Third, Ben quotes me saying that "the only conclusion that would be interesting that Obama supports political violence strikes me as completely implausible." He responds: "I think, when you're trying to learn more about someone who could be the next president, the bar for relevance is lower than proving that he's a violent maniac."

I agree. I actually conceded as much in my private e-mails to Ben and should have been less glib in my original item. I'd put it this way: In order for the Ayers/Dohrn connection to be relevant to Obama's campaign, one of two things would have to be true: Either Obama endorses their violent past, which we agree is not the case, or he's implicitly excused what they did by way of his association with them. The latter is a little murkier, and reasonable people can disagree about it. But I don't think the case has been made that there was an implicit apologia. As I just noted, there were legitimate reasons to have occasional interactions or a vague association with these people. (Even if, given the atmospherics, it may not have been wise for an aspiring politician. But that's a separate question.)

Which brings me to my final point: A vague association is different from a bona fide friendship. If the latter were true, then I do think the story would be relevant. Deciding to befriend someone is a statement of affirmation, after all. I just don't think we have evidence to support that claim. (At least not yet--it could certainly exist.)

In his defense, Ben says he interviewed Dr. Quentin Young, a longtime Hyde Park leftist who claimed to know both men, and who told Ben, "I know they are friends." I don't doubt that Young said this, but it feels a little glib to me. It's not clear what Young meant when he said he "knows" Obama and Ayers. Hyde Park is small enough that someone vaguely active in politics there (and Young would have been in his 70s by the time the association came about) could plausibly claim to know someone else vaguely active in politics there without having much insight into their thoughts. Nor is it clear to me what Young meant by "friends," which can be a pretty vague and elastic term.

I'm not saying Young is necessarily wrong. But I'd be much more comfortable if he'd spoken concretely--e.g., Obama and Ayers used to meet twice a year for dinner, or whatever. Instead, Young seemed to clam up when Ben asked him for specifics--adding "that he thought, but wasn't sure, their relationship was connected to the Woods Fund, a charity on whose boards both sat at a time."

--Noam Scheiber

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