Published October 17, 2008
That doesn't mean the man who has become a political headache for Barack Obama is hiding his past. In fact, all you need to do is stand outside Ayers' office at the University of Illinois in Chicago to be confronted with it.
Ayers' connection to the Weather Underground is plastered on his door. A postcard for a documentary on the group shows an old mugshot of Ayers. Nearby is cover art from Ayers' 2001 memoir, "Fugitive Days."
But also affixed to the door is the title that reflects how Ayers, now 63, has become known in the past two decades in Chicago: distinguished professor.
"He gives of himself greatly to his students. He gives of his time, his energies, his commitment," said Pamela Quiroz, an associate professor who works in the college of education with Ayers. "He is just a superb individual."
Quiroz is among more than 3,200 people, mostly academics, who have signed an online petition protesting the "demonization" of Ayers during the campaign for the White House.
John McCain's camp has accused Obama of "palling around with terrorists," citing, among other things, a 1995 meet-the-candidate coffee that Ayers hosted at his home for Obama when the younger man launched his political career by running for state Senate. The two also served together on a Chicago school reform group and a charity board.
The subject flared up again during Wednesday's final presidential debate when McCain said Obama needs to explain the full extent of his relationship with Ayers, whom he called "an old, washed-up terrorist."
By all accounts, the two men were not close, and Obama has repeatedly denounced Ayers' radical activities.
Ayers has declined repeated requests for interviews. This week, he opened his front door a crack to tell an Associated Press reporter, "I'm not talking, thanks."
Ayers' beige stone rowhouse on Chicago's South Side is just a few blocks from Obama's home. He lives there with his wife, former fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn. Now a law professor at Northwestern University, Dohrn was a fugitive for years with her husband until they surrendered in 1980 and charges against him were dropped because of government misconduct, which included FBI break-ins, wiretaps and opening of mail.
Although Ayers has refashioned his life from street-level revolutionary to intellectual, he has not entirely renounced his past.
When "Fugitive Days" was published, a photo accompanying a Chicago Magazine article showed him stepping on an American flag. He also told The New York Times, in an interview that appeared coincidentally on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001: "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."
The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for bombings in the early 1970s at the U.S. Capitol, a Pentagon restroom and New York City police headquarters. No one was injured. In 1970, a Greenwich Village townhouse that the group was using to build a bomb blew up, killing three members, including Ayers' girlfriend. The bomb, Ayers wrote in his memoir, was packed with screws and nails.
Had it been detonated, he admitted, it would have done "some serious work beyond the blast, tearing through windows and walls and, yes, people, too." It belied the group's claims that its targets were buildings, not people. "We did go off track ... and that was wrong," Ayers told the AP when his book came out.
"I'm not a terrorist," he said at the time. "We tried to sound a piercing alarm that was unruly, difficult and sometimes, probably wrong. ... I describe what led some people in despair and anger to take some very extreme measures."
Still, in Chicago, he is known more for his work in education, which has earned praise from Mayor Richard Daley, whose own father, the iron-fisted mayor of this city during the Vietnam era, famously sent police to do battle with anti-war demonstrators. This spring, when Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign first raised Ayers' relationship with Obama, the younger Daley issued a statement defending him.
"I also know Bill Ayers," Daley said. "He worked with me in shaping our now nationally renowned school reform program. He is a nationally recognized distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a valued member of the Chicago community."
Ayers has a doctorate in education from Columbia University in New York and has written or edited more than a dozen books, most of them about teaching. Ayers is on sabbatical this academic year but still spends time at his university office.
UIC education professor Bill Schubert, who has known Ayers since he sat on the university committee that hired him in 1987, said the Ayers he knows is a Chicago Cubs fan and a good cook who invites colleagues, students and others over to his home for dinner.
But mostly Ayers is a good teacher, said Schubert, who recently wrote a letter about Ayers that he initially circulated among friends when questions about him began to mount. The piece, titled "The Bill Ayers I Know," has since made its way to the Web and extols Ayers' scholarly work and his commitment to teaching.
"I feel like I'm telling factual information about him," Schubert said, "and I am saying that he's a good colleague and friend."
Still, Ayers' past is a delicate matter. Schubert wanted to discuss only Ayers the educator, not Ayers the radical. Asked how he reconciled the two, Schubert paused for a long moment, then said: "That's a question that's too complicated to answer, I think, because it's dependent on different conceptions of what he did."
Robert Becker, an associate professor of anatomy and cell biology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is, at 60, a member of Ayers' generation but doesn't share his politics.
"He's unrepentant. He took a violent route along with his wife, and is lucky he didn't blow himself up," Becker said. That said, he added that he does not believe Ayers' past disqualifies him from a position on campus: "I'm a pretty conservative person, and I'm not going to deny him the right to be a member of the faculty. I believe that departments should hire who they feel is best for their departments."
Janise Hurtig, a researcher at the university who has known Ayers for about eight years, said he strongly backed a project she and another educator worked on that offers adult writing workshops in Chicago neighborhoods. If the renewed publicity about Ayers' past has weighed on him, Hurtig said, she hasn't noticed.
"He and Bernardine are very thoughtful and reflective about their past, and it's their past," she said.