Obama Needs to Explain His Ties to William Ayers

Obama Needs to Explain His Ties to William Ayers

By Michael Barone - August 26, 2008

It doesn't help the Obama campaign that William Ayers is back in the news. Ayers, you'll recall, was the Weather Underground terrorist in the late 1960s and '70s whose radical group set bombs at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol. During the April 16 Democratic debate, Barack Obama explained his past association with Ayers by saying he was just a guy "in my neighborhood," meaning the University of Chicago enclave known as Hyde Park. But is that end of it? This is, after all, Chicago we're talking about; where political patronage and nepotism are the only ways one moves up the power ladder.

Decades after his radical youth, Ayers was one of the original grantees of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform organization in the 1990s, and was co-chairman of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, one the two operational arms of the CAC. Obama, then not yet a state senator, became chairman of the CAC in 1995. Later in that year, the first organizing meeting for Obama's state Senate campaign was held in Ayers's apartment.

You might wonder what Obama was doing working with a character like this. And you might wonder how an unrepentant terrorist got a huge grant and cooperation from the Chicago public school system. You might wonder--if you don't know Chicago. For this is a city with a civic culture in which politicians, in the words of a story often told by former congressman, federal judge, and Clinton White House counsel Abner Mikva, "don't want nobody nobody sent."

That's how William Ayers got where he was. When he came out of hiding after the federal government was unable to prosecute him (because of government misconduct), he got a degree in education from Columbia and then moved to Chicago and got a job on the education faculty of the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle. How did he get that job? Well, it can't have hurt that his father, Thomas Ayers, was chairman of Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon) and a charter member of the Chicago establishment. As Mayor Richard M. Daley said recently, in arguing that the Ayers association should not be held against Obama, "His father was a great friend of my father."

In none of our other major cities is genealogy so important. The voters of Chicago and Illinois respect family ties in a way that voters in no other state or city do. Mayor Daley is, of course, the son of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. The two Daleys have been mayors, and effective and competent mayors, of Chicago for 40 of the last 53 years. The attorney general of Illinois is the daughter of the Speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. The governor of Illinois is the son-in-law of the Democratic ward committeeman in Chicago's 33rd Ward. The congressman from the 2nd Congressional District is Jesse Jackson Jr. Jackson's predecessor-but-one in the district was Morgan Murphy Jr., whose father was chairman of (get this) Commonwealth Edison.

But my favorite example of the importance of family ties is 3rd District Rep. Dan Lipinski, who was first elected in 2004 to replace his father, Bill Lipinski, who was first elected in 1982. Bill Lipinski won the Democratic nomination in the March 2004 primary. But on Aug. 13, he announced he would not seek re-election and would resign the Democratic nomination. The deadline for replacing him was Aug.26, and a meeting was set on Aug. 17 for the 19th Ward and township Democratic committeemen to choose a new candidate. Lipinski announced his support for his son, who was then a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee and had not lived in Chicago for many years. Among the committeemen making the decision were: 11th Ward committeeman and County Commissioner John Daley, son of the late mayor and brother of the current mayor; 13th Ward committeeman Michael Madigan, Speaker of the Illinois House and father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan; 14th Ward committeeman Edward Burke, who succeeded his father as a council member in his 20s and was longtime chairman of the Finance Committee, and whose wife is a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court; 19th Ward committeeman Tom Hynes, former Cook County Assessor and father of Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes; and 23rd Ward committeeman Bill Lipinski. An electorate more averse to an argument against nepotism cannot be imagined. Lipinski advanced his son's name and said, "I'm optimistic, but one never knows in politics until the votes are counted." It did not take long to count them: Dan Lipinski was nominated without opposition. To the charge that the nomination was rigged, one participant dryly noted that anyone could have run.

One reason that Chicago and Illinois voters have acquiesced to the politics of nepotism is that its products--or many of them--are quite competent. Mayor Richie Daley, if I can call him that, has on the whole been an excellent mayor. Edward Burke is a cultured man of high intellect. Michael Madigan seems to be a solidly competent sort, and for all I know his daughter is, too. Dan Rostenkowski was a highly competent chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for 14 years, until he was laid low by a bit of cheap chiseling; at that point he and his father had been the 32nd Ward committeemen for just about 60 years. (The younger Rostenkowski got his seat in the House in 1958 because his father, Joe Rostenkowski, had supported the late Mayor Daley in the 1955 Democratic primary against fellow Polish-American Benjamin Adamowski.) There are exceptions. Many political observers would put Rod Blagojevich, the son-in-law of 33rd Ward committeeman Dick Mell, on the top of the list of the nation's dumbest governors. But then, for Chicago, it has always been more important who is mayor than who is governor (not to mention out-of-town jobs like U.S. senator).

Which leads us back to Barack Obama, who is now a U.S. senator and will shortly become the Democratic nominee for an office that even Chicago regards as more important than mayor. And the question presents itself: How did this outsider from Hawaii and Columbia and Harvard become somebody somebody sent? His wife, Michelle Robinson Obama, had some connections: Her father was a Democratic precinct committeeman; she baby-sat for Jesse Jackson's children; and she worked as a staffer for the current Mayor Daley. Obama made connections on the all-black South Side by joining the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. But was Obama's critical connection to le tout Chicago William Ayers? That's the conclusion you are led to by Steve Diamond's blog. And by the fact that the National Review's Stanley Kurtz was suddenly denied access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge by the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle. (Kurtz had already been given an index to the records.) Presumably the CAC records would show a closer collaboration between Ayers and Obama than was suggested by Obama's response at the debate that Ayers was just a guy "in the neighborhood."

The increasingly sharp McCain campaign had the wit to ask the University of Illinois to open up the CAC records. But it didn't seem likely the university will open them up; as John Kass puts it in a characteristically pungent column in the Chicago Tribune, "Welcome to Chicago, Mr. Kurtz." Now the University says the archives are open. But Kurt's friends wonder if they have been flushed of inconvenient documents in the meantime.

Does it matter if William Ayers was the key somebody who made Barack Obama a somebody somebody sent? I think it does. Not that Obama shares all of Ayers's views, which surely he does not. Or that he endorses Ayers's criminal acts, which, as he has pointed out, were committed while he was a child in Hawaii and Indonesia. But his willingness to associate with an unrepentant terrorist is not the same as Daley's:

"Bill Ayers, I've said this, his father was a great friend of my father. I'll be very frank. Vietnam divided families, divided people. It was a terrible time of our country. It really separated people. People didn't know one another. Since then, I'll be very frank, (Ayers) has been in the forefront on a lot of education issues and helping us in public schools and things like that.

"People keep trying to align himself with Barack Obama. It's really unfortunate. They're friends. So what? People do make mistakes in the past. You move on. This is a new century, a new time. He reflects back and he's been making a strong contribution to our community."

For Daley, family is paramount, and Ayers is admitted into le tout Chicago because his father is one of its pillars. And electoral politics is also paramount: In a city that is roughly 40 percent (and falling) white ethnic and 40 percent black, with an increasing gentrified white population, the current Mayor Daley has maintained very strong support from lakefront liberals, including the Hyde Park/Kenwood leftists like Ayers who were the original movers behind Obama's 1996 state Senate candidacy. It's in Daley's interest to work with these people and against his interest to do anything that seems like disrespecting them. As Bill Daley told me when I asked him some years ago whether his father would have approved of Richie marching in the gay rights parade, "Our father always told us when a group was big enough to control a ward; we should pay attention to them." Staying mayor is real important to Daley, and Daley staying mayor is real important to le tout Chicago. An unrepentant terrorist? Hey, we know your dad. And you control the 5th Ward.

For Obama, the outsider who gained the trust of the insiders, the position is different. He was willing to use Ayers and ally with him despite his terrorist past and lack of repentance. An unrepentant terrorist, who bragged of bombing the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, was a fit associate. Ayers evidently helped Obama gain insider status in Chicago civic life and politics--how much, we can't be sure. But most American politicians would not have chosen to associate with a man with Ayers's past or of Ayers's beliefs. It's something voters might reasonably want to take into account.

Michael Barone is Senior Political Analyst for the Washington Examiner, co-author of The Almanac of American Politics and a contributor to Fox News.

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