- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

“You hear that, Clarence?” Bill Ayers said. “I just apologized.”

Indeed, he did. But it was a joke.

In his first public event since the elections, Mr. Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and cofounder of the radical Weather Underground, spoke to more than 200 people in a Washington, D.C., church Monday night as part of his book tour.

Speaking in the church after the originally scheduled bookstore proved to be too small, the former leader of the radical Weather Underground was joking about how he hated to be tagged as “a guy of the ‘60s.”

“I am so much a guy of right now,” he told the crowd, smiling as they chuckled. “OK, I lived in the ‘60s. I apologize. You hear that, Clarence? I just apologized.”

The nod to me, sitting in the second row, referred to a question I asked him in a backstage interview: Was he ready to apologize for the violent turn taken by the Weather Underground when he helped to lead their breakaway from the radical Students for a Democratic Society in 1969?

The Weather Underground claimed responsibility for bombing government buildings among other mayhem in the early 1970s. Sen. John McCain’s campaign used Mr. Ayers’ more recent associations with Barack Obama, a neighbor in Chicago’s Hyde Park, to accuse the president-elect of “palling around with terrorists.”

Times have changed. For example, Mr. Ayers’ old Black Panther pal Bobby Rush is now a senior congressman from Illinois — Mr. Obama failed to unseat him in 2000.

And Mr. Ayers, who was tear-gassed by Mayor Richard J. Daley in the 1960s, has been honored by his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, for his school reform work. That’s the side of America Mr. Ayers loves, he admits, the land-of-opportunity side.

“You can’t reach 64 years old and not have a lot of regrets,” he allowed. Still, he refused to participate in what he called “a ritualistic mea culpa” for a time when we Americans were “living in a sewer of violence.”

Mr. Ayers said he would participate in a truth and reconciliation process akin to the one South Africa pioneered to end its apartheid era. He would account for what he called “my little extreme acts of vandalism,” which he insists “hurt property, but not people,” he said, if it came alongside other government leaders who started the Vietnam War and kept it going.

“But I’m not making a blanket apology because, actually, I think what we did was measured in response to things that were going on in the rest of the world. How do you respond to thousands of people who were being murdered in your name?” That’s Bill, an idealist to the end.

His right-wing critics have done Mr. Ayers a favor. They have helped him to sell more books. They have also helped to remind us of some of the excesses committed by both sides.

Federal charges against Mr. Ayers were dropped in 1973 following accusations of illegal Watergate-era activities, including wiretaps, break-ins and mail interceptions by President Nixon’s administration.

Nixon was forced to resign. Mr. Ayers has become a model citizen except for such questionable antics as a magazine photo for which he posed while standing on an American flag. Not nice.

Episodes like that tell me there’s not much chance our Vietnam generation will reach closure through a truth commission or anything else. Old arguments about the 1960s never die. They just provide skeletons to pull out of the closet and rattle at opponents during presidential campaigns.

That tactic gave Obama bashers like Fox News’ Sean Hannity plenty to talk about. Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers served on a couple of boards with a politically diverse array of members, but media investigations have not found their relationship to be close. Still, people who want to believe what they want to believe won’t let a lack of evidence get in their way.

Mr. Ayers doesn’t deny he knew Mr. Obama “probably as well as thousands of other people that he knew.” The irony, he noted is how “like millions of other people, I wish I knew him better right now, don’t you?”

Indeed, the great irony of this controversy is how Mr. Obama’s critics attacked one of his greatest strengths: his curiosity about smart people who have useful ideas, liberal or conservative, even if he disagrees with their other ideas.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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