Jacob Heilbrunn

The Disgusting New Bill Ayers Controversy

Here's one question that would cause President Obama fits at his next press conference: What do you think about the decision of the board of trustees of the University of Illinois at Chicago to deny Bill Ayers, a co-founder of the communist Weather Underground and husband of fellow radical Bernardine Dohrn, emeritus status?

The chairman of the board is one Christopher Kennedy. It seems that he had a small issue with Ayers--like the fact that Ayers dedicated a book he co-wrote in 1974 called Prairie Fire to such "political prisoners" as Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin who murdered his father, Robert F. Kennedy, in 1968.

Yet now some on the faculty at the University of Illinois are portraying this as petty, bad manners, even churlish on Kennedy's part. The Wall Street Journal reports,

This week, faculty members will begin formally debating whether to ask the board of trustees to reconsider the vote. The rejection has drawn support in hundreds of messages to the university and newspapers.

If the faculty is like the faculties at most universities, it will choose the path of moral cowardice. The thinking of Ayers' defenders seems to go something like this: why hold a grudge after all these years, why not let bygones be bygones? Thus professor Elliot Kaufman says that Kennedy had a "conflict of interest" that he unfairly imposed on the rest of the trustees in the form of giving an impassioned speech against Ayers. A conflict of interest! Actually, what he has is real insight into the squalid nature of Ayers' character.

Ayers has never apologized for his violence, never shown real contrition. Instead, he seeks to palliate and exculpate his crimes and portray the American government as the true criminal for prosecuting the Vietnam War. He is a classic radical--the son of  wealthy business executive who played at revolution, a thug masquerading as a humanitarian, someone who loves humanity but not individual human beings. His memoir Fugitive Days, a farrago of lies about his radical record, came out just before September 11, 2001. The New York Times had this to report:

''I don't regret setting bombs,'' Bill Ayers said. ''I feel we didn't do enough.'' Mr. Ayers, who spent the 1970's as a fugitive in the Weather Underground, was sitting in the kitchen of his big turn-of-the-19th-century stone house in the Hyde Park district of Chicago. The long curly locks in his Wanted poster are shorn, though he wears earrings. He still has tattooed on his neck the
rainbow-and-lightning Weathermen logo that appeared on letters taking responsibility for bombings.

Which is why Paul Berman had it exactly right when he noted that Ayers is different from someone like a Joschka Fischer, who could confront his radical past and go on to become foreign minister of Germany. Ayers, by contrast, has remained an unreconstructed ideologue:

Armed left-wing movements like the Weather Underground cropped up all over the world in the late 1960s, and failed everywhere. In France, Italy, Germany and other places, a good many earnest souls with backgrounds in the armed left-wing movements of that time, or in the wider circles that lent support to those movements, long ago owned up to their own crimes and errorsnot just their violent tactics, but their goals, which were a communist revolution. Some of those people managed to establish their democratic bona fides, too, and have made their way in the political world. But not Ayers. He has learned nothing. He is still proud of himself.

The problem, then, isn't that Ayers was denied emeritus status. It's that he was ever on campus in the first place. As Christopher Kennedy put it, "There can be no place in a democracy to celebrate political assassinations or to honor those who do so." Right on.