From Politico.com on February 22, 2008: "In 1995, State Senator Alice Palmer introduced her chosen successor, Barack Obama, to a few of the district’s influential liberals at the home of two well known figures on the local left: William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
While Ayers and Dohrn may be thought of in Hyde Park as local activists, they’re better known nationally as two of the most notorious — and unrepentant — figures from the violent fringe of the 1960s anti-war movement.
Now, as Obama runs for president, what two guests recall as an unremarkable gathering on the road to a minor elected office stands as a symbol of how swiftly he has risen from a man in the Hyde Park left to one closing in fast on the Democratic nomination for president.
“I can remember being one of a small group of people who came to Bill Ayers’ house to learn that Alice Palmer was stepping down from the senate and running for Congress,” said Dr. Quentin Young, a prominent Chicago physician and advocate for single-payer health care, of the informal gathering at the home of Ayers and his wife, Dohrn. “[Palmer] identified [Obama] as her successor.”
Obama and Palmer “were both there,” he said.
Obama’s connections to Ayers and Dorhn have been noted in some fleeting news coverage in the past. But the visit by Obama to their home — part of a campaign courtship — reflects more extensive interaction than has been previously reported.
Neither Ayers nor the Obama campaign would describe the relationship between the two men. Dr. Young described Obama and Ayers as “friends,” but there’s no evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served together on the board of a Chicago foundation.
But Obama’s relationship with Ayers is an especially vivid milepost on his rise, in record time, from a local official who unabashedly reflected a very liberal district to the leader of national movement based largely on the claim that he can transcend ideological divides.
In one sense, Obama’s journey toward the cultural and political center is not unusual among national politicians. But its velocity is.
Politicians of an earlier generation had their own relationships with figures now far to their left. Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instance, interned at a radical San Francisco law firm while in law school.
On the other side of the political spectrum, many in the generation before hers shifted dramatically on civil rights. John McCain voted against creating a holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. and later called that a mistake.
The relationship with Ayers gives context to his recent past in Hyde Park politics. It’s milieu in which a former violent radical was a stalwart of the local scene, not especially controversial.
It’s also a scene whose liberal ideological features — while taken for granted by the Chicago press corps that knows Obama best — provides a jarring contrast with Obama’s current, anti-ideological stance. This contrast between past and present — not least the Ayers connection — is virtually certain to be a subject Republican operatives will warm to if Obama is the Democratic nominee.
The tension between the present and recent Chicago past is also evident in some of his positions on major national issues. Many national politicians, including Clinton, have moved toward the center over time. But Obama’s transitions are still quite fresh.
A questionnaire from his 1996 campaign indicated more blanket opposition to the death penalty, and support of abortion rights, than he currently espouses. He spoke in support of single-payer health care as recently as 2003.
Like many of the most extreme figures from the 1960s Ayers and Dohrn are ambiguous figures in American life.
They disappeared in 1970, after a bomb — designed to kill army officers in New Jersey — accidentally destroyed a Greenwich Village townhouse, and turned themselves into authorities in 1980. They were never prosecuted for their involvement with the 25 bombings the Weather Underground claimed; charges were dropped because of improper FBI surveillance.
Both have written and spoken at length about their pasts, and today he is an advocate for progressive education and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago; she’s an associate professor of law at Northwestern University.
But — unlike some other fringe figures of the era — they’re also flatly unrepentant about the bombings they committed in the name of ending the war, defending them on the grounds that they killed no one, except, accidentally, their own members.
Dohrn, however, was jailed for less than a year for refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating other Weather Underground members’ robbery of a Brinks truck, in which a guard and two New York State Troopers were killed.
“I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough,” Ayers told the New York Times in 2001.
And their rehabilitation in establishment circles, even in Hyde Park, has its limits.
Though he is a respected figure in liberal educational circles, Ayers wrote recently about how in 2006 he was informed he was persona non grata at a progressive educators’ conference in the summer of 2006.
“We cannot risk a simplistic and dubious association between progressive education and the violent aspects of your past,” he quoted the conference organizers, whom he described as friends, as writing to him.
But the couple has been embraced, by and large, in the liberal circles dominating Hyde Park politics.
“Bill Ayers is one of my heroes in life,” said Sam Ackerman, a longtime local activist. “I knew Tony Rezko, and he ain’t no Rezko.”
But others in Hyde Park, whose intellectual and political life revolves around the University of Chicago, view the couple with ambivalence.
“I feel very uncomfortable with their past, but neither of them is thought of as horrible types now — so far as most of us know, they are legitimate members of the community,” said Cass Sunstein, a University of Chicago law professor who has known Obama since the early 1990s and supports his campaign.
“Not only is Obama the opposite pole from radicals like Ayers and Dohrn at least as one point were, he’s not a conventional left liberal by any means,” he said.
Others are less inclined to even consider forgiveness.
“Ayers was a terrorist. Bernardine Dohrn was a terrorist. Ayers has never offered one word of apology — he glories in it, thinks it’s terrific. And that to me is not what I would call acceptable or mainstream behavior,” said Dan Polsby, a former law professor at Northwestern who is now dean of George Mason University Law School. “If Obama takes a different view on that — well, OK, that’s data about Obama.”
On Thursday, Ayers spoke at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where he refused to answer questions from Politico about his relationship with Obama.
Dohrn did not respond to a message left at her office.
Obama’s campaign dismisses the notion that his relationship with Ayers should be seen through the lens of the latter’s violent past, or his present lack of regret for the bombings.
“Sen. Obama strongly condemns the violent actions of the Weathermen group, as he does all acts of violence,” said Obama’s press secretary, Bill Burton. “But he was an 8-year-old child when Ayers and the Weathermen were active, and any attempt to connect Obama with events of almost 40 years ago is ridiculous.”
He described Ayers as “a professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a former aide to Mayor Richard J. Daley,” referring to printed reports that he had “advised” Daley on school reform.
As Bloomberg News reported recently, Obama and Ayers have crossed paths repeatedly in the last decade. In 1997, Obama cited Ayers’ critique of the juvenile justice system in a Chicago Tribune article on what prominent Chicagoans were reading. He and Ayers served together on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago for three years starting in 1999. In 2001, Ayers also gave $200 to Obama’s state Senate reelection campaign.
Many details of the 1995 meeting are shrouded by time and by Obama’s and Ayers’ refusals to discuss it.
The exact date is not known, but it was in the second half of 1995, before Palmer’s decision — late in her losing congressional primary against Jesse Jackson Jr. — to jump back into the special election for her state Senate seat. (Her decision produced a rift between her and Obama, who was able to get her thrown off the ballot on technical grounds.)
“That’s too long ago — that’s ancient history,” Palmer said, when asked of the meeting.
Dr. Young and another guest, Maria Warren, described it similarly: as an introduction to Hyde Park liberals of the handpicked successor to Palmer, a well-regarded figure on the left.
“When I first met Barack Obama, he was giving a standard, innocuous little talk in the living room of those two legends-in-their-own-minds, Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn,” Warren wrote on her blog in 2005. “They were launching him — introducing him to the Hyde Park community as the best thing since sliced bread.”
Contacted by e-mail, Warren declined to describe the meeting further and later blogged of her concern that Republicans would use accounts of the event for “left-baiting.”
Young described the gathering as a matter of “due diligence” for Palmer to introduce her chosen successor to constituents. “Many of us knew him already,” he said.
They, like others in his old Chicago world, now consider him a bit too “conservative” for their liking, as Warren wrote recently.
Ackerman, the Hyde Park activist, complained of his votes for continued funding for the Iraq war.
“A lot of people were very angry when he voted to fund the war,” he said. “But any candidate running for president is going to strive for broader appeal and move more to the center — I don’t believe that Barack has departed from his basic principles.”
Dr. Young said, however, that he isn’t supporting either of the leading presidential candidates because he is a single-issue voter, and the issue is single-payer health care.
He said he was disappointed that Obama is “equivocating” on his support for single-payer health care, after saying in the past that he supported it. But he said Obama’s style — “cautious, deliberate, defensive” — was also familiar from the senator’s Hyde Park days.
“In fairness, there’s no double dealing,” he said. “It’s part of his stated strategy: He wants to get maximum unity.”