Radical Chic Resurgent

Gossip, speculation, and scuttlebutt about politics.
Aug. 22 2001 6:24 PM

Radical Chic Resurgent

The astonishing luck of Bill Ayers, unrepentant former Weather Underground revolutionary, continues unabated. Today the state of New York refused to grant parole to Kathy Boudin, another Weather Underground radical, convicted 20 years ago of second degree murder for participating in a Brink's truck robbery in which two policemen and a security guard were killed. That's bad news for Boudin, who by all accounts has been a model prisoner. But it's great news for Ayers--who, with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, jointly raised Boudin's son--because it's bound to help Ayers sell his new memoir, Fugitive Days.

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Chatterbox isn't sure he's ever read a memoir quite so self-indulgent and morally clueless as Fugitive Days. (He's certainly never before read one festooned with glowing blurbs from respectable folk like Scott Turow--"a gripping personal account.") "Memory is a motherfucker," begins Ayers, establishing the book's literary tone and unreliability in one compact sentence. Throughout Fugitive Days, Ayers reminds his readers that he's had to omit or change many facts throughout his narrative because they describe actions on his part that are, well, illegal. In the turbulent early 1970s, Ayers helped set off bombs in two dozen places, including the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. Supposedly nobody was hurt--the Weatherpeople always issued agitprop-laden bomb threats in advance--though Chatterbox has never seen a scrupulous accounting. (Ayers never did jail time for the bombings because of prosecutorial misbehavior.) Ayers was also a leader of the Days of Rage, a vandalism spree in Chicago in which bystanders were assaulted, though Ayers neglects to mention that. To acquire false IDs needed to survive underground, Ayers does confess, "[w]e stole wallets and purses ... without much concern for our victims." Characteristically, though, Ayers dwells not on this latter point but on his foolishness for risking exposure:

[I]t was a risky business that could reel out of control without warning. We were trying to learn artfulness and stealth, and stealing purses was definitely from the old school. More important, these papers were unreliable, and had a short shelf life. As soon as they were reported missing, everything stopped working, and it could prove disastrous to buy a car, for example, or rent an apartment. ...

Ayers periodically expresses mild regret for his crimes, in tones reminiscent of a middle-aged insurance executive who wishes he hadn't gotten drunk quite so often at his college fraternity. "We took ourselves so seriously--OK, a little too seriously, we were too earnest by half and way too insistent," he writes at one point. "[F]rom the edges, we were entirely inflexible, maybe even a bit goofy." But in the process of describing such youthful indiscretions, Ayers invariably winds himself up into a self-exculpating frenzy. Here he is talking about the Pentagon bombing:

The operation cost just under $500, and no one was killed, or even hurt. In that same time the Pentagon spent tens of millions of dollars and dropped tens of thousands of pounds of explosives on Viet Nam, killing or wounding thousands of human beings, causing hundreds of millions of dollars of damage. Because nothing justified their actions in our calculus, nothing could contradict the merit of ours. ... I can't quite imagine putting a bomb in a building today--all of that seems so distinctly a part of then. But I can't imagine entirely dismissing the possibility, either.

In one truly flabbergasting moment, Ayers dares to compare Hugh Thompson, Lawrence Colburn, and Glen Andreotta--the heroic GIs who pointed their guns at fellow U.S. soldiers in order to halt the My Lai massacre--to his former girlfriend, Diana Oughton. Oughton was killed when explosives that she and other Weatherpeople were hoarding in a Greenwich Village townhouse unexpectedly detonated in 1970. They'd been planning to blow up Fort Dix.

Much of what Ayers self-interestedly leaves out of his book is more personally embarrassing than illegal. Ayers takes care not to dwell on his own Establishment credentials. (His father was chairman of the energy company Commonwealth Edison, a fact Ayers conveys only by writing, "My dad worked for Edison.") Ayers omits any discussion of his famous 1970 statement, "Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that's where it's really at." He also omits any discussion of his wife Bernardine Dohrn's famous reaction to the Manson killings, as conveyed by journalist Peter Collier: "Dig it. First they killed those pigs, then they ate dinner in the same room with them, then they even shoved a fork into a victim's stomach! Wild!" (In a 1993 Chicago Magazine profile, Dohrn claimed, implausibly, that she'd been trying to convey that "Americans love to read about violence.") Nor does he address fellow radical Jane Alpert's charge  that Ayers was "notorious for his callous treatment and abandonment of Diana Oughton before her death and for his generally fickle and high-handed treatment of women" (though Ayers does manage to get across the message, to those few who haven't heard it, that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a golden age for getting laid).

Hilariously, Ayers turns disapproving only when discussing radicals who lacked the good breeding and restraint of the Weather Underground:

[W]e hoped to use our celebrity in the lunatic left as well as the gathering Weathermyth in the larger world to persuade others to pull back. We knew where to find a few organized groups--the Red Family and the Proud Eagle Tribe, for example, the Motherfuckers and the White Panthers--and we held several secret summits where we had the traditional frank exchange of views and hammered out some kind of new formal understanding. Only once, in a dingy basement hideout near Houston, were guns drawn, but it was based on a misunderstanding--the crazies thought Jeff [Jones] had said, "We can turn you shits in in D.C." when he had actually said, "We can turn you into fish in the sea"--and we laughed about it later as we passed a joint.

Ayers is similarly dismissive of terrorists, a group to which he claims not to belong:

Terrorists terrorize, they kill innocent civilians, while we organized and agitated. Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate, while we aimed only to educate.

And, indeed, Ayers today is a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Take it away, Dinesh D'Souza.

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