Not Every Weatherman Is Bill Ayers

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
April 22 2014 12:05 PM

Not Every Weatherman Is Bill Ayers

Republican operatives have started passing around this hit on Alan Webber, one of the Democrats vying for the (pretty thankless) job of challenging New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez for re-election. Headline: "Radical group's founder helps Dem candidate." The founder in question is Mark Rudd, who endorsed Webber in an email and hosted a campaign event in his home. Yes—this is the Mark Rudd who co-founded the Weather Underground, and KRQE helpfully explains that this may be controversial.

The Weather Underground’s past has played a role in politics in recent years. Both Hillary Clinton and the McCain campaign criticized then-candidate Barack Obama’s ties to another Weather Underground founder, Bill Ayers, during the 2008 race.
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The TV version of the report is even rougher—Rudd is introduced as a "well-known American terrorist." But all Weather Underground members are not Bill Ayers. KRQE blithely notes that Rudd had criticized the group "in recent years." He'd been doing that since 1990, at least. Rudd has long been the most apologetic of the Weather Underground's leaders, a fact not lost on his peers (Bill Ayers doesn't even mention him in his memoir, Fugitive Days) or on historians of the faction. In 2002, when Bill Siegel and Sam Green filmed their Oscar-nominated documentary about the Weathermen, they made Rudd one of the narrative linchpins—the anti-Ayers, the guy who was filled with "shame."* As Rudd wrote on his website after the movie tour**:

People will express that I am some kind of hero for having taken on the U.S. government. I say, “No, no, the Weather Underground was a huge fuck-up! We did the work of the FBI by destroying SDS. We accidentally killed three of our own people. We split and undermined the larger anti-war movement.” Often these arguments have become heated and people have screamed at me that I’m too hard on myself and on my former comrades. It’s an unexpected kind of turn-around. I try to use the discussions to advocate non-violent strategy and tactics because “violence doesn’t work.” In the end I leave it open to the audience, especially the young people, to decide for themselves about the significance of the Weather Underground.
Several times I’ve done joint Q and A’s with Sam Green, the director of the movie, and each time we reenacted what I call “The Sam and Mark Show,” wherein he tells audiences that the message of the movie is that there once were a group of young people so committed to stopping the Vietnam war and the system behind that war that they were willing to risk their lives. I respond by taking the opposite view, that the importance of the Weather Underground was that it was a terrible disaster. “Don’t try this at home,” I say. I also downplay the courage involved since courage, it seems to me, is spread out evenly across the political spectrum. I tell people it takes courage for American soldiers, no matter how misguided, to face resistance fighters in Iraq, for example.

This is just a night-and-day difference with Ayers, who has said he'd only apologize for what he did if he were joined by Henry Kissinger and Dick Cheney. Rudd's now a standard-issue Chomskyite left-winger who simply never defends what the Weather Underground did. It's a bit ridiculous, in 2014, to accuse a politician of palling around with terrorists if the "terrorist" is Mark Rudd. If I may hyperbolize, it's like attacking the apostle Matthew for what he did as a tax collector.

UPDATE: Republican strategist Danny Diaz e-mails to dispute my characterization of Rudd. "Dude is calling for blockades of military installations to keep the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend our freedom from “murder[ing]” people," he writes. And he provides some links, to Rudd saying American troops were "murdering" people in Iraq and encouraging people to blockade the entrance to an air base.

Fair enough (and quick oppo), though none of this is exactly "terrorism" as we know it. It's rhetoric. 

*Correction, April 22, 2014: This post originally misspelled Bill Siegel's name and referred to the apostle Paul instead of the apostle Matthew.

**I first saw the movie at a 2003 screening in New York, attended by Rudd, who was visibly shaken, and spent the Q&A portion apologizing for how stupid he'd been in the 1970s.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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