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Claim: Barack Obama had an acquaintanceship with Bill Ayers, a former domestic terrorist.
Origins: William (Bill) Ayers was one of the founders of the Weather Underground, a radical leftist organization formed in 1969 by a group of University of Chicago students who split with the campus-run Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization because they disagreed with the SDS's peaceful protest tactics against the Vietnam War. From 1970 until 1974, the
Weather Underground carried out violent actions against the government, including bombings at NYPD headquarters, the U.S. Capitol building, the Pentagon and a San Francisco police station, while Ayers (and his wife, fellow Weather Underground member Bernardine Dohrn) went into hiding to evade the FBI.
Ayers and his wife participated in some of the early bombings, but criminal charges against them were dropped in 1974 due to illegal evidence-gathering activities by authorities, and in 1980 the couple turned themselves in. Ayers and Dohrn emerged from hiding to become university professors in Chicago; Ayers specialized in education reform and served as an advisor to Chicago mayor Richard Daley, work through which Ayers became acquainted with Barack Obama in 1995. Ayers hosted a meet-the-candidate gathering at his home as Barack Obama prepared to run for his initial election to the Illinois state senate (although Ayers later said he didn't even know Obama at the time), the two worked with the same charity and social service organizations in Chicago (particularly the Chicago Annenberg Challenge), and Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's re-election campaign for the Illinois state senate in 2001.
Opponents have charged that Obama has been "palling around with terrorists" and "lied" about his connection with Ayers when he described Ayers as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" in response to a question about their relationship posed to him during an April 2008 Democratic debate:
Q: A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the 1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He's never apologized for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying, "I don't regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."
An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?
A: This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English [sic] in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's not somebody who I exchange ideas with on a regular basis.
And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn't make much sense.
Although Obama's dismissing Ayers as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" could fairly be considered a deliberate attempt to minimize or play down a more substantial acquaintanceship between the two men, the fact remains that they aren't (and never were) particularly close. Obama has denounced Ayers' violent radical activities (which took place when Obama was just a child), Ayers didn't advise Obama on policy issues, the two were not close friends, and they have not remained in regular contact over the last several years:
A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63. But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called "somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8."
"The suggestion that Ayers was a political adviser to Obama or someone who shaped his political views is patently false," said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman. Mr. LaBolt said the men first met in 1995 through the education project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and have encountered each other occasionally in public life or in the neighborhood. He said they have not spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail messages since Mr. Obama began serving in the United States Senate in January 2005 and last met more than a year ago when they bumped into each other on the street in Hyde Park.
(The above-cited article was the one referenced by Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin when she began stating on the campaign trail that Democratic candidate Barack Obama had been "palling around with terrorists," even though the article said just the opposite: that Obama and Ayers "do not appear to have been close.")
In August 2008, Stanley Kurtz suggested there was a "cover-up" in the making because he could not access a "large cache of documents housed in the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)" which contained "the internal files of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge" and would "provide significant insight into a web of ties linking Obama to various radical organizations." Documents including all the records of the Annenberg Foundation were in fact released shortly afterwards; the Chicago Tribune examined them and found, as reported by UPI:
Reporters reviewing records in Chicago have so far found nothing startling in documents linking Sen. Barack Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers.
The UIC records show that Obama and Ayers attended board meetings, retreats and at least one news conference together as the education program got under way. The two continued to attend meetings together during the 1995-2001 operation of the program, records show.
Kurtz also claimed that "Obama assumed the Annenberg board chairmanship only months before his first run for office, and almost certainly received the job at the behest of Bill Ayers." This claim was inaccurate, as FactCheck.org noted:
To the contrary, Ayers was not involved in the choice, according to Deborah Leff, then president of the Joyce Foundation. She told the Times, and confirmed to FactCheck.org, that she recommended Obama for the position to Patricia Graham of the Spencer Foundation. Graham told us that she asked Obama if he'd become chairman; he accepted, provided Graham would be vice-chair.
The bipartisan board of directors, which did not include Ayers, elected Obama chairman, and he served in that capacity from 1995 to 1999, awarding grants for projects and raising matching funds. Ayers headed up a separate arm of the group, working with grant recipients. According to another board member, Ayers "was not significantly involved with the challenge after Obama was appointed."
Kurtz subsequently claimed in a Wall Street Journal article that Obama and Ayers were partners in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), an effort that "poured more than $100 million into the hands of community organizers and radical education activists." But as Education Week noted of the CAC, that organization was not "radical" but rather "reflected mainstream thinking among education reformers":
The Chicago Annenberg Challenge, chaired from 1995 to 1999 by Barack Obama, is being portrayed by some critics of the Democratic presidential nominee as an attempt to push radicalism on schools.
In fact, the project undertaken in Chicago as part of a high-profile national initiative reflected mainstream thinking among education reformers. The Annenberg Foundation's $49.2 million grant in the city focused on three priorities: encouraging collaboration among teachers and better professional development; reducing the isolation between schools and between schools and their communities; and reducing school size to improve learning.
The week after the 2008 presidential election, Ayers himself acknowledged in an interview that he hadn't known Barack Obama all that well:
Vietnam-era radical Bill Ayers said he doesn't know President-elect Barack Obama any better than "thousands of other Chicagoans" and the two never talked about Ayers' anti-war activities. In a television interview on ABC's "Good Morning America," the college professor disputed the contention that in the new afterword of a paperback edition of his 2001 memoir "Fugitive Days" he describes himself and Obama as "family friends."
"I'm describing there how the blogosphere characterized the relationship," Ayers said. "I would really say that we knew each other in a professional way, again on the same level as say thousands of other people."
In fact, Ayers said he didn't even know Obama when he hosted a coffee early in Obama's political career at Ayers' home in the Chicago neighborhood where the two live. Ayers added that he agreed to have the meet-the-candidate event after a state senator asked him to.
"I think he was probably in 20 homes that day as far as I know," he said. "But that was the first time I really met him."
Ayers and Obama also served together on a Chicago school reform board and a foundation board, but their discussions were limited to the issues before those boards.
"The truth is we came together in Chicago in a civic community around issues of school improvement, around issues of fighting for the rights of poor neighborhoods to have jobs, housing and so forth," Ayers said.
And he elaborated on those issues in a December 2008 newspaper piece:
The dishonesty of the narrative about Mr. Obama during the campaign went a step further with its assumption that if you can place two people in the same room at the same time, or if you can show that they held a conversation, shared a cup of coffee, took the bus downtown together or had any of a thousand other associations, then you have demonstrated that they share ideas, policies, outlook, influences and, especially, responsibility for each other’s behavior. There is a long and sad history of guilt by association in our political culture, and at crucial times we’ve been unable to rise above it.
President-elect Obama and I sat on a board together; we lived in the same diverse and yet close-knit community; we sometimes passed in the bookstore. We didn't pal around, and I had nothing to do with his positions.
Last updated: 6 December 2008
Aarons, Dakarai I. "Chicago Annenberg Challenge in Spotlight."
Education Week. 9 October 2008.
Ayers, William. "The Real Bill Ayers."
The New York Times. 6 December 2008 (p. A19).
Babwin, Don. "Ex-Radical Ayers Distances Himself from Obama."
Associated Press. 14 November 2008.
Cohen, Jodi S. and Ray Gibson. "Rush on to Get Files Linking Obama to 1960s Radical."
Chicago Tribune. 27 August 2008.
Kurtz, Stanley. "Chicago Annenberg Challenge Shutdown? A Cover-Up in the Making?"
National Review Online. 18 August 2008.
Kurtz, Stanley. "Obama and Ayers Pushed Radicalism on Schools."
The Wall Street Journal. 23 September 2008.
Shane, Scott. "Obama and '60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths."
The New York Times. 3 October 2008.
Suddath, Claire. "The Weather Underground."
Time. 7 October 2008.
Wills, Christopher. "Fact Check: Camps Highlight Foes' Old Associates."
Associated Press. 12 October 2008.
United Press International. "No 'Smoking Gun' in Obama Relationship."