Vietnam War-era radical Bill Ayers is no stranger to controversy. He was thrust into the spotlight in 2008 after Barack Obama was accused of “palling around” with the former leader of the Weather Underground anti-war group. In his new book, “Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident,” Ayers details his life after being labeled a “terrorist” by vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and the chaos that came along with it. We talk with the author about his experiences as an activist, professor and self-described public enemy.
Bill Ayers and other members of the Weather Underground went underground in 1970 and continued to hide from federal authorities through much of the 1970’s. In this 2002 Artbeat segment by Jay Shefsky, Bill Ayers discusses life underground:
Watch a 2004 Chicago Tonight story about the violent 1969 anti-protest called the “Days of Rage” features archival footage of Bill Ayers and other members of the Weather Underground during the controversial demonstrations:
Read an excerpt from Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident. The excerpt is from the book's prologue, which is titled Spring 2008, Chicago:
When the Public Square, a tiny but wondrous program of the Illinois Humanities Council, organized an online auction to raise needed funds, Bernardine and I donated two items: choice seats at a Cubs game and an afternoon at beautiful Wrigley Field with an ardent and unruly fan—that would be Bernardine—and dinner for six, cooked by team Ayers-Dohrn. The Public Square was celebrating its tenth anniversary, and we’d been on its advisory board from the start. We’d already done the dinner thing two dozen times over the years—for a local baseball camp, a law students’ public interest group, immigrant rights organizing, and a lot of other worthy causes—and we’d typically raised a few hundred dollars.
There was a little button on our dinner item that someone could select and “Buy Instantly” for $2,500, which seemed absurdly out of reach. But in early December the TV celebrity and self-described conservative bad boy, Tucker Carlson, hit the button, and we were his.
I loved it immediately. Carlson was a well-known libertarian political commentator whose signature style for many years was built around a bright bow-tie, a shock of chestnut hair, and an ability to noisily mock anything at hand. He was famously bounced from cohosting Crossfire on CNN after an angry on-air confrontation with Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. Carlson had criticized Stewart for asking softball questions in a political interview, and Stewart responded that his show was a comedy and added, “It’s interesting to hear you talk about my responsibility. . . . I didn’t realize that . . . the news organizations look to Comedy Central for their cues on integrity.” After Carlson told Stewart, “I think you’re more fun on your show,” Stewart replied: “You know what’s interesting though? You’re as big a dick on your show as you are on any show.” Carlson went on to found the conservative Daily Caller, and surely he had some frat-boy prank up his sleeve—his standard gesture a kind of smug and superior practical joke or an ad hominem put down—but so what? We’d just raised more money for the Public Square in one bid than anyone thought was possible from the entire auction. We won!
Right-wing blogs lit up, some writers tickled with Tucker’s entertaining sense of humor, others earnestly saluting his willingness to enter the den of dodgy enemies of the state and sit in close quarters, an unmistakable act of courage and daring in the service of “the cause.” But a few took a grimmer view: Don’t do it, Tucker, they pled, this will not only legitimize and humanize “two of America’s greatest traitors,” it will also take the sting out of the steady charge that Obama himself is suspect for the crime of knowing them.
Tucker Carlson got a letter from the IHC: “Congratulations,” it began, “You are the winning bidder for The Public Square’s 10th anniversary auction item: Dinner for six with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn. Thank you very much for your payment of $2500 for this item.”
The letter went on to offer ten potential dates for the dinner, and to note that “all auction items were donated to the IHC [which] makes no warranties or representations with respect to any item or service sold . . .” and that “views and opinions expressed by individuals attending the dinner do not reflect those of the Illinois Humanities Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, or the Illinois General Assembly.” I laughed out loud imagining the exhausted scrivener bent at his table copying out that carefully crafted, litigation-proof language— does it go far enough? How about the governor or the Joint Chiefs of Staff? But then, I’m no lawyer.
We were besieged by friends clamoring to come to dinner—“I’ll serve drinks,” wrote one prominent Chicago lawyer. “Or, if you like, I’ll wear a little tuxedo and park the cars. Please let me come!”
Everyone saw it as theater, but not everyone was delighted with the impending show. A few friends called to tell us that Carlson and company were “scum” and “vipers,” arguing that we should never talk to people like them, ever. We disagreed; talk can be good, we said. Others began distancing themselves from us, wringing their hands the moment they saw themselves mentioned on the right-wing blogs, and instantly, almost instinctively, assuming a defensive crouch.
Dinner with Tucker seemed cheery and worthwhile compared to counseling a bunch of cringing liberals. Where is the backbone or the principle? No wonder the tiny group of right-wing flame-throwers with a couple of e-mail accounts feels so disproportionately powerful— liberals seem forever willing to police themselves to the point of forming an orderly line right off a cliff.
I wrote Tucker a quick letter telling him we looked forward to seeing him for dinner in Chicago and what we assumed would be a spirited and enlightening conversation. I saluted him for making such a generous contribution to the Public Square, a tiny program that works mightily to promote public dialogue as an essential way forward.
I mentioned that I’d heard him on the radio kidding around about the dinner with Dennis Miller and saying with a laugh, “When I hear the word ‘humanities,’ I draw my gun.” It was a joke, of course, but I urged him to leave his guns at home.
He promised he would.
A few days later Tucker sent the guest list: Jamie Weinstein, Andrew Breitbart, Matt Labash, Audrey Lowe, and Buckley Carlson. “Entertaining, civil people all of them, guaranteed,” he concluded.
Jamie and Matt were his young associates at the Daily Caller, Buckley his brother, and Audrey was a random reader who had won the privilege in some kind of contest Tucker had held online. Andrew Breitbart was a founder of The Huffington Post and an apostate from the liberal camp—I can picture Arianna Huffington and Andrew passing in the hallway, her fleeing her right-wing past, him retreating from the liberals. He was a self-described “media mogul,” the founder of several conservative websites and a practitioner of right-wing guerrilla theater, always playing the role of the grinning and menacing bomb-thrower. His record included active assistance in the demise of\ ACORN, efforts to damage Planned Parenthood, and the deeply dishonest discrediting of Shirley Sherrod at the Agriculture Department, which led to her being fi red (followed by an administration apology and her reinstatement). Breitbart had several screws loose or missing, I thought, but we’d see soon enough, up close and personal. Entertaining and civil! Guaranteed!
I shopped; I cooked; I set up for dinner. But it felt mostly like a heavy slog through thick mud. I was cold; I was lonely; I was tired. Not at all the mood or the tone I’d wanted.
Things got better inside my head when Bernardine returned to Chicago. She went right to work, making the carrot-ginger soup, chilling me out, promising fun, and when a wondrous collection of our closest activist friends from A Movement Reimagining Change (ARC) assembled at a friend’s beautiful home to help out and serve, mostly to be present at the dinner party, I felt fine. We agreed that we would serve a course and then pull up chairs to chat with our guests, jump up and prepare the next course, ferry dishes in and out, and then pull up chairs for a chat again. There was lots of wine and beer, and we set an elegant table with a place cards depicting six different “great Americans”—Rosa Parks, for example, and Gertrude Stein, as well as Dick Cheney and Sarah Palin—at each place setting, along with a menu printed on card stock they could each keep as a souvenir: Hoisin Ribs and Cucumbers, Carrot-Ginger Soup, White Fish with Black and Red Quinoa, Midwest Farmhouse Cheeses, Apple Pie and Stephen Colbert’s AmeriCone Dream Ice Cream. At the bottom of the menu, I’d included two quotations about the humanities: “I just thank my father and mother, my lucky stars, that I had the advantage of an education in the humanities,” from David McCullough (awarded the Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush); and “When I hear the word humanities, I draw my gun,” from Tucker Carlson (emphasis mine, in both cases). It was, of course, a joke.
I meditated on Rilke:
Let everything happen to you
Beauty and terror
Just keep going
No feeling is final
And then they arrived. Let the rumpus begin!
Spirited greetings and introductions all around, laughter at the improbability of the whole thing, a flurry of separate conversations as wine was poured and glasses lifted. I proposed a toast to Tucker, thanking him for his generous gift to the Public Square and reminding everyone that this was a dinner party, not an interview or a performance (of course, dinner is always a performance, and this one more than most). Then they were seated at the table, first course served.
Friends had warned us that they would try to create a gotcha moment, but not much happened. Tucker and Bernardine gazed out the windows for a time at the Chicago skyline and discovered a shared Swedish background (Christmas cookies!). Jamie Weinstein acted the intrepid cub reporter, notebook in hand, copying the titles of books from the vast bookshelves (Look, Solzhenitsyn! And Vargas Llosa!), questions flying from him in a steady stream, but perhaps his manic, in-your-face manner was the result of jet lag (“I’m just off the plane from Israel,” he said half a dozen times. “My third trip!”). Carlson and Breitbart had been on the primary campaign trail, and each expressed deep disdain for the Republican candidates seeking the presidency. When Jamie complained that none was a bona fi de conservative, I asked him to define “conservative” for me.
“Small government,” he said.
“That’s it?” I asked.
It certainly makes thinking easier, if not completely beside the point. I pointed out that Somalia, to take an obvious example, was a small-government paradise.
Tucker told me at one point that his kids went to the same boarding school he’d attended, and asserted that the only difference between his kids’ school and a failing Chicago public school was that at the prep school they could fire the bad teachers. I laughed out loud, and he smiled weakly.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Bernardine was saying that the United States should close all its foreign military bases immediately, begin to dismantle the Pentagon, the CIA, and NATO, and save a trillion dollars a year at least—a small-government proposal if ever there was one. The boys weren’t buying it at all, clamoring for invasions here, aggression there, violence (normalized, routine, and taken for granted) practically everywhere. Andrew Breitbart, humid and heating up, argued noisily for US military interventions in Iran and Syria and, then, egging himself on, in North Korea and China (!)— on humanitarian grounds, of course—while Bernardine, that notorious poster child for violence, steadfastly urged nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from occupations, peace on earth, goodwill toward all. It was utterly surreal.
I gave each guest a swag bag with candy kisses and one of my books, autographed. Tucker took my comic book about teaching, and I signed it “To my new best friend!” I had bought his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, with an epigraph (returned to again and again in the text) from Larry King: “The trick is to care, but not too much. Give a shit—but not really.” I asked him to please autograph it for me. He wrote: “Thanks for the fantastic ribs! Please read every word of this— the truth lies herein.” Perhaps he was being ironic as well.
As they were leaving, Breitbart told Bernardine that he was thrilled to know her, and he noted that we had at least one thing in common: we were all convenient caricatures in the “lamestream” media.
It was all over in an hour and a half. Andrew Breitbart tweeted from the taxi ferrying them back to their hotel: Shorthand: Ayers, a gourmand charmer. Dohrn, hot at 70, best behavior. Potemkin dinner. Pampered by their coterie.
He elaborated in a long radio interview later that night from his hotel bar: “We were exposed to the two most sophisticated dinner party-throwers in the world. . . . This was their battlefield and they couldn’t have been more charming. . . . I think I’m going to try and reach out to Bill Ayers and try and figure out if I can maybe do a road trip across the country with him—him and me—and he can show me his America, and I can show him my America, and maybe we can film it and let people decide. Because I’ve got to be honest with you, I liked being in the room with him, talking with him.”
That road trip was a fun if unlikely prospect, but a few days after our dinner it became impossible—Andrew Breitbart collapsed and died outside his home at the age of forty-three, too young.
Life—short or long—always ends in the middle of things.
Excerpted from Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident by Bill Ayers. Copyright 2013. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.