No Redemption Song: The Case of Bill Ayers

No Redemption Song: The Case of Bill Ayers

The 2008 election was historic on many counts, but one of the more significant developments was the decisive defeat of the politics of smear and fear. As the campaign wore on, and the prospects of the McCain-Palin candidacy appeared increasingly bleak, the Republicans turned to an old playbook, one that had been used to much positive effect over the last decade. In recent elections, the patriotism and good names of Democratic war hero candidates, from John Kerry to Max Cleland, had been impugned so successfully that a neologism for such smears—to “Swift-boat”—was coined out of the assault on Kerry.

The fears that arose out of the September 11, 2001, attacks were exploited to defend a failed war of choice in Iraq, with the claims that this adventure was the “front” in the war on terrorism and that those who criticized it were “soft” on terrorism. So when Sarah Palin accused Barack Obama of “palling around with a terrorist,” and John McCain demanded the “truth” of his connections with an “old, washed-up terrorist,” they were invoking tried-and-true tactics that echoed over a century of electoral “scares” from the right, harking back to fear of turn-of-the-twentieth century anarchism and the “red scare” of the 1920s.

But in 2008, the invocation of such themes no longer had the desired effects. Voters read them as signs of a desperate campaign bereft of a positive agenda and new ideas. With every smear attack the McCain-Palin ticket lost ground.

Guilt by Association

Those active in the field of education saw keenly one of the first forays in this failed campaign. The “terrorist pal” of Obama was Bill Ayers, a distinguished professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago and a leading figure on the Chicago educational scene.

Ayers had been a founder and leader of the long defunct Weather Underground, a self-styled “urban guerrilla” organization that was a central actor in the late 1960s implosion of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the New Left. In the decade or so of its existence, the Weather Underground engaged in a “propaganda of the deed” that included the bombing of the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and New York City police headquarters. In 1980, as the Weather Underground was finally dying a richly deserved death, Ayers and his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, a leader of the organization in her own right, ended their lives as fugitives and turned themselves in to the authorities; outstanding charges against the two were dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct. Ayers was the son of one of the most powerful members of the Chicago elite, the CEO of Commonwealth Edison who was once offered a cabinet position, and with his family’s help, Ayers and Dohrn eventually landed on their feet with comfortable academic positions in schools of education and law. Over the next two decades, Ayers remade himself into a leading advocate of educati...