The William Ayers He Knows

Discerning blog readers are probably aware that one of the biggest difficulties with the medium is that as far as the size of your traffic goes - and thus, in some ultimate sense, the size of your paycheck - it's much more important to write frequently than to write well. This creates unfortunate incentives for individual bloggers, who see near-constant posting rewarded with high traffic even when the quality of their posts suffer dramatically. And it creates a similar incentive problem for group blogs: The administrator has an incentive to extend posting privileges to an ever-larger crew, even when it means that bad material starts to crowd out the posts that made the blog worth reading in the first place. I can only assume that these perverse incentives explain the sudden election-eve presence of the novelist and professor Richard Stern on TNR's The Plank, usually one of my favorite liberal blogs; whatever Stern's merits as a novelist, his blogging style is near-parodic in its mix of pretension, vituperation, and "no enemies to the left" obliviousness.

In his first post, Stern "analyzed" the first Presidential debate as follows: "The disintegrating self is uglier to watch than to suffer ... [McCain] was never a genius (near the bottom of his Academy class) and--perhaps the result of growing up almost as fatherless as Obama and, like Reagan, the son of an alcoholic--emotionally insecure, a gambler (no accident that he crashed five planes), and now, under the pressure of campaigning, exhibiting the erosions of his 72 years, and you have McCain today. In view of all this, I expected and, yes, hoped for more incoherence (though there was God's plenty anyway), if not collapse." What a charming sentiment, that! In his second effort, he declared, more in anger than in sorrow, that while he had once "been proud that [David] Brooks had been a student of mine at the University of Chicago," now "that pride has turned to ashes," because Brooks had offered praise for Sarah Palin's debate performance - praise, per Stern, that could only explained by a mendacity so deep and damning that if it triumphs, "value systems will disintegrate and the boundaries between right and wrong, vice and virtue, truth and falsity will be destroyed." (He allowed that "yes, this writer is partisan, but makes some attempt to accurately appraise what he sees and hears.")

But these were just a warm-up for yesterday's post, in which he unburdened himself of a personal story about Bill Ayers and his wife:

I've been to three or four small dinner parties with Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, once hailed as the Weathermen's Dolores Ibarruri ("La Passionaria"), a fiery, beautiful muse. (Incidentally, I never heard the word "Weatherwoman.") Dohrn is still attractive, while Ayers maintains an adolescent fizzle in his sexagenarian bones. Dohrn is more subdued than Ayers, uninterested in fame. She told me that her husband wanted to pursue movie interest in their story, but that she wasn't interested. "They only care about the sex and violence." Once, Ayers was about to tell the four other people at dinner how they'd gotten Eldridge Cleaver from a California prison to a Moroccan haven, but Dohrn skillfully buttoned his lip.

I did not know them back in the late sixties and early seventies. The excitement at the University of Chicago centered around the refusal to grant tenure to Marlene Dixon. Angry students occupied the Administration Building, formed improvisatory theater groups, passed out material about such professors as Daniel Boorstin and held rallies ... The radicals were led by Weatherman Howie Machtinger. He conducted the meeting masterfully, a young Lenin or, to take an example I'd witnessed in the French parliament, the Communist leader Jacques Duclos. My own contribution to the U. of Chicago uprising was a series of satiric poems published in the student newspaper--site of the warring opinions--which earned a denunciation in which Machtinger called me a motherfucker.

At dinner, thirty-eight years later, Ayers and Dohrn did not seem to hold the poems against me, and I didn't hold their fiery and criminally violent behavior against them. As in Chekhov's wonderful story "Old Age," time had planed down the sharp edges and brought one-time antagonists into each others' arms. As far as I know, Ayers and Dohrn are loyal to the selves which led both of them to jail (though not for long), but they were busy doing other things, useful things, Ayers as educator, Dohrn as a legal counselor. They'd raised the child of a weatherman who'd been jailed, they were taking care of Bernadine's ill mother, they were doing many things educated community activists were doing. Apparently one of these things brought at least Ayers into contact with another, much younger community activist, Barak Obama ... Hyde Park is a splendid, rather intimate community, and such contacts are no small part of what makes it splendid.

Conservatives have long attacked Barack Obama for minimizing and/or concealing the extent of his relationship with Ayers, and not without reason. (Though without, I think, much hope of doing real damage to his poll numbers - I'll have more to say about the McCain campaign's attempt to exploit the Ayers issue, and others like it, later on today.) But there are worse things than playing down your ties to a former domestic terrorist. Obama's obfuscation regarding Ayers is, in a sense, the homage that vice pays to virtue - a tacit acknowledgment of the fact that the political culture of Chicago, and especially of Hyde Park, is more accommodating than perhaps it should be to a morally dubious figure like Ayers, and that having accommodated himself to those accommodations Obama now recognizes the need to behave as if he didn't.

Whereas bragging about what a "splendid, rather intimate community" Hyde Park is, where you can brush shoulders with the Ayerses at a lovely dinner party, maunder on about Chekhov and old enemies embracing, and gently forgive them for their "criminally violent past," seems to me considerably grosser. What offences did the Weathermen commit against Richard Stern, besides calling him a dirty name, that he should have the honor of bestowing forgiveness for their crimes? And when, for that matter, did Bill Ayers ever ask to be forgiven? It's nice, I suppose, that the Ayerses eventually made themselves "useful" instead of spending their entire lives building homemade bombs for use against the U.S. government, and yes, kudos to them for raising "the child of a weatherman who'd been jailed" (for what were they jailed, Professor Stern? ah yes: for this), even if it must be noted that the child seems to have grown up to be an obtuse, entitled creep, albeit hopefully a less murderous one than his parents. But really, really, I never thought I'd see the day when TNR would find itself publishing florid odes to the "adolescent fizzle" in Bill Ayers' sixtysomething bones, and the charms of sharing a fine chianti with his "fiery, beautiful muse." Change we can believe in, indeed.