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Putting On Ayers

Richard Stern is a novelist and emeritus professor of English at the University of Chicago.

The political word today is that the Republicans will return to personal attacks on Obama and Biden to draw attention away from McCain's erratic performance during the days before the passage of the Great Rescue/Bailout/U.S.-as-Sweden bill. We are supposedly to hear again about the Reverend Wright, the unreverend Tony Lezko, and William Ayers, the unrepentent Weatherman.

Of these three Chicagoans, I know only the last. 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. I attended one of these and believe I learned more about revolution there than I'd learned from Carlyle or Barnaby Rudge. 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. (I had met him once, when he visited our block party the year he was running against--and losing to--our congressman, Bobby Rush. I didn't get his name, but delighted in the charm and intelligence of the young man who sat with a few of us for twenty or thirty minutes.) Hyde Park is a splendid, rather intimate community, and such contacts are no small part of what makes it splendid.

If Democrats want to deal in an ugly way with McCain, they can talk about the jail sentence served by Cindy McCain's uncle and the suspended sentence her father "served," in connection with illegal activities in their beer distribution business. They can revive the stories of his wildness, his adulterous relationship with Cindy when his first wife (mother of some of his children) was disfigured in an auto accident, his inappropriate senatorial activity on behalf of Charles Keating, and perhaps his not very glorious, pre-prison record in the naval air force. Let's hope that this doesn't happen,and let's hope we've heard the last of William Ayers, Tony Rezko, and Jeremiah Wright.

--Richard Stern