Editor's Note: In a last-ditch attempt to reverse its sagging poll numbers, the McCain campaign is attacking Barack Obama for his flimsy ties in Chicago to former '60s radical Bill Ayers. That's not surprising. The same thing happened during the Democratic primary, when Hillary Clinton made similar claims against Obama. In this piece from the May 19 edition of The Nation, Ari Berman explored Obama's relationship with Ayers and their respective ties to the Chicago-based Woods Fund.
From 1993 to 2002 Barack Obama served on the board of the Woods Fund, a small foundation in Chicago devoted to supporting a main passion of Obama's: community organizing. Unless you worked in the philanthropic world or regularly watched Fox News, you'd probably never heard of the Woods Fund before ABC's April 16 Democratic debate. As part of a barrage of guilt-by-association questioning, co-moderator George Stephanopoulos asked Obama about his connection to another Woods Fund board member, Bill Ayers, a former '60s radical and ringleader of the Weather Underground. In an interview with the New York Times, coincidentally published on 9/11, Ayers, reflecting on his memoir, Fugitive Days, had said inartfully, "I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough." Ayers, who meant that he wished the antiwar movement had ended the Vietnam War sooner, clarified in a letter to the Times, "My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism." Taken out of context, the statement sparked outrage, leading Stephanopoulos to ask Obama, "Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?"
Obama responded that he lives in the same neighborhood as Ayers on Chicago's South Side, did not exchange ideas with him on a regular basis and was only 8 when the Weather Underground was violently protesting the war. Eager to keep the issue alive, Hillary Clinton jumped in, noting, "Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Fund, which was a paid directorship position." The Clinton campaign has since distributed a document slamming Obama for, among other things, praising Ayers's 1997 book on juvenile-justice reform and appearing on two panels with him. In an interview on the Sunday after the debate, Stephanopoulos asked John McCain about Obama's "patriotism." "I'm sure he's very patriotic," McCain responded. "But his relationship with Mr. Ayers is open to question." National Review subsequently said of the McCain campaign, "They'll hold nothing back when the topic is William Ayers." Suddenly every prominent news organization and right-wing blogger was "exposing" the Woods Fund, accusing it of harboring domestic terrorists and damaging Obama's candidacy. Said a spokesman, "We are under siege."
At the beginning of the campaign a few reporters called to explore Obama's background as a community organizer. Soon enough the right learned of his association with Ayers, who had hosted a fundraiser for Obama in 1996 and contributed $200 to his state senate campaign in 2001. The coverage took on a sinister tone, and misinformation quickly spread. The foundation was labeled anti-Israel by the fringe blog WorldNetDaily because it gave a $40,000 grant to the Arab American Action Network, a community organizing group that provides social services to Arab immigrants in Chicago. Woods Fund Could Become Obama's 'Swift Boat,' declared the Wall Street Journal.
Lost in the media brouhaha are the facts about what the Woods Fund actually does, why it attracted someone like Obama and how Ayers came to be on its board. This story is less sexy than the current gotcha games, but the composition of the organization and its commitment to community organizing tell us a lot more about Obama than mischaracterizations of his association with Ayers. As Michelle Obama once put it, "Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change."
The Woods Fund, in many ways, is responsible for helping start Obama as an organizer and shaping his political identity. In 1985 the foundation gave a $25,000 grant to the Developing Communities Project, which hired Obama, at 24, as an organizer on Chicago's economically depressed South Side. Obama became friendly with Woods director Jean Rudd, and after he graduated from Harvard Law School and moved back to Chicago, Rudd asked him to join the board, which met four times a year to review grant proposals. (Obama also served on the board of the larger Joyce Foundation, which specialized in environmental conservation, welfare reform and education.) "Community organizing was a central priority of this foundation, so more and more we drew him in," says Rudd, who retired in 2000.
"The fact that we were one of the few foundations that funded grassroots community organizing appealed to him," says Deborah Harrington, a veteran of Illinois government who joined the fund in 1999 and took over as president in 2006. "Being on the board kept Obama grounded and gave him a pulse of what was happening at the grassroots level."
Established by Nebraska businessmen in 1941, with a current endowment of $68 million and annual grants totaling $3 million--a tiny figure in the foundation world--the Woods Fund has taken risks that larger foundations can't. It awards hundreds of small grants a year, usually no larger than $50,000, to activists, neighborhood groups, think tanks, and arts and culture projects in Chicago's most-forgotten and blighted communities. It has funded ex-offenders to lobby for the elimination of mandatory minimum sentences and unfair drug laws, organized senior citizens to advocate for affordable housing, pushed parents to get more involved in their children's crumbling schools. The fund has linked public policy groups with community organizers--wonks with activists--a particular interest of Obama's. "The grants are small, but the impact is significant," says Jesus Garcia, vice chair of the board and the first Mexican-American elected to the Illinois senate.
In the late 1980s and early '90s, the Woods Fund was at the forefront of the movement to reform Chicago's public schools, stressing the need for more local control and community involvement. That focus on education led the fund to Ayers, a tenured professor of education at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and a widely published expert on the subject. "The foundation had a special interest in the Chicago public schools, and Bill's specialty is teaching teachers," Rudd explains. "He had built a great reputation in that field." Ayers joined the board in 1999, serving as chair for two years and overlapping with Obama until 2002, when Obama left to run for the US Senate.
In 2006 Laura Washington, a DePaul University professor of humanities and a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, took over as chair. "Bill has been painted in the media as a cardboard caricature of a guy who threw bombs," she says. "That's not the Bill I know, and that's not the Bill I ever knew. He has changed his life, built on the lessons of the '60s and become a civic leader in this city." Indeed, after the ABC News debate, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley--hardly a radical leftist--put out a statement calling Ayers a "nationally recognized distinguished professor of education" and "a valued member of the Chicago community." Former '60s Radical Is Now Considered Mainstream in Chicago, said the Washington Post on April 18. Ayers/Obama Connection Brings 'So What?' Reaction in Chicago Media, said Editor & Publisher.
Today Woods's eight-member board includes three academics, a civic leader, a former Illinois state senator and executives from the BP oil company, UBS investment bank and Sahara Enterprises. Former board members include R. Eden Martin (1996-2004), attorney for the law firm Sidley Austin and president of the Commercial Club, Chicago's most prestigious business group. "The board is comprised of a very representative group of Chicago civic leaders," says Adele Simmons, of Chicago, a former president of the MacArthur Foundation.
Because of its small size and local focus, Woods enjoyed relative anonymity until this year's presidential campaign. Its grants were about community empowerment, social change and elevating marginalized voices, not political grandstanding. "They invest in giving poor and working people a voice in how their city runs," says Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change, in Washington (and Nation editorial board member). "I don't know how much more apple pie you can get."
The effort of the Clinton campaign to feed the media frenzy is particularly ironic, given Hillary's six-year tenure on the board of Wal-Mart and directorship, in the late '80s, of the New World Foundation, which is to the left of the Woods Fund and considerably more political in its grant-making. In the '90s conservatives slammed New World--and by extension Clinton--for funding the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, the National Lawyers Guild and Grassroots International, which backed two PLO-affiliated groups on the West Bank while Hillary was on the board. At the time Stuart Eizenstat, Bill Clinton's deputy Treasury secretary, called the reports "erroneous, irrelevant and outrageous slander on Hillary Clinton." That's a pretty good description of what Obama and his former colleagues are enduring today.