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.”