Watch CBSN Live

Obama Needs To Explain His Ties To William Ayers

In my U.S. News column this week, I make a brief reference to the unrepentant Weather Underground terrorist bomber William Ayers and his connections to Barack Obama. They were closer than Obama implied when George Stephanopoulos asked him about Ayers in the April 16 debate--the last debate Obama allowed during the primary season. To get an idea of how close they were, check out Tom Maguire's Just One Minute blog and Steve Diamond's Global Labor and Politics. The Obama-Ayers relationship is also mentioned in David Freddoso's The Case Against Barack Obama: The Unlikely Rise and Unexamined Agenda of the Media's Favorite Candidate.

Ayers was one of the original grantees of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform organization in the 1990s, and was cochairman of the Chicago School Reform Collaborative, one the two operational arms of the CAC. Obama, then not yet a state senator, became chairman of the CAC in 1995. Later in that year, the first organizing meeting for Obama's state Senate campaign was held in Ayers's apartment. Ayers later wrote a memoir, and an article about him appeared in the New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001. "I don't regret setting bombs," Ayers is quoted as saying. "I feel we didn't do enough."

Ayers was a terrorist in the late 1960s and 1970s whose radical group set bombs at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol.

You might wonder what Obama was doing working with a character like this. And you might wonder how an unrepentant terrorist got a huge grant and cooperation from the Chicago public school system. You might wonder--if you don't know Chicago. For this is a city with a civic culture in which politicians, in the words of a story often told by former congressman, federal judge, and Clinton White House counsel Abner Mikva, "don't want nobody nobody sent." That's what Mikva remembers being told when he went to a Democratic ward headquarters to volunteer for Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, and it rings true. And it's a civic culture in which there's nobody better to send you than your parents.

That's how William Ayers got where he was. When he came out of hiding because the federal government was unable to prosecute him (because of government misconduct), he got a degree in education from Columbia and then moved to Chicago and got a job on the education faculty of the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle. How did he get that job? Well, it can't have hurt that his father, Thomas Ayers, was chairman of Commonwealth Edison (now Exelon) and a charter member of the Chicago establishment. As Mayor Richard M. Daley said recently, in arguing that the Ayers association should not be held against Obama, "His father was a great friend of my father."

In none of our other major cities is genealogy so important. I remember a story that Bill Plante of CBS News has often told. Plante was working for WBBM, the Chicago CBS-owned and -operated affiliate, during the violence-plagued Democratic National Convention. At a press conference, he asked the late Mayor Richard J. Daley a question "da mare" thought was impertinent. Daley's answer was, "Sometimes even in the best of families there's a bad apple." It baffled the members of the national press, but not those from Chicago. Plante's father and brother were Democratic precinct committeemen in the 49th Ward. The late Mayor Daley had the whole city of Chicago in his head. It is only natural that his son should vouch for someone by saying that their fathers were great friends.

The voters of Chicago and Illinois respect family ties in a way that voters in no other state or city do. The current Mayor Daley is, of course, the son of the late Mayor Daley; the two Daleys have been mayors, and effective and competent mayors, of Chicago for 40 of the last 53 years. The attorney general of Illinois is the daughter of the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives. The governor of Ilinois is the son-in-law of the Democratic ward committeeman in the 33rd Ward. The congressman from the 2nd Congressional District is Jesse Jackson Jr. Jackson's predecessor-but-one in the district was Morgan Murphy Jr., whose father was chairman of (get this) Commonwealth Edison.

But my favorite example of the importance of family ties is 3rd District Rep. Dan Lipinski, who was first elected in 2004 to replace his father, Bill Lipinski, who was first elected in 1982. Bill Lipinski won the Democratic nomination in the March 2004 primary. But on August 13, he announced he would not seek re-election and would resign the Democratic nomination. The deadline for replacing him was August 26, and a meeting was set on August 17 for the 19th Ward and township Democratic committeemen to choose a new candidate. Lipinski announced his support for his son, who was then a professor of political science at the University of Tennessee and had not lived in Chicago for many years. Among the committeemen making the decision were: 11th Ward committeeman and County Commissioner John Daley, son of the late mayor and brother of the current mayor; 13th Ward committeeman Michael Madigan, speaker of the Illinois House and father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan; 14th Ward committeeman Edward Burke, who succeeded his father as a council member in his 20s and and was longtime chairman of the Finance Committee, and whose wife is a justice of the Illinois Supreme Court; 19th Ward committeeman Tom Hynes, former Cook County Assessor and father of Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes; and 23rd Ward committeeman Bill Lipinski. An electorate more averse to an argument against nepotism cannot be imagined. Lipinski advanced his son's name and said, "I'm optimistic, but one never knows in politics until the votes are counted." It did not take long to count them: Dan Lipinski was nominated without opposition. To the charge that the nomination was rigged, one participant dryly noted that anyone could have run.

To which it should be added that Dan Lipinski has since won two seriously contested Democratic primaries to hold the seat (Republicans are not a factor in this district). One reason that Chicago and Illinois voters have acquiesced to the politics of nepotism is that its products--or many of them--are quite competent. Mayor Richie Daley, if I can call him that, has on the whole been an excellent mayor. Edward Burke is a cultured man of high intellect. Michael Madigan seems to be a solidly competent sort, and for all I know his daughter is, too. Dan Rostenkowski was a highly competent chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee for 14 years, until he was laid low by a bit of cheap chiseling; at that point he and his father had been the 32nd Ward committeemen for just about 60 years. (The younger Rostenkowski got his seat in the House in 1958 because his father, Joe Rostenkowski, had supported the late Mayor Daley in the 1955 Democratic primary against fellow Polish-American Benjamin Adamowski.) There are exceptions. Many political observers would put Rod Blagojevich, the son-in-law of 33rd Ward committeeman Dick Mell, on the top of the list of the nation's dumbest government. But then, for Chicago, it has always been more important who is mayor than who is governor (not to mention out-of-town jobs like U.S. senator).

Which leads us back to Barack Obama, who is now a U.S. senator and will shortly become the Democratic nominee for an office that even Chicago regards as more important than mayor. And the question presents itself: How did this outsider from Hawaii and Columbia and Harvard become somebody somebody sent? His wife, Michelle Robinson Obama, had some connections: Her father was (I believe) a Democratic precinct committeeman, she baby-sat for Jesse Jackson's children, and she worked as a staffer for the current Mayor Daley. Obama made connections on the all-black South Side by joining the Rev. Jeremiah Wright's church. But was Obama's crtical connection to le tout Chicago William Ayers? That's the conclusion you are led to by Steve Diamond's blog. And by the fact that the National Review's Stanley Kurtz was suddenly denied access to the records of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge by the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle. (Kurtz had already been given an index to the records.) Presumably the CAC records would show a closer collaboration between Ayers and Obama than was suggested by Obama's response to Stephanopoulos that Ayers was just a guy "in the neighborhood."

The increasingly sharp McCain campaign had the wit to ask the University of Illinois to open up the CAC records. But it doesn't seem likely the university will open them up; as John Kass puts it in a characteristically pungent column in the Chicago Tribune, "Welcome to Chicago, Mr. Kurtz."

Does it matter if William Ayers was the key somebody who made Barack Obama a somebody somebody sent? I think it does. Not that Obama shares all of Ayers's views, which surely he does not. Or that he endorses Ayers's criminal acts, which, as he has pointed out, were committed while he was a child in Hawaii and Indonesia. But his willingness to associate with an unrepentant terrorist is not the same as Daley's (expressed, as George W. Bush's thoughts are, in disjointed prose but the product of a considerable intellect and seasoned judgment):

"Bill Ayers, I've said this, his father was a great friend of my father. I'll be very frank. Vietnam divided families, divided people. It was a terrible time of our country. It really separated people. People didn't know one another. Since then, I'll be very frank, (Ayers) has been in the forefront on a lot of education issues and helping us in public schools and things like that.

"People keep trying to align himself with Barack Obama. It's really unfortunate. They're friends. So what? People do make mistakes in the past. You move on. This is a new century, a new time. He reflects back and he's been making a strong contribution to our community."

For Daley, family is paramount, and Ayers is admitted into le tout Chicago because his father is one of its pillars. And electoral politics is also paramount: In a city that is roughly 40 percent (and falling) white ethnic and 40 percent black, with an increasing gentrified white population, the current Mayor Daley has maintained very strong support from lakefront liberals, including the Hyde Park/Kenwood leftists like Ayers who were the original movers behind Obama's 1996 state Senate candidacy. It's in Daley's interest to work with these people and against his interest to do anything that seems like disrespecting them. As Bill Daley told me when I asked him some years ago whether his father would have approved of Richie marching in the gay rights parade, "Our father always told us when a group was big enough to control a ward, we should pay attention to them." Staying mayor is real important to Daley, and Daley staying mayor is real important to le tout Chicago. An unrepentant terrorist? Hey, we know your dad. And you control the 5th Ward.

For Obama, the outsider who gained the trust of the insiders, the position is different. He was willing to use Ayers and ally with him despite his terrorist past and lack of repentance. An unrepentant terrorist, who bragged of bombing the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon, was a fit associate. Ayers evidently helped Obama gain insider status in Chicago civic life and politics--how much, we can't be sure unless the Richard J. Daley Library opens the CAC archive. But most American politicians would not have chosen to associate with a man with Ayers's past or of Ayers's beliefs. It's something voters might reasonably want to take into account.

By Michael Barone