Peeling the Obama/Ayers Onion

ayers-obamaA layer at a time, the truth about the decades old relationship between Barack Obama and former Weather Underground terrorist turned “educator” Bill Ayers is becoming clear.

The latest revelation is a report by Christopher Andersen in his new biography of the Obamas that Ayers ghost wrote Obama’s memoir Dreams from My Father. Obama was under pressure to complete the book having had one contract cancelled with a previous publisher. Andersen says it was actually Michelle Obama who suggested Obama ask their “friend and Hyde Park neighbor” Ayers for help. Ayers was already a published author and would also be acknowledged by another Hyde Park resident, Rashid Khalidi, with help on a book.

Andersen does not footnote his books, regrettably, but his list of sources for this report in Barack and Michelle: Portrait of a Marriage includes individuals who would very likely have been aware of the Ayers/Obama relationship. The sources include Judson Miner, the left wing Chicago lawyer who hired Obama after he graduated from Harvard Law School and was law school classmates with Bernardine Dohrn, and Newton Minow, a partner and mentor of both Michelle and Barack Obama at the Chicago powerhouse law firm Sidley Austin.

Sidley was longtime outside counsel to Tom Ayers, Bill’s father, when he ran Commonwealth Edison, the Chicago electrical utility. Sidley did Tom the favor of hiring Bernardine Dohrn as a law clerk in their New York and then Chicago office from 1984 to 1988 after Dohrn and Ayers surrendered themselves to authorities from their days in the Weather Underground. This was part of the effort to rehabilitate Ayers and Dohrn so that they could function credibly in “polite society.”

Andersen suggests that Michelle Obama met Dohrn at Sidley. Michelle Obama worked at Sidley in the Chicago office in the summer of 1987 and then as an associate beginning in the fall of 1988, so it is conceivable that they would have met there. Although today the firm has 500 lawyers in its Chicago office it would have been far smaller 20 years ago, with perhaps as few as 150 lawyers in the home office. Dohrn worked on pro bono matters for the firm and that may have been where the two would have met although Andersen does not explain his conclusion.

Andersen also cites a neighbor of Ayers and Obama who knew of the close relationship between the two and says many others did as well. “Everyone knew they were friends and that they worked on various projects together…..It was no secret. Why would it be? People liked them both.”

Author Jack Cashill had first suggested that Ayers was the ghost writer in a series of blog posts pointing out the striking rhetorical similarities in books by Ayers, a prolific writer, and the Obama tome.

A cautionary note, however, about the Andersen discussion of the Ayers/Obama issue: he suggests that Barack Obama knew Bill Ayers and thus was willing to ask for his help on the book both because of the connection between Dohrn and Michelle but also because Barack and Bill and Tom Ayers served together on the Leadership Council of the Chicago Public Education Fund. The CPEF was the successor organization to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Indeed, Tom, Bill and John Ayers served with Obama on the Leadership Council of the CPEF. However, the CPEF was not formed until 1999 and the first reference to the membership of the Leadership Council available is in the 2001 Annual Report for the CPEF. Thus, this connection between the Ayers clan and Obama comes well after the completion of Dreams in 1995.

As loyal readers of King Harvest and its predecessor Global Labor know, back in April 2008 I first surmised that Obama had a longstanding relationship with Ayers and probably also with Ayers’ father, Tom, the prominent Chicagoan dating back to the 1980s.

One relevant fact among many from that time period: Obama led his Developing Communities Project in support of a controversial education reform effort that Bill and Tom Ayers also supported even though mainstream black organizations like Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH were opposed to it.

Despite the risk to Obama politically Obama’s DCP was the only black organization in the lobbying alliance formed to back the creation of Local School Councils in Chicago. Mainstream black groups like Operation PUSH understood the Councils would create a potentially abusive watch dog group over the shoulder of teachers and administrators, many of them black, and so refused to support the reform.

Presumably Obama made a calculation that backing the Ayers family effort was worth it – of course, he likely also supported the teacher hostile reform itself. In 1995 Bill Ayers would return the favor and appoint Obama as Chairman of Board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge – an initiative created by Ayers. One of the central activities of the CAC was to funnel money into support for that very same Local School Council structure, then under political attack from Mayor Daley. Ayers would soon rely on Obama’s help in supporting funding for the Councils and overcoming the opposition from former Northwestern University President Arnold Weber, a more cautious Challenge board member.

(Interestingly, this issue – watch dogging teachers and administrators – is one reason why it is hard to accept the idea of the right that Ayers and Obama are traditional left wing radicals. In fact, as I have explained elsewhere on the blog, Ayers and Dorhn are really neo-stalinists – a type of anti-capitalist that thinks there are bureaucratic and authoritarian solutions to problems created by capitalism. No doubt, for a period of time at least, Obama found common cause in this set of ideas.)

A senior Democratic Party activist in the Obama campaign who had direct contact with the candidate confirmed the long standing ties between Bill Ayers and Obama. This individual was concerned, in fact, that Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn were exercising an unhealthy influence on the candidate including proposing appointments for the campaign and new administration.

A second source with personal knowledge of visitors to the Chicago area home of Tom Ayers in the 1980s has stated that Obama visited the home then.

And Ayers himself wrote that the Obamas were “family friends” – in an epilogue to his own memoirs that only appeared in a new post-election edition late last year that was then conveniently ignored by the mainstream media such as the New York Times. The Times interviewed me 5 separate times using 3 different reporters and despite the clear evidence of the deep relationship between Obama and Ayers accepted at face value statements by the Obama campaign that the two only met in either early or late 1995 (the Times changed its story on this) and did not really have much contact at all. I dissected this dissembling act on Global Labor here.

Of course, neither Dorhn nor Ayers have done much to distance themselves from their authoritarian late 60s politics. They have stopped throwing bombs but express no regrets for their violent tactics. Ayers himself has only gone so far as to say that violence is “probably” not the answer today. They are strong supporters of Venezuelan strong man Hugo Chavez as they were once, at least, of Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Daniel Ortega.

Obama later backed away from appointing figures who shared Bill Ayers’ views on race and education and were professionally linked to Ayers or Dohrn, like Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond and UC Berkeley Law School Dean Chris Edley in favor of the more mainstream Arne Duncan.

But the appointment of avowed maoist and reverse racist Van Jones as Green Jobs czar was almost certainly the kind of individual the Democratic Party activist in the Obama campaign was concerned about. Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett, whose family is also friends with Ayers and Dohrn (Jarett’s mother appointed Tom Ayers to the board of her foundation, the Erikson Institute), was responsible for appointing Jones and allowing him to avoid the ordinary vetting process.

Jarrett claimed publicly just a few weeks before Jones resigned that the Obama team had been watching Jones for many years. This would have included the period when Jones was active in STORM, a maoist sect in the bay area.

Many on the democratic left – such as the NY teachers’ union official Leo Casey – have dismissed the links to Ayers as unimportant in the narrow interest of electing a Democrat, any Democrat, to rescue organized labor. Some on the democratic left argue that it does not matter because Obama would just jettison the Ayers types around the candidate once in office and become a mainstream politician.

The Van Jones appointment suggests that has not been the case. At a minimum it suggests there is some dishonesty at work. More likely it suggests some basic disconnect between the core Obama team, the inner circle that not only has connections with Ayers and Dohrn but is not actually embarrassed by them, and political reality.

That should concern everyone across the political spectrum.

4 Comments


  1. The percieved disconnect is one of convience to Jarret and others in the administration that have deep roots in the “community” of BO’s past.

    The players and witnesses are not willing to go on record often.


  2. If anyone doubts the prevalence of authoritarian “left” politics as a viable force in today’s world, then just take a look at the recent meetings of the UN General Assembly – Chavez, Qaddafi, Mugabe, Hu Jintao….the list goes on. My new book, From Che to China, out in a few weeks I hope, explores this issue with particular emphasis on the role of authoritarianism in the labor movement.

    Charter schools and other “choice” ideas are pretty much part of the mainstream today, whether one likes it or not, and I am not a huge fan, even of those unionized charters.

    One should keep in mind the role of Ayers, Klonsky and Obama, however, in opening the door to the “choice” movement of the right. The Heritage Foundation praised the local control experiment in Chicago in the late 80s, for example, that was championed by Ayers and Obama.

    And the Chicago Annenberg Challenge gave more than a million dollars to former maoist Mike Klonsky to run his “small schools” experiment, viewed as “teacher bashing” by union activists. Small schools of course is just a variation on the choice theme.

    Ayers made an attack on large so-called “factory schools” a major theme of his proposal for the Annenberg money. Ironically Klonsky loves to bash the factory school I attended – New Trier – because it is so successful!


  3. Thanks Stephen. Somebody has to keep an eye on this stuff. (Altho’ I don’t know how “mainstream” Arne Duncan is, charter school champion and all.)


  4. “Neo-stalinist?” “Democratic left?” “Maoist” Shades of Sol Stettin! Get a grip. So called progressives who blithely call out each other using stupid, 70’s era labels instead of arguing ideas are no better than the right wing maniacs who are the real problem that should concern everyone.

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