In his just published biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama David Remnick of The New Yorker magazine confirmed the role of Bill Ayers in the appointment of Barack Obama to the board of directors of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC).
Remnick writes in his book that “Ayers helped bring Obama onto the Annenberg board.”
The CAC was a foundation conceived by Ayers and then, with others, designed and led by him, relying on a large initial grant from Walter Annenberg that was then matched by additional donations to implement educational reforms in the city’s troubled schools. It was later judged to have failed at improving student outcomes.
Remnick gives no exact details or source for the revelation. His account confirms the Ayers role which was explained here on King Harvest (in its previous incarnation as Global Labor) almost two years ago in a post called then “Who ‘Sent’ Obama.” It is probably only a coincidence, but the Remnick chapter that includes the revelation about Ayers is called “Somebody Nobody Sent.” The odd grammar is actually a reference to an old Chicago political story that was the inspiration for my 2008 post.
The New York Times on the other hand had reported during the presidential campaign that “Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama’s appointment” to the board. This led to the impression that Ayers was not a key figure in Obama’s rise to political prominence in Chicago. In several interviews with The New York Times I explained patiently to its writer Scott Shane that only Ayers had the legal authority to appoint board members to the founding board of the Challenge. The explanation was ignored by the Times. See my response to The Times here.
The appointment to the board was a major step up in the career of the young lawyer Obama who had recently returned to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law School. A few months after his spring 1995 appointment to the CAC board, Obama would be invited to the Hyde Park home of Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn as part of the launch of his first political campaign to win the seat of departing state senator Alice Palmer. The Times also first reported that that Hyde Park meeting was the first time Obama met Ayers and Dohrn and then later changed that story – without explanation or apology to its readers – when it found out that Ayers had lunch with Obama to discuss the CAC earlier that year.
Because of Ayers’ and Dohrn’s well known past as members of the violent authoritarian cult known as the Weather Underground in the early 1970s, supporters of Obama went to great lengths to distance Obama from any link to Ayers and Dohrn despite the fact that the relationship was well understood in Hyde Park and wider Chicago political circles.
The CAC was set up by Ayers to push his peculiar “social justice” agenda in the Chicago school system including support for a controversial school reform measure known as “Local School Councils” or LSC’s. The LSC’s were set up in the late 80s, with the support then of both Ayers and Obama to use parents as a battering ram against teachers and principals, in the wake of a controversial teachers’ strike. Mainstream civil rights groups like Operation PUSH opposed the reform because of its anti-teacher and anti-union animus. Hundreds of principals were pushed out of their positions over the next several years until the state legislature stepped back in and re-centralized control of hiring. For more background see my post here.
Ayers, of course, would never have helped engineer the Obama appointment if he were not dead certain that Obama would lead the CAC in the right direction. During its seven year existence the foundation was in a pitched battle with the Daley Administration which wanted to centralize school management and even tried to convince the Annenberg Foundation to not fund the Ayers proposal. That implies, of course, that Ayers and Obama had a closer and longer term relationship. While no mainstream media has reported that as of yet, King Harvest was told that a senior Obama campaign activist and long time Democratic Party supporter confirmed the relationship went back to the 1980s.
While Ayers and Dohrn have moved away from their violent past, neither has ever formally apologized for the violence and destruction they were part of and Ayers at least leaves open the possibility that he would engage in violence again. While the physical damage the Weather Underground inflicted was relatively minor, the political damage was severe. For many decades the reputation of the tiny terrorist group has tainted the entire left.
Ayers and Dorhn are now part of a larger milieu made up of supporters of multiculturalism and identity politics which now dominates what many think of as the left despite this milieu’s inherent inability to build a wider democratic movement for progressive social change. Figures like Van Jones, Valerie Jarrett, Chris Edley, Goodwin Liu and Linda Darling-Hammond all are a part of this identity politics milieu and are or have been close advisors of Obama. Several have links to Ayers and Dohrn professionally or politically over many years as well.
The consistent thread in the political world view of Ayers and Dohrn over many decades can be found in their hostility to the democratic labor movement. Thus, they were openly hostile to unions in the 1970s and Ayers’ approach to education reform has often put him at odds with unionized teachers. His approach seems to have rubbed off on the new President who recently backed the wholesale dismissal of the entire teaching staff of a Rhode Island public school and who has backed reform efforts that hark back to the anti-teacher politics of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and Chicago’s Local School Councils.
Now that Remnick has confirmed the crucial professional link between Ayers and Obama at a turning point in the latter’s career a lot about the President’s background and politics begins to make more sense.