This time courtesy of Bill Ayers himself comes confirmation of the relationship between Obama and Ayers reaching back to the late 1980’s. Long time followers of this blog will recall the effort of Scott Shane of The New York Times to avoid the conclusion that the close work Obama and Ayers undertook in education policy in Chicago in the mid-1990’s suggested that the two figures had a longer term relationship.
If Shane was to be believed Ayers was first introduced to Obama only in the spring of 1995 by two foundation presidents when those presidents recruited the recent Harvard Law School graduate to head up a new $150 million education reform effort called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC). I pointed out to The Times (in five separate interviews with three different reporters) this was simply not possible legally or politically because it was Ayers himself who had the legal power, alone, not the two foundation presidents, to appoint Obama to the CAC board.
Shane ignored my explanation in his key story absolving Obama of any important ties to Ayers that was published on the eve of the 2008 presidential election. I in turn pointed to evidence that not only was Ayers the key figure in recruiting Obama to the CAC board but that when the Ayers/Obama relationship became a topic of concern in the campaign David Axelrod worked with Ayers directly in a failed effort to suppress public access to CAC records held by the University of Illinois. Again the mainstream media ignored this relationship and minimized or attacked any effort to explain it.
Since then two biographers of Obama have provided evidence of the deep and longstanding relationship between the two figures. The New Yorker’s David Remnick explained that Ayers was responsible for appointing Obama to the CAC board while Christopher Andersen explained the key role Ayers played in helping Obama finish his memoir.
And now Ayers himself in a recent interview with The Daily Beast states that his wife Bernardine Dohrn was at the Chicago law firm Sidley and Austin “together” with Michelle Obama, then, of course, known by her maiden name Robinson. It is already widely acknowledged that it was at that firm that Michelle first met Barack himself. The use of the word “together” by Ayers suggests that Dohrn and Michelle knew each other not just that they were employed by the same entity.
Dohrn was a law school graduate, from the University of Chicago no less, but could not get admitted to the bar because of her past association with the violent and murderous tactics of some former Weather Underground “comrades.” Sidley hired her anyway – to do what is not clear – as a favor to Tom Ayers, the father of Bill Ayers, the chairman of Commonwealth Edison, an important Sidley client. Sidley senior partner Howard Trienens explained that the firm sometimes did “favors” for its friends.
The striking thing about the latest admission by Ayers of the ties between him and Obama is that there has been almost no one attempting to connect him to Obama through Sidley and Austin (although Andersen to his credit mentions this possibility). And in fact the Daily Beast writer did not ask him about it and quite likely did not know anything about it. Ayers dropped this particular piece of information into a sprawling general answer that confirms several other aspects of his relationship to Obama. Yet, none of those other “confirmations” places the relationship between the two as far back as the late 1980s. The only other concrete evidence that places the relationship in this same time frame is the interview I first conducted with the letter carrier who recalled meeting a young Obama visiting the house of Ayers’ parents in suburban Chicago.
Of course, the picture is far from complete. Ayers himself said in the epilogue to a recent edition of his own memoirs, written it should be said without the editorial assistance of Obama and apparently completed on time for the publisher, that he and the Obamas were “family friends.” Exactly how and why the four became so close is not entirely clear. Obama himself did not work at Sidley until the summer of 1989, but by then Dohrn had moved along her career path, eventually joining the faculty of Northwestern University’s Law School where both Tom Ayers and Howard Trienens were members of the board of trustees.
The overlap between Dohrn and Michelle, then, would have occurred earlier in the First Lady’s work there as an associate or summer associate. Dohrn was at the Sidley firm from 1984 (starting in their NY office) until 1988 (after moving to Chicago). Michelle was there as a summer associate in 1987 and began work there as an associate in the fall of 1988.
Given the important role that Ayers and Dohrn are said to have played in the Obama campaign for president, off the official rolls, of course, and the congruence of world views at work in Obama’s policies as President with those of Ayers and Dohrn (see, for example, support for certain policies in education and even to an extent the “relativist” world view that animates Obama “foreign policy”) a more complete understanding of this relationship is important. It only made sense for Ayers to approve Obama as CAC board chairman if he felt Obama shared his agenda for education reform in Chicago. Indeed, as many posts here have explained, the CAC was deeply engaged in the so-called “Chicago School Wars” of that era and Ayers would have wanted a reliable ally leading the CAC he had worked so hard to initiate and establish in Chicago.
Of course, the appointment of Obama to the highly visible CAC board chairmanship in early 1995 was a vital step in the young and ambitious politician’s career. Obama touted that experience in his first political campaign for the state senate that he began in the fall of 1995, a campaign, Ayers also confirms in the Daily Beast, that began with a fundraiser hosted by Ayers and Dohrn in their stylish Hyde Park town house.
It has always seemed likely, then, that the two first “crossed paths,” to use The Times’ phrase, during an earlier battle in that war, perhaps during the battle of 1987-88 to win the school reform legislation that both individuals say they supported. That reform bill established local school councils (LSC’s) in Chicago as an additional layer of school management and it was, in fact, a central task of the later CAC effort funded by the Annenberg grant to help strengthen those LSC’s in the face of an attack by then Mayor Daley. As one independent analyst of the CAC effort concluded: ”The Challenge sought to build on the momentum of the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act which had radically decentralized governance of the Chicago Public Schools.”
The “drip, drip, drip” approach Ayers is now using to acknowledge his relationship with Obama is not likely to be very helpful. One would hope that ambitious journalists like Scott Shane or David Remnick would be motivated to sort all this out but that seems likely to remain only a vain hope.