Book Review: Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident by Bill Ayers

Although likely becoming prosaic, the phrases “walk the walk” and “talk the talk” remain effective shorthand. Their meaning is seen in the story of Bill Ayers. A founder of the radical Weathermen, Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn spent 10 years underground as a result of their actions against the Viet Nam War. After their emergence Ayers maintained his political beliefs, earned masters and doctorate degrees in education, and became a Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago — and a lightning rod in the 2008 presidential campaign.

public enemyThe title of his new book, Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident, is based on his portrayal in the media and blogosphere in 2008. During a debate with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama was asked about his association with Ayers, who was described as someone who “never apologized” for bombings at New York City Police Department headquarters, the United States Capitol building and the Pentagon in the early 1970s. Ayers’ connection with Obama consisted of hosting a fundraiser for him when he ran for the Illinois Senate in 1995, serving on some nonprofit boards together and living in the same neighborhood in Chicago. For the most part, though, he was portrayed as an “unrepentant domestic terrorist.”

Ayers examined his time with Students for a Democratic Society, the Weathermen and life underground in Fugitive Days: Memoirs of an Anti-War Activist — released on September 11, 2001. Public Enemy traces his life after that, with particular focus on becoming “a punching bag” in the 2008 presidential campaign. Becoming the captive of a political whirlwind led to cancellation of speeches and appearances, people chanting “Kill him!” when Sarah Palin mentioned him at a campaign rally, inaccuracies about him and his past, and significant hate email and mail and threats. For example, Ayers received a letter from “Sniper,” saying, “Watch your back! Your time is coming!” The letter, postmarked in California, included a recent picture of his front door.

The charges leveled against him during the campaign included killing people in Weatherman bombings and shooting and killing a police officer. Yet, Ayers points out, “[n]ot only did I never kill or injure anyone, but in the six years of its existence the Weather Underground never killed or injured anyone either.” He contends the Weather Underground’s “notoriety, then and now, outstripped our activity on every count.” Ayers, in fact, was never prosecuted on any charges for his role in or actions with the Weathermen. (Dohrn did plead guilty to and was placed on probation for aggravated battery and jumping bail.)

This statement is one example of what some may see as spin in Public Enemy‘s version of various events and history. For example, while not intended, three members of the Weathermen died when a bomb being constructed in a New York City townhouse exploded in 1970. And the six-year timeframe allows Ayers to exclude the 1981 Brinks robbery involving several Weather Underground members in which two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed. In fairness, though, that occurred the year after Ayers and Dohrn turned themselves in and several years after the Weather Underground splintered and essentially ceased to exist.

There is one thing on which Ayers is crystal clear. He is, in fact, unrepentant and remains committed to the ideals that motivated his activism in the first place. Despite repeated demands made by the media and others during the presidential campaign, Ayers refuses to apologize for things he never did and stands behind his beliefs.

I was happy to discuss anything and I was able to openly regret lots of things in a range of settings, but somehow stubbornly unwilling to say a single line: I’m sorry I engaged in extreme tactics to oppose the [Viet Nam] war; I’m sorry I destroyed war materials and government property.

I’m not sorry about that, and I can’t say with any conviction that I am. Opposing the US invasion of Viet Nam with every fiber of my being was simply not one of my regrets.

Likewise, he makes clear that he and Dohrn remain “open and outspoken radicals” with “a strong reserve of romance and idealism” aimed at “a freer and more peaceful future.” Public Enemy does, though, recognize that dogmatism, orthodoxy and inflexibility perhaps doomed the New Left of the Sixties and Seventies. “My own strict system of received wisdom and right beliefs was as controlling and totalizing as any other fundamentalism — religious, political, or cultural,” he writes. “It left me along with several close comrades isolated in a well-lit prison of our own construction with a blinding light bulb hanging from the ceiling by a single strand of wire.”

That light came back on in the 2008 presidential election, making Ayers a poster boy for so-called domestic terrorism and a not-so-subtle contention that Obama was a radical. Even if his methods changed with age, Ayers’ insistence on both talking the talk and walking the walk of his political beliefs helped elevate him to the status of a public enemy. Public Enemy is his way of detailing the cost of the divisive factions in American politics and telling people that he remains unbowed and unrepentant.

The Sixties were neither as brilliant and ecstatic as some wanted to imagine, nor the devil’s own workshop as others insisted, and whatever it was, it remained mostly prelude.

Bill Ayers, Public Enemy

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