William Ayers, left, in 1980 with his wife, Bernardine Dohrn.
CHICAGO — At a tumultuous meeting of anti-Vietnam War militants at the Chicago Coliseum in 1969, Bill Ayers helped found the radical Weathermen, launching a campaign of bombings that would target the Pentagon and United States Capitol.
Twenty-six years later, at a lunchtime meeting about school reform in a Chicago skyscraper, Barack Obama met Mr. Ayers, by then an education professor. Their paths have crossed sporadically since then, at a coffee Mr. Ayers hosted for Mr. Obama’s first run for office, on the schools project and a charitable board, and in casual encounters as Hyde Park neighbors.
Their relationship has become a touchstone for opponents of Mr. Obama, the Democratic senator, in his bid for the presidency. Video clips on YouTube, including a new advertisement that was broadcast on Friday, juxtapose Mr. Obama’s face with the young Mr. Ayers or grainy shots of the bombings.
In a televised interview last spring, Senator John McCain, Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, asked, “How can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings that could have or did kill innocent people?”
More recently, conservative critics who accuse Mr. Obama of a stealth radical agenda have asserted that he has misleadingly minimized his relationship with Mr. Ayers, whom the candidate has dismissed as “a guy who lives in my neighborhood” and “somebody who worked on education issues in Chicago that I know.”
A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63. But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called “somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8.”
Obama campaign aides said the Ayers relationship had been greatly exaggerated by opponents to smear the candidate.
“The suggestion that Ayers was a political adviser to Obama or someone who shaped his political views is patently false,” said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman. Mr. LaBolt said the men first met in 1995 through the education project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and have encountered each other occasionally in public life or in the neighborhood. He said they have not spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail messages since Mr. Obama began serving in the United States Senate in January 2005 and last met more than a year ago when they bumped into each other on the street in Hyde Park.
In the stark presentation of a 30-second advertisement or a television clip, Mr. Obama’s connections with a man who once bombed buildings and who is unapologetic about it may seem puzzling. But in Chicago, Mr. Ayers has largely been rehabilitated.
Federal riot and bombing conspiracy charges against him were dropped in 1974 because of illegal wiretaps and other prosecutorial misconduct, and he was welcomed back after years in hiding by his large and prominent family. His father, Thomas G. Ayers, had served as chief executive of Commonwealth Edison, the local power company.
Since earning a doctorate in education at Columbia in 1987, Mr. Ayers has been a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the author or editor of 15 books, and an advocate of school reform.
“He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said in an interview this week, explaining that he has long consulted Mr. Ayers on school issues. Mr. Daley, whose father was Chicago’s mayor during the street violence accompanying the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the so-called Days of Rage the following year, said he saw the bombings of that time in the context of a polarized and turbulent era.
“This is 2008,” Mr. Daley said. “People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.”
That attitude is widely shared in Chicago, but it is not universal. Steve Chapman, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, defended Mr. Obama’s relationship with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., his longtime pastor, whose black liberation theology and “God damn America” sermon became notorious last spring. But he denounced Mr. Obama for associating with Mr. Ayers, whom he said the University of Illinois should never have hired.
“I don’t think there’s a statute of limitations on terrorist bombings,” Mr. Chapman said in an interview, speaking not of the law but of political and moral implications.
“If you’re in public life, you ought to say, ‘I don’t want to be associated with this guy,’ ” Mr. Chapman said. “If John McCain had a long association with a guy who’d bombed abortion clinics, I don’t think people would say, ‘That’s ancient history.’ ”
Mr. Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, a clinical associate professor at Northwestern University Law School who was also a Weather Underground founder, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The Schools Project
The Ayers-Obama connection first came to public attention last spring, when both Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Obama’s Democratic primary rival, and Mr. McCain brought it up. It became the subject of a television advertisement in August by the anti-Obama American Issues Project and drew new attention recently on The Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page and elsewhere as the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge at the University of Illinois were opened to researchers.
That project was part of a national school reform effort financed with $500 million from Walter H. Annenberg, the billionaire publisher and philanthropist and President Richard M. Nixon’s ambassador to the United Kingdom. Many cities applied for the Annenberg money, and Mr. Ayers joined two other local education activists to lead a broad, citywide effort that won nearly $50 million for Chicago.
In March 1995, Mr. Obama became chairman of the six-member board that oversaw the distribution of grants in Chicago. Some bloggers have recently speculated that Mr. Ayers had engineered that post for him.
In fact, according to several people involved, Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama’s appointment. Instead, it was suggested by Deborah Leff, then president of the Joyce Foundation, a Chicago-based group whose board Mr. Obama, a young lawyer, had joined the previous year. At a lunch with two other foundation heads, Patricia A. Graham of the Spencer Foundation and Adele Simmons of the MacArthur Foundation, Ms. Leff suggested that Mr. Obama would make a good board chairman, she said in an interview. Mr. Ayers was not present and had not suggested Mr. Obama, she said.
Ms. Graham said she invited Mr. Obama to dinner at an Italian restaurant in Chicago and was impressed.
“At the end of the dinner I said, ‘I really want you to be chairman.’ He said, ‘I’ll do it if you’ll be vice chairman,’ ” Ms. Graham recalled, and she agreed.
Archives of the Chicago Annenberg project, which funneled the money to networks of schools from 1995 to 2000, show both men attended six board meetings early in the project — Mr. Obama as chairman, Mr. Ayers to brief members on school issues.
It was later in 1995 that Mr. Ayers and Ms. Dohrn hosted the gathering, in their town house three blocks from Mr. Obama’s home, at which State Senator Alice J. Palmer, who planned to run for Congress, introduced Mr. Obama to a few Democratic friends as her chosen successor. That was one of several such neighborhood events as Mr. Obama prepared to run, said A. J. Wolf, the 84-year-old emeritus rabbi of KAM Isaiah Israel Synagogue, across the street from Mr. Obama’s current house.
“If you ask my wife, we had the first coffee for Barack,” Rabbi Wolf said. He said he had known Mr. Ayers for decades but added, “Bill’s mad at me because I told a reporter he’s a toothless ex-radical.”
“It was kind of a nasty shot,” Mr. Wolf said. “But it’s true. For God’s sake, he’s a professor.”
In 1997, after Mr. Obama took office, the new state senator was asked what he was reading by The Chicago Tribune. He praised a book by Mr. Ayers, “A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court,” which Mr. Obama called “a searing and timely account of the juvenile court system.” In 2001, Mr. Ayers donated $200 to Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign.
In addition, from 2000 to 2002, the two men also overlapped on the seven-member board of the Woods Fund, a Chicago charity that had supported Mr. Obama’s first work as a community organizer in the 1980s. Officials there said the board met about a dozen times during those three years but declined to make public the minutes, saying they wanted members to be candid in assessing people and organizations applying for grants.
A board member at the time, R. Eden Martin, a corporate lawyer and president of the Commercial Club of Chicago, described both men as conscientious in examining proposed community projects but could recall nothing remarkable about their dealings with each other. “You had people who were liberal and some who were pretty conservative, but we usually reached a consensus,” Mr. Martin said of the panel.
Since 2002, there is little public evidence of their relationship.
If by then the ambitious politician was trying to keep his distance, it would not be a surprise. In an article that by chance was published on Sept. 11, 2001, The New York Times wrote about Mr. Ayers and his just-published memoir, “Fugitive Days,” opening with a quotation from the author: “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.”
Three days after the Qaeda attacks, Mr. Ayers wrote a reply posted on his Web site to clarify his quoted remarks, saying the meaning had been distorted.
“My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy,” he wrote. But he added that the Weathermen had “showed remarkable restraint” given the nature of the American bombing campaign in Vietnam that they were trying to stop.
Most of the bombs the Weathermen were blamed for had been placed to do only property damage, a fact Mr. Ayers emphasizes in his memoir. But a 1970 pipe bomb in San Francisco attributed to the group killed one police officer and severely hurt another. An accidental 1970 explosion in a Greenwich Village town house basement killed three radicals; survivors later said they had been making nail bombs to detonate at a military dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. And in 1981, in an armed robbery of a Brinks armored truck in Nanuet, N.Y., that involved Weather Underground members including Kathy Boudin and David Gilbert, two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed.
In his memoir, Mr. Ayers was evasive as to which bombings he had a hand in, writing that “some details cannot be told.” By the time of the Brinks robbery, he and Ms. Dohrn had emerged from underground to raise their two children, then Chesa Boudin, whose parents were imprisoned for their role in the heist.
Little Influence Seen
Mr. Obama’s friends said that history was utterly irrelevant to judging the candidate, because Mr. Ayers was never a significant influence on him. Even some conservatives who know Mr. Obama said that if he was drawn to Ayers-style radicalism, he hid it well.
“I saw no evidence of a radical streak, either overt or covert, when we were together at Harvard Law School,” said Bradford A. Berenson, who worked on the Harvard Law Review with Mr. Obama and who served as associate White House counsel under President Bush. Mr. Berenson, who is backing Mr. McCain, described his fellow student as “a pragmatic liberal” whose moderation frustrated others at the law review whose views were much farther to the left.
Some 15 years later, left-leaning backers of Mr. Obama have the same complaint. “We’re fully for Obama, but we disagree with some of his stands,” said Tom Hayden, the 1960s activist and former California legislator, who helped organize Progressives for Obama. His group opposes the candidate’s call for sending more troops to Afghanistan, for instance, “because we think it’s a quagmire just like Iraq,” he said. “A lot of our work is trying to win over progressives who think Obama is too conservative.”
Mr. Hayden, 68, said he has known Mr. Ayers for 45 years and was on the other side of the split in the radical antiwar movement that led Mr. Ayers and others to form the Weathermen. But Mr. Hayden said he saw attempts to link Mr. Obama with bombings and radicalism as “typical campaign shenanigans.”
“If Barack Obama says he’s willing to talk to foreign leaders without preconditions,” Mr. Hayden said, “I can imagine he’d be willing to talk to Bill Ayers about schools. But I think that’s about as far as their relationship goes.”