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Bill Ayers, Explained

This is long, but I think it is as comprehensive as it gets on Obama's relationship with Ayers. More after the jump.

In last nights debate, Sen. McCain demanded more details on Sen. Obama's relationship with former Weather Underground member William Ayers, saying "I don't care about an old, washed-up terrorist. But as Senator Clinton said in her debates with you, we need to know the full extent of that relationship." He added that Obama launched his political career in Ayers' living room.

Is it true? And does Obama "pal around with a terrorist," as Sen. McCain's running mate has alleged? Here is the full extent of the relationship:

Though Obama and Ayers know each other, and have been "certainly friendly," as Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod once acknowledged, no one who knows them both that I or other reporters have talked to say they are particularly close. They know each other, live in the same neighborhood, and are friendly and cordial with one another. They were both involved with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school reform initiative funded by a prominent Republican's charitable foundation, and attended at least a dozen of so meetings together. They served together on the board of a charitable organization called the Woods Fund of Chicago, whose goal is to increase opportunities for the poor in the Chicago area. Ayers did host a coffee in his home for Obama to meet other potential supporters of his first run for public office, the Illinois State Senate in 1995, but so did several others in the district. In fact, some who remember the event say it was organized by Obama's predecessor, State Sen. Alice Palmer, who had announced she would run for Congress and was helping Obama. Again, no one says Obama and Ayers were especially close or that they ever "palled around together."

And while some may quibble with this, Ayers is not a currently a terrorist. Former terrorist? Maybe. While the FBI at one point labeled the Weather Underground as "a domestic terror group," the group no longer exists. Ayers admits to being a founding member of the group and to participating in planning, making and setting a few bombs, including one at the US capitol and the pentagon. But none of the bombings attributed to him ever caused any physical harm to individuals - no injuries, no deaths - only building damage. He was never on the FBI's most wanted list, but his wife, Bernadine Dohrn, was. They both Charges were filed against both but dropped in 1980. Regardless, Sen. Obama again tonight denounced the actions of Ayers in the last 60's and early '70's, "Forty years ago, when I was 8 years old, he engaged in despicable acts with a radical domestic group. I have roundly condemned those acts... Mr. Ayers is not involved in my campaign. He has never been involved in this campaign. And he will not advise me in the White House."

Some say once a terrorist, always a terrorist. Ayers was quoted in 2001 as saying he doesn't regret what he did, and that he feels he and others in the Weather Underground didn't do enough, but he has later contended that those quotes were taken out of context and that he does regret his use of violence to protest the Vietnam War. His level of repentance is open to interpretation, but he hasn't engaged in such acts for at least 35 years, so if Ayers is still a terrorist, then by that definition, John McCain is currently an adulterer, and the Chicago Cubs are a championship baseball team, because they did win the World Series in 1908.

And one more thing about this Ayers controversy: Ever notice that the Republicans and surrogates fanning the flames on Barack Obama's association with Ayers are not from Chicago or Illinois? That's because many Illinois Republicans and conservative civic and business leaders in Chicago have some of the exact same ties to Ayers as Obama does. Among those who also served on the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge with Obama include former University of Illinois President Stanley Ikenberry, former Northwestern University President Arne Weber, the head of the city's most powerful business group, R. Eden Martin, top executives from petroleum giant BP Amoco, investment banking giant UBS, and the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, a newspaper that has never in it's history endorsed a Democrat for President, served with Obama on the CAC board. The former executive director of the organization says Obama was no closer to Ayers than any other board member. And Ayers was NOT on the board, just part of a large advisory group of educators, school reformers, and business leaders who weighted in on issues and projects that came before the board.

Ayers efforts with two other prominent school reform advocates in Chicago to secure the Annenberg funding were applauded by Republican former Illinois Governor Jim Edgar and GOP legislators, along with Democratic Mayor Richard Daley (who around here is considered as conservative as many Republicans). As I remember it, they all stood alongside Ayers at a news conference in January, 1995, announcing the Annenberg challenge grant. I covered Chicago's school reform movement very closely in the 1990's. Bill Ayers was a vital participant, but so, too were many conservative business leaders, Republican ex-legislators and fundraisers. No one said a word about Ayers past then. It just wasn't a problem or an issue.

And as Obama correctly mentioned, Walter Annenberg himself, who funded the school reform effort nationally and in Chicago, was a conservative Republican. The publishing magnate considered Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and the first President Bush friends and hosted them at his home. He was Nixon's ambassador to Great Britain. Hardly a lefty radical.

Again, there has almost never been any outrage in Chicago about Ayers efforts over the last 20-plus years to help reform urban education, no outrage when he was awarded Chicago's "Citizen of the Year" award by Mayor Daley in 1997, and no outrage over Ayers' ties with any politicians, Republican or Democrat over the last 20 years.

Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn this week did a search through his newspaper's archives and out of 60 references to Ayers, he found only two items since 1990 critical of Ayers past, both columns by the late, great Mike Royko, in 1990 and 1993. He considered Ayers, "a jerk."

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