Weather Underground Resurfaces in Campaign

The Weather Underground, a radical group prominent in the turbulent 1960s and '70s, has suddenly reappeared on the political scene. Attempts to tie both Democratic candidates to the group are creating buzz on the White House trail.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

If you search news reports from 35 years or so ago, you'll find headlines full of alarm about the Weather Underground.

That was a small network of home-grown radicals armed with bombs. Their efforts never went very far, but now, the Weather Underground has returned to the headlines, thanks to presidential politics.

NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: The Weathermen were white, well-to-do college activists. They went radical in 1969, getting attention with a violent rhetoric about bringing the Vietnam War home to America.

But in the annals of terrorism, the Weathermen's record doesn't amount too much. They planted bombs at the Pentagon, the Capitol, and many other buildings, but they issued warnings to avoid killing people. They never recruited any serious allies to their cause.

Bill Ayers, one of the founders, looked back in a 2003 documentary called the Weather Underground.

(Soundbite of documentary clip "Weather Underground")

Mr. BILL AYERS (Former Member, The Weather Underground): The war was escalating and murder was escalating and it was all being done in our names. And so, the sense was that we had to do whatever we had to do in order to stop the war.

OVERBY: We're talking about Bill Ayers today because presidential politics still aren't done with the 1960s. Ayers went from FBI fugitive to eventually a college professor well known in his field. He married another Weather Underground veteran, Bernadine Dohrn and they live in the same Chicago neighborhood as Barack Obama.

In 1995, when Obama first ran for Illinois state senate, Ayers and Dohrn hosted an introductory party for him. In 2001, Ayers gave $200 to Obama's campaign for the Illinois legislator. And from 1999 to 2002, Obama and Ayers were both on the board of a Chicago charity that promotes community development.

Now of course, Obama's running for president. This past Tuesday, ABC's George Stephanopoulos went on Sean Hannity's conservative radio talk show. It was the day before Stephanopoulos would question Obama and Hillary Clinton in a debate. Hannity laid out for Stephanopoulos the details of how Obama and Ayers know each other.

Mr. GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS (Chief Washington Correspondent, ABC News): Is that a question you might ask?

Unidentified Man: Well, I'm thinking that's right now.

OVERBY: Stephanopoulos now says he was following says he was following the Obama-Ayers connection long before this. In any case, he used the question on Wednesday.

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: On this issue, general theme's patriotism in your relationships. A gentleman named William Ayers.

OVERBY: Stephanopoulos went on about Ayers past.

Mr. STEPHANOPOULOS: Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate) George - but this is an example of what I'm talking about.

OVERBY: What Obama called a game of attributing other people's ideas to him quote, "no matter how flimsy the relationship is." Then Clinton weighed in on the Weathermen.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, Illinois; Presidential Candidate): What they did was set bombs. And in some instances people died.

OVERBY: Not exactly, says Brooks Jackson, Director of Factcheck.org.

Mr. BROOKS JACKSON (Director, Factcheck.org): Well, the fact is that the three people who died were Weather Underground members, themselves, who'd accidentally touched off one of their own bombs in a Greenwich Village town house.

OVERBY: It's also true that two former Weather Underground members had their sentences commuted in 2001 by President Bill Clinton, just before he left office. One had been involved in the Capitol bombing in 1971. The other had joined in a Brink's armored car robbery in 1981. A Brink's guard and two policemen were killed. The hold-up attempt failed. One of many last gasps of the 1960s. A decade that's both long gone and anything but forgotten.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

NORRIS: After four decades of acting, Helen Hunt goes behind the camera for the first time on film. We'll hear about her new film, "Then She Found Me." Next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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