Someone much discussed — but little heard from — during the presidential campaign is now on the road and speaking his mind.
The Republican ticket tried to make an issue of Bill Ayers, a onetime 1960s militant, and his Chicago hometown connections to President-elect Obama. Playing up the Obama-Ayers connection at a rally, vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said, "Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country."
Ayers' political image in 2008 often boiled down to his mug shot from the 1960s — wild-haired and defiant. He looked like the organizer of a group that would set off bombs to protest the war in Vietnam and racism in America — the Weather Underground.
That's the image still held by conservative activists who gathered Monday night outside the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., where Ayers was speaking during a stop on his book tour.
"We're out here basically saying, 'Why are we entertaining and celebrating this despicable person?' " a protester said.
Inside, of course, was a different spirit. Like many others in the audience, D.C. resident Vijay Phulwani said he is concerned about urban education — a subject on which Ayers has become a nationally known scholar.
"Rather than all of the political stuff that's been going on — though that makes it a little more entertaining — it was really the work that he's done since then that I'm here to learn more about tonight," Phulwani said.
More than 150 people filled the pews. The event had been moved from a local restaurant called Busboys and Poets.
"We were getting so many calls and so many requests for media to be here that we felt it just outgrew our Langston Room at Busboys and Poets," said Don Allen, who manages the restaurant's bookstore.
Some of Ayers' books were on sale: City Kids City Teachers and To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher.
Conspicuously absent was Fugitive Days, about his decade evading the FBI. There's a new paperback edition out, but Don Allen said he forgot to stock it.
Ayers' hair is short now. Standing at the microphone, he wore a sweater, sport coat and jeans. Both of his ears are pierced. He carried a file folder and a water bottle.
He talked about education. He praised teachers, and trashed standardized tests.
And in a voice that didn't exactly evoke "fire-breathing radical," he quoted a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks about a boy who vandalized a school. The boy says he wanted to create: " 'If not a note, then a hole, if not an overture, then a desecration. But I shall create.' And that's the aspiration of every human being — to create, to be seen, to be noticed, to make a difference, to leave your footprint in the sand. And if we don't provide that for kids, if we don't open that creative vent, then we for sure open the destructive vent."
Ayers circled the big questions: What about the campaign? Would he do what he has refused to do — apologize for the Weather Underground?
He joked that he doesn't like being described as a guy of the '60s.
"I am so much a guy of right now. OK, I lived in the '60s. I apologize. You hear that, Clarence? I just apologized."
And for someone who has been described as "silent," Ayers had a lot to say.
"I haven't wanted to give a sound bite to the sound bite culture," he said.
He noted proudly that as GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Palin attacked him, their poll numbers kept going down.
"It may well be the last time that the Richard Nixon playbook gets brought fully to the fore. It's a failure," Ayers said.
After that reflection on the election, a few people got up and left.
Ayers took one more question. Then people crowded around him as he signed copies of his books — about education.