As Election Spotlight Dims, Ayers The Author Speaks During the presidential election campaign, the Republican ticket tried to make an issue out of Barack Obama's association with William Ayers, a 1960s-era radical who later served on a charitable board with Obama. Ayers wasn't heard from much during the campaign. Now the nationally known scholar on urban education is on a book tour.
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As Election Spotlight Dims, Ayers The Author Speaks

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As Election Spotlight Dims, Ayers The Author Speaks

As Election Spotlight Dims, Ayers The Author Speaks

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We're going to hear next from someone who was much discussed, but rarely heard during the presidential campaign. He's on the road, speaking his mind. The Republican ticket made an issue of Bill Ayers, a onetime '60s militant, and his ties in Chicago to President-elect Barack Obama. Here's vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin playing up the Obama-Ayers connection at a rally last fall.

(Soundbite of Republican campaign rally)

Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

INSKEEP: That's Sarah Palin during the campaign. Now Ayers is doing a book tour. And last night he was in Washington. NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: Bill 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 last night outside the All Souls Unitarian Church in D.C.

Unidentified Protester: We're out here basically saying, why are we entertaining and celebrating, you know, this despicable person?

OVERBY: Inside, of course, was a different spirit. Like many others in the audience, district resident Vijay Phulwani said he's concerned about urban education, a subject on which Ayers has become a nationally known scholar.

Mr. VIJAY PHULWANI: And so, you know, rather than all of the political stuff that's been going on - though that makes it a little more entertaining - it was really that work that he's done since then that's interesting, that I'm here to learn more about tonight.

OVERBY: More than 150 people filled the pews. The event had been moved from a local restaurant called Busboys and Poets. Don Allen manages the restaurant's bookstore.

Mr. DON ALLEN (Manager, Busboys and Poets): We were getting so many calls and people - and so many requests for the media to be here that we just felt that it outgrew our Langston Room at Busboys and Poets.

OVERBY: Some of Ayers books were on sale. "City Kids City Teachers," "To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher." Conspicuously absent, "Fugitive Days," about his decade evading the FBI. There's a new paperback edition out, but Don Allen says he forgot to stock it.

Ayers came to the microphone. His hair is short now. He wore a sweater, sport coat, and jeans. He's got both ears 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. It's about a boy who vandalized a school. The boy says he wanted to create.

(Soundbite of poem by Gwendolyn Brooks)

Professor WILLIAM AYERS (Professor of Education, University of Illinois at Chicago; Writer; Former Member, Weather Underground): (Reading) If not a note, then a hole. If not an overture, then a desecration. But I shall create."

Professor AYERS: 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, we for sure open the destructive vent.

OVERBY: Ayers circled the big questions, what about the campaign? Would he do what he's refused to do - apologize for the Weather Underground? He joked that he doesn't like being described as a guy of the '60s.

Professor AYERS: I am so much a guy of right now. OK, I lived in the '60s. I apologize. You hear that, Clarence? I just apologized.

OVERBY: And for someone who's been described as silent, Ayers had a lot to say.

Professor AYERS: I haven't wanted to give a soundbite to the soundbite culture.

OVERBY: He noted proudly that as John McCain and Sarah Palin attacked him, their poll numbers kept going down.

Professor AYERS: It may well be the last time that the Richard Nixon playbook gets brought fully to the floor. It's a failure.

OVERBY: 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 on education. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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