Obama's connection to Bill Ayers, like his connection to Jeremiah Wright, briefly became a campaign issue in 2008. The Obama campaign was quick to distance the candidate from the 60's domestic terrorist, even as blogs continued to dig up evidence connecting the two men. Eventually the issue became enough of a story that, on October 3rd, the NY Times weighed with a piece titled "Obama and ’60s Bomber: A Look Into Crossed Paths" by author Scott Shane. Looking back it's clear that the Times' story downplayed or overlooked some significant connections between the two men, connections which may have raised red flags for some voters.
According to Bill Ayers' next door neighbor, Senator Barack Obama was a guest at a 4th of July party Ayers hosted in 2005. The date is significant because it effectively undercuts the claim, made by the Obama campaign during the 2008 election cycle, that Obama and Ayers were merely acquaintances who had only crossed paths a few times since 2000. Obama's attendance at the party suggests they were friends.
Scott Shane clearly didn't know about the 2005 party. Indeed, he writes near the end of his piece "Since 2002, there is little public evidence of their relationship." But it now appears Shane was intentionally misled by Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt who he quotes as follows:
“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.
The claim that Obama hadn't "spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail" with Ayers since 2005 appears in retrospect to have been a Clintonian parsing of the truth. In fact, it now appears they spoke face to face at Ayers 4th of July party. But notice there's a bit of goalpost moving being done by LaBolt here as well. No one suggested that Ayers was a political adviser to candidate Obama. The suggestion was that the two men were friends and that the friendship might indicate that the two shared similar worldviews. That's the story the NY Times and the rest of the media never fully investigated in 2008.
Shane's story does note that the Obama-Ayers connection began with the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, a school grant initiative which Ayers helped bring to Chicago. Obama was later selected to be the Chairman of the Board for the CAC. Shane notes that "some bloggers" have suggested Ayers tapped Obama for the position but he goes on to explain this probably wasn't the case. The impression is that these unnamed bloggers have unfairly overstated the connection the two men shared.
However, Shane overlooks the more obvious (and easily documented) connection. Various boards on which Obama sat in the late 90s granted nearly $2 million dollars to Bill Ayers' Small Schools Workshop. This archived webpagenotes over one million granted to Ayers' project by the CAC, but the Woods Fund and Joyce Foundation (on whose Boards Obama also sat) granted nearly an additional million in donations to Ayers' group during the same time period.
In addition to donations to Ayers' Small Schools Workshop group, the same foundations donated $761,100 to a related group run by Ayers’ brother, John Ayers. In fact, in 2001 Obama would join the "leadership council" of a successor to the CAC called the Chicago Public Education Fund. Also on the leadership council of the group was Bill Ayers' brother John. (Documents demonstrating this connection have been hidden from view on the internet archive using robots.txt).
It's easy to claim that Obama and Ayers weren't "close." How does one measure "close" in the absence of detailed personal history that isn't available in this case. It's much harder to deny the connection implied by the nearly $3 million dollars Obama helped direct to Bill Ayers and his brother. Why didn't Shane Scott see fit to mention any of this?
Finally, one of the arguments the Obama campaign used in 2008 (dutifully repeated by the Times), was the suggestion that Bill Ayers radicalism was a thing of the distant past by the time Obama knew him:
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.”
This is extremely dishonest as it suggests that the only objectionable thing about Bill Ayers is his history as a domestic terrorist. Surely that would be enough for many people, but even putting his past aside there is ample evidence that Ayers is as radical now as he was then. On September 11th, 2001, Ayers was profiled by the NY Times in a piecewhich opened with Ayers saying "I don't regret setting bombs...I feel we didn't do enough." In 2010, Ayers' wife Bernadine Dohrn said in an interview that she and Bill "are radicals today" and added "we think the real terrorist is the American government." Just two months ago Ayers was in Union Square telling anyone who would listen "I get up every morning thinking today...I'm going to end capitalism." This is the adult who Barack Obama befriended in Chicago.
Ayers methods have certainly changed since the 60s, but his commitment to bringing down the American system has been a constant throughout his life. Therefore, it's fair to ask what Obama saw in Ayers, the committed anti-capitalist radical. It's also fair to ask why the NY Times (and the rest of the media) were so quick to dismiss the import of the connection. No one is saying Obama and Ayers were part of a secret cabal, but they do seem to have been friends over a period of years, so presumably they had something in common. Given Ayers' consistently extreme views on America and government, isn't that worth exploring?