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Bill Ayers’ Fugitive Days: A Memoir, reviewed by Mark Webster 


Not all violent cowards wear robes and strange headdress.  Some wear jeans and t-shirts. 


On the morning of September 11, 2001, before I learned about the terrorists’ attacks in New York and Washington, I read an article in The New York Times about a man who bragged about bombing the Pentagon years ago.  His name? Bill Ayers, the author of the book to be reviewed.  Ayers was an upper middle class college dropout whose role as a peace activist led him to commit acts of violence.  In the Pentagon incident in the early 70’s, a co-conspirator left a two-pound bomb in a Pentagon bathroom which destroyed some government bathroom fixtures but fortunately harmed no one.  As a result, Ayers and his eventual wife, Bernadine Dohrn, the Lady Macbeth of the peace movement, became fugitives from justice for over a decade.  


The book strikes a false note from the beginning.  Although labeled a “memoir,” Ayers calls the book a “memory book rather than a transcript.” This permits him to have his story both ways.  He can omit details to protect fellow criminals or to avoid confronting painful truths.  At the same time, he can make up or distort events because he never promised to tell it straight.  As a result, he fogs the text with poetic jabbering about memory, a technique William Faulkner used more effectively in his great novel Light in August.   


Ayers sees himself as a peace activist and a soldier in the war against racism.  In truth, he was a violent thug who held politically correct, racially biased views, which made it impossible to criticize the black thuggery he witnessed.  From an early age, he loved zip guns and homemade bombs.  In high school, he became radicalized by reading Rousseau, Thoreau, and Marx and decided to leave his comfortable life with his powerful father and loving mother in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and hit the road like an aggressive Don Quixote, righting wrongs in the name of peace and love. 


He seems to have been present at every mayor “sixties” event except Woodstock.  He was part of the protest at the Democratic party convention in 1968.  He claims to have furthered the cause of peace by goading the local police into violence.  I think it prolonged the war in Vietnam.  Americans watched the convention in horror and cast their votes for Wallace and Nixon and not Humphrey.  Had Humphrey been elected, I feel the war would have ended by 1970.  The election of Nixon prolonged the war until 1975. 


The war against the Chicago police speaks volumes about Ayers and the protesters.  On the one hand, thugs such as Ayers dressed down to affect blue collar appearances when in fact they came from comfortable suburbs, attended world famous universities, found ways to avoid military service, and traveled around the county attending concerts and protests.  The police, on the other hand, were true blue collar workers in a double sense.  They were roughly the same age, were high school graduates, were often veterans, and were community bound with families and responsibilities.  The “students” assaulted the police and richly earned the masochistic beating they received.  However, in the sixties, losers became winners by losing on live television.   


On two occasions, Ayers and company blew up a statute of a policeman at Haymarket Square in Chicago.  They excused this by calling it street theater and by appealing to the historical argument that over seventy five years before the police had caused that riot, too.  These punks also struck a blow for justice by breaking Timothy Leary out of a minimum security prison, which I’m not sure Leary wanted to leave.  In the Days of Rage riots in Chicago, the thugs ran through the streets shouting rhymes about Ho Chi Minh, screaming like the fighters in the film The Battle of Algiers, and breaking the windshields of expensive cars.  This was nothing more than hooliganism dressed up in revolutionary rhetoric. 


The greatest tragedy he experiences is the death of a former girlfriend and two other Weathermen  in an explosion at a Greenwich Village townhouse.  His friend was a former elementary school teacher and the daughter of a wealthy family.  I can only assume these amateur bomb manufacturers were intending to maim and kill others in the name of peace.  I can not mourn their deaths.   


Ayers sees himself as a real lover, with lots of girlfriends.   He writes Harlequin style love scenes, which are meant to portray his sensitivity and vulnerability with women.  He is more reticent about his sexual activity with men.   


Ayers sees himself as a revolutionary philosopher.  While on the lam, he and his fellow Weathermen established a Clandestine School for Cadre and produced a book called Prairie Fire.  The title is ironic, since Ayers and his cohorts polluted the countryside with the fragments of exploded practice bombs.  Nevertheless, he believes thousands of people read the book and thus created an “extended conversation.”  A monologue would have been more accurate.  Ayers brings to mind another cowardly bomber who wanted his work to be read: the Unabomber. 


Near the end of the nineties, Ayers and Dohrn made a pilgrimage to Vietnam.  They loved what they saw.  Ayers does not mention thought camps, the expulsion of the ethnic Chinese “boat people,” or even the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The Vietnamese he met assumed he was a veteran.  Ayers even has the gall to say he felt like a veteran, what with his homemade bombs and windshield smashing.  The wife of a Vietnamese couple they befriend gives Ayers and Dohrn a tin box made from the wreckage of an American airplane the woman had supposedly shot down as a little girl. Ayers and Dohrn fall for this.  They in turn give the couple copies of their wanted posters upon which they affix their autographs and write messages of “solidarity.”  This great gift, according to Ayers, created widened smiles which he takes as admiration for his value as a revolutionary.  The Vietnamese couple obviously thought this odd couple were forgettable traitorous fools, not famous street fighting revolutionaries.  They were laughing at Ayers, not with him.  Of course, he doesn’t remember it this way.


On the day I finished the book, I read an article in the October 2, 2001, Wall Street Journal, by John McDonough about Eric Hoffer’s 1951 book The True Believer.  He quoted Hoffer to say: “ a mass movement appeals not to those intent on bolstering and advancing a cherished self, but on those who crave to be rid of an unwanted self.”  Ayers’ pathetic life was an attempt to blow up his unwanted WASPish bourgeois self.  He failed. 


Ayers avoided prosecution and quietly slipped back into  bourgeois life as a sleeper revolutionary.  This would-be John Brown or Nat Turner is now a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.  He is the author of A Kind and Just Parent and is also a director of the Center for Youth and Society.  Allen Ginsberg’s taunt to Norman Podhoretz many years ago now rings true: “We’ll get you through your children!”


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