Bill Ayers once may have had dreams of influencing American history, but the onetime Weatherman and present-day academic will end up no more than a footnote to history in the same category as Willie Horton. His institutional association with Barack Obama inspired Republicans to wage a guilt-by-association campaign against the Illinois Democrat as he rose from community activist to U.S. Senator to President of the United States. Like Saul Alinsky and Jeremaiah Wright, Ayers was one of those allegedly influential figures offered as proof that Obama was a dangerous left-wing radical, all of Obama's own utterances and policies notwithstanding. In light of today's news, it's strange that one of the arguably most damaging bits of Ayers's record, to him if not to Obama, never came up, as far as I can recall, during the 2008 campaign.
Ayers has just retired from his post at the University of Illinois-Chicago and is due for an honorific grant of emeritus rank. The university trustees have voted unanimously to deny that rank to Ayers after their chairman, Christopher Kennedy, noted that Ayers, as a co-author of a 1974 book on "revolutionary anti-imperialism," had included among its dedicatees none other than Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of the chairman's father, Robert F. Kennedy. The murdered man's son notes that Ayers, to his knowledge, has never expressed remorse for so honoring Sirhan.
A Google search reveals that Republican operatives did discover the damning dedication in 2008, but not until practically the last minute of the Presidential campaign. Most references liking Ayers to Sirhan date from late October and early November of that year. By then, the general electorate had grown quite tired of hearing about Ayers and was satisfied that his history, whatever you made of it, had nothing to do with Barack Obama. Some Republicans still feel that the media failed (willfully, some no doubt believe) to probe fully Ayers's alleged influence on the President. Today's news may revive Ayers as a scarecrow for the congressional election stretch run, given that the denunciation comes from a source that presumably cannot be dismissed as a right-wing crank. If so, it should be recalled that nothing in the news today proves a closer connection between Ayers and Obama than most people assume to have existed. What today's story should disprove is any lingering notion that a liberal establishment somehow condones Ayers's career and opinions. While the collective authorship of Prairie Fire throws Ayers's personal responsibility for the dedication to Sirhan open to question, it should be obvious that no one involved in such a project would be very welcome in Democratic establishment circles. There is a difference between that establishment and the erstwhile terrorists on the "anti-imperialist" left, no matter what Republicans say to the contrary. Fortunately, there are options in between as well.