At one point in The Company You Keep, Robert Redford’s new film about the residue of the Weather Underground, a character named Sharon Solarz is captured by the FBI after living under a series of aliases since her involvement in a Michigan bank robbery decades earlier in which a security guard was killed. Ruminating in her cell, she describes for a young journalist the moral dilemma people like her faced back then. They could either sit by and watch as America destroyed the innocent peasant culture of Vietnam or take arms against atrocity. She says decisively of her group’s decision to go all-in against the war in Vietnam, “We made mistakes, but we were right,” and then, after a beat, “I’d do it again.”
At about the same time that The Company You Keep was being previewed, New York University announced that it was appointing Kathy Boudin, real-life model for the Solarz character, as a 2013 scholar-in-residence at the law school. It might have been called a harmonic convergence back when the Weatherpeople first made news with their Days of Rage, but since then the college campus has been well established as a rehab center for members of the sect looking to reenter the mainstream. Before Boudin (who, in addition to the NYU gig, has an assistant professorship at the Columbia University School of Social Work), Mark Rudd, Howie Machtingter, and, of course, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers, Weatherman’s Bonnie and Clyde, all used university jobs to regain their footing as they resumed their pursuit of the revolution they once thought would be created by propaganda of the deed but concluded, after a few years of paranoid anonymity in the underground, might better be pursued through propaganda of the word.
Kathy Boudin was the hardest case. Still underground after the others had come up, she’d been the getaway driver in the notorious 1981 Brink’s robbery in which one guard was murdered. After her getaway vehicle was stopped, she lured four Nyack policemen who arrived on the scene into an ambush where they were cut down by the other gang members’ automatic weapons; two policemen were killed (including Waverly Brown, first black officer on the force). When she resurfaced after serving part of her murder sentence, she couldn’t very well use the defense of other Weather Underground members that they had, after all, engaged only in victimless crime, or that they were just antiwar protesters, America having fled in ignominy from the Saigon embassy six years before Brink’s. But the universities that brought her aboard not only offered respectability and a paycheck, but also, as writer Michael Moynihan has noted, purged her curriculum vitae of all its pungent factuality. NYU’s press release announcing her appointment merely certifies that Boudin has been “dedicated to community involvement in social change since the 1960’s.”
Social change, in fact, is also what Weatherman is all about in The Company You Keep. Redford’s character, Jim Grant, a former member of Solarz’s cell who has long since said goodbye to all that and made a new life (under a false identity) as a public interest lawyer and single father to his 11-year-old daughter, is outed by her capture. He then goes on a quest to find Mimi Lurie (Julie Christie), his lover from the underground days who also was part of the Michigan bank job and has been hiding out ever since. She is the only person who can prove that he wasn’t even there on the day the crime went down and thus help him keep the FBI from separating him from his child.
Grant’s quest takes him into the gauzy world inhabited by comrades from 40 years ago—one of them a lumber yard owner still guarding the secrets of the old gang with the fierce loyalty that the film sees as a sign of the group’s moral character; another is now a professor Grant finds in an Ann Arbor lecture hall discussing Marx (quelle surprise!) and then assigning Frantz Fanon for the next class session.
With their help, Grant finally meets with Mimi in a cabin in Upper Michigan, a love shack from their past. She is still committed to the cause and has no sympathy for his timorous second thoughts. They bicker about the way they were and the way they ought to be, and then, in a climactic scene, Mimi fiercely rebukes Grant’s bourgeois obsession about what will befall his daughter if he is arrested. She ends her little tirade by saying, as if she has stumbled on something profound, “I still believe in change!”
So when it comes right down to it, Weatherman didn’t really have anything to do with bomb factories, bruising criticism/self-criticism sessions (Maoist “gut checks”), draconian intercourse assignments to break down the bourgeois possessiveness of monogamy, wool gathering sessions about which cop to kill or politician to kidnap, or fantasies about imprisoning capitalists in vast political reeducation centers in the Southwest when America was finally conquered and liquidating them if they refused to recant. No, it was about change—premature Obamaism.
In a promo for the film with the New York Times’s David Carr, Redford says that he was “sympathetic” to the Weather Underground at the time, and understood its reasons for doing what it did, although he adds densely that he was also against their “turn to violence”—as if this group’s ends and means were ever divisible. He says that like them he too had paid a price for his beliefs. No wonder then that he portrays them as Weather-beaten martyrs in this film. No wonder that he sees them as idealists who might have been driven temporarily insane by an obscene war but have managed somehow to recover their ideals during the gray ambiguity that has enshrouded them ever since.
Weatherman was always radical, but how did it become chic? How did this group—proudly totalitarian in its day—get mainstreamed without ever having to undergo denazification? Why has it been allowed a rehabilitation without evincing at least a token of remorse?
The group has profited greatly from the time-lapse atonement our culture offers free of charge to those who simply hang on. Weatherman has no doubt also benefited from the leftward drift of our political world over the last 40 years, especially the etymological waterboarding of the term “liberal” to make it describe the radicals who killed authentic liberalism in the ’60s and then inhabited its corpse and claimed that it had always been them anyhow.
But it is also true that this sect, which was about nothing if not the triumph of the will, has created its own redemptive myth. Forty years ago, it might have been expected that the central architect of Weather revisionism would have been Bernardine Dohrn, the sensual face of the group from the moment it became news; the queen bee who maintained internal power by adroitly dispensing her royal jelly among all the jostling males of the group; the group’s sayer of the unsayable, as in her infamous reaction to the Manson murders: “Dig it! First they killed those pigs, then they ate their dinner in the same room with them, then they even stuck a fork into the pig Tate’s stomach. Wild!”
But today, while Bernardine is the lawyer, it’s her husband Bill Ayers who has successfully constructed, over time, the brief accepted by Redford and others that argues, all facts to the contrary, that Weatherman was not a terror group at all, but the last of the just.
Ayers was the first to understand that the universities, dominated in the 1980s by those who had failed to burn them down in the 1960s, could provide a rat line back to the real world. Weatherman had already pioneered the ideology about race, class, gender, and national evil that was finally taking over the academy, and when he surfaced in 1980 (unprosecuted because of irregularities in federal surveillance), he saw that someone like him could use that ideology as protective coloration when resuming the long march.
Briefly a teacher in a Summerhill-like school in his early radical years, Ayers enrolled at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1984 and embraced the “critical pedagogy” that was just then taking over the formation of teachers. This movement, as Sol Stern has pointed out in City Journal, charges that public schools reinforce the “oppressive hegemony” of the capitalist order, creating a sinister ideological tape loop that can only be destroyed by a “transformative” curriculum of “social justice.” With gurus such as Brazilian Marxist Paolo Freire urging on a radicalism that “does not conceal but proclaims its own political character,” critical pedagogy slowly infiltrated leftist ideas into every aspect of classroom teaching, including science and math, and created a prime hitchhiking opportunity for someone like Ayers, who already spoke the lingo.
He got his Ed.D., peewee version of the Ph.D., which led to a teaching job at the University of Illinois, where he began to pursue his old ideas by other means. He began writing and became general editor of a series of teaching-for-social-justice texts (a couple of them bestsellers) that were regarded as cutting edge by his new colleagues. By the mid-1990s he had established himself as an “education reformer” whose academic credibility, combined with his family connections, helped root him in the rich political humus of Chicago’s bien-pensant left.
But all this was just prologue for Ayers’s Big Project—constructing a counter-narrative about Weatherman that provided the script Sharon Solarz is reading from when she says in The Company You Keep that her cell of criminal revolutionaries was right, whatever mistakes it might have made.
Having spent years practicing on his students, Ayers makes the case with hyperthyroid fervor in his 2001 memoir Fugitive Days. He dramatizes himself as born in the U.S.A., a resident of white-bread America whose father was CEO of Commonwealth Edison in Chicago. He was a jock and a girl chaser and a frat boy in the making. But like others of his generation, he also had existential appetites and sensed the allure of alienation. Like them, he heard a beguiling voice in films such as The Wild One (where Marlon Brando, leader of a motorcycle gang terrorizing a small California city, announces the advent of the ’60s when a girl asks him what he’s rebelling against and he answers, “Whaddaya got?”). Finding authenticity in the civil rights and antiwar movements, Ayers tells how “Become who you are” was his credo and “Never let your life become a mockery of your values” his commitment.
Fugitive Days has other such moments of self-dramatization. Assuming his new occupation of activist, Ayers enthuses: “I bounced out of bed most mornings wondering how I could . . . embody justice and enact democracy.” And in anticipation of one of the early street actions where violence was in the air: “I was about to personally disrupt this war, and I tingled all over.” He also expresses, in moist prose, a generation’s narcissistic certainty of its own world historical “specialness, the exceptional good luck at being young and eager to take on the waiting world. . . . So much was in such desperate need of repair, after all, and here we were, expectant, intent, hot with a desire to know and to do. To live.”
He and his comrades were ready to begin the reconstruction project, but the politicians continued on their murderous course in Vietnam, which left the radicals no alternative but to go from The Wild One to The Wild Bunch. In 1969, a small core committed to the idea of “doing it” formed Weatherman, which both epitomized and euthanized the New Left, and resolved not to draw back from the brink of revolutionary violence where the rest of the Movement had halted. They went to war against Amerikkka without a second thought: “I was already a rebel and I would now become a freedom fighter.”
Embracing the identity of “vandals in the mother country,” Weatherman intended to slough off “white skin privilege” and open up “a front behind enemy lines and fight side by side with Black people.” But only a handful of black criminals joined them, and in any case, their plans ran afoul of the Greenwich Village Townhouse Explosion in the spring of 1970, in which three Weatherpeople died while building a nail bomb meant for a dance at Fort Dix for 18-year-old draftees headed ultimately to Vietnam. Among the dead was Ayers’s then-girlfriend Diana Oughton, identified by the fingertip that was all that was left of her; one of the two survivors was Kathy Boudin, who fled naked from the blast, never looking back on the journey that would lead her to solidarity with the mad dog Black Liberation Army a decade later and a murder rap for the Brink’s job that her father, Leonard Boudin, Communist consigliere to the old and new left for four decades, got his attorney friend Leonard Weinglass to whittle down to second-degree and 20 years.
The Townhouse established their street cred as people whose acts were consequential. (In Fugitive Days, Ayers visits the haunting void where the building once stood and allows it to summon up for him the hallowed dead, a Weather version of Arlington.) But it also was a cautionary tale. The group’s internal dynamics had always been based on the gut check, but in the explosion they had gut checked themselves.
Without the emotional impediment of the Townhouse, they might have taken the course of their continental cousins—the Red Brigades in Italy and the Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany. But instead, they decided that the prudent course was to stay put in the toy department of terrorism. Although Ayers ostentatiously mourns his loss, the tragedy provided him an important arguing point: The group only killed its own. He also threw the dead martyrs under the bus by implying that the bomb-makers were a faction; them, not us.
Following the Townhouse was the Underground—years of bombing runs, minimum wage jobs, cheesy disguises, and shabby apartments filled with the sour odor of fermented Vietnamese fish sauce which Ayers romanticizes as the time they learned to love their country again by discovering the real America of John Brown, Crazy Horse, and Denmark Vesey: “We disappeared then not from the world, but into a world, a world of invention and improvisation, a romance of space and distance and time, an outpost on the horizon of our imagination.”
Brent Staples was one of the few reviewers not to fall for it. Writing in the New York Times, which otherwise has been a megaphone for Ayers and Dohrn over the years (most egregiously in a 1993 article showing Bernardine as just another harried soccer mom, making healthy snacks and ferrying the kids Zayd Osceola—named for the Black Liberation Army soldier Zayd Shakur and the Seminole insurgent—and Malik Cochise—named for Malcolm X and the Apache guerrilla fighter—to all their events in a battered used car while also keeping up the fight against sexism), Staples nailed Fugitive Days as “partial telling [that] reaches fraudulence.”
Yet he misses the point. While Ayers is a mythomaniac in love with his own story, his intention is never to see his life steadily and see it whole. (He states puckishly in the text that his memory is fuzzy on how and where they set their bombs and certain other matters.) The book’s real purpose is to establish the talking points that would provide a second coming for Weatherman.
First, however “excessive” some of the things they did might have been, the body count in Southeast Asia made their actions penny ante by comparison. Six thousand Vietnamese died every week, Ayers repeats over and over in the book and in all the public statements since. In his chop logic, Weatherman could have had a body count of 5,999 and still been morally ahead. (That more people were killed in Southeast Asia in the first 3 years of the Communist peace than in all 13 years of the anti-Communist war goes unmentioned.) Vietnam is for him as God is to Voltaire: If it hadn’t existed he would have had to invent it, because in comparison to the napalmed villages, the families destroyed, and the bodies mutilated, what he and his comrades did was child’s play.
Second, in their days in the Underground, they behaved with restraint, destroying only property, not people. (“Even with justifiable rage we simply didn’t have it in us to harm others, especially innocents, no matter how tough we talked.”) But it was not for lack of trying that there was no body count. As Emory professor Harvey Klehr has said, this argument makes a virtue of incompetence.
Third, and contingent on the other two, they were never terrorists but rather activists engaged in symbolic acts. (“Terrorists destroy randomly, while our actions bore, we hoped, the precise stamp of a cut diamond. Terrorists intimidate while we only hoped to educate.”) This would be education by any means necessary.
Finally and most audaciously, they were no different from everyone else in the New Left, wanting only “to create a society more equal, more fair, more just, more caring”; if they were guilty of anything, it was a “grandiose innocence” in their delusive hope that they might actually help this heaven on earth come to be. But in fact, the rest of the ’60s left was deeply suspicious or outright hostile to Weatherman, which is why it remained a cult instead of becoming a movement.
Yet Ayers always wants to give free rein to his imp of the perverse, even if it means undermining the truth he is trying to manufacture. (Not long after emerging from the underground, he said to me and my friend David Horowitz, when asked how he felt about escaping prosecution, “Guilty as hell, free as a bird, America’s a great country.”) And so, at the end of Fugitive Days, after writing his brief, he dedicates it to H. Rap Brown, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, etc.
Different in their wickedness, these individuals were all cop killers. And Ayers himself had tendencies in this direction back in the bad old days, if we are to believe Bringing Down America, a little-noticed book written in 1976 (and recently reissued) by Larry Grathwohl, who infiltrated Weatherman for the FBI. (He was eagerly accepted at first because he was a Vietnam vet and from a working-class family and therefore the authentic “other.”) Assigned to one of its “affinity groups,” he saw action in the streets and met many members of the Weather Bureau, Weatherman’s ruling junta, notably Ayers himself.
In this unpolished book, Grathwohl describes the brain-dwarfing regimen—karate workouts, struggle sessions, bad meals, and sweaty spycraft to combat presumed surveillance. His cell aspired to be in the mold of the Uruguayan Tupamaros and used The Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla as its guide. Other hard-edged parts of the Movement might romanticize the example of Nguyen Van Troi, the Viet Cong cadre who tried to assassinate Robert McNamara in 1963 (Tom Hayden named his son Troy after him), but Weatherman, always willing to step further into the abyss, fixated on the obscure Marion Delgado, a 5-year-old Italian with an Alfred E. Newman smile who set a concrete block on railroad ties in the 1940s and derailed a freight train. Their war whoop was “Marion Delgado: Live like him!”
Writing about Ayers before he became a public figure, Grathwohl portrays him as one part twerp and one part thug, a mephitic presence who blew through town every once in a while to browbeat the cadre into becoming sharper tools of necessity.
Grathwohl says that Ayers himself conceived the idea of blowing up the Detroit Police Affairs Association building the week before the Townhouse because this group was defending the three cops involved in the “Algiers Motel incident.” He quotes Ayers: “We’ll blast that f—ing building to hell and we do it when the place is crowded.” When a couple dozen sticks of dynamite had been gathered, Grathwohl points out timorously that the patrons of the restaurant next to the building, many of whom were black, might be collateral damage. Ayers replies contemptuously, “We can’t protect all the innocent people in the world. Some will get killed.” (The bomb failed to go off.)
Ayers was always urging them to break on through to the other side: “Anybody can firebomb a police car, but we have to go beyond that stage.”
These were the heady months before the Townhouse, when they were still ready to go all the way. At one point, according to Grathwohl, Ayers reproaches members of the cell for their lack of initiative: “It’s a shame when someone like Bernardine has to make all the plans, make the bomb and then place it herself.” This may refer to the February 1970 bombing of the Park Police station in San Francisco, where one cop was killed and another injured by an especially vicious bomb filled with nails and construction staples. It is still an open case. According to a detailed investigative report by the San Francisco Weekly, Ayers and Dohrn were targets of a secret 2003 federal grand jury investigation of the bombing, and in 2009 the San Francisco Police Officers union formally accused them of being involved in the attack.
Grathwohl’s book unravels in advance the account Ayers wove in Fugitive Days 25 years later. Ayers’s argument that the sect never killed anyone (except its own) is shown to hinge on accident, not intention, and has a rancid odor.
While Fugitive Days was celebrated, Bringing Down America quickly disappeared down the memory hole. Today Grathwohl speaks to small gatherings of ultra-right groups. Ayers speaks to the New York Times.
It was exceptionally bad timing, it seemed, when Bill Ayers, on the promotion tour for his memoir, was quoted in the paper’s early edition on 9/11 as saying, “I don’t regret setting bombs. I feel we didn’t do enough.” Apparently worried that Ayers would appear louche, the paper sent another reporter for a follow-up five days later.
The growing acceptance of Ayers’s apologia for Weatherman was indicated by a 2002 PBS documentary on the Weather Underground that featured and flattered him and the others. He and his comrades had first had a starring role back in 1976, when Emile de Antonio made a documentary that didn’t show them but recorded their self-obsessed voiceovers from an undisclosed location. The producers of the PBS show didn’t have to bother with such huggermugger and showed a more mature version of Ayers and the others, while also noting on the program’s website that they viewed this group as “filled with righteous anger” and driven by “the idealist passions that transformed them from college activists into the FBI’s Most Wanted.”
The rehabilitation project got a huge boost a year later from Neil Gordon, author of the surprisingly well-received novel on which the Redford film is based. Gordon used a cloud of witnesses to present a revisionist view of the Weather Underground and in his author’s note thanks Ayers, whose intellectual fingerprints are all over the book.
One character says, for instance, that the Weathermen were “some of the biggest hearts and best minds of the times [who] put everything they believed into it” but were confronted by such illicit government power that it is natural they became “impatient.” Others utter exculpating vacuities such as, “She might have believed in the wrong thing, but at least she believed,” apparently unaware that the same might be said of Pol Pot. The Bank of Michigan job, where a guard was killed (by a mysterious Weather member, who, suspiciously like Larry Grathwohl, had been in Vietnam before joining the group and never fit in), is described as not one of the “normal” Weather actions in which “only property was destroyed.”
Although Weather Bureau members Billy and Bernardine and Jeff Jones had made it clear in their 1974 underground manifesto Prairie Fire, dedicated to assassin Sirhan Sirhan and others, that the group was for “the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie and establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat,” Gordon portrays them as the moral equivalent of Minutemen. His protagonist says, “In the ’70s, for the second time since 1776, white Americans defending the ideals of democracy took up arms against our government.” Another character associates the group with the country’s most fundamental identity: “We came to partake of the American myth of the maverick, the last wild horses roaming free along a western frontier.”
Barack Obama, who left Ayers twisting slowly in the wind along with Jeremiah Wright in 2008, also offered him a unique opportunity to complete his mission. Initially, the revelations about their relationship raised questions about Ayers’s status as a mover and shaker in Chicagoland politics, although Mayor Richard Daley Jr. (whose father a younger Billy wanted to kill) let him off the hook by saying, “You judge a person by his whole life.” Even so, having the media harrowing the old ground of bombs and bloodthirsty rhetoric that Ayers thought he had put behind him was not a good thing.
But Obama sidestepped his relationship with Ayers. The two had worked together in the Annenberg Challenge and the Woods Fund—in the first, Ayers helped Obama get the job of giving away $50 million for education in Chicago, and in the second, he sat with Obama on a blue-ribbon board making large and telegenic grants to the downtrodden—and Bill and Bernardine had staged one of Obama’s first fundraisers when he made a serious bid for power. When the president-to-be dismissed Ayers during the presidential campaign, despite all these links, as just “a guy in the neighborhood,” probably an anodyne Alinskyite at this stage of the game, but in any case someone whose walk on the wild side had occurred when Obama himself was 8 years old, it created a new opening for Bill. If the true nature of Ayers’s activities during the 1960s was seen as an academic question by the man about to be president, why should it matter to anyone else? If the future leader of the free world regarded him as worth knowing, why shouldn’t Ayers’s arguments about the true meaning of things be taken seriously?
The association with Obama gave him a platform to make his case again—at a time of his choosing—to an audience that was now paying attention. Soon after the votes were counted, Ayers was invited to write an op-ed for the Times in which his talking points, purged of worrisome details, are compressed into a form as canonical as the Nicene Creed:
I never killed or injured anyone. I did join the civil rights movement in the mid-1960s and later resisted the draft and was arrested in nonviolent demonstrations. . . . In 1970, I co-founded the Weather Underground, an organization that was created after the accidental explosion that claimed the lives of three of our comrades in Greenwich Village [and] . . . took responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices—the ones at the Pentagon and U.S. Capitol were the most notorious—as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation. . . . It was not terrorism; we were not engaged in a campaign to kill and injure people indiscriminately. . . . We—the broad “we”—wrote letters, marched, talked to young men at induction centers, surrounded the Pentagon and lay down in front of troop trains. Yet we were inadequate to end the killing of three million Vietnamese and almost 60,000 Americans during a 10-year war.
It was a more serious tone than he had taken in the 9/11 interview, where, when asked if he’d do it all again, he said he didn’t want to “discount the possibility.” In this final version he makes himself a Where’s Waldo somewhere among “the broad ‘we.’ ” He and the other members of the Weather Underground were merely fish swimming in the sea of these people. Ayers felt confident enough that he even ended the piece with a little lecture on the dangers McCarthyism posed to the democratic process: “Demonization, guilt by association and the politics of fear did not triumph, not this time. Let’s hope they never will again.”
The Times approached Ayers again for a Q&A in 2009, in which the interviewer (who identifies herself as the daughter of a couple who were part of Weatherman) refers to him as someone who has engaged in a “long struggle against racism and social injustice.” He jocularly accepts the compliment and says that indeed he remains a radical in the sense that he is always inclined “to go to the root of things.” After badinage about the unpalatable Sarah Palin and what his children are doing, he tells the interviewer that he continues to be “a work in progress . . . living in a dynamic history that’s still in the making.” Giving flip and witty answers to the questions, he is, for the Times interviewer, quite a character.
And then came The Company You Keep, cherry on the whipped cream. The Daily Beast celebrated the opening by doing an interview with Ayers, as if he were part of the movie, noting the “parallels” between him and the character played by Redford. Bill is allowed to blithely distance himself from some of the things he and his comrades did when they were “stupid, naïve and young,” and then to go on the attack against the Obama administration for its overreaction to North Korea. Having delivered his opinions on the continuing sickness of U.S. foreign and domestic policy, Ayers looks back with satisfaction at the past he has worked so hard to reconfigure: “People want me to say I really regret being in extreme opposition to the war, and I don’t regret that. I’m happy for every cringing politician, every restrained bombing mission, and every piece of destroyed military property. I think it’s all worthwhile.”
The Redford film and this je ne regrette rien comprise his victory lap.
Largely because of Bill Ayers, Weatherman, having had its cake, now forces the rest of us to eat it. Like Sharon Solarz in Redford’s movie, Bill would do it all again, even though he and his comrades, in his own version, never did it in the first place. Thanks to his perseverance, his little cult of violence has been reimagined as citizen activism in a legendary time when it was bliss to be alive and very heaven to be locked and loaded; veterans of a foreign war in which they functioned as a postmodern version of the Lincoln Brigade; lone survivors of a brave Thermopylae that sought to stop American imperialism in its tracks.
Having finally come home in the age of Obama, the Weatherpeople, it now turns out, were never really revolutionary criminals like Che, Huey, Ho, and all the other political riffraff they still heroize and name their children after, but merely progressives in a hurry.
Peter Collier works at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is coauthor, with David Horowitz, of Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties.