The Magazine

Class Will Tell

Why is Bill Ayers a respectable member of the upper middle class and Sarah Palin contemptible?

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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Pour yourself a Johnnie Walker Black and remember. The presidential campaign was going to be about sex--the sex of the inevitable winning candidate. Then it was going to be about race. We dreamed we would atone for slavery and the Berlin Airlift, impress Europe and charm the Arab world. But the undecided voters who will determine the winner are no longer interested in race or sex. They are looking at social class. Which ticket best expresses the values and tastes of the upper-middle-class--and captivates the rest of us who follow the lead of the upper-middles?

The class argument is why the Bill Ayers strategy won't do. In the sex and race eras, it would have worked nicely. Obama's longtime working collaboration with the radical educational theorist and retired terrorist would dramatize his carefully but hastily discarded political radicalism. But no longer. The anti-Ayers publicists are quite right about Ayers's malignity and Obama's connivance. But when they try to explain what Ayers has done in the past and still wants to do--turn schools into nurseries of revolution, make leftist views a condition for becoming a teacher, promote dictatorship, and glorify violence--they injure not help their cause. Class will always trump politics. Being the first in one's family to adopt liberal political sentiments or move to New York City means a step into the middle class, for most Americans, and an increase in social status. More extreme political radicalism lifts one a step or two higher.

Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn became Sixties royalty not because of the status of the Ayers family in Chicago, but because of their relish for violence. They attempted to kill, and celebrated the killings of others (like Charles Manson's victims and the murder of any number of cops), to set an example for the less privileged. "We've known that our job is to lead white kids to armed revolution. .  .  . Tens of thousands have learned that protest and marches don't do it. Revolutionary violence is the only way," said the future Mrs. Ayers in 1970. On the other hand, there were the masses of students who merely marched and flashed the peace sign. Socially, they were nowhere. That was the shock of the Kent State massacre--the veteran martyrs of Harvard's University Hall and Columbia's Low Library wondered that such a terrible and authentic event could have taken place at a far-away state school to people of whom we knew nothing.

Now mainstream Chicago regards Ayers as rehabilitated--but why? He hasn't, like Chuck Colson, repented, or paid his debt to society by serving a prison term. He doesn't even enjoy the prestige of a Clinton presidential pardon. Susan Rosenberg, a fellow Weatherman for whom Mrs. Ayers did go to jail rather than implicate in the execution murders of several cops, enjoys that distinction. What makes the Ayerses respectable is purely a matter of upper-middle-class solidarity. You can see the ranks close around them in the texture of Richard Stern's elegant prose. Stern, a novelist and a long-serving University of Chicago English professor, reassures us:

I've been to three or four small dinner parties with Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, once hailed as the Weather-men's Dolores Ibárruri ("La Pasionaria"), a fiery, beautiful muse. .  .  . Dohrn is still attractive, while Ayers maintains an adolescent fizzle in his sexagenarian bones.

Carefully, Stern engages with the glamorous couple on equal terms, before judging them:

At dinner, thirty-eight years later, Ayers and Dohrn did not seem to hold [my criticism of the 1970 University of Chicago student uprising] against me, and I didn't hold their fiery and criminally violent behavior against them. As in Chekhov's wonderful story "Old Age," time had planed down the sharp edges and brought one-time antagonists into each others' arms.

As the Ayerses' social equal, Stern can estimate them fairly.

As far as I know, Ayers and Dohrn are loyal to the selves which led both of them to jail (though not for long), but they were busy doing other things, useful things, Ayers as educator, Dohrn as a legal counselor. They'd raised the child of a Weatherman who'd been jailed, they were taking care of Bernardine's ill mother, they were doing many things educated community activists were doing.