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At 55, Bill Ayers, the notorious sixties radical, still carries a whiff of that rock ‘n’ roll decade: the oversize wire-rim glasses that, in a certain light, reveal themselves as bifocals; a backpack over his shoulder—not some streamlined, chic job, but a funky backpack-of-the-people, complete with a photo button of abolitionist John Brown pinned to one strap.
Yet he is also a man of the moment. For example: There is his cell phone, laid casually on the tabletop of this neighborhood Taylor Street coffee shop, and his passion for double skim lattes. In conversation, he has an immediate, engaging presence; he may not have known you long but, his manner suggests, he’s already fascinated. Then there is his quick laugh and his tendency to punctuate his comments by a tap on your arm.
Overall, it is not easy to imagine him as part of the Weatherman, a group that during the late sixties and early seventies openly called for revolution in America, led a violent rampaging protest in Chicago, and took credit for numerous bombings around the United States.
One of the Weatherman leaders was Bernardine Dohrn, a smart, magnetic figure who, in part because of her penchant for miniskirts and knee-high boots, was dubbed “La Pasionaria of the Lunatic Left” by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. After a bomb exploded accidentally and killed three of their colleagues, Ayers and Dohrn “hooked up,” in the parlance of the day, and, since 1982, they have been married. This—violence, death, and white-hot rhetoric—is his past and Ayers insists he has no regrets. “I acted appropriately in the context of those times,” he says. But it’s hard to reconcile this quick-witted man with that revolutionary. Today Bill Ayers seems too happy to have ever been so angry.
Ayers, now a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, claims to abhor nostalgia (“Nothing is more boring than some old person going on and on about the way things used to be"). But he has been thinking lately about the past—both his and the country’s—and soon he will likely be engaged in what he calls “a dialogue” about the sixties, the antiwar movement, and the radical life he led. The spur for this dialogue will be the publication of Fugitive Days (Beacon Press, $24), a memoir Ayers has written about the trajectory of his life, from a pampered son of the Chicago suburbs to a young pacifist to a founder of one of the most radical political organizations in U.S. history.
In the pantheon of radicals of the sixties and seventies, Ayers’s place is unique. “He was not as notorious as Bernardine Dohrn,” says Don Rose, a political consultant who has written about those times. “But what made Ayers of particular interest then was that he was the son of a captain of industry. Now he’s interesting because, of all the farther-out radicals, he has achieved the most scholarly reputation.”
Writing the book has been “a daunting task,” Ayers says, “because I want to be true to those times. I don’t feel nostalgic for the sixties, but there is no doubt in my mind that the events I write about were shaping events, and they provided for me a way of seeing the world that seemed so alive and so resonant that I can’t escape it, no matter what I do.”
Certainly there are moments when Ayers has the sound of the sixties down pat, like when he tells me, “Imperialism or globalization—I don’t have to care what it’s called to hate it.” And then there are moments when he sounds light-years away from his radical sensibilities, more like an old grump lamenting today’s uninformed youth: He tells me a story about going into Starbucks and having the young woman behind the counter mistake his photo pin of John Brown for Walt Whitman. “And when I told her, no, it’s John Brown, she said, ‘Who is John Brown?’”
But I am struck by another part of that story. What are you doing in a Starbucks? I ask the man who professes to hate globalization.
“Oh,” he says. “I have an addiction to caffeine.”
There you have the complexity of Ayers: a man who once tried to overthrow his country’s government and now works for a state university; an opponent of the bourgeoisie who has been married for 20 years; a left-wing radical who loves a good cup of imperialist coffee. Maybe he’s always known how to choose his battles. Once one of his sons wanted to hear about how Ayers had been a draft card burner. “Tell me again how you burned your credit card, Pop,” his son confusedly asked.
“I’m not that radical,” Ayers retorted.
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Photograph: Jeff Sciortino