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Rebel Without a Pause

In the early 1970s, Bernardine Dohrn and her Weatherman cohorts were blowing up buildings. Today, she has a new—respectable—revolution to lead.

(page 1 of 5)

The years have been kind to Bernardine Dohrn. At 51, she is small-boned and delicate, with hazel eyes and sun-streaked hair. The Swedish genes inherited from her mother show—and she has a tan. “She always has a gorgeous tan,” says a lawyer who has worked with her.

The miniskirts and the thigh-high boots that seemed to be her uniform when she was one of the country’s most notorious radicals have been replaced by a lawyerly looking business suit and soundbites of jewelry—pearls, a tiny gold chain around the neck, a silver bangle bracelet, a gold wedding band worn on an index finger. Yet, the legendary sensuality somehow remains.

Backed by funding from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Dohrn has undertaken a project with Northwestern University’s law school to reform Chicago’s juvenile courts. Now, she and Tom Geraghty, the rumpled, easygoing director of Northwestern’s legal clinic, have agreed to sit for a meeting to discuss the “ground rules” for this article. Dohrn arrives after Geraghty, lighting up the law-school conference room with her entry, nervous and jumpy but charming at the same time. She laughs easily, chitchatting about the two root canals and massive periodontal bonework that she has recently undergone. “It was just awful,” she says. “I looked just like Richard Nixon for about four days—or half of Richard Nixon. It would be embarrassing to go through life looking like that.”

When she speaks, she often flashes a bright smile immediately after stating an opinion or a preference, as if that eager, open face could clinch agreement with whatever she’s said. The smile and girlish laugh say one thing, however, and the constant drumming of her nails on the table betrays another. “I want to argue with you to rethink the article,” she says. “It’s not like we are sneaking in on anything, but we would rather you not do this.”

So would the head of PR at the law school. So would Geraghty; so, apparently, would the two other young lawyers that she has asked to attend our meeting. They are protective of her, nervous about the presence of a tape recorder, requesting that it be turned off. After 40 minutes of discussion, Geraghty stops the meeting and Dohrn and the three lawyers abruptly leave the room when it becomes clear that the article will be written with or without their involvement.

* * *

Their reticence is understandable, for Bernardine Dohrn has a past that seems stunningly at odds with the stylish suits she wears today, and with the Establishment-steeped halls of Northwestern. In the late sixties and early seventies, she was a leader of the Weatherman, a radical splinter group that was unabashed about promoting violence. She was a prime mover in the Days of Rage, the rampaging protest over the Chicago Eight conspiracy trial, and she’s said to have used the Charles Manson “fork salute,” a three-fingered cheer to commemorate the Manson group’s savage murder of actress Sharon Tate and her friends. After three of her colleagues blew themselves up making a bomb in Greenwich Village, she spent a decade in hiding, and when she emerged, in 1980, she pleaded guilty on riot-related charges.

At the time, she was unapologetic, and, to this day, she has made only guarded public expressions of remorse. Indeed, she told me she senses continuity between her past and her present work. Her brother-in-law John Ayers, adds, “I don’t think she’s ashamed in any way. She continues to have a radical view of American society.”

She is married to Bill Ayers, himself a legendary radical and the son of Thomas Ayers, for years the chairman of Commonwealth Edison here. In 1970, Bill Ayers summed up the Weatherman philosophy: “Kill all the rich people. Break up their cars and apartments. Bring the revolution home, kill your parents, that’s where it’s really at.” (His parents now split the year between Chicago and Palma Valley, California, and they are doing just fine.) Dohrn and Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, live in Hyde Park with their two boys and a third child, the son of Kathy Boudin, another radical who is serving time for a 1981 holdup in Nyack, New York, that left three people dead. Dohrn and Ayers are visible around town in liberal social circles; by almost all accounts of those who know them well, they are a lively, thoughtful, loving couple.

Northwestern, the MacArthur Foundation, the University of Illinois—the seeming ease with which Dohrn and Ayers have slipped back into the comfortable end of Chicago life seems to give credence to the most cynical analysis of their late-sixties ideals. Mike Royko, speaking in a recent interview about the radicals in general, says it best: “They came from a background of being rich kids, where apparently tantrums would get them what they wanted. And they wanted immediate gratification and social change.”

A number of people who have followed Dohrn’s career are furious that she hasn’t been made to pay a heavier price for her past, and their lingering auger is probably what has made the Northwestern public relations apparatus nervous. Already, her connection with the school has caused a bit of a flap on campus, with at least one law professor speaking out against her. “I do not in any way challenge the motives or the integrity of any of my colleagues, and I have no reason to doubt that she is a hardworking, socially conscious lawyer,” says Professor Dan Polsby. “I do know that some genuinely horrific things are in her background, and I am bewildered and unhappy to reflect that she finds no occasion for the expression of remorse for the cruelties that she—at a younger time, a while ago, but nevertheless—for the cruelties that she inflicted on other people, including many, many innocent people.”

Stronger language comes from Peter Collier, a radical turned conservative whose 1989 book, Destructive Generation (co-written with David Horowitz), is bitterly critical of late-sixties political movements. “The part that I think is outrageous has very little to do with her,” he says. “It’s Northwestern and it’s MacArthur and it’s the bar. What it shows me is this moron Dan Quayle, he really hit a nerve here on this notion of the cultural elite, the idea that these people would protect and enhance the reputation of this vicious, bloody-minded woman who is kind of the Lady Macbeth of the movement. This is an amazing thing and it could happen only on the Left.”

And yet, these seem to be minority views. Despite the concerns of Dohrn and Northwestern, there’s a widespread willingness to disregard her past, particularly since she’s directing her ideals toward a more generally acceptable end. “I don’t care what she did 25 years ago,” says Royko. “If she’s now got ideas and can propose ways and find ways to make it a better court system, then I’m all for it.”

Stephen Presser, a Northwestern law professor known for his conservative views, says, “I think she’s a hardworking, socially conscious person who’s trying to work for very noble goals. Besides which, any good conservative believes in redemption.”

The vehicle of this redemption is a juvenile court, once considered one of the best in the nation, now widely acknowledged to be a disaster—overworked, overcrowded, unresponsive. The worst sufferers are children—sometimes the victims of abusive or neglectful families, sometimes young delinquents who don’t get the care that might steer them clear of later trouble.

“In this court, the judges and probably the public defenders and the state’s attorneys carry four times the national norm of cases,” says Marlene Stern, executive director of the Citizens Committee on the Juvenile Court, a watchdog organization. “Can they plan, can they defend, can they think of what’s best for the child? I don’t think any of them really can.” In a powerful series last year, the Chicago Sun-Times documented how authorities mishandled cases, wasted resources, and failed to provide the kinds of treatment that might do some good.

In short, almost no one doubts that the juvenile court is in desperate need of enormous, ground-shaking reform. And that may be the key point in Bernardine Dohrn’s new job.

This time, she’s trying to lead a revolution that almost everyone can agree on.

* * *

Several months after our initial meeting, Dohrn changed her mind about being interviewed. We met again in her office at Northwestern, a large space filled with family photographs and with several framed photos of older black women, women with great dignity and character and hard-earned lines in their faces. Behind her desk, there were also two newspaper photographs taped side by side—one of Jane Fonda and one of Germaine Greer. Dohrn said that she was struggling to come to terms with being 51. The newspaper pictures are to remind her to let herself age like Greer and not opt for plastic surgery like Fonda.

Explaining her initial refusal to be interviewed, she said, “I guess I feel very strongly that I disagree with the notion of personalizing history and movements and big events. . . . I’ve tried to stick to a strategy of not being personal about it myself, but by being very open and serious about the work that I do,

“I just feel that I don’t agree with sensationalized versions of history or me. Any version that’s sensationalized.”

Don’t you think your past was sensational?

“Well, they were turbulent times. They were tremendously turbulent times, of course. But sensational is a little different.”

Over the course of a 90-minute discussion—and with Tom Geraghty again present—Dohrn talked about her commitment to helping children and her work at Northwestern. In this interview, and in several later telephone conversations, she was somewhat reluctant to talk about her past and her personal life, but over time she became more open and reflective, “I actually feel like I draw on my experiences all the time,” she said at one point, referring to her past. . And I feel that I’m doing work that uses me for the first time in a long time.”

* * *


Photograph: Art Shay


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