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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 4 of 5)


In 1980, Dohrn and her husband Bill Ayers resurfaced, and she was able to go to work at a major law firm.

Not long after her release from jail, Dohrn made a decided swerve in another direction. She began working as an associate in the New York office of Sidley and Austin, the venerable Chicago law firm. As it turned out, she had a connection there. Her father-in-law, Tom Ayers, had gone to Northwestern with Sidley’s senior partner. “My father-in-law knew Howard Trienens, so I met him,” Dohrn says. “I went and visited. I talked to a number of New York law firms. I had decided to try and go back and pick up the thread of having gone to law school and be a lawyer again, and so I knew it was going to be an uphill road. And I didn’t know quite how uphill it was going to be.”

She took and passed the New York bar exam, but ran into a snag before the state’s Committee on Character and Fitness of Applicants, where there was apparently concern about her past behavior and lack of remorse. In her application, her supporters included two powerful lawyers, Don H. Reuben, at one time the Chicago Tribune’s lawyer, and Harold Tyler, a former Federal judge, who represented her. Reuben told The New York Times, “She’s so conservative she’s dull. I suspect it’s children, the law, life, and reading Time magazine.” The committee, however, was unpersuaded and denied her admission. Tyler says today, “They just couldn’t see that she had changed, that she was a different person, a wife and a mother now. The fact that she had preached revolution and violence went against her. She went too far.”

Still, for Dohrn, the Sidley experience turned out to be “wonderful.” “I wouldn’t have anticipated it,” she says. “I felt that I learned a great deal about the craft of law and I felt that I learned to work with a huge variety of people that I hadn’t been in touch with. It was much easier than I would have thought. I worked very hard. People were good to me. People were curious, of course—I always felt that they had to unlearn some stereotypes—but I actually had to unlearn some stereotypes, too.”

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In 1987, Dohrn and Ayers and the three children moved back to Chicago. Why Chicago? “Oh, following my man,” Dohrn says with a laugh. Ayers had earned a Ph.D. at Columbia University and been offered a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “He never loved being in New York, so we agreed that it was his turn,” Dohrn says. “We sort of always fought between the two coasts, he and I, about where to live. He always wanted to live on the West Coast and I always wanted to live on the East Coast, so we always knew that we’d end up back in the middle someday.”

For Ayers, certainly, it was a return to the turf that his father had once dominated as a leader of the Establishment. Tom Ayers was “a big, monster-sized executive, and a very, very genuinely nice man with a social conscience,” says Royko.

For years, Bill had been a source of great anguish. John Ayers says of his father, “He was a socially conscious business guy, very involved in integration, very pro-integration and change in the cities. It was rough on them. It was a difficult time. I used to joke with him, you know, ‘Bill’s risen to the top of his field.”’

By all accounts, father and son have worked things out between them.

Dohrn says that her parents, too, “had a very hard time for many years” but today they live happily in Florida, “One of the wonderful facts about those years was that everyone’s parents held on to them in their own ways, whatever their own ways were,” she says. “Everyone’s parents did what they could do to be clear that ‘my kid was a good kid—and I may not understand it or I don’t agree, but I know my kid’s a good kid.’ That actually taught me a lot about parenting.”

As she headed for Chicago, Dohrn says she puzzled over her next move. “It took me a long time to figure out what to do next with my life,” she says. “It really took me an extraordinarily long time. In some ways, I took a break to try and think about it all…. I just started talking to everybody, took everybody to lunch who gave me a name in Chicago.”

She decided she wanted to work on behalf of children, and eventually she took a job at the public guardian’s office, which represents children in abuse and neglect cases. Later, she worked at the American Civil Liberties Union and then at the Legal Assistance Foundation, a group that provides tree legal help to the poor. For the past 15 months or so, she has been cochair of the national Task Force on Children of the American Bar Association Litigation Section. Christopher Griffin, a Florida lawyer who serves as her cochair, explains the group: “In a microcosm, we’re trying to match up the child who has some unmet legal need with the lawyer who on a volunteer basis can represent the child.” Of Dohrn, he says, “Bernardine Dohrn brings to the task force a blend of both substantive knowledge of the area and emotional commitment to children’s needs that in my experience is just unmatched.”

Her husband, Bill Ayers, says of her, “At 51, she’s a woman at the height of her powers. ”

She has one handicap, though: Having been so battered by her attempt to join the bar in New York, she never applied for admission here. Her job at Northwestern was carefully structured so she didn’t have to be a practicing attorney.

In part because of this lack of courtroom experience, several lawyers who worked with her in the public guardian’s office question her effectiveness. “She was supposed to visit a court to work with kids and she wouldn’t go,” says one. “She’d basically sit around with a group of people that we had working for us who would sit around and discuss the problems of poor people and how terrible it was that people were poor and so on and so forth, and they never did any work. It’s like great theoreticians, but when it comes down to doing work, forget it.” Another lawyer says, “I believe that when she was in our office she went to juvenile court one time. I guess my only question is how she sort of seems to be an expert in the juvenile court area, but I don’t know that she’s ever handled any caseload. ”

Dohrn acknowledges that there’s some validity to the criticism. “We think that the people who work there every day have a lot of wisdom—and are overwhelmed by caseloads and numbers, so they don’t have the luxury we have of reflecting, doing research, writing, so the fact that there would be resentment would be completely understandable to me,” she says. “I think this is one of my ongoing dilemmas with this, that the people who are in the trenches don’t write and the people who write never go work in the trenches.”

Dohrn’s in-the-trenches work for the juvenile court system has been more in the social than in the nitty-gritty legal realm. She’s helped raise more than a million dollars in funding for the Children and Family Justice Center she now heads at Northwestern, including a three-year, $650,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, as well as grants from the Chicago Community Trust and the Illinois Lawyers’ Trust Fund. She and her husband have held high-profile dinner parties and she’s become a sought-after public speaker. In her spare time, she also works with the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club, the Illinois Maternal and Child Health Coalition, and other well-established charitable groups, and she coaches one of her sons’ Little League team.

But, all these social trappings notwithstanding, she and her husband say they have not lost any of their old, anti-Establishment fervor. Ayers, who still carries his SDS card in his wallet, says he feels no better about this country “just because a bunch of 40-year-olds are now part of the Establishment.”

Dohrn, for her part, refuses to stand for the playing of the national anthem. As she wrote in a 1991 op-ed piece in the liberal weekly The Nation, “The aspects of patriotism that hush dissent, encourage going along, and sanction comfortable distancing and compliance with what is indecent and unacceptable… those aspects are too fundamental to ignore or gloss over.” Of course, her protest has its repercussions at ball games—for her sons: “This moment of embarrassment repeatedly presents them with a dilemma. Should they go get popcorn during the anthem? Should they agree with my protest or only with the reasons behind it?” In other words—and this is a question Dohrn grapples with now every day how much can we expect of children?

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