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Claim: Barack Obama had an acquaintanceship with Bill Ayers, a former domestic terrorist.
Status: Partly true.
Origins: William (Bill) Ayers was one of the founders of the Weather Underground, a radical
leftist organization formed in 1969 by a group of University of Chicago students who split
with the campus‐run Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organization because they
disagreed with the SDS's peaceful protest tactics against the Vietnam War. From 1970 until
1974, the Weather Underground carried out
violent actions against the government,
including bombings at NYPD headquarters, the
U.S. Capitol building, the Pentagon and a San
Francisco police station, while Ayers (and his
wife, fellow Weather Underground member
Bernardine Dohrn) went into hiding to evade the
Ayers and his wife participated in some of the
early bombings, but criminal charges against
them were dropped in 1974 due to illegal
evidence‐gathering activities by authorities, and
in 1980 the couple turned themselves in. Ayers
and Dohrn emerged from hiding to become
specialized in education reform and served as an advisor to Chicago mayor Richard Daley,
work through which Ayers became acquainted with Barack Obama in 1995. Ayers hosted a
meet‐the‐candidate gathering at his home as Barack Obama prepared to run for his initial
election to the Illinois state senate (although Ayers later said he didn't even know Obama at
the time), the two worked with the same charity and social service organizations in Chicago
(particularly the Chicago Annenberg Challenge), and Ayers contributed $200 to Obama's
re‐election campaign for the Illinois state senate in 2001.
Opponents have charged that Obama has been "palling around with terrorists" and "lied" about
his connection with Ayers when he described Ayers as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood"
in response to a question about their relationship posed to him during an April 2008
Q: A gentleman named William Ayers, he was part of the Weather Underground in the
1970s. They bombed the Pentagon, the Capitol and other buildings. He's never apologized
for that. And in fact, on 9/11 he was quoted in The New York Times saying, "I don't
regret setting bombs; I feel we didn't do enough."
An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and
your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the
voters, and explain to Democrats why it won't be a problem?
A: This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who's a professor of English [sic] in
Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He's
not somebody who I exchange ideas with on a regular basis.
10 Night Eastern
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And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged
in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my
values, doesn't make much sense.
Although Obama's dismissing Ayers as "a guy who lives in my neighborhood" could fairly be
considered a deliberate attempt to minimize or play down a more substantial
acquaintanceship between the two men, the fact remains that they aren't (and never were)
particularly close. Obama has denounced Ayers' violent radical activities (which took place
when Obama was just a child), Ayers didn't advise Obama on policy issues, the two were not
close friends, and they have not remained in regular contact over the last several years:
A review of records of the schools project and interviews with a dozen people who know
both men, suggest that Mr. Obama, 47, has played down his contacts with Mr. Ayers, 63.
But the two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed
sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers, whom he has called "somebody
who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago, when I was 8."
"The suggestion that Ayers was a political adviser to Obama or someone who shaped his
political views is patently false," said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman. Mr. LaBolt said
the men first met in 1995 through the education project, the Chicago Annenberg
Challenge, and have encountered each other occasionally in public life or in the
neighborhood. He said they have not spoken by phone or exchanged email messages
since Mr. Obama began serving in the United States Senate in January 2005 and last met
more than a year ago when they bumped into each other on the street in Hyde Park.
(The above‐cited article was the one referenced by Republican vice‐presidential candidate
Sarah Palin when she began stating on the campaign trail that Democratic candidate Barack
Obama had been "palling around with terrorists," even though the article said just the
opposite: that Obama and Ayers "do not appear to have been close.")
In August 2008, Stanley Kurtz suggested there was a "cover‐up" in the making because he
could not access a "large cache of documents housed in the Richard J. Daley Library at the
University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC)" which contained "the internal files of the Chicago
Annenberg Challenge" and would "provide significant insight into a web of ties linking Obama
to various radical organizations." Documents including all the records of the
Annenberg Foundation were in fact released shortly afterwards; the Chicago Tribune
examined them and found, as reported by UPI:
Reporters reviewing records in Chicago have so far found nothing startling in documents
linking Sen. Barack Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers.
The UIC records show that Obama and Ayers attended board meetings, retreats and at
least one news conference together as the education program got under way. The two
continued to attend meetings together during the 19952001 operation of the program,
Kurtz also claimed that "Obama assumed the Annenberg board chairmanship only months
before his first run for office, and almost certainly received the job at the behest of Bill
Ayers." This claim was inaccurate, as FactCheck.org noted:
To the contrary, Ayers was not involved in the choice, according to Deborah Leff, then
president of the Joyce Foundation. She told the Times, and confirmed to FactCheck.org,
that she recommended Obama for the position to Patricia Graham of the Spencer
Foundation. Graham told us that she asked Obama if he'd become chairman; he
accepted, provided Graham would be vicechair.
The bipartisan board of directors, which did not include Ayers, elected Obama chairman,
and he served in that capacity from 1995 to 1999, awarding grants for projects and
raising matching funds. Ayers headed up a separate arm of the group, working with
grant recipients. According to another board member, Ayers "was not significantly
involved with the challenge after Obama was appointed."
Kurtz subsequently claimed in a Wall Street Journal article that Obama and Ayers were
partners in the Chicago Annenberg Challenge (CAC), an effort that "poured more than $100
million into the hands of community organizers and radical education activists." But as
Education Week noted of the CAC, that organization was not "radical" but rather "reflected
mainstream thinking among education reformers":
The Chicago Annenberg Challenge, chaired from 1995 to 1999 by Barack Obama, is being
portrayed by some critics of the Democratic presidential nominee as an attempt to push
radicalism on schools.
In fact, the project undertaken in Chicago as part of a highprofile national initiative
reflected mainstream thinking among education reformers. The Annenberg Foundation's
$49.2 million grant in the city focused on three priorities: encouraging collaboration
among teachers and better professional development; reducing the isolation between
schools and between schools and their communities; and reducing school size to improve