Pajamas Media

David Remnick Revisits Obama and Bill Ayers

Former Adjunct Fellow

The connection between Bill Ayers, once a founder and leader of the Weather Underground, and President Barack Obama is old and to some irrelevant news. Or so, most have assumed. But now, thanks to the careful sleuthing of a maverick labor activist and attorney, Stephen Diamond, who writes a blog he calls King Harvest, the relationship between Ayers and Obama has come under new scrutiny.

When writing about this when I began my blog two years back, I somehow missed Diamond’s previous contributions to the effort. They are important for two reasons. The first is that Diamond is no supporter of the simplistic theory that Obama was a friend of the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers and therefore a secret communist. Rather Diamond concentrated on their joint activity on behalf of a radical educational curriculum that often led to conflict with the traditional teachers’ unions.

When the Ayers/Obama connection became a major issue, The New York Times ran what became an influential investigative report on their relationship. Bloggers, including Diamond, had written that the appointment of Obama to the Board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge had been engineered for Obama by Bill Ayers. The Times reporters concluded, however, that “Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama’s appointment.” (my emphasis)

Stephen Diamond, who had been interviewed by different Times reporters more than once, responded with a long reply that the paper’s editors did not print. It is worth revisiting his answer now. Published on his blog on Oct. 8, 2009, Diamond notes that the real story is not “the narrow minded approach of the Republican party to attack Obama by attempting to link him to Ayers history as a terrorist.” Rather, it was that “the fundamental political world view of Ayers, not his tactical foray into bombings for a few years, is influencing the Obama candidacy.” Diamond bases his case on Ayers and Obama’s shared belief in a so-called “ ‘social justice’ approach to education.”

Like Sol Stern, whose writings for City Journal emphasized these same points, Diamond itemized the program, and then concluded that “the purpose of these entities is to create a political base for Ayers and his band of fellow traveling authoritarians to push their wider political agenda.” The four basic ideas Ayers and Obama believed in, he wrote, are these:
* the creation of “local school councils” (LSCs) like those that Ayers has promoted in Chicago for the last 20 years;
* “small schools” which Ayers has also promoted since the early 1990s in Chicago and elsewhere;
* the advocacy of what Ayers and others call “social justice” teaching; and
* the payment of reparations through education spending to correct what he has seen for 40 years as the fundamentally racist nature of American society.

While Obama did not offer any support for “the foray into violence by Ayers from 1969-1980,” Diamond wrote, while he was a community organizer from 1985 to 1988 he led the Developing Communities Project, and was “was a leading player in the lobbying campaign for ‘local school councils’ in Chicago in the wake of a strike by the Chicago Teachers Union.” In that lobbying effort, Obama worked alongside Ayers. Obama faced opposition from both the union and mainstream black organizations. Yet he did not step aside from his lobbying, and as Diamond wrote, The New York Times “did not explain that among the most important projects of the [Annenberg] Challenge were the very same four policies so critical to Ayers political strategy.”

Most important, Diamond pointed out, the paper “ignored the written evidence I provided them that demonstrated that Obama was appointed to the chairmanship of the Challenge board by Bill Ayers, who conceived, founded, secured $50 million to support and led the Challenge from 1993 to 2002.” They also “ignored the hundreds of thousands of dollars funneled by the Challenge to the Small Schools Workshop which was founded by Ayers and then directed by Mike Klonsky who continues to head it up still.” Klonsky, for those who do not know of him, was a founder of a new Maoist Communist organization in that era who had also been a comrade of Ayers in The Weather Underground.

Let us skip to the present. In his blog yesterday, Stephen Diamond was stunned when he picked up a copy of David Remnick’s new biography of Barack Obama, The Bridge: The Life and Times of Barack Obama. There he found, in a chapter titled “Somebody Nobody Sent,” the following words: Ayers, Remnick writes, “helped bring Obama onto the Annenberg Board.” (my emphasis.) That statement of fact, one can immediately see, is precisely the opposite of the New York Times’ bold claim that “Mr. Ayers played no role in Mr. Obama’s appointment.”

Remnick gives no source for his statement; nor does he mention that this was precisely the conclusion reached by Stephen Diamond in 2009. That in itself is most unusual. Readers of Mr. Remnick’s new book will, however, immediately find that Remnick goes out of his way to attack all those who argued during the campaign that there was any significant connection between Obama and Ayers.

As for the connection with Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn, and the “small informal reception” they threw for him” when he was considering running for the open Senate seat, Remnick claims it did not indicate anything out of the ordinary. Indeed, he mentions that Ayers thought Obama to be “someone far more to the center than they were.” Ayers told Remnick that he thought Obama was “a moderate, middle-of-the road Democrat.”

Again, Remnick takes Ayers’ convenient words on faith. Does he really believe him? Is the quote in the book in order to assure readers that any charges of agreement between Ayers and Obama is simply right-wing Republican propaganda? Has Remnick read Ayers’ own memoir, in which he blatantly lies about the past and distorts his own history? Obviously, his quote is there to cement the view that Ayers repeats when he says that he was not much into Obama, and as for the reception, “I did it because I was asked.” Remnick concludes that the notion “that the two men were close friends or ideological soul mates was false.”

In his blog yesterday, Diamond writes that to the contrary, Obama’s appointment by Ayers to the Annenberg Board was “a major step up in the career of the young lawyer Obama who had recently returned to Chicago after graduating from Harvard Law School. A few months after his spring 1995 appointment to the CAC board, Obama would be invited to the Hyde Park home of Bill Ayers and his wife Bernardine Dohrn as part of the launch of his first political campaign to win the seat of departing state senator Alice Palmer. The Times also first reported that that Hyde Park meeting was the first time Obama met Ayers and Dohrn and then later changed that story — without explanation or apology to its readers — when it found out that Ayers had lunch with Obama to discuss the CAC earlier that year.”

Ayers, he explains, “would never have helped engineer the Obama appointment if he were not dead certain that Obama would lead the CAC in the right direction. During its seven year existence the foundation was in a pitched battle with the Daley Administration which wanted to centralize school management and even tried to convince the Annenberg Foundation to not fund the Ayers proposal. That implies, of course, that Ayers and Obama had a closer and longer term relationship.” Diamond adds that his own investigation has recently revealed that “a senior Obama campaign activist and long time Democratic Party supporter confirmed the relationship went back to the 1980s.”

Today, Diamond points out, “figures like Van Jones, Valerie Jarrett, Chris Edley, Goodwin Liu and Linda Darling-Hammond all are a part of [an] identity politics milieu and are or have been close advisors of Obama. Several have links to Ayers and Dohrn professionally or politically over many years as well.” Diamond, a left-wing advocate of what he calls the “democratic labor movement,” judges these people as a group of anti-union leftists, who stand with Ayers’ political program which many unionized teachers oppose. Diamond calls it “anti-teacher politics” and considers them to be opponents of unionism whose stance emerges from far left sectarian politics.

Diamond, as blogger Brenda J. Elliott wrote, “is a dyed-in-the wool leftist, albeit one who’s grounded in the view that the American labor union movement can be the savior of American democracy.” His credentials are on the political Left, and he evidently considers himself a social-democrat and a supporter of trade unionism. He is obviously a fierce opponent of the cultural identity politics of a good portion of today’s left-wing, and he sees these people as major Obama supporters.

At any rate, Stephen Diamond cannot be written off by Remnick and others as a Right-winger, out to destroy Obama by accusing him of secret sympathies for an unrepentant terrorist. His critique is both different and of more substance, and his knowledge of the Chicago political scene and of Barack Obama’s role in it is impressive. So, we wait — probably in vain — for David Remnick to address himself to his strange omission of any citation of Diamond, and of any explanation for the Obama-Ayers connection in lobbying for Ayers’ radical educational effort in Chicago.