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In the midst of two wars and an economic collapse on Wall Street, the conversation in the 2008 presidential race took a dramatic turn back in time this week to discuss Demoratic nominee Barack Obama's relationship with a former radical-turned Chicago academic.
Bill Ayers was one of several leaders of the defunct, revolutionary group known as the Weathermen, which claimed responsibility for 14 protest bombings across the country between 1969 to 1976, including attacks on the U.S. Capitol and the Pentagon.
He and his wife, former Weatherman Bernardine Dohrn, are now members of Chicago's academic community. Mr. Ayers works as a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago's College of Education.
They, like other former radicals, have moved on to jobs, families, and more mainstream reform efforts.
Despite their controversial beginnings as Communist Party members, liberal hippies, and college students protesting the Vietnam War, many of the 1960s and 1970s radicals who sought major reform and the overthrow of the American government have become academic scholars and cultural leaders.
Some have even crossed over on the political spectrum to become staunch conservatives.
But Mr. Obama's opponents, including former Democratic rival Sen. Hillary Clinton, did not hesitate to point out during the primary season that his political career as a state senator in Chicago began in 1995 with a meet-and-greet party at Mr. Ayers' home.
Mr. Ayers' name was not mentioned by either candidate during Tuesday's presidential debate, but speaking at several campaign events on Saturday, Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin questioned Mr. Obama's judgment for "palling around" with Mr. Ayers.
"We see America as the greatest force for good in this world," she said of herself and Republican presidential nominee John McCain. "Our opponent though, is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country."
And yesterday, the Republican National Committee sent to reporters nationwide a New York Post story about John Murtagh, the son of a former judge whose home reportedly was bombed by Weathermen members in 1970 because he presided over the trial of members of the revolutionary Black Panther Party.
Mr. Murtagh was quoted about his experience as a 9-year-old child when the bombing occurred.
"I remember my mother pulling me from the tangle of sheets and running to the kitchen where my father stood. Through the large windows overlooking the yard, all we could see was the bright glow of flames below. We didn't leave our burning house for fear of who might be waiting outside," he said.
Ohio Democratic operatives characterized the Republican attacks as the 2008 version of the 2004 Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign successfully used against presidential candidate John Kerry.
"The same people that are misleading Americans today are the same bunch that misled Americans four years ago. It's a pitiful, despicable attack," said Chris Redfern, chairman of the Ohio Democratic Party.
Obama campaign workers recently responded by e-mail to Governor Palin's statements, pointing out that the same Saturday New York Times article she cited in her attack concluded that Mr. Ayers and Mr. Obama were not close.
Mr. Redfern said Republicans hope the Ayers attack will distract voters from the economic crisis plaguing Wall Street, which he said is causing Mr. McCain's poll numbers to slip less than a month before election day.
"If you're unemployed and you live in Toledo, Ohio, you don't really care what happened when Barack Obama was 7 years old," he said.
McCain campaign spokesman Paul Lindsay said despite what Mr. Redfern thinks, the Ayers issue matters to Ohio voters.
"Voters are not only troubled by Obama's friendship with a radical like Ayers, they are troubled by the fact he continues to be dishonest about it," he said.
Mr. Redfern's claim that those behind the 2004 Swift Boat campaign are the same ones leading the Ayers attack is not just partisan banter.
From Aug. 23 to Aug. 29, the conservative advocacy group American Issues Project, which supports Mr. McCain, aired television ads in Michigan and Ohio, including Toledo, connecting Mr. Obama with Mr. Ayers.
The group's president, Ed Martin, said his organization is partially funded by Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who funded the Swift Boat ads in 2004.
Mr. Simmons donated $2.87 million to the American Issues Project earlier this year and has donated money to the McCain campaign.
David Freddoso, staff reporter for the conservative National Review online magazine and author of The Case Against Barack Obama, is among those leading the Ayers charge.
Mr. Freddoso says Mr. Obama's relationship with Mr. Ayers exemplifies a liberal background that differs from many American points of view.
"Even though [Mr. Obama] has no connection with that type of activity, he still chooses to cultivate and maintain this relationship with Ayers over a period of time," he said. "If Obama's judgment is that bad in the people he chooses to hang around and associate with, I think it's a legitimate issue."
Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers began working together in January, 1995, when Mr. Obama was chosen as chairman of an educational reform effort called the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, and Mr. Ayers was a member of an advisory board.
Billionaire publisher Walter Annenberg created the Annenberg Foundation in 1989, which spawned the national Annenberg Challenge in 1993. He challenged private and public investors to match the half-billion dollars his foundation put toward the improvement of public education in large urban centers.
Mr. Ayers, a professor working on education reform with then-Chicago Mayor Richard Daley, co-founded the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and advised Mr. Obama's board of directors on projects to support urban education.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers may have met at board meetings less than five times between 1995 to 2002, when the Annenberg Challenge dissolved, said Ken Rolling, the former director of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge.
"In that context, the relationship between Obama and Ayers was no more special, no more awesome than any other," Mr. Rolling told The Blade.
But conservative columnist Stanley Kurtz said the number of times the two men actually met is not the point.
Mr. Kurtz recently reviewed the Annenberg Challenge's archived records for opinion pieces he wrote in the Wall Street Journal, the National Review magazine, and the Weekly Standard.
He said Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers used the Challenge to support community-based organizations with radical, political school-reform agendas.
"They were trying to bring parents around to their general point of view, not just about education," Mr. Kurtz said.
One supported proposal came from a Chicago school Mr. Ayers helped start called the Peace School.
"The Peace School had all their assemblies and activities and classes and holidays based on the United Nations," Mr. Kurtz said. "They were focusing the students on loyalty to the whole world. So there's a connection between Ayers' radical philosophy and Barack Obama.''
Mr. Rolling said Mr. Kurtz' views are "terribly distorted" because, regardless of the political philosophy of the networks awarded money by the challenge, the funds were used for specific reformatory purposes.
"We had a string of networks that came up with literacy as their clear focus, another group that focused on cultural institutions, museums, and so forth, with a set of scientists to actually teach the students," he said. "All were focused on improving instructional quality in those schools."
Mr. Rolling and others involved in the Annenberg Challenge said Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers had very little involvement with one another and were not close friends.
Mr. Obama also has been criticized for his involvement with Mr. Ayers on the Woods Fund of Chicago's board of directors.
Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Freddoso say Mr. Obama and Mr. Ayers used their positions on the Woods and Annenberg boards to fund radical community groups.
Woods Fund spokesman Valerie Denney said the fund's mission is to help organizations in low-income communities participate in the democratic process.
"We support community organizations that are engaged in efforts to help people get jobs, commercial or economic redevelopment, and all of the issues that are important to quality of life for low-income families," she said.
Mr. Obama was a Woods Fund board member from December, 1993, until the end of 2002. Mr. Ayers, who joined the board in December, 1999, is still a member.
The Obama campaign said Mr. Obama has denounced the acts Mr. Ayers committed in his past and does not share his view of the world today.
John Mark Hansen, dean of the University of Chicago's division of social sciences, said the Ayers attack is meant to discredit Mr. Obama's character and judgment, but that personal attacks typically don't decide elections.
"The campaign charges and countercharges matter a whole lot less than people tend to believe," Mr. Hansen said. "[John] Kerry did about as well as one would expect against [George] Bush, given the conditions of the 2004 election year.
"The voters are going to get the message only if it's on a question they care about," Mr. Hansen said. "Right now, I suspect that people are more concerned about the state of the economy than about Bill Ayers."
Contact Chauncey Alcorn at: