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Film | Politics

July 31, 2008

Notes from the Weather Underground

A 2003 documentary on the radical group known as the Weathermen could shed some light on the relationship between Barack Obama and Bill Ayers.

Craig Fehrman

During ABC's coverage of the Democratic debate on April 16th—which could easily have been confused with a running of the Gotcha GamesGeorge Stephanopoulos asked Barack Obama about his relationship with Bill Ayers. After briefly describing Ayers's past as a violent radical in the 1970s, Stephanopoulos added, "On 9/11, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying 'I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough.' "Hillary Clinton also hit on the 9/11 connection, using her rebuttal to clarify the "deeply hurtful" nature of Ayers's comments. So too did John McCain in his April 20th appearance on ABC News's "This Week."

There is, however, one glaring problem in all of this. Ayers's actual comments, no matter how troubling, were made before the attacks on the World Trade Center, and just happened to be published on that fateful day. This was bad luck as much as bad taste, yet Stephanopoulos, Clinton, and McCain all willfully ignored that fact.

Bill Ayers in 1968
The chance to associate Obama with a known American terrorist obscures the far more interesting story of what Ayers and the Weathermen were really about.

Bill Ayers in 1968

Whether or not his comments were characterized fairly, that debate was Ayers's introduction as the latest distraction in this ADD-addled election cycle. Unsure if this development was a Reverend Wright-category hurricane or a terrorist-fist-jab-style sun shower, the masses flocked to Google to find out just who is this possibly shady character.

The facts are these: Ayers was a key member of the Weathermen, a radical student group that set bombs at federal buildings and spread antiwar messages in the 1970s. Obama and Ayers have shared a few tenuous Chicago connections going back to 1996. Politico reports that "there's no evidence their relationship is more than the casual friendship of two men who occupy overlapping Chicago political circles and who served together on the board of a Chicago foundation." The article goes on to list some more links between the two, including an Obama fundraiser hosted by Ayers.

Not that any of this matters. The chance to associate Obama with a known American terrorist was too much for his rivals to pass up. It is unfortunate that the quick branding obscures the far more interesting story of what Ayers and the Weathermen were really about. To find that out, they could have looked to a recent documentary that chronicles the radical organization.

Blending archival footage with new interviews, Sam Green and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground traces the history of Ayers's group, from its 1969 split with Students for a Democratic Society to its eventual disbandment. The film premiered at Sundance in January of 2003 to wide acclaim. In June, The Weather Underground ran in select cities, and it was nominated for an Oscar and broadcast on PBS in 2004.

Since then, it has received little attention, even as Ayers has re-entered the news. Surprisingly, Ayers is not the star of the documentary, as fellow Weathermen Mark Rudd and Brian Flanagan get far more screen time. But, as in so many Philip Seymour Hoffman films, the best scene belongs to the supporting characterp. About 20 minutes into the film, Ayers saunters through present-day Chicago and waxes reflective, all the while carrying a wooden baseball bat. Green and Siegel include 8mm clips to remind us that in 1969, the Weathermen held one of their first events here—the "Days of Rage," in which hundreds of college students vandalized businesses and brawled with police. The message is clear enough: When he pauses at the corner of State and Division, Ayers isn't repenting; he's reliving.

A scene from The Weather Underground. Bill Ayers's part starts at 3:13

It wouldn't take much imagination to pitch an attack ad based on footage like this—we open with a slow-mo shot of the modern-day Ayers, bat squarely on his shoulder, grimacing firmly, as "OBAMA'S FRIEND?" scrolls in a bold, menacing font. It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss The Weather Underground as nothing but source material for vindictive YouTubers. Instead, the documentary presents a more nuanced picture of Ayers and the Weathermen.

To be fair, Ayers never voices any remorse or sorrow in the film, and this is probably why he plays such a small role. (Though he has not explicitly apologized for his actions, Ayers has complex and thought-out reasons for not having done so, as he notes on his blog). But if his seemingly unrepentant attitude plays to the worst possibilities of an Obama-Ayers link, the rest of The Weather Underground frames Ayers's actions, past and present, in two important ways.

The first way starts with Mark Rudd, who is in many ways the antithesis of Ayers. While both men have gone into education, Ayers is now a Distinguished Professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Rudd teaches at a community college in New Mexico. While Ayers maintains that the Weathermen were justified in their actions, Rudd speaks about "guilt and shame." "These are things I am not proud of," he says in the film's final scene, "and I find it hard to speak publicly about them." As his eyes evade the camera, you can't help but believe him.

Rudd's statements become even more powerful through Green and Siegel's careful contextualization. The various 1970s newsreels—such as a shot of Rudd talking to
the press, with Ayers at his shoulder—stress that the Weathermen were a team effort. The reels also capture a war-torn America as it was, and does this better than many films that are explicitly about Vietnam; sometimes the best way to make a point is to let the archival footage speak for itself. The combined force of the unfiltered history and Rudd's confessions shows the movement—and by unwilling extension, Ayers—as conflicted and confused, instead of just plain crazy. Green and Siegel don't come down in Ayers's favor, but their film offers a more objective, thought-provoking take than Stephanopoulos's sensationalism.

The question about the Weathermen from the April 16th Democratic debate.

This brings us to the second effect of watching The Weather Underground. In various reviews of the film, the most popular praise was that it rescued a forgotten historical episode. As the New York Times puts it, "Sam Green and Bill Siegel have unearthed a great story that had fallen into oblivion." The film, intentionally or not, stresses how removed these events are from our current moment, and reveal them as a historical relic. Like Obama, Green and Siegel are in their mid-40s, and their film is a recovery project. The sharp break between then and now reinforces Obama's point that he was a just a kid during the Weathermen's heyday.

If Green and Siegel's film has the potential to alter or balance the perception of Obama's relationship with Ayers, it still needs time and space to do this. It's not a quick fix. Of course, the Obama campaign should be familiar with this problem. After all, if Obama's the progressive candidate, he's just as much the progressive rock candidate. Often, and especially in debates, Obama can sound like a bloated Dream Theater song—expansive and then atmospheric, noodling toward something profound if only you'll stay with him. The Weather Underground faces a similar struggle: How do you create nuance and narrative in a clip-sized world?

A related question: Does Obama need to? At the ABC debate, Hillary suggested Ayers is "an issue that certainly the Republicans will be raising." As April turned into May and beyond, phrases like this became increasingly important to Clinton's campaign. But the Republicans, for their part, still seem unsure of exactly how to raise the Ayers issue. In his April appearance on "This Week," McCain brought up Ayers unprompted, saying, "I'm sure [Obama]'s very patriotic, but his relationship with Mr. Ayers is open to question." When Stephanopoulos pressed him, McCain tried no less than three different lines of attack, but he never did reach a coherent conclusion. More recently, the McCain camp has returned to the Ayers issue—for example, to deflect attention from its lobbyist purge—but it still hasn't settled on a unified message.

Stephanopoulos was just as clueless at that ABC debate, lumping Ayers with the general theme of patriotism. And that's currently the best angle: Ayers works as another piece of anti-patriotism to pin on Obama, though probably not something that can escalate to Wright-like levels. That's partly due to the more flimsy nature of their connection—at this point Obama is probably so wary of the Weathermen he wouldn't even wear a Bob Dylan T-shirt—but it's also due to the lack of a conventional take on Ayers and Obama, in the way that the issue of "judgment" always inflects the Obama-Wright discussion. To try to make the Ayers story juicier, you have to distort facts—like making Ayers's comments about 9/11, instead of occurring before 9/11.

The Weather Underground can provide a different explanation—a dose of rationality and a complicated sketch of a complicated problem. Its biggest problem is that it takes 90 minutes to do so, or 89.5 more than you get in a 30-second TV ad.

Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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Article by Craig Fehrman

Craig Fehrman is working on a PhD in English at Yale.

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