Doug Rossnow: Flash: '60s activism predated Obama
There were many versions of this decade, but none of
them can fairly be connected to the candidate.
By DOUG ROSSINOW
Last update: April 20, 2008 - 4:38 PM
Is it 2008 or 1992? When Bill Clinton ran for
president, Republicans suggested he had betrayed his
country when, as a student traveling in Europe in
1969, he protested against the Vietnam War in England
and visited Moscow and Prague. Conservatives called
Hillary Clinton a dangerous radical feminist forged in
the furnace of the late 1960s.
Now, Barack Obama's association with one-time far-left
militant Bill Ayers, his Chicago neighbor, is the
target of attacks. But this time the attacks, while
they have been nurtured in the right-wing media, have
been voiced not by a Republican opponent, but by
Obama's fellow Democrat, Hillary Clinton. Irony of
I wrote a book about the "new left" radical movement
of the 1960s, a story in whose closing scenes Ayers'
group the Weather Underground played a violent and
destructive role. I've always tried to say as little
as possible about the "Weatherpeople," since there
were only a few hundred of them -- amid a radical
movement that numbered in the six figures -- and since
they've always gotten more attention than they
The Weatherpeople were clowns who played with fire.
They hoped that if they looked tough enough, a
revolutionary legion from the Third World might
overwhelm America and greet them as comrades. Their
specialties were property damage and profanity. The
emptiness of their insurrectionary slogans eventually
became a line of defense: They gave warnings of when
their bombs would explode; the only people they killed
in that era were three of their own number.
Ayers and other Weatherveterans may have become
wholesome, productive citizens since returning to
polite society. If they want to support a decent,
supremely realistic man like Barack Obama, then good
for them. Just as Obama says, he was a kid when Ayers
was doing stupid things.
Hillary Clinton -- at long last, having no shame --
suggests that Ayers' comment that "we didn't do
enough," in an interview published on 9/11, was an
endorsement of Al-Qaida's attack on America. She
certainly knows that Ayers' interview was done before
9/11. Whatever he meant, the timing of the interview's
publication was simply unfortunate.
It's actually not so ironic that Clinton is attacking
Obama for associating with Ayers. The charge that the
Clintons were late-'60s radicals has always been
false. The truth is that there were many different
'60s. Hillary Rodham and Bill Clinton were young
careerists who wanted to do good as they did well and
rose in the political system. It was easier for
conservatives to link Bill Clinton's loose personal
morals to the sexual liberation that many associate
with the 1960s than to find evidence of left-wing
radicalism in his past.
Obama shouldn't be drawn into another round of culture
wars over the memory of the 1960s. Quite possibly, he
can't be. He's a post-'60s political figure. The
ghosts of the 1960s continue to hover, but they aren't
Doug Rossinow, associate professor of history at
Metropolitan State University in St. Paul, is the
author of "The Politics of Authenticity: Liberalism,
Christianity, and the New Left in America."