Doug Rossnow: Flash: '60s activism predated Obama

  • Article by: DOUG ROSSINOW
  • Updated: April 20, 2008 - 4:38 PM

There were many versions of this decade, but none of them can fairly be connected to the candidate.

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 ironies.

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 deserved.

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 his ghosts.

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."

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