Books: Bill Ayers's Fugitive Days: A Memoir and Ronald Radosh's Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left
In August 2001 Beacon Press's publicity machine geared up for the release of Bill Ayers's memoir, Fugitive Days."Gonzo [anti-] Journalist" Hunter S. Thompson heralded the arrival of"A wild and painful ride in the savage years of the late sixties. A very good book about a terrifying time in America." Oral historian and radio fixture Studs Terkel said of Ayers's tome,"A memoir that is, in effect, a deeply moving elegy to all those young dreamers who tried to live decently in an indecent world. Ayers provides a tribute to those better angels of ourselves." Academician Edward Said effusively praised Fugitive Days, concluding that,"For anyone who cares about the sorry mess we are in, this book is essential, indeed necessary reading." Finally, Publishers Weekly came forth with this forecast,"With advance praise from Hunter S. Thompson, Scott Turow, Studs Terkel and Rosellen Brown, plus a 20-city author tour, this ringing account should attract considerable review attention and solid sales."1
Although I cannot speak to the sales figures for Fugitive Days, I can say that Dr. William Ayers, Professor of Education at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC), and a former leader of the 1960s-era terrorist group the Weather Underground, has attracted considerable attention. That attention, however, has not been as universally favorable as Publishers' Weekly and Beacon Press had anticipated. For advance publicity stills Ayers had posed with a sorry-looking American flag at his feet. In a glowing author profile by the New York Times Ayers said of his 1972 bombing of the Pentagon--among other such protest activities--that,"I don't regret setting bombs. I feel we didn't do enough."2 The gods of synchronicity must have been looking over Ayers's shoulders. His first New York Times' profile ran September 11-the day horrified Americans watched helplessly as Islamic extremists slammed three commercial airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers killing thousands. Several days later, the New York Times carried another glowing story on Ayers-this one written, historian Ronald Radosh noted,"by a writer whose parents were comrades of Ayers in the Weather Underground."3
John Earl Haynes, a distinguished historian of twentieth-century America at the Library of Congress, condemned Ayers for his unrepentant radicalism and sharply rebuked UIC for cheering him on in its official webpage. Author and Vanity Fair contributing editor Sam Tanenhaus, after recalling what the New York Times described as the"daring acts" of resistance undertaken by Ayers's associates, wondered,"how many alumni of the Weather Underground acknowledge today the part they played in fostering a culture of terrorism in which assaults on the U.S. and its citizens are wreathed in the glory of 'daring acts'?"4 New York Post columnist and neo-conservative activist John Podhoretz pulled no punches, calling people like Ayers evil, horrific and deluded, and suggesting the reason he was given sympathetic treatment by the New York Times had to do with opposition to the Vietnam war.5
Perhaps the greatest irony about Fugitive Days is that the controversy surrounding the book is more informative and interesting than the actual memoirs. In large part the problem with Fugitive Days stems from Ayers's claims that his memory is foggy and that"the fingerprints [have been] wiped away" from many incidents in his life. He also curiously notes that,"Memory is a motherfucker."6 Ayers's claims that he has a foggy memory are belied by the detail he gives regarding his first meeting with a black ministerial civil rights recruiter-a meeting which took place nearly four decades ago:
Reverend Gabe Star was red-faced and middle-aged-in his late thirties at least or early forties-his hair salt and pepper, tossed and disheveled, his dress careless. His office was crowded with papers and books, the desk unevenly stacked with precarious piles, two telephones perched uneasily on the ones nearest hi chair, and a large Royal typewriter peeking out from another. On a far corner, an ignored and partially eaten hamburger of indeterminate age. On the wall next to his desk, an enlarged aerial photo of the March on Washington. And, of yes, he'd managed to use the words"fuck" and"goddamn" in the first minute of our acquaintance, ingratiating himself, I supposed, to youth.7 Given Ayers's eye for detail, it is more likely that fingerprint removal, not a foggy memory, drove the writing of Fugitive Days.
Even in recounting his pre-New Left youth, Ayers makes great efforts to conceal more than he reveals, while, paradoxically, revealing more than intended. On the one hand, readers are treated to the specter of a normal middle-class suburban Chicago upbringing in the 1950s. But every now and then a few bits of information dropped along the way indicate that his family's social status would not have led anyone to confuse them with the middle-class Cleavers and Nelsons. There is the black servant. There is his father whom Bill Ayers wrote,"worked for Edison." His father was president of Consolidated Edison of Chicago. There is Lake Forest Academy--Ayers's prep school north of Chicago.8 In an effort to dissociate himself from his upper-class background, and to anticipate his countercultural activism to come, Ayers recounts that he hung out with ethnic Italian kids who owned zip guns, smoked cigarettes, and cursed. Later, Ayers met a truck driver as he hitched a ride to New Orleans where he sought to join the civil rights movement. The truck driver's racist monologue and brandishing of a pistol which he called a"N----- Neutralizer," along with Ayers's fear-stricken demeanor, is the most interesting part of the book.9
One point does come through clearly in Ayers's memoirs: he has a lot of rage. Seemingly this rage is tied to his always-smiling mother and, by extension, to President Harry Truman. In Ayers's mind, he was born at the dawn of the Atomic Age, with Truman being the first great American terrorist. But according to Ayers, Truman was more than a terrorist; he was a sociopath seeking sexual relief."Harry Truman is drooling now," Ayers writes."He's excited. He's fetishizing and eroticizing. And why not? Explosive power, newborn, stirring, dangerous, and overwhelming, A breathtaking discharge. He loves this bomb." In Ayers's mind, there could be no military justification for using atomic bombs on the Empire of Japan, while, of course, there would be plenty of moral justification for Ayers to take up arms against a government of homicidal Truman's, Johnson's, and Nixon's.10
There is no shortage of 1960s memoirs that are far more interesting than Fugitive Days. Twenty years ago Jane Alpert, whose upper-class upbringing was similar to Ayers, wrote, Growing Up Underground, a compelling story of her bombing career in the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Alpert was also honest enough with herself to allow that she really had no idea why she tried to blow up the Whitehall Induction Center, the Marine Midland Bank, Chase Manhattan, and several other government and corporate offices. She seemed more confused, self-consciously awkward, and desperate to fill a void in her life, than enraged.11
In the 1980s, erstwhile SDS founders Todd Gitlin and Tom Hayden produced their own respective accounts of their youths, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage, and Reunion: A Memoir. One-time New Leftist David Horowitz observed that Gitlin wanted to salvage the reputation of"The Movement" and Hayden sought to build a platform for his political career. Without addressing the merits of Horowitz's points, it is safe to say that Gitlin and Hayden are more engaging than Ayers. It is also true that if Gitlin and Hayden did"spin" their stories, at least there is something of substance to spin.12
Recently, David Horowitz wrote a searing memoir, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey, while Ronald Radosh penned a memoir with the eye-catching title, Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left. Both memoirs are, in their own ways, rebuttals to Gitlin and Hayden, but are quite different in tone. Horowitz is full of regrets and he has an almost missionary zeal to right the wrongs that he feels he committed in the past. Understandably, there is an air of tragedy and sadness that hangs over Radical Son.13
Although there is tragedy in Commies-how could any discussion of an American leftist Radosh met defending Fidel Castro's practice of lobotomizing political opponents not be tragic-there is a spirit of exuberance as well. If Horowitz is the Whittaker Chambers of his generation, then Radosh is a post-World War II Odysseus or, at the least, a very high IQ Forrest Gump. What reaction other than wonderment can a reader have to someone who"jammed" with Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger, watched classmate Mary Travers (later of"Peter, Paul, and Mary") be expelled from their"Little Red Schoolhouse for Little Reds," jousted with Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega, and, through scrupulous scholarship, proved that atomic bomb spy Julius Rosenberg was, contrary to Old Left and New Left mythology, a Soviet operative?14
Commies' critical reception, as is the case with Fugitive Days, has not been muted. On the Right, one commentator in the National Review Online thought that Radosh was not repentant enough about his days as a New Left activist. Radosh's response was forthright. As he observed, although in retrospect some of his former beliefs may seem peculiar, one must appreciate the blue-collar, immigrant Jewish milieu from which he sprang. America before World War II had its large pockets of anti-Semitism and exploitative labor conditions. In response, most Jews supported the New Deal; a small minority embraced socialist politics and others joined the Communist Party USA. Radosh does not present this argument as an excuse, but as a sociological, cultural, and historical explanation.15
The response to Commies by the Left has been, in the main, unkind. Walter Goodman, writing in the New York Times, headlined his review of Commies,"Don't Steal This Book," a play on the title of a classic tome written by the late Abbie Hoffman, Steal This Book. Goodman's review went downhill from there.16
In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, a seemingly more"mainstream," middle-America newspaper than the New York Times, columnist Dennis Roddy penned a blistering attack on Radosh. Using as his jumping point an incident in Commies in which an enraged Joni Rabinowitz, daughter of Communist attorney Victor Rabinowitz, cursed Radosh for writing about the guilt of Julius Rosenberg, Roddy fired his salvos. Roddy noted that Joni Rabinowitz, who is now a Pittsburgh activist, is an admirable figure who had protested"when Bill Clinton signed a welfare reform bill that stopped two paces short of using the poor as lampshades. . ." Having associated Clinton, Radosh, and Republicans in general with the specter of Auschwitz, Roddy concluded that Rabinowitz was"a daughter worthy of her father," implicitly chiding Radosh for purportedly betraying his own father. (Actually, Commies gives the impression that Radosh had less tumultuous family relations than was the case for Ayers, Hayden, and Horowitz.)17
What is most remarkable about Commies is Radosh's lack of rancor. He mentions briefly and without a lot of detail how his professional career has been thwarted by academics hostile to the historical arguments he has made. (Radosh, one of the most intellectually productive historians in the United States, spent his career in a community college dealing with legions of students and heavy course load.) The worst incident occurred when Radosh in the early 1990s was, as he puts it,"blackballed" by some academics from receiving a position in the history department at George Washington University. It is telling that Radosh does not linger on this incident. (The New Republic's John Judis, who is certainly no right-winger, laid out the affair in all its sordidness a few years ago. Judis, unlike Radosh, named the blackballers.)18 There is just one problem with Commies--the book is too short. For instance, I would have liked to have learned more from Radosh about his graduate sojourn at the University of Iowa. Historian Samuel P. Hays, who taught at Iowa before moving to the University of Pittsburgh, recalled decades later with warmth and amusement at how disoriented Radosh was when he arrived as a master's student in" cosmopolitan" Iowa City.
If the publication and subsequent arguments surrounding Commies and Fugitive Days indicates anything, it is that the culture wars were going strong right up to September 11. As America enters another era of crisis-one in many ways far deeper than the one of the 1960s-it will be interesting to see how the culture wars play out. Forty years hence it will be fascinating to see what memoirs are written and if the mistakes of the past are repeated.-------------------
Endnotes1. All quotes in this paragraph come from the Beacon Press Publicity Release, August 2001. 2. Dinitia Smith,"No Regrets for a Love of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protestor Talks of Life in the Weathermen," New York Times, 11 September 2001. 3. Ronald Radosh,"Don't Need a Weatherman: The Clouded Mind of Bill Ayers," The Weekly Standard, 4 October 2001 (On-Line). 4. John Earl Haynes,"Academia's Complicity in Terror," FrontPageMagazine.Com, 18 September 2001 (On-Line); Sam Tanenhaus,"Terrorism Chic: How Do Those 'Daring Acts' of the '60s Radicals Look Now?" Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2001 (On-Line). 5. John Podhoretz,"A Reckoning for the Noisemakers," New York Post, 13 September 2001 (On-Line). 6. Bill Ayers, Fugitive Days: A Memoir (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), fronts piece, 7. 7. Ayers, Fugitive Days, 43. 8. Ayers, Fugitive Days, 23. 9. Ayers, Fugitive Days, 12, 45. 10. Ayers, Fugitive Days, 17-18. 11. Jane Alpert, Growing Up Underground (New York: William Morrow, 1981). 12. Todd Gitlin, The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage (New York: Bantam Books, 1987); Tom Hayden, Reunion: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 1988); See Peter Collier and David Horowitz, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the 60s (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 243-274. 13. David Horowitz, Radical Son: A Generational Odyssey (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997). 14. Ronald Radosh, Commies: A Journey Through the Old left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2001), 34, 40, 77, 127, 189. 15. Ronald Radosh,"Should We Ex-Leftists Be Forgiven?" FrontPageMagazine.Com, 5 June 2001 (On-Line). 16. Walter Goodman,"Don't Steal This Book," New York Times, 24 June 2001 (On-Line). 17. Dennis Roddy,"To Leftists, His Radical Departure Just Wasn' t Right," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 30 June 2001 (On-Line); Radosh, Commies, 167-168. 18. Radosh, Commies, 201-202.
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