William Ayers Weather Underground past no big deal in Chicago.

SHARE William Ayers Weather Underground past no big deal in Chicago.

PHILADELPHIA –GOP mastermind Karl Rove, commenting on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show on Thursday, chastised Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) for “hanging around” William Ayers. The Daily News, one of the papers in Philadelphia, referred to Ayers as a “1960s radical” in a story about the Wednesday Democratic debate.

(Lynn Sweet print Chicago Sun-Times column)

The debate vaulted Ayers from being a side matter in the presidential campaign to center stage just before Tuesday’s Pennsylvania primary. “The Clinton campaign has been agitating to try to get this in the bloodstream for some time,” Obama campaign manager David Plouffe said Thursday. But it was ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos who pressed Obama in the debate to explain why his association with Ayers would not be an issue if he were the Democratic presidential nominee.

For Obama, perhaps a problem, because of Ayers’ extremist past — which has never bothered anyone in Chicago. That’s why back in the day when Obama was starting his political career — making a visit to the Ayers home while running for a state Senate seat, and then agreeing to being on panels with him and serve on a foundation board together — it was no big deal, or any deal, to any local political reporters or to the editorial boards of the Sun-Times or Tribune.

Once Ayers, a former member of the Weather Underground, and wife Bernardine Dohrn, also in the group — surfaced after years on the lam, they settled easily in to the village known as Hyde Park-Kenwood in Chicago, fitting into the highly political, supremely philosophical community anchored by the University of Chicago. For outsiders, it’s Cambridge, Berkeley and Evanston –without a lot of chain stores. It’s also the place the Obamas call home.

But Ayers, who became a scholar at the University of Illinois-Chicago, was also eventually embraced by a pragmatic son of blue-collar Bridgeport desperately trying to upgrade Chicago’s chronically troubled schools: Mayor Daley, whose father’s legacy was tarnished because of anti-Vietnam War protesters getting clobbered in the 1968 convention and the “Days of Rage” the next year.

Rabbi Arnold Jacob Wolf knew Ayers in the 1960s and re-met Ayers and Dohrn decades later. In the 1960s Wolf said he and Ayers were on opposite sides of the use of violence to effect social change. Then, Ayers thought it useful. Wolf came out of the school of nonviolence.

Wolf now is rabbi emeritus at KAM Isaiah Israel, coincidentally located across the street from the Obamas’ Kenwood home. (The synagogue welcomes Obama’s Secret Service agents inside to use the facilities.)

Ayers is “wonderful, compassionate, thoughtful, serious,” Wolf said. I asked him to help reconcile the past and the present. “What we want is not to let bygones be bygones, but to transform ourselves into the kind of people we want to be and ought to be,” Wolf said.

Obama made it seem at the debate he hardly knew Ayers. Besides serving on the Woods Fund board, in 1997 he and Ayers were to be on a University of Chicago panel organized by Michelle Obama, then an associate dean. And Ayers could reinforce Obama as an elitist: In 2002, Obama and Ayers were scheduled to be on a UIC panel with this lampoon-able title: “Intellectuals in Times of Crisis.”

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