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‘He Lied’ About Bill Ayers?

McCain cranks out some false and misleading attacks on Obama's connection to a 1960s radical.


In a TV ad, McCain says Obama “lied” about his association with William Ayers, a former bomb-setting, anti-war radical from the 1960s and ’70s. We find McCain’s claim to be groundless. New details have recently come to light, but nothing Obama said previously has been shown to be false.

In a Web ad and in repeated attacks from the stump, McCain describes the two as associates, and Palin claims they “pal around” together. But so far as is known, their relationship was never very close. An Obama spokesman says they last saw each other in a chance encounter on the street more than a year ago.

McCain says in an Internet ad that the two “ran a radical ‘education’ foundation” in Chicago. But the supposedly “radical” group was supported by a Republican governor and included on its board prominent local civic leaders, including one former Nixon administration official who has given $1,500 to McCain’s campaign this year. Education Week says the group’s work “reflected mainstream thinking” among school reformers. The group was the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, started by a $49 million grant from the Annenberg Foundation, which was established by the publisher Walter Annenberg, a prominent Republican whose widow, Leonore, is a contributor to the McCain campaign.

(FactCheck.org, which is nonpartisan, also receives funding from the Annenberg Foundation. But we are in no way connected to the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, which finished its work long before we came into being in late 2003.)

For full details, please read on to our Analysis section.


Sen. John McCain has dialed up his attacks on Sen. Barack Obama’s past association with former Weather Underground activist Bill Ayers. He released a 30-second TV spot Oct. 10 claiming Obama “lied” about Ayers. A day earlier he announced a 90-second Internet ad claiming that Obama and Ayers “ran a radical education foundation together” and suggesting Obama was being untruthful.

Groundless, False, Dubious

McCain-Palin Ad: “Ambition”

Announcer: Obama’s blind ambition. When convenient, he worked with terrorist Bill Ayers. When discovered, he lied.

Obama. Blind ambition. Bad judgment.Congressional liberals fought for risky sub-prime loans.

Congressional liberals fought against more regulation. Then, the housing market collapsed costing you billions.

In crisis, we need leadership, not bad judgment.

McCain: I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

We find McCain’s accusation that Obama “lied” to be groundless. It is true that recently released records show half a dozen or so more meetings between the two men than were previously known, but Obama never denied working with Ayers.

Other claims are seriously misleading. The education project described in the Web ad, far from being “radical,” had the support of the Republican governor and was run by a board that included prominent local leaders, including one Republican who has donated $1,500 to McCain’s campaign this year. The project is described by Education Week as reflecting “mainstream thinking” about school reform.

Despite the newly released records, there’s still no evidence of a deep or strong “friendship” with Ayers, a former radical anti-war protester whose actions in the 1960s and ’70s Obama has called “detestable” and “despicable.”

Even the description of Ayers as a “terrorist” is a matter of interpretation. Setting off bombs can fairly be described as terrorism even when they are intended to cause only property damage, which is what Ayers has admitted doing in his youth. But for nearly three decades since, Ayers has lived the relatively quiet life of an educator. It would be correct to call him a “former terrorist,” and an “unapologetic” one at that. But if McCain means the word “terrorist” to invoke images of 9/11, he’s being misleading; Ayers is no Osama bin Laden now, and never was.

Who’s Misleading?

McCain-Palin Web Ad: “Ayers”

Announcer: Barack Obama and domestic terrorist Bill Ayers. Friends. They’ve worked together for years.

But Obama tries to hide it. Why?

Obama launched his political career in Ayers’ living room. Ayers and Obama ran a radical “education” foundation, together.

They wrote the foundation’s by-laws, together. Obama was the foundation’s first chairman. Reports say they “distributed more than $100 million to ideological allies with no discernible improvement in education.”

When their relationship became an issue, Obama just responded, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood.”

That’s it?

We know Bill Ayers ran the “violent left wing activist group” called Weather Underground. We know Ayers’ wife was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. We know they bombed the Capitol. The Pentagon. A judge’s home.

We know Ayers said, “I don’t regret setting bombs. …. I feel we didn’t do enough.” But Obama’s friendship with terrorist Ayers isn’t the issue.

The issue is Barack Obama’s judgment and candor. When Obama just says, “This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” Americans say, “Where’s the truth, Barack?”

Barack Obama. Too risky for America.

McCain: I’m John McCain and I approve this message.

McCain is not accurate when he says – as he does in the Web ad – “When their relationship became an issue, Obama just responded, ‘This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood.’ ” McCain is using the same line in personal appearances, too. He said on Oct. 9 at a campaign rally in Waukesha, Wis.:

McCain: Look, we don’t care about an old washed-up terrorist and his wife, who still, at least on Sept. 11, 2001, said he still wanted to bomb more. … The point is, Senator Obama said he was just a guy in the neighborhood. We need to know that’s not true.

Obama never said Ayers was “just” a guy in the neighborhood. The quote is from a Democratic primary debate on April 16 in Philadelphia, and Obama actually was more forthcoming than McCain lets on. Obama specifically acknowledged working together with Ayers on a charitable board, and didn’t deny getting some early political support from him. Here’s the exchange:

ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos, April 16: An early organizing meeting for your state senate campaign was held at his house, and your campaign has said you are friendly. Can you explain that relationship for the voters, and explain to Democrats why it won’t be a problem?

Obama: George, but this is an example of what I’m talking about.

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

And the notion that somehow as a consequence of me knowing somebody who engaged in detestable acts 40 years ago when I was 8 years old, somehow reflects on me and my values, doesn’t make much sense, George.

Sen. Hillary Clinton then said, “I also believe that Senator Obama served on a board with Mr. Ayers for a period of time, the Woods Foundation,” and predicted that “this is an issue that certainly Republicans will be raising.”

Obama responded, “President Clinton pardoned or commuted the sentences of two members of the Weather Underground, which I think is a slightly more significant act than me … serving on a board with somebody for actions that he did 40 years ago.”

We wrote back then that Clinton had gone too far by suggesting that “people died” as a result of Ayers’ actions. And nothing Obama said then has since been shown to be false. It is true that he did not bring up his work with Ayers on a second project, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, where Obama was board chairman and Ayers was an early organizer, and where the two were together for half a dozen or so meetings. But neither Clinton nor Stephanopoulos asked him about that project. McCain could fairly accuse Obama of not volunteering the information, but it is false to claim he “lied.”

‘Pal Around’

The first to begin using the new line of attack against Obama was McCain’s running mate, Gov. Sarah Palin, after a lengthy article appeared Oct. 3 in the New York Times about Obama and Ayers:

Palin, Oct. 5: Our opponents see America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who would bomb their own country.

She’s repeated the charge again and again at different campaign stops since then, citing the Times. What the Times article actually says, however, is this:  “[T]he two men do not appear to have been close. Nor has Mr. Obama ever expressed sympathy for the radical views and actions of Mr. Ayers.” The Times says its review of documents and interviews with key players “suggest” that Obama “has played down his contacts with Ayers,” but describes their paths as having crossed “sporadically” since their first meeting in 1995.

And far from palling around with Ayers, the two haven’t spoken by phone or exchanged e-mail messages since Obama came to the Senate in January 2005, according to an Obama spokesman. He said the two last saw each other more than a year ago, when they accidentally met on the street in their Hyde Park neighborhood.

Obama addressed Palin’s claim on Oct. 8, when questioned by ABC News’ Charlie Gibson:

Obama, Oct. 8: This is a guy who engaged in some despicable acts 40 years ago when I was eight years old. By the time I met him, 10 or 15 years ago, he was a college professor of education at the University of Illinois. … And the notion that somehow he has been involved in my campaign, that he is an adviser of mine, that … I’ve ‘palled around with a terrorist’, all these statements are made simply to try to score cheap political points.

Stormy Weather, Underground

Bill Ayers’ notoriety dates from the radical, anti-Vietnam War group he helped to start in 1969, splintering off from the activist Students for a Democratic Society. The members of the new group, the Weather Underground, favored shows of violence to further their cause. On March 6, 1970, though, three of them blew themselves up in a Greenwich Village townhouse during a bomb-making session gone badly awry. Ayers and his fellow Weathermen, as they were called, soon dropped out of sight.

Barack Obama, who was born Aug. 4, 1961, was 8 years old at the time.

The Weather Underground continued setting off bombs, including one in a men’s lavatory in the Capitol building in 1971 and another in a women’s restroom in the Pentagon in 1972. Nobody was killed, due to evacuation warnings the Weathermen sent out in advance.

After the Vietnam War ended, the group’s activities petered out. In 1980 Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, another member, surfaced and turned themselves in to police. Because of illegal federal wiretaps, pending charges against Ayers for allegedly inciting a riot and conspiring to bomb government sites had been dropped. Dohrn pleaded guilty to separate charges of aggravated battery and jumping bail; she was fined $1,500 and given three years’ probation. Ayers and Dohrn, who had had two children together while in hiding, married in 1982.

Several other Weather Underground alums, including Kathy Boudin, along with some members of a group calling itself the Black Liberation Army, were involved in a bungled 1981 robbery of a Brinks truck in Nanuet, N.Y., in which a security guard and two policemen were killed. Ayers and Dohrn have never been publicly tied to the incident, which took place after they had turned themselves in. Dohrn was jailed for seven months for refusing to provide a handwriting sample to the grand jury investigating it.

Dohrn is now a clinical associate professor of law at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago. Ayers is a professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Locally, Ayers’ radical past hasn’t been much of an issue. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Lynn Sweet wrote last spring that it “was no big deal, or any deal, to any local political reporters or to the editorial boards of the Sun-Times or [Chicago] Tribune.” Ayers was named a Chicago citizen of the year in 1997 for his efforts in the field of education.

In Chicago, Ayers is seen less as a “terrorist” and more as a prodigal son of the local establishment. His father was a prominent corporate executive and civic leader. Thomas G. Ayers was president and chief executive of Commonwealth Edison, the electric utility that lights Chicago and northern Illinois. There is a residence hall named for him at Northwestern University, where he was a trustee for 30 years. Bill’s brother John Ayers, according to Education Week, headed a school-reform group called the Leadership for Quality Education, which represented business leaders’ interest in schools. John is now a senior associate of the Chicago-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Despite the fairly mainstream life he lives now, though, Bill Ayers’ image took a hit with an article that appeared in the New York Times on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Ayers was quoted in the lead paragraph as saying, ”I don’t regret setting bombs” and “I feel we didn’t do enough.” The interview had been conducted earlier, in connection with the publication of Ayers’ memoir of his years as a fugitive. But when the quotes appeared on the same day thousands died at the World Trade Center and elsewhere, they enraged his critics.

Ayers called the story a deliberate distortion of his views. In a response on his blog, Ayers wrote:

Ayers: My memoir is from start to finish a condemnation of terrorism, of the indiscriminate murder of human beings, whether driven by fanaticism or official policy. …
I said I had a thousand regrets, but no regrets for opposing the war with every ounce of my strength.

That’s hardly an apology, referring as it does to the U.S. role in the Vietnam War as “terrorism.” Ayers has maintained a public silence since then, refusing all requests for interviews.

Even so, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had kind words for him recently:

Daley (New York Times, Oct. 3, 2008): He’s done a lot of good in this city and nationally. … This is 2008. People make mistakes. You judge a person by his whole life.

We Have Contact!

According to an Obama spokesman, the two men first met in 1995, when Obama was tapped to chair the board of the newly formed Chicago Annenberg Challenge. Ayers had been instrumental in creating the organization, which was to dispense grants for projects that would improve Chicago’s schools.

The Challenge was one of 18 projects supported by a $500 million grant announced at a White House ceremony Dec. 18, 1993, by the Annenberg Foundation, founded four years earlier by Philadelphia publisher Walter Annenberg. It was the largest single gift ever made to public education in America. The Chicago project received a $49.2 million grant in 1995, and officials administering the grant funds at Brown University announced at the time that the Chicago proposal was developed through discussions among “a broad-based coalition of local school council members, teachers, principals, school reform groups, union representatives and central office staff” convened by three educators – one of whom was Ayers. Mayor Richard M. Daley, a Democrat, and Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, took part in a ceremony announcing the grant.

There are other connections between Obama and Ayers: The same year the two men met through the Annenberg Challenge, Ayers hosted a meet-and-greet coffee for Obama, who was running for state Senate and who lived three blocks away from him. Obama and Ayers also were on the board of an antipoverty charity, the Woods Fund of Chicago, where their service overlapped from 2000 to 2002. And Ayers contributed $200 to Obama’s campaign for the Illinois state Senate on March 2, 2001.

In addition, Obama told the Chicago Tribune in 1997 that a book Ayers wrote about the juvenile court system was “a searing and timely account.” This is sometimes billed by Obama’s critics as a “book review.” Actually, a reporter simply asked three Chicagoans for a sentence about whatever they were reading at the time.

The Annenberg Challenge connection has drawn the most attention recently, though, mainly because of articles written by Stanley Kurtz, a conservative contributor to the National Review, the publication founded by the late William F. Buckley. Kurtz first suggested on Aug. 18 that there was a “cover-up in the making” when he was unable to gain access to 132 boxes of project records housed at the University of Illinois. Records were released nine days later, along with all records held by the Annenberg Foundation itself.

The Chicago Tribune, after examining the records, said they showed Ayers and Obama “attended board meetings, retreats and at least one news conference together as the education program got under way.” It also said Obama and Ayers “continued to attend meetings together during the 1995-2001 operation of the program.” The story played on page 2. According to the New York Times, the documents show the two attended just six board meetings together, Obama as chairman and Ayers to inform the board on grantees and other issues. (In a press release, the McCain campaign puts the number of meetings at seven, five of them in 1995, one in 1996 and one in 1997.) Ayers was an “ex officio” member of the board for the first year of the project.

United Press International summed up the reaction to the contents of the group’s archives with a story headlined “No ‘smoking gun’ in Obama relationship”:

UPI, Aug. 27: Reporters reviewing records in Chicago have so far found nothing startling in documents linking Sen. Barack Obama to 1960s radical William Ayers.

Where news reporters found little of note, though, Kurtz – the conservative writer who initially suggested a “cover-up” – cast it differently. After combing through the Annenberg records, he published an article in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal saying he found that Obama and Ayers acted as “partners” and together “poured more than $100 million into the hands of community organizers and radical education activists.” He said money went to groups that “focused more on political consciousness, Afrocentricity and bilingualism than traditional education.”

A ‘Radical’ Foundation? Hardly.

What Kurtz – and McCain in his Web ad – considers “radical,” other observers see differently, however. Veteran education reporter Dakarai I. Aarons, writing in Education Week, says the Chicago Annenberg Challenge actually “reflected mainstream thinking among education reformers” and had bipartisan support:

Education Week (Oct. 8): The context for the Chicago proposal to the Annenberg Foundation was the 1988 decentralization of the city’s public schools by the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature, a response to frustration over years of teachers’ strikes, low achievement, and bureaucratic failure. … The proposal was backed by letters of support to the Annenberg Foundation from Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, local education school deans, the superintendent of the Chicago public schools, and the heads of local foundations.

Among the mainstream Chicago luminaries on Obama’s board was Arnold R. Weber, a former president of Northwestern University, who in 1971 was appointed by Republican President Richard Nixon as executive director of the Cost of Living Council and who later was tapped by Republican President Ronald Reagan to serve on an emergency labor board. More recently, Weber has given $1,500 to John McCain’s presidential campaign this year.

Others on Obama’s supposedly “radical” board included Stanley Ikenberry, a former president of the University of Illinois system; Ray Romero, a vice president of Ameritech; Susan Crown, a philanthropist; Handy Lindsey, the president of the Field Foundation of Illinois; and Wanda White, the executive director of the Community Workshop for Economic Development.
Kurtz originally claimed that Ayers somehow was responsible for installing Obama as head of the board, speculating in his “cover-up” article that Obama “almost certainly received the job at the behest of Bill Ayers.” But after days of poring over the records, he failed to produce any evidence of that in his Wall Street Journal article. To the contrary, Ayers was not involved in the choice, according to Deborah Leff, then president of the Joyce Foundation. She told the Times, and confirmed to FactCheck.org, that she recommended Obama for the position to Patricia Graham of the Spencer Foundation. Graham told us that she asked Obama if he’d become chairman; he accepted, provided Graham would be vice-chair.
The bipartisan board of directors, which did not include Ayers, elected Obama chairman, and he served in that capacity from 1995 to 1999, awarding grants for projects and raising matching funds. Ayers headed up a separate arm of the group, working with grant recipients. According to another board member, Ayers “was not significantly involved with the challenge after Obama was appointed.” One possible reason had little to do with Obama himself, but instead was related to cautions about conflicts of interest; the group was funding some of Ayers’ own alternative school projects. 

In any case, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge failed to bring about improvement in students’ test scores, classroom behavior or social competence. An independent consortium of educators concluded in 2003 that “Annenberg schools did not achieve an overall effect on student outcomes” compared with schools that received no support from the project. Education Week quoted some project supporters as saying it succeeded in raising interest in helping failing schools.


Voters may differ in how they see Ayers, or how they see Obama’s interactions with him. We’re making no judgment calls on those matters. What we object to are the McCain-Palin campaign’s attempts to sway voters – in ads and on the stump – with false and misleading statements about the relationship, which was never very close. Obama never “lied” about this, just as he never bragged about it. The foundation they both worked with was hardly “radical.” And Ayers is more than a former “terrorist,” he’s also a well-known figure in the field of education.

FactCheck.org and the ‘Annenberg Challenge’

Contrary to suggestions we’ve seen in some conservative blogs, there is no connection between the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and FactCheck.org, save for the fact that both received funding from the Annenberg Foundation. The foundation supports a wide variety of charitable causes – a total of 5,200 grants during its first 15 years of operation. It was founded in 1989 by Walter H. Annenberg, a newspaper and magazine publisher who died in 2002.

FactCheck.org is funded by, and is a project of, the Annenberg Public Policy Center, which was established by the Annenberg Foundation with a $20 million endowment in 1993. The Annenberg Foundation also made additional grants to support our work. We also receive funding from the Flora Family Foundation to help support our educational offshoot, FactCheckED.org. We receive no other outside funding.

FactCheck.org came into being in late 2003. Director Brooks Jackson states: “Our mission is to be as neutral and nonpartisan as humanly possible. Annenberg supports that, and nobody at the Annenberg Foundation has ever tried to influence anything we’ve written.”

For the record, the Annenberg Foundation’s president and chairman is Leonore Annenberg, the founder’s widow. Public records show she’s given $2,300 to the McCain campaign, which announced on Oct. 8, that she has endorsed him for president.

– by Viveca Novak and Brooks Jackson


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Kurtz, Stanley. “Obama and Ayers Pushed Radicalism on Schools.” The Wall Street Journal, 23 Sept. 2008.

Smith, Dinitia. “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives.” The New York Times, 11 Sept. 2001.

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“Mark My Word.” Chicago Tribune, 21 Dec. 1997.

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Smylie, Mark A. and Stacy A. Wenzel. “The Chicago Annenberg Challenge: Successes, Failures and Lessons for the Future.” Consortium on Chicago School Research, Aug. 2003.

United Press International. “No ‘smoking gun’ in Obama relationship,” 27 Aug 2008.

Cohen, Jodi S. and Gibson, Ray. “Rush on to get files linking Obama to 1960s radical; UIC library releases Annenberg records.” Chicago Tribune, 27 Aug 2008.

Cockburn, Alexander. “Playing the Race Card.” Las Vegas Review Journal, 2 March 2008.

Escherich, Katie and Lauren Sher. “Obama: McCain Scoring ‘Cheap Political Points.'” abcnews.go.com, 8 Oct. 2008.

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