Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2019

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UNLV professor, on TV, recalls a kindly William Ayers

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William Ayers accompanies Bernardine Dohrn as the former radical enters the Criminal Courts Building in Chicago in 1980 to surrender to authorities.

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David Tanenhaus could have stayed silent as pundits and politicos debated the significance of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama’s ties to Vietnam-era radical William Ayers.

But with news reports glossing over what Tanenhaus thought were important details about Ayers, a man Tanenhaus knew and respected, the soft-spoken UNLV history professor appeared this week on FOX News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to talk about the controversy.

One of Tanenhaus’ main points: The Ayers he and Obama met in Chicago in the 1990s was a different man from the old Ayers, a leader of the anti-war Weather Underground, which bombed the Pentagon and other high-profile targets.

Tanenhaus said the Ayers he knew was a children’s rights advocate leading a “decent, good, productive” life. Tanenhaus encountered Ayers, an education professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, while researching Chicago’s juvenile justice system. Obama worked with Ayers on school reform.

Tanenhaus remembers Ayers and his wife, Bernardine Dohrn, another former Weather Underground leader, not as terrorists but as a middle-aged couple who invited him to build gingerbread-cookie houses and share Christmas dinner with them in 2000 shortly after Tanenhaus lost his first wife to breast cancer.

“They treated me like parents,” Tanenhaus, 40, told the Sun on Thursday, reiterating themes in an Oct. 10 article he wrote for Slate, an online magazine. “They didn’t want me alone on Christmas, so they invited me into their home.”

“I wanted to bring some humanity to this story that was very politicized by the election. They’re human beings. They’re parents. They’re grandparents. All of that was being lost, so I was trying to bring some humanity to the story.”

It’s a story that has refused to die.

While battling Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton talked about the Illinois senator’s relationship with Ayers. Arizona Sen. John McCain discussed the Ayers-Obama connection in Wednesday’s debate with Obama, and Nevadans began receiving automated phone calls Thursday on the issue from the Republican presidential nominee’s camp.

Tanenhaus’ Slate piece earned him the ire of many readers, some of who e-mailed him to complain.

“I got a lot of people making an argument similar to the hypothetical that O’Reilly posed to me, which was, ‘Imagine a war criminal. They come back into society, and they’re doing all these good things and they’re exposed. Are they still a war criminal?’ ”

Still, some history department colleagues who have read Tanenhaus’ Slate submission or watched his O’Reilly appearance say Tanenhaus is doing what historians do best — putting past events into context.

For example, Tanenhaus pointed out that for many members of his and Obama’s generation, Vietnam was “not such a big deal,” said Colin Loader, a fellow history professor.

“That’s what we do as historians,” Loader said. “We try to put stories in perspective.”

Tanenhaus said he didn’t discuss the Weather Underground with Ayers or Dohrn. That part of their life seemed distant by the time Tanenhaus met them.

“I would never say that what they did was something that I would support or that I thought that was right,” he said. “I never understood the idea of blowing things up.”

But he added that he believes in redemption, and that it is important to recognize that Ayers and Dohrn had, by the 1990s, dedicated themselves to addressing issues including juvenile justice.

Tanenhaus said he was able to convey that message successfully on O’Reilly’s show though O’Reilly did most of the talking, firing questions at Tanenhaus such as, “If you’re going to support an unrepentant terrorist, what does that say about you?”

Paul Werth, another UNLV history faculty member, said watching the segment reinforced his reluctance to appear on programs of that sort. If guests don’t have the opportunity to fully articulate their arguments, “I don’t think there’s a point to it,” he said.

Tanenhaus said O’Reilly’s producer had asked him to go on air to defend his views after he signed an online petition supporting Ayers.

Tanenhaus said he accepted the invitation because “you speak up for what you believe in.”

Tanenhaus said he hopes the Ayers story “fades away much like the Weather Underground faded from memory once before.”

But he’s not done speaking up yet. On Monday, he said, he’s scheduled to appear on “FOX & Friends,” a FOX News Channel morning show, to talk about his old friend again.

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