By Bill Ayers
Fox News made the headlines last week when eleven current and former employees filed a class-action lawsuit against the network for racial discrimination. This was less than a week after the network ousted political commentator Bill O’Reilly for accusations of sexual harassment. Fellow commentator Tucker Carlson has since replaced him. In a time when Fox News is under scrutiny for its regressive and discriminatory conduct, it’s amazing to recall that some of the network’s stars once rubbed elbows years ago with Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.
None other than Tucker Carlson entered an online fundraising auction for two items Ayers and Dohrn were donating: choice seats at a Cubs game and dinner for six cooked and hosted by Ayers and Dohrn. When Carlson won the dinner, outrage poured out on the blogosphere. Ayers was excited and saw it as an opportunity to open a dialog. Some friends of Ayers and Dohrn clamored to have a front-row seat to ‘dinner theater.’ Other friends and colleagues, however, argued that they should never comingle with the likes of Fox News commentators. Or they accused Ayers of being provocative and stupid, and faded into the background. But Ayers and Dohrn still made the preparations and welcomed their guests. Carlson brought along Jamie Weinstein, Andrew Breitbart, Matt Labash, Audrey Lowe, and Buckley Carlson. As the following passage from Public Enemy: Confessions of an American Dissident shows, no one could have predicted how the soirée would turn out.
And then they arrived. Let the rumpus begin!
Spirited greetings and introductions all around, laughter at the improbability of the whole thing, a flurry of separate conversations as wine was poured and glasses lifted. I proposed a toast to Tucker, thanking him for his generous gift to the Public Square and reminding everyone that this was a dinner party, not an interview or a performance (of course, dinner is always a performance, and this one more than most). Then they were seated at the table, first course served.
Friends had warned us that they would try to create a gotcha moment, but not much happened. Tucker and Bernardine gazed out the windows for a time at the Chicago skyline and discovered a shared Swedish background (Christmas cookies!). Jamie Weinstein acted the intrepid cub reporter, notebook in hand, copying the titles of books from the vast bookshelves (Look, Solzhenitsyn! And Vargas Llosa!), questions flying from him in a steady stream, but perhaps his manic, in-your-face manner was the result of jet lag (“I’m just off the plane from Israel,” he said half a dozen times. “My third trip!”). Carlson and Breitbart had been on the primary campaign trail, and each expressed deep disdain for the Republican candidates seeking the presidency. When Jamie complained that none was a bona fide conservative, I asked him to define “conservative” for me.
“Small government,” he said.
“That’s it?” I asked.
It certainly makes thinking easier, if not completely beside the point. I pointed out that Somalia, to take an obvious example, was a small-government paradise.
Tucker told me at one point that his kids went to the same boarding school he’d attended, and asserted that the only difference between his kids’ school and a failing Chicago public school was that at the prep school they could fire the bad teachers. I laughed out loud, and he smiled weakly.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the table, Bernardine was saying that the United States should close all its foreign military bases immediately, begin to dismantle the Pentagon, the CIA, and NATO, and save a trillion dollars a year at least—a small-government proposal if ever there was one. The boys weren’t buying it at all, clamoring for invasions here, aggression there, violence (normalized, routine, and taken for granted) practically everywhere. Andrew Breitbart, humid and heating up, argued noisily for US military interventions in Iran and Syria and, then, egging himself on, in North Korea and China(!)—on humanitarian grounds, of course—while Bernardine, that notorious poster child for violence, steadfastly urged nuclear disarmament, withdrawal from occupations, peace on earth, goodwill toward all. It was utterly surreal.
I gave each guest a swag bag with candy kisses and one of my books, autographed. Tucker took my comic book about teaching, and I signed it “To my new best friend!” I had bought his book Politicians, Partisans, and Parasites, with an epigraph (returned to again and again in the text) from Larry King: “The trick is to care, but not too much. Give a shit—but not really.” I asked him to please autograph it for me. He wrote: “Thanks for the fantastic ribs! Please read every word of this— the truth lies herein.” Perhaps he was being ironic as well.
As they were leaving, Breitbart told Bernardine that he was thrilled to know her, and he noted that we had at least one thing in common: we were all convenient caricatures in the “lamestream” media.
It was all over in an hour and a half. Andrew Breitbart tweeted from the taxi ferrying them back to their hotel: Shorthand: Ayers, a gourmand charmer. Dohrn, hot at 70, best behavior. Potemkin dinner. Pampered by their coterie.
He elaborated in a long radio interview later that night from his hotel bar: “We were exposed to the two most sophisticated dinner party-throwers in the world. . . . This was their battleﬁeld and they couldn’t have been more charming. . . . I think I’m going to try and reach out to Bill Ayers and try and figure out if I can maybe do a road trip across the country with him—him and me—and he can show me his America, and I can show him my America, and maybe we can film it and let people decide. Because I’ve got to be honest with you, I liked being in the room with him, talking with him.”
That road trip was a fun if unlikely prospect, but a few days after our dinner it became impossible—Andrew Breitbart collapsed and died outside his home at the age of forty-three, too young.
Life—short or long—always ends in the middle of things.
About the Author
William Ayers was Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the founder of the Small Schools Workshop and the Center for Youth and Society, and the author of many books including Teaching Toward Freedom, A Kind and Just Parent, Fugitive Days, and Public Enemy. Follow him on Twitter at @WilliamAyers.