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Obama's Other Radical Friends—A Commentary by Elizabeth Wurtzel ’08

The following commentary was published in The Wall Street Journal on May 2, 2008

Obama's Other Radical Friends
By Elizabeth Wurtzel ’08

When I was 15, I read an article in Rolling Stone about the Weather Underground and became fascinated with Bernardine Dohrn. As a leader of the militant arm of Students for a Democratic Society, she was renowned for her beauty and daring, for her revolutionary rhetoric, and for an FBI 10 Most Wanted poster that was pinup worthy.

When she first showed up in New York City, wearing a tight miniskirt and Italian leather boots, Bernardine – she became quickly known on a first-name basis – started a craze among men in the antiwar movement. This crafty graduate of the University of Chicago Law School sounded like a kick.

To my angsty adolescent mind in 1982, the fact that she helped bomb something like 25 targets, including the Capitol and the Pentagon, seemed to have been lost. In fairness to me, it also was lost on Northwestern University's law school, which made her a faculty member and director of its Children and Family Justice Center in 1992. And on swanky Sidley Austin, the elite Chicago law firm that employed both Bernardine and the Obamas some 20 years ago. (After living underground for years, she pled guilty to aggravated battery and bail jumping, and was put on probation.)

Still, like many teenagers tragically lost in the Reagan '80s, I had Woodstock dreams, imagining some perfect purple haze of love. By the time I got to college, the cult of latter-day hippies had become a marketing phenomenon: Urban Outfitters was selling tie-dye T-shirts and groups of us made daytrips to Walden Pond to drop acid on Thoreau's acreage. Undergraduates lived in shanties, built in front of the university president's office at Harvard Yard, to protest investment in apartheid South Africa; all around the campus, reprints of posters advocating the 1969 student strike were thumb-tacked on kiosks and telephone poles. I was there, one of many, in love with a dream I'd had as a kid.

Today, of course, I know what LSD really stands for: let the Sixties die. If only the last terrorist act of the Weathermen had been to forever destroy hippie nostalgia. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about Bernardine Dohrn. But her name has come up again.

Apparently, back when he was running for state senate, Barack Obama had fund-raising events at the home of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn, and there's been some press about the senator's friendship with this controversial Weathercouple. Many reporters are well aware, even though Mr. Obama has described his connection to Ayers and Dohrn as "flimsy," that the senator's relationship with his radical Hyde Park neighbors is actually quite warm, even close.

In her tepid, wobbling way, Hillary Clinton has attempted to use this well-known fact to portray her opponent as a secret subversive. But mostly, the press doesn't want to touch this story – and no one else does either, as if it actually were TNT. Perhaps right-wing evildoers are holding onto this story to exploit in the general election.

There are a few other possibilities. One seems unlikely: That America has forgiven the '60s. It seems we will never quite get over the assorted shocks to the system and cumulative mayhem of an entire generation having a collective tantrum. It's the one decade that keeps coming up in every presidential election. Always, we have to know what the candidates were up to back then – the drafts, the deferments, the dodges, the drugs. Since Mr. Obama is too young to have a '60s story to tell, the Weatherman connection becomes his syndrome by proxy.

We can accept the '60s as necessary, but can't quite forgive the disarray. More likely, we never want another mess of that magnitude visited upon us again. And we all feel the pull right now. Between the war, the economy and some horrible x-element that can only be ruled a Carteresque malaise, we are all afraid of yet another turbulent time.

This next presidential election, we all know, is serious business. Time to pick a leader who will ensure that the kids are all right – and the grown-ups too. It's the reckoning, if not the rapture. And none of us wants to get bogged down with the same kind of stupid scandals that have dogged all our recent elections.

The brief attempt to link John McCain to a looker of a lobbyist lasted through a couple of news cycles, and went with the wind. The Clintons finally released their tax returns, we discovered they are multimillionaires, and life went on. We forgive the former first lady her sniper-fire memory lapse. All of us have been swiftboated to death, and this time around we are determined to elect a president without distraction and obfuscation: 527s be damned.

In a way, the public is saying that we don't want the country erupting into a divisiveness akin to what created the '60s scene, the atmosphere of the Weather Underground. Even Jeremiah Wright, an embarrassing pastor who would probably have brought down a less-deft political prestidigator, will not do in Barack Obama. The Reverend rants and raves. It's a mess. But Mr. Obama's campaign will carry on.

As for Mr. Obama's friends, the Weathercouple: By all accounts, Bernardine Dohrn and Bill Ayers are unfathomably charming, brilliant and comely people, absolutely irresistible. Everybody who meets them is taken and forgets what they should know.

Mr. Obama expects us all to understand this, because we understand everything else. He is doing something most unusual: He's acting as if the American people are thinking with their brains. He's giving all of us a lot of credit. Could it be that we deserve it?

Miss Wurtzel, a recent graduate of Yale Law School, is the author of "Prozac Nation" (Houghton Mifflin, 1994).