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Originally published November 5, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 5, 2008 at 9:14 AM

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Ayers says he, Obama aren't pals

In his first interview since he became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, said Tuesday he had a distant relationship with Barack Obama, and Obama's foes had turned him into "a cartoon character."

The Washington Post

CHICAGO — In his first interview since he became an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, Bill Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, said Tuesday he had a distant relationship with Barack Obama, and Obama's foes had turned him into "a cartoon character."

Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said he thought the accusation by Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin that Obama had been "palling around with terrorists" was absurd.

"Pal around together? What does that mean? Share a milkshake with two straws?"Ayers said. "I think my relationship with Obama was probably like thousands of others in Chicago. And, like millions and millions of others, I wish I knew him better."

Republicans have tried to make Ayers into Obama's Willie Horton, a felon who was the subject of race-based attack ads that derailed Michael Dukakis' bid for the presidency in 1988. Ayers' name and face — a mug shot from his radical anti-Vietnam War days — have appeared in campaign ads across the country. His story, as told by his critics, is a cable-television fixture.

Yet Ayers, 64, said he does not "feel very victimized." Although he declined interviews and received reported death threats, he continued to teach and write, postponing the release of one book because of the controversy.

"I didn't do anything. It's all guilt by association. They made me into a cartoon character, they threw me up on stage just to pummel me," Ayers said. "I felt from the beginning that the Obama campaign had to run the campaign and I had to run my life."

He said he had no contact with the Obama campaign. "That's not my world," he said.

Obama served on a pair of foundations with Ayers. He and his wife, fellow former Weather Underground partner Bernardine Dohrn, who now is a Northwestern University law professor, held an open house for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois state senate in 1995.

In the late 1960s, the Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the antiwar movement, claimed responsibility for roughly a dozen bombings. Among the targets were the Pentagon, the Capitol, police stations, banks and courthouses.

Beyond the three conspirators killed in the 1970s when a bomb exploded prematurely, no one was injured in a campaign described by one critic as "immensely bad ideas and dreadful tactics."

In a story that appeared by coincidence in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001, Ayers was quoted as saying he did not regret setting bombs and, "I feel we didn't do enough."

The depiction of Ayers as an "unrepentant terrorist" caught on.

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Asked Tuesday if he wishes he had set more bombs, Ayers answered, "Never."

He also said he had regrets.

"I wish I'd been wiser," he said. "I wish I'd been more effective. I wish I'd been more unifying. I wish I'd been more principled."

Ayers said Obama's expected victory is an "achingly exciting moment." He planned to join the throngs at Obama's Election Night rally in Grant Park.

He is not an invited guest.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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