Roger L. Simon

Barack Obama: Running on Empty with Bernardine Dohrn

The film Running on Empty was nominated for two Academy Awards for 1988 – one for its young star River Phoenix and the other for its writer Naomi Foner (she won the Golden Globe).  I served with Naomi on the Writers Guild Board a couple of years later and we got to know each other pretty well.  In those days, we were comrades on the left – more or less – and both “nominated” screenwriters.

Naomi’s movie (an original script of hers) concerned the clandestine life of the fugitive veterans of the Weather Underground–about a couple and their son (Phoenix). Basically, to most of us, it was a fictional version of the hidden marriage of Wiliam Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn.  But it was more about Bernardine, really, because she was a hugely famous figure on the left for many years, talked of by some as an American version of Spain’s La Pasionaria. I did not much care for what she did or said, even then.  But I certainly recognized her charisma. And I knew that she was close to crazy.  (Read the statements at the Bernardine link about the Tate-LaBianca murders.)

1988 was the same year that Barack Obama entered Harvard Law School.  It was highly unlikely he did not know about Running on Empty. It was one of the most talked about movies of the year for serious people, like Ivy League law students. The subject of the film was clearly the ramifications of a life of violence on friends and family.  And yet he chose to start his career in politics via Ayers-Dohrn (note the emphasis). And now he denies knowing who Ayers was or what he did.  Well… as the saying goes… I lost it at the movies.