Obama, Ayers, and the Annenberg Challenge Cover-Up

Barack Obama and the unrepentant terrorist Bill Ayers have worked closely together on education reform since 1995, and possibly since 1987. Obama has obfuscated and minimized this association in his public statements and on his website. Why the cover-up? We don’t know, since we aren’t sure what is being concealed.


It’s becoming known as the Annenberg Challenge cover-up and it’s become big news since the McCain campaign highlighted it in a press release late Wednesday.

In the past few days, Stanley Kurtz of the National Review has been trying to get access to the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, an education reform group co-founded by Bill Ayers in 1995 and chaired by Barack Obama from 1995 to 1999. After originally giving Mr. Kurtz permission, the library then told him that he could not proceed because they did not have proper authorization from the donor of the archives. They would not identify the donor, but the library assured Mr. Kurtz that they hoped to conclude an agreement and make the documents available soon. And why that cover-up?

This is what we know. Bill Ayers was a leader of the Weather Underground, a violent radical student group of the 1960s. His father, Thomas Ayers, was a prominent Chicago business and philanthropic leader who served as an adviser to Mayor Richard J. Daley, father of the current Chicago mayor. Although he is not apologetic about his terrorist past (and had the bad luck to be quoted as saying, in an interview that ran on Sept 11 2001, that “I don’t regret setting bombs. … I feel we didn’t do enough.”), Bill Ayers has been accepted back into the Chicago political community and has been an informal adviser to the current Mayor Daley on education reform.

But regardless of his cachet in the liberal circles of Chicago politics, presidential candidate Barack Obama has not been eager to explain his own relationship with Bill Ayers. Published reports from February 2008 gave a glimmer of their ties. In 1995 Ayers hosted a fund-raiser for Obama prior to Obama’s run for Alice Palmer’s seat in the state Senate; they both served on the board of the charitable Woods Fund of Chicago from 1999 to 2002; and Ayers donated $200 to Obama’s state Senate campaign. Other researchers and reporters (for example, Lynn Sweet of the Chicago Sun Times) noted a few joint panel appearances and a favorable review by Obama of a book by Bill Ayers.


But even this was more than Obama was willing to admit. Asked point blank by George Stephanopoulos in the Philadelphia debate preceding the Pennsylvania primary to “explain that relationship for the voters,” Obama prevaricated by pretending he scarcely knew Ayers:

This is a guy who lives in my neighborhood, who’s a professor of English in Chicago, who I know and who I have not received some official endorsement from. He’s not somebody who I exchange ideas from on a regular basis.

It was left to Hillary Clinton to remind Obama of his service with Ayers on the board of the Woods Fund of Chicago. The next day the Obama campaign posted at their website a “Fact Check” purporting to explain the relationship. Other reporters had been told that “Bill Ayers lives in his neighborhood. Their kids attend the same school.” They were left with the impression that Ayers and Obama had first met at the 1995 fundraiser.

And what was missing?

Blogger Steve Diamond pointed out a very close tie between Obama and Ayers through the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. At a White House event with Bill Clinton, philanthropist Walter Annenberg announced that he was making a $500 million grant to cities across the nation to put towards public school reform. Bill Ayers led the group that brought $49.2 million to Chicago and formed the Chicago Annenberg Challenge. The kick-off in January 1995 was attended by the governor of Illinois and the mayor of Chicago, as well as many other luminaries. The first chairman of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was Barack Obama, a post he held until 1999 when he stepped down and remained on the board. Bill Ayers worked closely with the Challenge as a leader of the newly-formed Chicago School Reform Collaborative.


That is a relationship that goes well beyond “a guy who lives in my neighborhood.” And there is a possibility the relationship began long before 1995. In 1987 there was a push for school reform in Chicago. Thomas Ayers was a leader of the ABCs Coalition which was coordinated by his son, Bill Ayers. One member of the coalition was the Developing Communities Project, headed up by Barack Obama before he left for Harvard.

Obama has not been forthcoming about this. And the latest development in the news concerns the archives of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, currently housed at the Richard J. Daley Library of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Mr. Kurtz was originally granted permission to review the archives, which might shed a great deal of light on the extent of the interaction and working relationship between Messrs. Obama and Ayers. However, the donor, whose identity the library will not reveal, has not granted permission for the public to have access to these documents; the library claims to be negotiating their release post-haste.

The McCain campaign team has highlighted this puzzle in a recent press release, which should create some media attention.

Obama has been concealing and misleading the voters about his relationship with Ayers, and someone is keeping the lid on these documents. So again, why the cover-up?

Without knowing the extent of the relationship, it is impossible to be certain why Obama is concealing it. At a minimum, I would guess that he would prefer not to explain to middle America why he chose to have a longtime association with a domestic terrorist and hard left radical. It is also a probable source of embarrassment that the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was viewed as a failure. Obama does not have much executive experience on his resume and education reform is a topic near and dear to many voter’s hearts. Since Obama’s career in education reform amounts to hanging with a radical leftist terrorist and accomplishing nothing, he might well prefer to conceal this and discuss something else.


But it is possible there is more to hide. The tax returns of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge are available (1998, 1999) and include disbursements made by the group, so if Chairman Barack was funneling money to absurd left wing projects the public would soon find out. But what if Ayers advocated some now-embarrassing left-wing proposal supported by Obama but rejected by the full board? Since it was never funded, that moment of awkwardness would show up in the currently-concealed board minutes but not the tax returns. Steve Diamond noted that an early disbursement of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge was to a group led by former student radical Mike Klonsky. Is No Radical Left Behind the sort of Hope and Change on which Obama wants to campaign?

More probably, the board minutes may simply detail a close relationship between Ayers and Obama. Steve Diamond obtained related records from Brown University and confirms that Ayers made presentations to the board while Barack chaired it, so we can be sure they worked together. And tagging Ayers as an unapologetic left-wing radical is easy. For example, his speech to Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in 2006 explained the importance of education reform: “We share the belief that education is the motor-force of revolution” or “La educacion es revolucion!”.

We will see whether Obama can keep these secrets through November.


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