Matthews to Ayers: 'I Agitate My Way, You Agitate Your Way'

Chris Matthews invited Bill Ayers on Wednesday night's "Hardball," and actually confronted him about his bombing of Capitol Hill during his days as a member of the '60s terrorist group Weather Underground, as the former Capitol Hill police officer emotionally observed: "I was a Capitol policeman at the time, so I was one of the guys that could have been killed obviously at the time you put that, your guys put that bomb in there. So I have a little personal interest. It wasn't just vandalism. To me it was life-threatening to the guys I worked with. And there were some pretty good guys working there."

However Matthews, who paradoxically may not even be alive to conduct this interview today if the Weather Underground's bombs were more devastating, devoted most of the interview tossing softballs Ayers' way, as the two often agreed with each other on Barack Obama and Iraq policy as the "Hardball" host pointed out they only really differed on how to spread their points of view: "Well, Mr. Ayers, with all due respect, you agitate your way, I agitate my way."

Matthews, who back in October dismissed Sarah Palin's mention of Ayers, as "the politics of distraction," began the interview by setting up Ayers to play down any association he had with Obama:

MATTHEWS AFTER A CLIP OF SARAH PALIN: That was Sarah Palin on October 4th of this year and the "palling around," reference was to William Ayers. He became a flashpoint in the election because of his association with Barack Obama and his association with the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group active in the 1970s. William Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and his 2001 book Fugitive Days: Memoirs of An Anti-War Activist has been re-released with a new afterward. Mr. Ayers thank you for joining us. I know you don't do much of this and I appreciate you coming on. Your book is out in paperback. Let me ask you what was your personal reaction when you saw Governor Palin exploiting your relationship with Barack Obama?

WILLIAM AYERS: I think I saw it after everybody else saw it because I don't tend to watch television news. And I have three grown sons who kind of filter those things and they sent it to me. And I thought it was outrageous really. Really it was outrageous and profoundly dishonest and I chose not to react to it at the time. I couldn't see any honest way to react to it.

MATTHEWS: What's the phrase, "palling around," mean in reality? You weren't pals, with Barack Obama, obviously. Well explain. What was your relationship with him?

AYERS: Well you know I, I, again, I don't know what, what they were thinking exactly. We certainly, I, I was on a board with President-elect Obama. We did live in the same neighborhood. But the dishonesty of the narrative really is about the fact that if you can place two people in the same room or prove that they can take bus downtown together, that they're somehow responsible for one another's politics, policies, outlook and behavior. And that seems to me, patently absurd. It's guilt by association and I think, thankfully the American people rejected it this time.

Then later in the interview Matthews turned to the "lesson of Vietnam" and how it applied to Bush's Iraq policy:

MATTHEWS: What's the lesson of Vietnam for America?

AYERS: Well I think one of the lessons is that we should be, very, very wary when the United States government tells us that we must invade and occupy a country. We should be very wary of led down, being led down that path. And we should be rethinking, right now, most of all, we should rethink America's role in the world. Do we have to be the policemen of the world? Do we have to be the one and only superpower? Or could we imagine ourselves a nation among nations. Could we imagine a foreign policy based on justice, rather than power.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Aren't you scared a little bit, I certainly am, by the willingness of the American people to assume language, brand new language like "weapons of mass destruction," "Homeland Security," all these references to a new kind of foreign policy? "Forward leaning." "A preemptive, preventive war." Preventive war sounds like an oxymoron to me. But aren't you scared that the American people bought every one of those words, bought the whole argument that we had to go to Iraq?

AYERS: I actually think that those are contested. And I think you're right to worry about how much we did buy into that. But on the other hand I think we should be very hopeful that people rejected quite, a month ago, rejected eight years of the politics of fear, the politics of terror, the politics of violence and war and said, "Let's turn in a different direction." So we're, we've ended the era, I think, of 9/11, or at least turned a page on it.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: And we've entered an era of "Yes We Can!" But the question remains, "Yes we can, what?" And in foreign policy can we become a nation among nations? Can we become a nation who believes in justice for everyone.

MATTHEWS: Yeah well those are good things. I think you're a different man. I think you're a different man than the one that was in the Weather Underground and you've said so. Let me ask you are you concerned that the centrist positions of the people, Senator Obama, President-elect Obama has named -- Senator Clinton, Jim Jones, General Jim Jones, Bob Gates, the holdover Defense chief -- are you concerned that she's putting establishment figures, who, who, who supported the war authorization in Iraq in powerful positions of influence over him? That the people in the room, all around him now, will be people who disagreed with him and you about the Iraq war? Are you worried about that?

AYERS: A bit but I think that people like you and me, and probably most of the people who watch your show are suffering a kind of postpartum depression. That is we were so used to reading the polls and getting agitated about every nuance of what was happening that we now don't know what to do with ourselves. So we try to read the mind of the President-elect. I think it's much less important that we do that, than that we pay attention to building, on-the-ground, forces that want to rethink-

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: -and, and re-imagine what America could be.

MATTHEWS: Well, Mr. Ayers, with all due respect, you agitate your way, I agitate my way. Thank you very much for coming on "Hardball."

The following is the full transcript of the entire interview as it was aired on the December 10, edition of "Hardball":

(Begin clip of Sarah Palin)

SARAH PALIN: Our opponent is someone who sees America as imperfect enough to pal around with terrorists who targeted their own country.

(End clip)

CHRIS MATTHEWS: That was Sarah Palin on October 4th of this year and the "palling around," reference was to William Ayers. He became a flashpoint in the election because of his association with Barack Obama and his association with the Weather Underground, a radical anti-war group active in the 1970s. William Ayers is an education professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and his 2001 book Fugitive Days: Memoirs of An Anti-War Activist has been re-released with a new afterward. Mr. Ayers thank you for joining us. I know you don't do much of this and I appreciate you coming on. Your book is out in paperback. Let me ask you what was your personal reaction when you saw Governor Palin exploiting your relationship with Barack Obama?

WILLIAM AYERS: I think I saw it after everybody else saw it because I don't tend to watch television news. And I have three grown sons who kind of filter those things and they sent it to me. And I thought it was outrageous really. Really it was outrageous and profoundly dishonest and I chose not to react to it at the time. I couldn't see any honest way to react to it.

MATTHEWS: What's the phrase, "palling around," mean in reality? You weren't pals, with Barack Obama, obviously. Well explain. What was your relationship with him?

AYERS: Well you know I, I, again, I don't know what, what they were thinking exactly. We certainly, I, I was on a board with President-elect Obama. We did live in the same neighborhood. But the dishonesty of the narrative really is about the fact that if you can place two people in the same room or prove that they can take bus downtown together, that they're somehow responsible for one another's politics, policies, outlook and behavior. And that seems to me, patently absurd. It's guilt by association and I think, thankfully the American people rejected it this time.

MATTHEWS: Well let's talk about what they were up to. They were trying to tie Barack Obama to you in there to the terrorism threat we're under right now. By the fact that the Weather Underground was involved with bombings of the Capitol Building and the Pentagon, which obviously has resonance today, because both those structures were hit on 9/11. What's your reaction to that?

AYERS: Well I don't.

MATTHEWS: To the particular reference to the fact that you were involved with that.

AYERS: No I don't think, I think what they were trying to do was to get anything they could that would raise the question, "Who is this man?"

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: And so in association with me or in association with Jeremiah Wright. All these things were attempts to say, "This guy can't be trusted." And again I think people rejected that.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about this quote. I read it in the New York Times, the other day. And honestly it, it bothered me, but you know, I certainly shared your anti-war views. I demonstrated and did all that stuff. But let me ask you this. "The Weather Underground went on to take responsibility for placing several small bombs in empty offices. The ones at the Pentagon and at the U.S. Capitol were the most notorious as an illegal and unpopular war consumed the nation." Do you stand by that decision by the Weather Underground to plant those bombs?

AYERS: No I never-

MATTHEWS: You think that was a good thing to do at the time?

AYERS: You know I don't defend those actions and I didn't, don't defend them in my book Fugitive Days. What I, what I try to do in Fugitive Days is to understand how this young man set down, in that context, could find himself in these extreme positions. I think we made enormous mistakes and I think that there were terrible things done. I think we ought to have, in this country, a truth and reconciliation process where we really tell the truth about who did what, when-

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: -during the Vietnam years and try to sort it out. I feel I'd like to take responsibility for the things I did. I also think people who murdered millions of people should take responsibility as well.

MATTHEWS: You refer to those acts of, those bombs planted in the Capitol and the, and the Pentagon as "extreme vandalism directed at monuments to war and racism." Well what about the possibility that they might have killed somebody-

AYERS: That would have been horrific.

MATTHEWS: -as bombs?

AYERS: That would have been despicable. And we were fortunate it didn't happen.

MATTHEWS: Because you know back, I have a little history on this. I, I was taken by your comment about it being, you know, "empty offices." You know the bomb that went off in the U.S. Capitol in early, well actually late winter of 1971, went off in a bathroom in the Capitol Building, the old part of the Capitol it was, goes all the way back to the beginnings of our republic. And there were police officers in that area. In fact one I knew at the time, had just been in that bathroom in only a second or, actually about a minute later had checked in there, checked in the door there. So we knew he had been in that bathroom within a minute or so of the bomb going off. What do you make of that? It isn't just vandalism. There is people involved when you try to blow up a Capitol Building.

AYERS: Well it's horrific. Absolutely terrible, if someone were to be hurt. But let's again, remember the context. We had, we had created conditions where the majority of the people who were opposed to the war in Vietnam, every month that the war went on 2000 Vietnamese were killed, murdered.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: Innocent people. And, and what could we do to stop that, that terrible destruction? And I'm not claiming that what we did was terrific. But then again those who demonstrated, which I did, we didn't, we weren't that effective either. Those who went into the Democratic Party and tried to create a peace wing, they weren't that effective either. So the dilemma remains. Who did the right thing? I'm not so sure and I don't, again I don't want to defend what we did but nor do I think it was completely insane.

MATTHEWS: Well let me get to you on that. Because it seems to me, I mean I was there. I was a Capitol policeman at the time, so I was one of the guys that could have been killed obviously at the time you put that, your guys put that bomb in there. So I have a little personal interest. It wasn't just vandalism. To me it was life-threatening to the guys I worked with. And there were some pretty good guys working there.

In fact I, like a lot of Americans, I look to the United States Capitol not as a symbol of war and racism but as, although there was some history there, certainly with building the Capitol Building and how it was built. I understand all that. I understand the motives. Don't you think the anti-war demonstrations, where millions of people came for the moratorium and the march on the Pentagon, and things like that were more effective demonstrations of opposition than bombing? Which was-

AYERS: Perhaps.

MATTHEWS: -as you say potentially horrendous.

AYERS: Perhaps and I, perhaps and I was involved in those as well. And, and you're right. I want to think of the Capitol as a symbol of freedom and a symbol of democracy. The problem is these symbols cut a lot of different ways. To you and me that's what we would like to believe. But actually to people who are kind of the targets of American power, they represent something quite different.

MATTHEWS: What do you think is the lesson of Vietnam, right now? Here we are, I'm gonna give you a shot. What's the lesson?

AYERS: I'm sorry. I missed what you said.

MATTHEWS: What's the lesson of Vietnam for America?

AYERS: Well I think one of the lessons is that we should be, very, very wary when the United States government tells us that we must invade and occupy a country. We should be very wary of led down, being led down that path. And we should be rethinking, right now, most of all, we should rethink America's role in the world. Do we have to be the policemen of the world? Do we have to be the one and only superpower? Or could we imagine ourselves a nation among nations. Could we imagine a foreign policy based on justice, rather than power.

MATTHEWS: Yeah. Aren't you scared a little bit, I certainly am, by the willingness of the American people to assume language, brand new language like "weapons of mass destruction," "Homeland Security," all these references to a new kind of foreign policy? "Forward leaning." "A preemptive, preventive war." Preventive war sounds like an oxymoron to me. But aren't you scared that the American people bought every one of those words, bought the whole argument that we had to go to Iraq?

AYERS: I actually think that those are contested. And I think you're right to worry about how much we did buy into that. But on the other hand I think we should be very hopeful that people rejected quite, a month ago, rejected eight years of the politics of fear, the politics of terror, the politics of violence and war and said, "Let's turn in a different direction." So we're, we've ended the era, I think, of 9/11, or at least turned a page on it.

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: And we've entered an era of "Yes We Can!" But the question remains, "Yes we can, what?" And in foreign policy can we become a nation among nations? Can we become a nation who believes in justice for everyone.

MATTHEWS: Yeah well those are good things. I think you're a different man. I think you're a different man than the one that was in the Weather Underground and you've said so. Let me ask you are you concerned that the centrist positions of the people, Senator Obama, President-elect Obama has named -- Senator Clinton, Jim Jones, General Jim Jones, Bob Gates, the holdover Defense chief -- are you concerned that she's putting establishment figures, who, who, who supported the war authorization in Iraq in powerful positions of influence over him. That the people in the room, all around him now, will be people who disagreed with him and you about the Iraq war? Are you worried about that?

AYERS: A bit but I think that people like you and me, and probably most of the people who watch your show are suffering a kind of postpartum depression. That is we were so used to reading the polls and getting agitated about every nuance of what was happening that we now don't know what to do with ourselves. So we try to read the mind of the President-elect. I think it's much less important that we do that, than that we pay attention to building, on-the-ground, forces that want to rethink-

MATTHEWS: Yeah.

AYERS: -and, and re-imagine what America could be.

MATTHEWS: Well, Mr. Ayers, with all due respect, you agitate your way, I agitate my way. Thank you very much for coming on "Hardball." The name of your book is Fugitive Days. Thanks for coming on. Bill Ayers.

AYERS: Thank you very much.

Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens
Geoffrey Dickens is the Deputy Research Director at the Media Research Center.