CHICAGO — In his first interview since he became an issue in the presidential campaign, William Ayers, the former Weather Underground leader, said that he had a distant relationship with Barack Obama and that Obama's opponents had turned him into "a cartoon character."
Ayers, now an education professor at the University of Illinois at 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 in an election day interview with the Washington Post. "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. His name and face -- a mug shot from his radical anti-Vietnam War days -- appeared in campaign advertisements across the country. His story, as told by his critics, was a cable news fixture.
But Ayers, 64, said he did not "feel very victimized." Although he declined media interviews and reportedly received 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 onstage 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.
On a sunny afternoon, Ayers came to the door of a row house in Chicago's Hyde Park area that he shares with his wife and former Weather Underground partner, Bernardine Dohrn.
Ayers, wearing jeans, running shoes, a T-shirt and hoop earrings, called out to friends as they passed by. To one couple walking their dogs, he said: "Palling around! You guys are palling around."
Ayers talked about the fact that he and his wife, a Northwestern University law professor, held an open house for Obama when he first ran for the Illinois state Senate, in 1995. Ayers also served on two civic boards with Obama.
The Weather Underground, a radical offshoot of the 1960s antiwar movement, claimed responsibility for about a dozen bombings. Among the targets were the Pentagon, the U.S. 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 that he did not regret setting bombs and, "I feel we didn't do enough."
The depiction of Ayers as an "unrepentant terrorist" caught on.
When asked Tuesday whether he wished 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 he blamed what he called liberal media outlets for failing to dismiss Obama's acquaintance with him as a case of guilt by association, likening it to the way the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth created a narrative that helped doom Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry's White House bid four years ago.
"The dishonest narrative is that guilt by association has some validity," Ayers said, saying the performance of the media was "kind of shameful."
One day this summer, Ayers said, he received two threats on his office computer while he was in his downtown office. One said a posse was coming to shoot him; the other said a gang would kidnap and waterboard him.
A university police officer who had known Ayers for years arrived and told him, "Gosh, I hope the guy who's coming to shoot you gets here first."