Six months ago, I’m sure Bill Ayers could have fulfilled a speaking engagement at the University of Nebraska and no one in that underpopulated, Red, but essentially moderate plains state would have thought twice about it. Six months from now, that may be true once more.

But when the university announced in mid-October that Ayers would speak on campus on November 15, all hell broke loose. A faculty committee from the College of Education and Human Sciences had invited him way back in February, when Ayers was simply a Chicago educator with a colorful background. But by October he’d become Barack Obama’s unrepentant terrorist sidekick and all the proof any hysteric needed that America simply didn’t know enough about the Democratic candidate with the Muslim name to risk putting him in the White House.

Republican governor Dave Heineman released a statement calling Ayers’s invitation “an embarrassment to the University of Nebraska and the State of Nebraska.” He and Democratic U.S. senator Ben Nelson both urged the university to back out. Bloggers threatened to disrupt the speech and dropped hints of murder. Less than 24 hours after Ayers’s speech was announced, the dean of the college wrote Ayers calling it off in the name of his own safety. 

Afterward, the Lincoln Journal Star published an account of the episode that included this handwringing assessment from the dean of the College of Journalism and Mass Communications to the president of the university: “I believe in freedom of expression with all my heart, and I also believe in being careful about that freedom when there are folk who will be incensed by that freedom. I am not sure what should be done.”

Now that the election’s over  I expect common sense to return to precincts such as the University of Nebraska where it’s normally in ample supply. But Obama’s accusers had a point — there is something elusive about him. He has a way, common among leaders, of revealing just so much. The rest of him is the counsel he keeps with himself. In that regard, the most interesting observation I’ve seen on what we don’t know about Barack Obama was just made by Ayers himself, talking Tuesday to the Washington Post (and quoted in the Tribune). He 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.”