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Reunion: A Memoir.

If I Had A Hammer...

I'd make Tom Hayden stop issuing manifestos. (And stick to his gifts for action.)

Young Tom Hayden was a smart brat who compensated for a lack of personal charm with the inventiveness of his early rebellions. He created a high school journal called The Daily Smirker, a parody of the communist Daily Worker in the spirit of Mad magazine. Now, some thirty years later, Hayden tells us(*) that his political consciousness was a "blank slate" at the time--which strains credulity a bit, at least for those of us who grew up unaware that The Daily Worker existed, let alone that it inspired parody--but Hayden is convincing in his basic point that his schoolboy politics were more hormonal and generational than ideological.

In a farewell editorial for his high school newspaper in 1957, Hayden buried an acrostic reading "Go To Hell." Gleeful boasting of this prank soon landed him on the carpet of the squarish school administrators from the Eisenhower years. The memoirist in Hayden recalls honestly that he could "only faintly explain what disturbed me," but the mellowed radical cannot resist adding a grandiose lament that he had not yet learned how to mobilize a picket line or a full-fledged boycott of graduation ceremonies. We are invited to believe that such a protest would have been a boon to mankind.

Hayden's roommate at the University of Michigan dressed exactly like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Even now, Hayden's recitation of college oppressions is suffused with petty distemper--"cafeteria food was processed...housing was hard to find...parking was scarce...we were unwanted orphans..." Still, restlessness and unformed dissatisfaction made him an enterprising reporter at the Michigan Daily. His work brought much adventure and high honors, including the editorship, but Hayden knew the rewards were grudgingly bestowed. As an ambitious, personally dissatisfied editor, he projected his discontents outward from the Ann Arbor campus just as the student sit-in movement spread across the South.

His timing was perfect: the new movement gave the rebel a moral cause. Hayden knew it. He also knew how unprecedented it was to have such a political force created by students, his peers. His instincts took him unerringly to the edge of history that most people saw only in hindsight. Once there, he reacted almost unfailingly with diplomacy and courage. What's more, his understated, nonrhetorical account of that era is the second-most satisfying section of this memoir. From my own recent work on civil rights history, I find Hayden's personal narrative to be modest, his notorious ego authentically swallowed by larger events. Many kinds of people resent Hayden for various conflicting reasons, whether as a twit or a subversive or a sell-out, but honest ones should admire his performance here and wish they had done something similar.

Manifesto madness

During the late summer of 1961, white Mississippians responded brutally to the first, tentative attempts by students to register black voters in rural counties. Legitimate authorities behaved nearly as savagely as the Klan. A state representative executed a local farmer with a pistol in broad daylight at a crowded cotton gin; a black witness who was brave or foolhardy enough to call it murder was himself shotgunned to death. These and many other crimes failed to attract outside notice at the time, but within the private world of the young civil rights movement they sounded a general alarm, shattering the remaining illusions. Hayden, only a few months out of college, went straight to Mississippi. His description of the fear there is aptly spare:

"For the first time in my life, I heard people threatening openly and loudly to kill someone on the spot. [SNCC Chairman Charles] McDew flipped them the finger, as if they were just another morning nuisance, and walked safely into the church.

"I couldn't get used to the fear growing in me....I didn't know how to cope with the raving psychopaths only a few feet away from me. Give them the finger too and swagger into the church? Chuckle and pretend to agree with them? Show them my press card and ask for an interview?"

Hayden tried the innocent reporter approach but was beaten and arrested anyway. No sooner did he recover from the shock of it when he volunteered as an activist/pamphleteer for the Freedom Ride into rural southwest Georgia. Against a thousand inhibitions and fears, Hayden soon landed in the Albany jail. His was among the catalytic arrests that brought Martin Luther King to the same jail a week later. It was a watershed for King--his first large-scale campaign of civil disobedience. At that early stage, Hayden was one of only two white people in America jailed for making bodily witness against racial terror in both Mississippi and Albany.

Then Hayden's mind intervened. Not for the last time, some inner urge compelled him to produce a manifesto. From his cell he dispatched letters inviting activist white students to form a counterpart movement in the North. This led to The Port Huron Statement and the founding of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962. Hayden switched abruptly from a movement of songs and jailgoing to a six-month debate over a blueprint for the overhaul of the world. Unfortunately, the tone of Hayden's book shifts in the same way, so that the awed discoverer gives way to the junior Founding Father. His language stiffens under the howling winds of intellectual purpose. Quotes from Camus and C. Wright Mills roll forth. The document introduced a lasting scourge of postwar political language--apocalyptic vagueness--to which the memoir adds Hayden's unique blend of pompous infighting. "While Dick Flacks came to write about Port Huron for a small left-wing weekly, most of us came self-confidently to found a movement," he recalls. "Steve Max came to propose another political line; we came to declare a crossroads in history....A sense of radical history, a focus on values, and a desire for relevance, taken together, could enrich and reinforce the strength of our common understanding."

In this voice, Hayden subjects his readers to a complete ontology and exegesis of The Port Huron Statement. As to this proud moment, the intervening quarter-century has allowed him precious little perspective. He seems blind to critical distinctions. Whereas the students of the Southern movement were seizing leadership by assuming new risks and sacrifices that their elders denied or refused, the Northern students tried to leapfrog from college to power on the strength of superior brainpower. To recommend themselves, they extolled the manifesto's central theme of "participatory democracy" as a leap forward, as though Jefferson and the Greeks had something different in mind. This is an empty concept. Whatever the numerous faults in practice, nonparticipation has never been part of the democratic ideal itself. Two years after the shocking inspiration of the sit-ins, this specious idea allowed students who remained on campus to imitate the novelty of the Southern students. By manifesto, they "covered" the civil rights movement just as Ricky Nelson covered songs by Little Richard. By way of advertisement, Hayden took The Port Huron Statement directly to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. in the Kennedy White House, where sit-inners and Freedom Riders were not yet welcome.

From Huron to Hanoi

A certain allowance must be made for intellectual intoxication and exaggeration. Hayden and his colleagues were very young (Hayden was 22 in 1961), and history offers few instances in which young people were so right and their elders so wrong. (For a contemporary echo of this gap, one need only glance at Ronald Reagan's contemporary statements on the 1964 Civil Rights Act as opposed to Hayden's.) Still, making that allowance, the memoir is difficult to swallow for 50 pages, once Hayden is loosed in the pontificatory mode. He more or less declares that SDS shaped the sixties decade by being the "agency of change" and catalyst of the movement against the Vietnam war. This claim he leaves almost entirely undocumented. While it is true that SDS leaders were conspicuous in the early Vietnam protests, the antiwar movement included a host of students who never heard of SDS or thought it sectarian from the beginning--not to mention "don't-send-me" types and nonstudents of many kinds. As an organization, SDS became nationally prominent only during its self-destruction, by which time no "participatory democracy" was evident in the spasms, and the war went on another five years.

Hayden himself spent the transition period between civil rights and Vietnam in Newark, New Jersey, as a community organizer. Again his instincts put him ahead of the times. He transplanted the spartan life of the Mississippi registration workers to Newark before the country discovered the ghetto and urban decay. Quite apart from politics or results, his experience in Newark from 1964 to 1967 offers an opportunity for captivating autobiography. Picture yourself, even today, as a white person who decides for whatever reason to begin knocking on doors in any black central city, offering little more than your ideas for reform, living in a tenement on a mission to adopt and be adopted by a separate culture. Most reformers devise more convenient tests of their ideas, and Hayden deserves credit for his temerity, perseverance, and conviction. However, this account of that pioneer adventure is hybrid in style, with the narrative appeal spoiled by Port Huron's disease. Hayden buries the story under so much cant and self-conscious analysis ("Thus, the first step was in transferring blame from oneself to institutions.") that I found myself slipping toward the attitude of the Eisenhower-era school administrators. I begrudged him his honors and very nearly forgot my admiration for his sojourn in the Albany jail.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, the more vivid Hayden returns. He was part of the first American group to experience the war reality of Hanoi after the North Vietnamese government invited him to visit in December, 1965. That was very early in the war--so early that the hawkish press was not yet aroused to call him a traitor. Once again, Hayden's anticipation made him a political astronaut. He ventured into the forbidden zone, and the profound, disturbing wonder of it silenced his analytical pretensions. His descriptions of Vietnam are absorbing and personal. As intensely as he disapproved of U.S. war policy, he felt wholly "American" as he talked with Vietnamese soldiers, prisoners, and children in sewer-like bomb shelters. It was a surreal journey behind enemy lines, risking death from American bombers even as he negotiated the release of American prisoners. This trip, more than his prior exploits in SDS, sealed Hayden's estrangement from his own family. Shame drove his mother to hide from her neighbors in a motel, and his father, a lifelong accountant at Chrysler, refused to speak with him for a decade. Hayden recalls the crazy, multilayered emotions of the war with remarkable balance.

Again, his first reactions under pressure revealed Hayden's intuitive gift for politics. It took more than one trip to Indochina, but he mediated the release of the first three American POWs in 1967. Skeptics might disparage the feat as a grandstand move or propaganda ploy, but Hayden's account disarms such suspicion. It reads like a spy novel. Amidst cross-cutting suspicions of every kind--of the Pentagon that the POWs would be brainwashed defectors, of the disoriented POWs that Hayden was a communist assassin, of antiwar activists that Hayden was a tool of the Johnson administration--Hayden maintained his own principles while dealing effectively with antagonists from every extreme of ideology and delusion. He functioned deftly as a politician and diplomat.

To do so, he respected his opponents enough to learn from them and to try to win them over. For a time, at least, Hayden recognized that it was not intuitively obvious to most Americans why the freedom being fought for in Vietnam was different from freedom in Mississippi, any more than it was obvious to most learned Jesuits of the 16th century why true religion did not justify the torture of the Inquisition. During pleasant teas between air strikes, Hayden puzzled over the Vietnamese citizens who, though maimed or widowed by American ordnance, evinced a friendly curiosity about the U.S. "Why don't you hate us?" he wondered. When he summoned the courage to ask directly about the source of such cheerful discipline, a Vietnamese replied, "When you fight Muhammed Ali, you must concentrate on him, not hope he gets an upset stomach."

Half-hearted apologies

Hayden promply ignored these lessons during the disintegration of the New Left in 1967-70, which lapped just behind a parallel disintegration in civil rights. To maintain his leadership, he followed the youth culture through its love-ins, its pseudo-revolutions, and its antipolitical guerrilla theater of deliberately alienating the pigs. He was there with Mark Rudd at the battle of Columbia, with the hippies battling the cops at People's Park, and with the assorted Yippie and Panther defendants at the Chicago conspiracy show trial. He formed his own California commune, the Red Family, from which he was expelled for various chauvinisms and political defects. Although he knew the Maoist Weathermen had gone daffy into anarchist violence, he could not resist giving them a sendoff speech for their "Days of Rage" rampage of vandalism through Chicago. As a nice finishing touch for the slide into decadence, he posed afterward for celebrity photographer Richard Avedon.

In his memoir, Hayden apologizes at least four times for the indulgent nihilism of the latter days. Admitting to a seductive ego, he remembers that he was afraid of being called a coward if he declined any rampart thrown up to his left. These are only glancing confessions, however, which is probably why Hayden feels obliged to repeat them. Generally speaking, his version of the Chicago conspiracy trial and other flashpoints of the radical 1960s is more of a rerun than a reappraisal. He blames the war for ruining the movement, dwells on the grisly provocations, and hints at private enmities among the yahoo crusaders. Otherwise he basks in lengthy flashbacks to moments of wild, tainted glory.

These apologies don't go far enough. Hayden tries to have it both ways--having pressed his claim to leadership in the adult world, he accords himself the lenience due a beginner. He, more than anyone, should know that the youth movement bears responsibility for its political legacy. Those who led or tolerated the brazenly anti-political exhibitions of the Yippie-Zippie-Panther period might well have lengthened rather than shortened the war by feeding Nixon's middle-American Thermidor. On into the Reagan years and beyond, those impolitic excesses will discredit the remarkable, democratic courage of young people in the 1960s. They may have hastened the return of an atmosphere in which most Americans find it difficult to imagine a positive contribution from the young.

Time has allowed Hayden to recover personally. The Reunion of his title refers to reconciliations with his parents and to the slow return of his appreciation for the natural cycles of life, such as children. He treats this well. He also writes sensitively of his relations with his in-laws, Henry and Shirlee Fonda. (But don't buy the book for the "good parts" about the romance with Jane, which began in 1972; he writes cautiously and awkwardly of her.)

Almost inevitably, the book introduces a less graceful phase with the story of Hayden's entry into electoral politics. In announcing his unsuccessful 1976 candidacy for the U.S. Senate, he disgorged a 278-page manifesto. His quoted pronouncements are both stilted and foamy. I sympathize with Hayden, as my own political expressions tend to be overblown. He should acknowledge the flaw and seek out a trusted, steely editor. In the meantime, since election to the California legislature in 1978, he has found a trade suitable to his lifelong rhetorical faults. My guess is that Hayden is a conscientious and skillful legislator--quick, imaginative, and best on his feet, before he has a chance to swell up in thought. (*)Reunion: A Memoir. Tom Hayden. Random House, $19.95.
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Author:Branch, Taylor
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:May 1, 1988
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