xml:space="preserve">
xml:space="preserve">
Advertisement
Advertisement

Witcover: Remembering Tom Hayden, radical reformer and public servant

The death at 76 of Tom Hayden has taken from the scene an influential student radical of the 1960s who pivoted to orthodox politics as an influential California state senator, where he carried on his dedication to anti-war and other liberal principles.

I first encountered Hayden in Newark, N.J., when he was a community organizer in a poor black section of the city. He was fresh out of the University of Michigan and an early leader of Students for a Democratic Society, SDS.

Advertisement

Hayden was the chief drafter of its Port Huron Statement in 1962, which declared it represented a "generation bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit."

At its founding convention on the shores of Lake Huron, SDS called for creation of "a democracy of individual participation" in which each person would "share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life."

Advertisement

Its members often carried the notion to extremes, as at a meeting I witnessed of the SDS National Council at a state park in Bloomington, Ind. The dialogue went like this: "Can I call for a vote on how we want to discuss this? Shall we sit as one committee, or break up into smaller workshops, or what?"

Such scenes tended to trivialize the seriousness of the SDS deliberations, but as the organization grew, it involved itself more deeply not only in fighting poverty and Southern segregation but also in fighting the American involvement in the Vietnam War.

In 1960, Hayden joined the protesting picket line at the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles and later a Freedom Ride in the Deep South, for which he was jailed in Albany, Ga.

In 1965, he went to Hanoi to examine destruction caused by American bombing. He visited the North Vietnamese capital again in 1967, returning by way of Cambodia with three freed American servicemen as part of a peace mission. In 1968, he joined the protest at the chaotic Democratic Convention in Chicago that turned into what investigators later called "a police riot" against anti-war elements there.

Hayden was among the infamous Chicago Eight charged with conspiracy in the convention protests and found guilty, but the verdict thrown out in 1972 by an appeals court that questioned the rulings of the trial judge.

Meanwhile, at a 1971 anti-war event in Ann Arbor, Mich., Hayden had met movie actress Jane Fonda, who was deeply involved in the protest herself. In 1973 they were married and had a son six months later. In 1972 she went to North Vietnam herself, earning the sobriquet "Hanoi Jane" and the contempt of many American supporters of the war.

Hayden and Ms. Fonda each eventually started to move away from what she called in a memoir "our counterculture trappings." In 1982 he ran for and won a seat in the California state senator pursuing the same anti-war and liberal agenda.

They lived for a time in a small lower-middle-class house in Santa Monica, where I once interviewed him. She came home in the course of it and proceeded to the small kitchen, preparing dinner like any other housewife, as I concluded the interview. In 1990 they were divorced and he continued in orthodox politics, seeking higher state offices without success but maintaining his SDS principles to the end of his committed anti-war life.

For all of Tom Hayden's confrontational politics and fiery rhetoric on the stump, he was in person mild-mannered and given to serious political discussion by the hour. He was hardly what one might consider a charismatic figure in the mold of other radical political leaders like Abbie Hoffman and Rennie Davis, with whom he collaborated in the Chicago protests against the Vietnam War and the eventual presidential nomination of Vice President Hubert Humphrey.

Todd Gitlin, a successor as SDS president, author of "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage" and a Columbia sociologist, called Hayden "the most influential politician to come out of the New Left" of the torrid 1960s. To the end, he adhered to the SDS core idea of personally engaging in "a democracy of individual participation" by sharing "in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life."

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun

Advertisement
Advertisement