It makes me sad how sad I am.
This time it’s because one of my heroes, iconic social activist Tom Hayden, died a few days ago at the age of 76.
I can’t remember exactly when I heard a knock on my apartment door and opened it to see Hayden standing there looking glum and unhappy. At first I thought it was because he was dragged to my place by my then-boss, former State Senator Lana Pollack, who knew he was one of my heroes and also knew him and his ex-wife, actress and activist Jane Fonda. I soon realized his grim facial expression was in fact a result of carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, of being unable to leave his work at his office or ignore and compartmentalize injustice and corruption. He wasn’t disappointed in me. He was disappointed in everyone.
He and Lana were on their way to a function of some sort so he wasn’t able to sit down and share his opinion of the Iraq war, what it was like to author the Port Huron Papers political manifesto the year I was born, or how it felt to be charged by the feds with conspiracy to incite a riot during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago for protesting the Vietnam War. (This led to him being named one of the infamous “Chicago 7” along with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis and three others. The eighth person to be charged, Bobby Seale, was tried and convicted separately which is why the “Chicago 8” became the “Chicago 7.” Seale, who co-founded the Black Panther Party and was bound, gagged and chained to a chair during judicial proceeds, deserves his own HBO special.) But Hayden took the time to autograph my copy of his memoir, Reunion, and tolerated my starstruck stammering with grace and patience. (If I recall correctly, my contribution to our brief conversation consisted almost exclusively of “I can’t believe you’re standing in my living room.”)
I learned who Tom Hayden was by watching an HBO docudrama of “The Trail of the Chicago 7” back in the 1980s. I had tuned in initially to see Hoffman, who I regarded as a loud-mouthed, entertaining clown with a propensity for American flag shirts and a Welcome Back Cotter-style Afro. I had no idea that Hayden was the heart of the antiwar effort and a leader of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the influential leftist student activist group that conservatives insisted was comprised of dangerous radicals and orgy-loving hippies.
|Hayden in 1968 and more recently|
Hayden ran unsuccessfully for governor of California in 1994, mayor of Los Angeles in 1997 and member of the Los Angeles City Council in 2001. He was an animal rights advocate who taught at several colleges and was a big Obama supporter. And he wrote or edited a number of books and served on the editorial board of The Nation, a progressive weekly magazine. Some people think of him as just the ex-husband of Fonda, to whom he was married from 1973 to 1990, but as women who are discounted as merely spouses can relate, he was much, much more.
I sent Hayden an e-mail message years later, in 2012, in which I directed him to “What’s the Diehl?” and asked him something about war or the Bush tax cuts or gerrymandering or something more substantive than “What’s it like standing in the living rooms of fans?” Here’s his response:
Good stuff on your site, but your question is tooooo overwhelming for e-messages. The new generation gets underestimated in terms of its activism, e.g. Just look at the vaginas rally on your site! No doubt the counter-movement against Obama, the 60s, and the 30s, is becoming ever more desperate as the demographics threaten to overwhelm them. Citizens United is part of a republican/business counter-movement, and is quite devastating. We have to talk about campaign finance all the time while also raising the money and the votes it takes to beat these people in November. Then we’ll see where we are.
I don’t know if this was written by Hayden himself or an aide but I treasure it nonetheless.
I also visited TomHayden.com and added my name to his list of supporters. I received messages in which he shared his views on fracking and the environment, drones, Afghanistan and Syria, drugs, presidential debates, securing a progressive mandate, war and peace, free trade and the US–Cuba deal. He wrote about Wall Street, prisons, Trayvon Martin, Kent State, Guantanamo, Obama, Clinton and Sanders. Looking at these messages, all of which I saved to read or read again later, I realized that of all the famous people I’ve met – and I’ve met many – Tom Hayden was probably the most thoughtful, a prolific writer and essayist, an activist’s activist, an immensely knowledgeable information source who never stopped working to make things better for everyone.
He was also a graduate of the University of Michigan but nobody’s perfect.