Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry

Tom Hayden returns - without the bullhorn

ROYAL OAK, Mich. - He was once a national symbol of the cultural clash that nearly tore America apart in the 1960s. Millions remember Tom Hayden with his wife Jane Fonda in Hanoi during the Vietnam War.

He was a co-founder of the radical SDS - Students for a Democratic Society - elements of which later turned into the violent Weathermen. He was a defendant in the highly publicized Chicago Seven trial. Some regarded him as a traitor; others as a symbol of everything that was then wrong with America.

And a few saw him as a hero.

Later, he went on to serve for many years in California's legislature, and staged highly publicized - and highly unsuccessful - protest campaigns for U.S. senator and mayor of Los Angeles. Today, he has a quieter profile; he writes, and teaches, and sometimes addresses small groups.


A young Hayden with wife, Jane Fonda, protested Vietnam War.

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Last week he came back to Royal Oak, the leafy suburb where he grew up before going off to the University of Michigan to be editor of the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper, at the dawn of the 1960s.

He came back as the star attraction of a community teach-in, an art form the 1960s radicals pioneered. This time it was on the war, not in Vietnam, but Iraq. This time, however, Tom Hayden had no bullhorn, nor was he accompanied by Jane Fonda, whose marriage to him ended long ago.

Mr. Hayden is more soft-spoken now. The night before, he met with a group of friends in Huntington Woods, an adjacent community whose peace group had organized the event. He was neatly dressed, and looked something like an aging jazz musician. He even wore a tie.

"Well, I don't, normally, but I feel small and respectful somehow whenever I come back home."

He'd driven by his old house, and was not happy to learn that his alma mater, Dondero, wasn't going to be a high school any more.

Hard to believe, but Tom Hayden the student radical is now 65. Older than his old nemesis Lyndon Johnson was when he died. Older than Richard Nixon was when he fell from grace. But in what perhaps may be a gesture of defiance against the calendar, he has a younger wife and a 5-year-old son.

"I try to spend a lot of time with them," he said. He has been writing books rather than manifestos and pamphlets these days. He did a well-received one on street gangs, and is trying to find the time to work on a book about the history of social movements; why they rise, why they fall.

But if his manner has mellowed, his politics have essentially remained the same. He spent the weekend advising the next generation how to fight against the Iraq War. "Let people know how much money - $6.5 billion - this has cost Michigan. How many college scholarships could that pay for?

"You have to let people know that. And they have to let their congressmen know they care. As regimented as the system is, it can still be swayed. Members of Congress tend to side with their own voters," when push comes to shove, if only for self-preservation. Noting that many military recruiters were having grave difficulty making their quotas, he urged people to help fight their efforts.

"What you want to do is make sure that someone is standing outside the recruitment office to tell them the other side of the story you know, Democrats criticize Bush for not having an exit strategy. Well, that's not because he somehow forgot about it. He doesn't want to exit."

What I wondered is how Tom Hayden felt, down deep, about what he saw as mankind's folly. He spent a decade of his young manhood fighting against one senseless war. Now, he saw his country embroiled in another.

He smiled. He was actually optimistic, he said. "I think a real hopeful sign is that there have been more anti-war protests, much earlier, than in Vietnam."

There is a tradition of protest that's being passed on from his generation, he said, that the movement in the 1960s didn't have. So he is happy to be helping the fight again. Though this time, not leading it. "I see myself as just a rank-and-file member of my local peace group, mostly." He now has a life.

We ran out of time before I could ask about the last line of his 1988 memoir, Reunion. (Random House) "I miss the sixties, and always will," he wrote. I wondered if he still felt that way.

Somehow, I felt he might say "not quite so much."

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