Soon to be a Major Motion Picture
Soon to be a major motion picture let’s hope, for now it is a minor book. Oh Abbie, Abbie, all who lived through the Sixties will neither forget you nor be able to recompense you for your enraged nuttiness. You were the Street Groucho, you could kill ‘em by kiddin’ ‘em, and when the rest of us, as angry as we were impotent, could do nothing but chew carpets and bubble and pop sanguinary fantasies, you injured our common adversaries with jokes. You even took the outward signs of our impassioned powerlessness, the four-letter cuss words with which we reviled our elected magistrates in private, and showed us how they could be used as darts on these same men in public.
The baiting, spoofing, goading, mocking, jeering, joking, laughing five or six years of Abbie’s public ministry contributed materially to the closing down of the war and to the missteps that led to the Nixon people putting themselves out of office. The traps Abbie dared and devil danced them into setting for him, they tripped and snapped shut on themselves.
In his book he speaks of himself as an organizer, but as one who frequently watched Abbie in action during that period I can remember few outward signs of organization in the sense of something stable, continuing, and reasonably predictable. When the League of Women Voters or the Auto Workers Union or the American Legion say they can turn out so many people, they can. Abbie couldn’t.
He had a wonderful ability to attract a crowd, but how big the crowd would be and what it might do was as much a surprise to him as to all the different kinds of policemen spying on him. But considering he never had any cards in his hand he could count on, he was a marvelous tactician. Bluff or theatricality, call it what you will, his best strokes won recruits and spurred his opponents to stupid acts of retaliatory spite. He got on Nixon’s nerves enough so that John Mitchell commissioned the likes of G. Gordon Liddy to commit the idiocies that brought them down.
In those years Abbie was a rabble rouser So, of course, was Tom Paine, but observed from this distance at least, Paine’s rabble were of a higher quality than the mildly literate younger persons whom Abbie enlisted in the antiwar resistance. Paine could appeal to his constituency’s reason. Abbie’s had none. An exaggeration, but anyone who spent any time with the youthquake of the Sixties knows that a large number of them were unread, unthoughtful, unworldly, pleasure-centered creatures who slithered about like beings in the garden who first bed down on one leaf, then abandon it to slide along the twig to schlurp on the next leaf and then the next.
Not very promising material. A similar situation faced Gandhi in India’s tens of millions of peasants who had no weapons and couldn’t get them and couldn’t be organized into effective military formations if they did. The solution that the Mahatma came up with was to beat the British with the one quality the Indian masses did have, immutable inertia. Instead of doing nothing at home, they would do nothing in the streets, thereby blocking the docks and the trolley cars. It wouldn’t have worked against the Nazis. Germans can, or could then, machine gun 200,000 people squatting in the streets. Gandhi knew his opponents.
So did Abbie. Abbie was political, Abbie cared about racial justice, imperialism, sexism, etc., but the people he was pitching to didn’t. What they were largely concerned with was not getting their fannies shot off, just as their girl friends and mothers didn’t want their young men to die in distant climes. True young politicals, much less radicals, were as scarce in the Sixties as they are in the opening of the Eighties.
What Abbie did was what Gandhi did. Just as the weakness of the Hindu peasants was converted into a power tool, so were the idle occupations of late adolescence in America. Sex, pleasure, drugs, clothes, music were transformed into symbolic acts of defiance of their war-obsessed elders. People who smoked marijuana opposed American foreign policy in Southeast Asia and, even if they didn’t, Abbie and his friends convinced the ruling circles that they did. Hence when the authorities landed on simple-minded sybarites as though they were political enemies, they did for a short time alienate them and make them political enemies.
All of which Abbie understood in his own somewhat exaggerated way, for he writes,
…The hippie movement was still far more significant than any of the other youth fads encouraged by America’s teen culture industry…. The hippie life-style that evolved in the mid-to-late Sixties will be seen as the force that broke the strangle-hold of the Protestant Ethic, that spiritual underpinning of the profit greed-grab. It spread the morality of anti-war politics. Make Love Not War was our battle cry.
In this manner Abbie Hoffman became a mighty chief of the Woodstock Nation. His young braves and squaws, living through the last great bull market period of more and easier money for everyone, were true, single-issue warriors. In 1973 the draft was ended, the war petered out and marijuana and cocaine changed from being the eucharistic bread of the Age of Aquarius to being the drug problem, part of the tug-o’-war between the pleasure principle and getting the food grown and the daily chores done.
Abbie, as his book shows, remained political. “Racism,” “sexism,” “imperialism,” “capitalism” continue as his abiding concerns but where once hundreds of thousands appeared to share them, now only hundreds do. In a nation as fixed on Gallup Polls and censuses as ours is, the loss of six or even three zeroes is grievous. Abbie, the formerly dancing but dangerous leader of a hirsute and horny youth, is, now, bereft of his great following, treated as the master media manipulator, the Albert Lasker of a bygone, single-issue crusade.
But Abbie it turns out isn’t a publicity genius for hire. Whereas his friend Jerry Rubin has embraced every fad to bloom since Vietnam, thereby making the war resistance itself look like that year’s thing to have done, Abbie did not. No greasy Indian gurus did he embrace, no born-all-too-often fundamentalist Gantry became his savior, nor did he take up disco roller skating or become a supply-side economics yoyo proclaiming profits for prosperity.
He has kept his faith, which, alas, doesn’t make his autobiography especially entertaining to read. It is mercifully short on the kind of cant you might fear would issue forth from a political comedian who has lost his sense of humor, as apparently Abbie has. It is highly anecdotal, but the reader’s attention wanders from these stories because of the lifeless qualities of this book about a life. Some egomaniacs write autobiographies in which only they appear, but they are so absorbingly crazy the author’s-eye view of himself is more than enough to satisfy a reader. That’s not the case with Abbie, who accomplishes what you might have thought was impossible: depicting himself as a conventional figure.
Abbie’s Jewish family, replete with the traditionally very Yiddish grandmother, come across as nice people, neither very colorful nor very real. Only the father comes close to being other than a stick figure in Abbie’s stock and stale analysis of Why My Jewish Family Made Me Me. Lacking both originality or clear introspection, these recollections come off the page as Woody Allen without jokes.
It is an odd thing to say about Mr. Uninhibited, but, on paper at least, Abbie Hoffman can’t express feeling, except perhaps the kind that he has told us he doesn’t have—your ordinary middle-class guilts. His account of his first marriage is dull, except for a phrase here and there where he chides himself for being a poor family man. He tells us how much he loved his second wife, Anita, and for those who saw them together his sentences on this subject are believable, but his feelings toward this remarkably loyal woman who was his helpmate during the period of public hijinks remain muffled. So does Anita herself. The closest you come to her is studying her pictures among the photographs included in the book.
Maybe Abbie never had a particularly original or powerfully felt perception of himself and of the world outside his political and social concerns. The person he inadvertently describes is an Abbie of reasonably conventional tastes and pleasures who sometimes forced himself into extravagances in the matter of drugs and sex which didn’t wholly suit him or satisfy him. He presents himself to us as a professional extrovert practicing open marriage while complaining that his life was made careworn for lack of the minimum amount of money needed for him and Anita to build their modest, monogamous nest.
What a contrast he makes with Paul Goodman, a radical whose polymorphous sexuality seemed to fit into his private and public activities. Goodman was quite at ease with what the activists of Abbie’s generation called a “revolutionary lifestyle,” not that he reciprocated their approval. If Abbie could not square the way he was living with himself, Goodman considered the drug-taking abominable, whatever its political significance, and the citizens of the Woodstock Nation low-grade barbarians.
Sections of Abbie’s self-portrait read as if they were part of yet another celebrity book, one called Making It on the Left. Too many grateful acknowledgments are made to people whose help made this life possible. At least one too many of the sentences reads, “No one but another famous person is likely to understand this,” and there are passages full of conventional success story clichés: “In April that spring, the US government announced it was indicting eight antiwar leaders on charges of conspiracy to cross state lines to incite a riot. I was privileged to be one of the eight…. When I had thrown myself completely into the movement, by going to New York, it felt like moving up to play big-league ball. Now, three years later, I had been selected for the All-Star Team.”
Not everybody from the days when Abbie was an All-Unamerican gets a hug and a peck on the cheek: “If all of us had that touch of arrogance needed to be activists, [Tom] Hayden had a double scoop. He made me thankful there was more than one foxhole on our side of the barricades. He had a movement reputation for sending others to face the cops while he ducked out the back door. He avoided all collective decisions where he could be outvoted. He was absolutely without humor.”
Kinder sentiments are expressed for La Fonda, but the comparison between the two men needs more filling out. Does a sense of humor help so much or do wise guys get gassed first? Incontestably Hayden seems a drear Calvinist, a grinder who must mistrust any political sentiment that springs from inspiration or spontaneity, but Abbie’s repeated bursts of sectarian obloquy smack of rancid disagreements over tactics and control. Also, was Hayden, the “linear politician,” to use the now discarded label of fifteen years ago, so completely mistaken? Abbie, for years a fugitive useless to himself and the world, returned to cut his way free of the trammels of a less than heroic arrest for drug dealing. Hayden, for better or worse, continues to have some political effectiveness, to be some kind of leader in the haze of current left liberalism. You might also say of Hayden that he saw the righteous frolic of the Sixties was passing and if he left to play more orderly politics, politics made suspect by his status as celebrity husband, there have been no other very spacious avenues of action for the men and women who seemed the invincible leaders of the Armies of the Night a decade ago.
Abbie was better than his book, better than laments like, “…I could have become a millionaire in 1970…. Manufacturers wanted to do an ‘Abbie Doll,’ and one even wanted to market it as part of a set along with a policeman doll. Got it? …I was offered ten thousand dollars to allow a researcher to compile a ‘Dear Abbie’ collection of letters….” He explains in details too copious to put suspicion to rest that he did not steal, as he has been accused of doing, the contents of another book he published some years ago.
All in all this isn’t a work of self-praise. Our unwitting author who is better at cracking one-liners than writing funny prose shows us his tattered side more clearly than his noble one. He does not do himself justice when he describes himself defying Judge Julius Hoffman, shrieking up at the bench to the bald-headed gnome in the outsized judicial robes. He correctly quotes himself yelling, “You shtunk…. You’re a disgrace to the Jews.” I remember this as a bats-in-the-belfry moment, the courtroom spectators taking on the federal marshals, the jury bug-eyed, lawyers on the edge of physical combat, the defendants on their feet making the heil Hitler salute. Abbie Hoffman was an ennobled figure that day and throughout the trial, a larger one than he paints himself.
Others will come to write about him better than he can. They will conjecture whether events passed him by, whether he failed to understand that the conditions that had made his politics possible no longer obtained. Perhaps it is enough to say he recognized when his time had come and seized the day. Carpe diem. We can all thank him for that and if he doesn’t get a second chance he can thank his stars for the first one, which is one more than is allotted to most of us.