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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.