Tom Hayden speaking at the LBJ Library this April. / LBJ Library
Todd Gitlin,  October 26, 2016

Tom Hayden and the Vocation of Politics

(1939-2016)

Tom Hayden speaking at the LBJ Library this April. / LBJ Library
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There’s a revelatory scene in a hard-to-find documentary, Troublemakers, shot by Norm Fruchter and Bob Machover in 1965 in the poor wards of Newark, N.J. Tom Hayden and some 100 others had left their rather comfy college-kid lives when Students for a Democratic Society, under Tom’s leadership, decided that the place to pursue economic democracy was in an interracial movement of the poor, designed to move the civil rights struggle toward interracial class solidarity. In the scene, the organizers of the Newark Community Union Project (NCUP), Tom among them, are debating whether to support the United Freedom ticket, a third-party venture headed by George Richardson, a War on Poverty activist and former state assemblyman who had fallen from grace for defying the Democratic Party establishment when it refused to address police violence and job discrimination.

The mostly white organizers are torn. “I come burdened with enormous prejudices against politics,” one organizer insists, waving his arms vigorously. “My whole life has been spent trying to figure out how stinking the political system is. And I don’t understand how all of a sudden we’re going to step in and change it.” (This is the late Robert Kramer, a founder with Fruchter and Machover, of the New Left Newsreel project and soon to be a well-known independent filmmaker in his own right.) Robert had the vocation of an artist. Tom had a vocation for politics.

NCUP decides to support the United Freedom ticket. We see an organizer telling people about George Richardson: “He’s a good guy. You know, he’s kind of a politician, you know what that means. But he’s not a rich man.” We see the 26-year-old Tom Hayden, coiled as always, putting together campaign leaflets and, at a meeting just before the election, methodically ticking off unpromising signs. The United Freedom Ticket is something “no one has ever heard of. And [Richardson]’s running on a third party, which very few people have ever heard of,” while “the mass of Negroes have been brainwashed” to support the Democratic Party.

Still, during the post-mortem, Tom defends NCUP’s participation in the Richardson campaign. After all, it put them in touch with neighborhood people. “It was nothing but a goddamn big picket line.” It was, in other words, practical politics, which was not exciting. But even as it flattened them, the political struggle might offer, for a time, a plausible route through a shriveling landscape.

Less than two years later, Newark burned. Unarmed black people were shot to death. Reform prospects closed off and outsider politics—the politics of rent strikes and third parties—hit a brick wall. All this happened as Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, only partially great as it was, was calcifying. The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy blew up a lot of patience. The Democratic Party, hell-bent on the atrocious Vietnam war, careened toward its 1968 crack-up, in which the demonstrations that Tom helped organize at the Democratic Convention in Chicago played no small part.

If results were getting murdered, and “logic and proportion” had “fallen sloppy dead,” the ticket was outsider politics.

He was one of those outsiders so desperate for results in a time of napalm that patience felt like a luxury. If results were getting murdered, and “logic and proportion” had “fallen sloppy dead”—even Tom, no fan of the counterculture, could appreciate the Jefferson Airplane—the ticket was outsider politics. That key insight held even if confrontations with marauding police put the movement at risk and a lot of people in the streets didn’t realize they were pawns in a bigger game.

In a movement that disdained authority, even its own, as leaders were becoming star vehicles inciting resentment and envy as well as admiration in the media spotlight, he was unrestrainedly leading. His maneuvers occasioned resentment in the ranks, along with a greater quantum of admiration. He was inspiring, off-putting, and indefatigable. As he inspired many, he tended to outwork and often enough outthink them as well. Some rivals, including incipient Weathermen, smelled sell-out, and believed he was merely building a Trojan Horse for Bobby Kennedy. He surely did take time out to weep at Bobby Kennedy’s coffin at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. In a sense, they were right. But his purpose was not underhanded. It was to end the Vietnam war—to use Malcolm X’s slogan, by any means necessary. In the heedless desperation of the late sixties, he pursued the chimera of chaos and polarization. “All for Vietnam!” was one slogan.

Flash forward one decade from Troublemakers. His antiwar politics have found traction in Washington, and his Indochina Peace Campaign has gotten good results in Congress. The time is right for political revolution—or, that failing, evolution. Now, from his perch in Santa Monica, Tom Hayden runs against the incumbent liberal Democratic Senator John Tunney. He gets close to 40 percent of the primary vote and with his wife Jane Fonda’s backing, he once more takes the initiative, starting a statewide organization, the Campaign for Economic Democracy. This was the California political organization that backed scores of liberal candidates and ballot measures in the 1970s and 1980s, most notably Proposition 65, the anti-toxics measure that requires signs in gas stations, bars and grocery stores that warn of cancer-causing chemicals. Some of its candidates won.

Tom, rescuing his talent from Nixonian apocalypse, resolved on insider politics. Starting in 1982, he served ten years in the state assembly; then, term-limited out, he served eight more in the state senate until term-limited out once again. Here’s a partial list of the laws he backed. He was not shy of the spotlight but the laws themselves were not glamorous, nor were the people they helped and strengthened. He helped settle gang wars in L. A. He was unstoppable. After he died, as Michael Finnegan reported in the Los Angeles Times,

John Burton, chairman of the California Democratic Party, recalled two measures that Hayden got passed. One allocated $250,000 to buy tattoo removal machines for imprisoned youth so they could cut their gang ties. The other set up a program for parents to use tax-free accounts for savings dedicated to their children’s college education. “These bills didn’t get a lot of attention at the time, but they have had a far-reaching impact on young people’s futures,” said Burton, who led the state Senate when Hayden was a member.

Let Max Weber have the last word (he almost always deserves it):

Politics is a strong and slow boring of hard boards. It takes both passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word. And even those who are neither leaders nor heroes must arm themselves with that steadfastness of heart which can brave even the crumbling of all hopes. This is necessary right now, or else men will not be able to attain even that which is possible today. Only he has the calling for politics who is sure that he shall not crumble when the world from his point of view is too stupid or too base for what he wants to offer. Only he who in the face of all this can say “In spite of all!” has the calling for politics.

Tom had it.

Todd Gitlin succeeded Tom Hayden as president of SDS, and now professes journalism, communications, and American Studies at Columbia University. He has published sixteen books and his next is a novel set in the sixties, The Opposition.

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