Tom Hayden was Royal Oak’s original bad-boy student radical — co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, ferocious anti-Vietnam War activist and member of the Chicago Seven, later husband of “Hanoi Jane” Fonda.
So it’s a bit startling to realize that Hayden is now older (65) than his old adversary Lyndon B. Johnson was when LBJ dropped dead. Hayden, however, hasn’t retired to his ranch, dropped out of politics or, worse, settled in to play a parody of the aging radical on talk shows. He’s still writing, teaching and, in a glorious effort to thumb his nose at the Grim Reaper, has a 5-year-old son.
Hayden has been mostly out of the spotlight since he left the California Legislature a few years ago, writing a book about street gangs, organizing against sweatshops, trying to spend some decent family time with his wife and child.
Yet it hasn’t escaped his notice that we are, once again, waist-deep in the big muddy quagmire of an imperialist war. From time to time, I’ve idly wondered how members of his generation feel about seeing the country plunge into another war that, if anything, is stupider and more immoral than Vietnam.
Think about it. Hayden spent years of his young manhood fighting to convince his countrymen that the Vietnam War was a mistake. Finally, after a decade and 58,000 dead, America got it. We pulled out, built the memorial wall in Washington, and said never again.
Now, barely a generation later, Tom Hayden gets to watch his nation do it all over again. That’s enough to make Jiminy Cricket cynical. Hayden, however, seems instead to have become deeper and more thoughtful.
And he thinks we can make them stop this war. “I think a really hopeful sign is that there have been more anti-war protests, much earlier, than with Vietnam,” he says. “When we were doing this in the 1960s, we had a broken legacy — our links to earlier progressive movements had been pretty much destroyed by McCarthyism — and we felt we had to begin all over again.”
Hayden, who has lived in California since 1971, came back last week to address an all-day teach-in on Iraq, sponsored by the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship and Education Project. (Huntington Woods, where I’m lucky enough to live, is a remarkable community full of people who are well-off enough to be complacent, but who tend to be strongly progressive.)
The night before, I had a chance to chat with him when he met with a group of peaceniks and other sane people in a private home. He was laid-back, low-key, neatly dressed with a tie. (“I don’t normally dress like this, but I feel small and respectful somehow whenever I come back home.”)
Thirty-five years ago, his generation helped stop one war. What, the younger people there especially wanted to know, do we do now? Is there anything we can do now, given the re-election, the all-volunteer army and the nature of the media, which has for the last two weeks virtually ignored Iraq in favor of endless coverage of Terri Schiavo and Pope John Paul II’s corpse?
Tom Hayden thinks there is.
“This country is so diverse, and it’s hard to unify anything, whether you are on the right or the left. But it has to start locally — and here’s what you can do.”
First, he said, put pressure on local congressmen to stop squandering money in Iraq that is so badly needed at home.
“How much money has Michigan sent to the Iraq war?” Told it was $6.5 billion, Hayden noted that this could have paid for 400,000 full-ride college scholarships “at a time when our universities are in desperate shape.”
“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. When trapped between imperial elites and their own insistent voters, members of Congress tend to side with their own voters,” if only for self-preservation.
Next, fight efforts to recruit more cannon fodder. The military, for the first time since the all-volunteer army was established, is having serious problems signing up soldiers. Recruiters once had one of the best and cushiest jobs in the armed forces. Now they’re missing their targets.
As a result, they’re coming under so much pressure from the Pentagon that, according to a recent story in The New York Times, at least 34 recruiters have gone missing (AWOL), something once unheard of.
Another even asked for a transfer back to Iraq instead! In many cases, kids who are beguiled by recruiters are being quickly set straight by their parents.
But that doesn’t always happen. “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, to tell them the truth.” But if the military can’t get enough volunteers, won’t that push the administration into moving to bring back the draft?
That, he seemed to think, would be highly unlikely. “True, that would solve their recruitment problem, but it would open up all sorts of other problems.”
The Bush administration isn’t as stupid as we might like to believe. “They were around in the 1960s. They know very well that they need to keep this war off TV as much as possible, to try and make it like the war in Afghanistan, where people are still dying and it is almost never on television.”
Bringing back the draft would mean the campuses would erupt, and the war and the policies that produced it would be scrutinized like never before.
Hayden said he regards himself as just another rank-and-file member of his local peace group these days, and believes that the key is reaching as many people as possible, one voter at a time. “Most Americans think the war was a mistake, but they are confused over whether getting out would make it worse.”
“We need to educate people. Most of all — Democrats criticize Bush for not having an exit strategy. Well, that’s not because he somehow forgot about it. He doesn’t intend to exit; he wants, at a minimum, to keep military bases there.”
Incredibly, perhaps, Hayden seemed optimistic that we can get this done. “We are facing a choice of whether we want to return to being a democracy, or an empire. Americans don’t like the word ‘empire’ — they have lingering memories of the British Empire. Those of us who are Irish especially know what that means.”
String Along With Mitch: Detroit’s media zoo was in a tizzy last week when it was learned that Mitch Albom, an Official Celebrity who’s also sometimes a sportswriter, wrote a column in the Detroit Free Press describing an event that really never happened. His excuse was that a basketball player told him it would happen, something that would get you a failing grade in a college journalism class. This caused editor Carole Leigh Hutton some embarrassment, especially since it wasn’t that long ago that she decided to unethically suppress an honest review of one of Mitch’s books because she feared offending him.
This columnist has learned that, despite reports to the contrary, Mitch’s next book won’t really be called The Two Basketball Players I Hoped to Meet at the Game. However, it is true that Hutton has reluctantly decided to hold off on publishing Mitch’s exclusive interview with the new pope.Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]