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Defining Tom Hayden

Over the Decades, the '60s Rabble-Rouser Has Stayed True to His Ideals. But It Hasn't Always Made Him an Effective Politician. As He Runs for City Council, Will He Be Able to Put Aside Burmese Repression to Focus on L.A.'s Potholes?

December 10, 2000|MONA GABLE | Mona Gable is a Los Angeles writer whose work appears in Salon magazine's anthology "Mothers Who Think" (Villard)

Tom Hayden is out of a job. After 10 frustrating years in the California Assembly, where the liberal Democrat was largely thwarted or ignored, and eight slightly less frustrating years in the state Senate, it has come to this. The once-angry young man with the 22,000-page FBI file, the man who aspired to be governor in 1994 and got beaten badly, the man who challenged Richard Riordan to be mayor in 1997 and got trounced, is 60 years old--60!--and running for the Los Angeles City Council. After four decades in public life, four decades battling injustice and exploitation, this is not how it was supposed to be. But if Hayden wants to avoid becoming irrelevant, this may be the best he can hope for. And that's not the worst of it.

The "Chicago Seven" activist who stormed the 1968 Democratic National Convention to protest the Vietnam War and then married Jane Fonda must now face the question of his legacy. According to a recent poll, a generation of dot-com kids doesn't know who Tom Hayden is. In a way, it seems, he has spent his life pondering that question himself. It is something of a puzzle.


hayden and i meet on a dreary spring afternoon at a family-run mexican restaurant in a Silver Lake strip mall. Although he's a fixture on various talking-heads shows and writes opinion pieces for alternative and mainstream newspapers, he's wary of the media that made him famous. It took me two months of lobbying before he agreed to a meeting.

Hayden and his second wife, Barbara Williams, recently adopted a baby, and he was up late the night before with little Liam. As the senator munches tortilla chips and chats intermittently on a cell phone, he looks beat, his hazel eyes bleary and tight. He'd spent the morning at a panel discussion downtown, decrying what he sees as the "persecution" of gangs by the media and the middle class. Soon he will be off

to meet with leaders of D2KLA, the protest group planning its strategy for the Democratic National Convention in August. For the moment, though, he's stuck with me.

"So, what are we doin' here?" he asks suddenly.

"It's a get-ta-know-ya," says Rocky Rushing, his chief of staff.

"Oh," says Hayden.

Not that he's unpleasant. When his tortilla soup arrives, he keeps holding out his spoon, urging, "Have a sip, have a sip." He pulls out pictures of the baby. But soon he dispenses with the small talk. Here's the deal, he says. He doesn't think anybody can write a 4,000-word piece about someone's life--in this case, his--and do it justice. As if offering evidence of the task's impossibility, he says: "I've been in politics 40 years."

Friends and loyalists accept this stance. Duane Peterson, Hayden's former chief of staff, goes off about "journalists who spend 40 hours researching a subject and then pretend to know someone." Asked a simple question about Hayden's 17-year marriage to Fonda, Hayden's former publicist Stephen Rivers snaps: "Not relevant to this article." Warren Beatty and other "Haydenistas" don't respond to my interview requests.

Part of Hayden's prickliness apparently stems from two profiles that appeared in the mid-'90s. The first, in the now-defunct Buzz magazine, was largely positive except for allegations that he once drank heavily. The second, in the left-leaning L.A. Weekly, was more harsh, positing that Hayden had managed to avoid the post-'60s obscurity of most radicals by clinging to Fonda's fame--but that her money, by insulating him from fund-raising, had made him a dilettante.

Hayden's supporters are especially annoyed by that view, writing it off to envy. Says longtime friend and state Democratic Party advisor Bob Mulholland, "As long as I've been around Tom, there's been jealousy."


The cozy Sacramento office that Hayden will soon be leaving is a mess. Along with piles of books, Native American wall hangings and Norman Rockwell prints is a photo gallery charting the politician's life. There's Hayden, the die-hard aficionado of adult baseball leagues, playing right field; Hayden with Hillary Rodham Clinton at the White House on St. Patrick's Day, and, perhaps most telling, a small photo of former Klansman David Duke circa 1968, wearing a swastika and carrying a sign demanding: "Gas the Chicago 7."

If you were going to pick the kid who'd grow up to be charged with inciting a violent conspiracy against America, you wouldn't have picked Tom Hayden. Home was a middle-class suburb of Detroit, and his dad, Jack, a World War II Marine, worked as an accountant at Chrysler. He also drank. One night he came home smashed and banged on his wife's locked bedroom door with a hammer. Shortly after, he told his son that he and mom Genevieve were getting divorced. Determined to support her only child, Genevieve took a job as a film librarian. Hayden remained close to his father, who took him on fishing trips in the wilderness and to big-league baseball games in the summer.

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