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Defining Tom Hayden

COVER STORY

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)

A brainy kid, Hayden attended a Catholic elementary school, where he read aloud to the nuns and learned to fear hell. (Years later, he would ponder his religious upbringing in "The Lost Gospel of the Earth," one of the 10 books he has written or co-written, many of which involve a strong element of self-scrutiny.) The boy often had his nose in a book, but his other passion was baseball. He played until he was 12, his father cheering from the stands. In high school, he was a typical adolescent: He battled acne, groped girls in his mother's Rambler and edited the school newspaper. Holden Caulfield, the misunderstood teen of J.D. Salinger's "The Catcher in the Rye," became his literary hero, and the novel remains a favorite. Like Holden, Tom and his friends chafed at their parents' bland, middle-class lives, but he was more wise guy than rebel. As a senior, he planted the hidden message "Go to hell" in an editorial. He received a diploma but wasn't allowed to attend the graduation ceremony with his class.

At the University of Michigan, he worked on the school's muckraking newspaper, interviewing Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent leaders, intending to become a journalist. But soon he was gripped by radical politics. In the early '60s he helped create Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and co-authored the most famous student document of the period. The "Port Huron Statement" called for a kinder America, with power rooted not in possession or privilege, but in "love, reflectiveness, reason and creativity." Invigorated, Hayden dived into one movement and protest after another. During the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and others led massive protests, infuriating Mayor Richard Daley, the party leadership and the Chicago police. He also ventured to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, in part to try and understand the enemy's perspective, he said. It was on the antiwar circuit that he met and fell in love with actress Jane Fonda.

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When I ask Hayden about those notorious protest days, he winces--not out of regret for his politics, but because of his avowed desire to keep his public and private selves separate. That separation, of course, is impossible, as the 539 pages of his memoir, "Reunion," make clear.

One of the most poignant threads in that 1988 book concerns Hayden's father who, increasingly enraged by his son's politics, broke with him over Vietnam. For more than a decade, including the years Hayden faced prison for his "Chicago Seven" activities, they didn't speak. Hayden periodically sent him pictures of Jane, their son, Troy Garity, his stepdaughter, Vanessa, and heard nothing. (The defendants were eventually acquitted on charges of conspiracy to commit a riot.) Finally, in 1978, his dad wrote out of the blue and they reconciled. Hayden's father never did see him enter electoral politics. He died the morning Hayden won the 1982 Assembly primary.

To understand Hayden in all his complexity, look at his relationships with his father and his older son, and at his connection to the young man he was during a period to which many attach near-mystical importance--the 1960s.

In August, the film "Steal This Movie!" a sympathetic take on the era and on the radical Hoffman, returned Hayden's focus to that time. Playing Hayden was Garity, his son with Fonda. In a promotional online interview about the movie, Hayden mused about the unusual combination of acting and radical politics in his son's heritage and about the role: "For him it was an opportunity to get inside the way I was while being himself. . . . For me it was an opportunity to relive [the period] through my own flesh, and see my age and feel sort of astonished at how I was--was I ever really that young?"

Garity says that Hayden tried not to repeat the mistakes his dad had made. "I think it was very important to my father that he and I communicate. And I think the trial and the pain of the whole time really made him value what he loves." Garity, 27, shares his father's leftist views and calls him his "soul mate" and "challenger." When the Democrats came to town in August, father and son protested corporate globalization at Staples Center. Garity even got nailed by a rubber bullet when the police moved in.

Garity has many good memories of his youth: veterans approaching his parents and embracing them; Dodger games with his dad; summers at their Laurel Springs Ranch near Santa Barbara, where Hayden and Fonda ran a camp for needy children; the emphasis his father placed on knowing his immigrant heritage (Garity carries his grandmother's maiden name. When he turned 26, Hayden gave him a picture of the field where Garity ancestors once lived in Monaghan County, Ireland.)

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