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A daughter of the revolution

Family Circle: The Boudins and the Aristocracy of the Left; Susan Braudy; Alfred A. Knopf: 460 pp., $27.95

November 16, 2003|Michael Kazin | Michael Kazin is the co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s." He teaches history at Georgetown University.

Nearly every reader of a certain age has heard about the Weathermen, that wild fragment of the New Left that brought the '60s to a violent close with street fights, bombings and jailbreaks. The group went underground in the early 1970s and slowly dissolved. In 1981, a handful of dead-enders got mixed up in a robbery in Nyack, N.Y., that killed two police officers and the guard on a Brink's truck.

But how many know that one of the ringleaders of the failed insurgency, Kathy Boudin, was the daughter of a brilliant, philandering lawyer, Leonard Boudin, once famous for defending accused Communist spies as well as Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg? Or that her mother stuck by her man, even inviting his lovers to cocktail parties, then tried to commit suicide? Or that her brother Michael rebelled by becoming a federal judge with strongly conservative views?

Susan Braudy set out to show that the old feminist slogan, "the personal is political," could have a deadly meaning. Boudin, a utopian zealot from a deeply neurotic family, seemed a tragedy waiting to happen. By telling her story, Braudy seeks to expose the depravity that supposedly lies at the heart of the American left. And her major source was Jean Boudin, Kathy's mother and Leonard's widow.

Unfortunately, the author is not up to the job. Braudy approaches the story of this intensely political family as if she were writing for People or, at best, Vanity Fair. All the traits of celebrity journalism are here: the precise details about the clothing and diet of the stars, the damning or admiring quotes from friends and lovers, the anecdotes about the Boudins' many sexual partners. Braudy writes like someone on deadline. Many sentences are short and brusque, as if on guard against any thought that might stem the revelatory deluge: "Leonard hosted past and present lovers at the brunch. Jean invited Doriane and Georgette Schneer. He patted and kissed hands."

Missing are historical sensibility and some psychological acumen. Braudy essentially reduces the motivations of these celebrated leftists to their greedy ambitions. She makes several vague references to Leonard Boudin's "imaginative legal stratagems" but doesn't otherwise account for his becoming the attorney of choice for so many prominent clients. To the author, what matters about a case is whether Boudin won it and which beautiful young woman he talked into bed along the way. At Bryn Mawr College in the early 1960s, Kathy Boudin boldly campaigned to raise the wages and living conditions of the black maids on campus. But Braudy, her older classmate at the time, spotlights only her "public temper tantrums" and defiance of the college president, a patrician who spoke like Katharine Hepburn.

One does not, of course, have to sympathize with a political tendency to illuminate its past. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Leonard Boudin used his talents to serve a party that blinded itself to the awesome butchery of Lenin and Stalin. Then his daughter persuaded herself that the cause of liberation required her to blast apart a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol.

Indeed, the Weathermen formed perhaps the most idiotic, self-destructive phenomenon in the whole checkered saga of the American left. (Embarrassing disclosure: For one long month in 1969, I belonged to its Boston "collective.") In March 1970, Boudin narrowly survived a bomb that exploded accidentally in a Greenwich Village townhouse where she and several of her comrades were staying. The three would-be terrorists who died that day were the only people the Weathermen ever killed (the Nyack shootings occurred after the Weathermen had dissolved). The group never attracted more than 200 or 300 members. But it included some of the best, most charismatic figures in the white radical movement, and this star quality has given the Weathermen a longer postmortem existence than they deserve.

Yet to restate such truths is only the beginning of the biographer's task. Braudy's challenge was to understand how a bright, persuasive young woman who wanted to transform the world detoured into self-delusion and worse. So, it appears, she grabbed a copy of "Freud for Beginners." "I blame your father," Braudy told Boudin during the only interview her protagonist allowed her, held inside a New York prison where she was serving a long sentence for aiding the Brink's robbery (she was paroled this fall). "You felt you had to risk your life," Braudy continued, "... to compete with Leonard to get his attention, and at the same time keep him at arm's length."

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