Abbie, we hardly knew you.
That the film Born on the Fourth of July by Oliver Stone (1989) and an article about resuscitating President Lyndon Johnson’s legacy from the ashes of the Vietnam War (“Rescuing a Vietnam Casualty: Johnson’s Legacy,” The New York Times, February 15, 2014) were seen and published a day apart is perhaps serendipitous?
What may strike the movie viewer and reader are how powerful the images and reality of that war still are so many, many years later and the hold it has on those who lived through those times. The Times article deals with LBJ’s civil right legacy and how a small group of family and friends is attempting to rehabilitate Johnson’s legacy on civil rights and the programs of the Great Society in the shadow of his disastrous policy toward Vietnam. Incredulously, the late president’s daughter, Luci Baines Johnson, states in the article: “Nobody wanted that war less than Lyndon Johnson.” Perhaps Ms. Johnson had the wrong war in mind when she uttered those words for the article, because that’s not what history tells us! Johnson orchestrated the most vicious war imaginable by the most powerful military force in history and left millions dead in Southeast Asia and nearly 60,000 dead American troops (when Richard’s Nixon’s final toll in that war is counted). Even the environmental destruction continues to this day in Vietnam from Agent Orange and among veterans and their families! Many war resisters still remain abroad, while many like me had their lives transformed forever!
But this piece does not seek to rehash the arguments of old about the Vietnam War, but rather, pay tribute to an antiwar activist who had a cameo role as a strike organizer and speaker in the film’s depiction of a student strike, part of a national campus strike, at Syracuse University, held in the wake of the Kent State and Jackson State murders of unarmed students. Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran, is the subject of Stone’s movie and was also at the rally along with Abbie.
April 12 will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the death of Abbie Hoffman, whose persona and activism were the hallmarks of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Hoffman was perhaps best known for his activism at the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. His resulting trial as part of the Chicago 8 was legendary among activists. Abbie’s chutzpah was such that he could castigate the judge, Judge Hoffman (no relation), in both English and Yiddish at the trial and ultimately get away with it!
Jonah Raskin’s biography of Abbie, For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman (1996) is the seminal work on Abbie’s life. The work is an honest depiction of the great successes Abbie had as a longtime activist, his vibrant personality that could be described as a joining of the personalities of Grocho Marx, Karl Marx, and Che Guevara (my assessment based on Abbie’s writing), and the deep personal and emotional conflicts that dogged Abbie and those who loved him until the untimely end of his life. Abbie’s own writings need to be read with a caution: Books such as his autobiography, Soon to be a Major Motion Picture (1980), tend to have a measure of hyperbole built into the writing, but nevertheless, are fountains of information of some of Abbie’s humor, his views on activism and revolution, and the sagacity of the way he met the challenges of his time head on.
Abbie accomplished much in bringing change to the world and ending a war despite a battle with manic-depression that fueled the great heights of his achievements and brought him to the pit of despair. But, he kept going on long past the time when the activism of the Vietnam War era had long since ended.
One of Abbie’s greatest speeches was given near the end his life to students at Vanderbilt University. While encouraging another generation of activists, he admitted that the halcyon days of rebellion of the 1960s and early 1970s would “never happen again.” However, Abbie was astute enough to know that every generation needed to find its own voice of protest.
I knew Abbie in only the most superficial of ways. His lawyer and my lawyer both practiced at the Law Commune on Broadway in the East Village of New York City. We’d say hello to each other as he would be walking out of the law office while I waited for my appointment. But, even at that superficial level it was extremely gratifying to engage someone who fought the good fight and never turned away from the movement he so typified.
At Abbie’s memorial service in Worcester, Massachusetts, his hometown, I passed by his fellow activist, Jerry Rubin, as Rubin gave an interview to the national media about Abbie. Despite Rubin’s turning away from activism after the Vietnam War, he expressed what many of us at the memorial were thinking about Abbie: “A great soul is gone.”
That twenty-five years have passed since Abbie’s death seems unimaginable. His voice was sorely missed at all of the antiwar demonstrations protesting wars that have been fought since his death, as was his knowledge and organizing skills that he could have brought to the environmental movement struggling to save our planet. His ability to use the media to promote an activist agenda was also legendary! I can imagine Abbie as an elder spokesperson on the Left at the Occupy Wall Street encampment near where he made history throwing money onto the floor of the Stock Exchange in August 1967. Abbie was also generous to a fault, giving away money to people and worthy causes. So Yippie (Youth International Party-of which Abbie was a founder), Abbie, you were a great soul in the universe and we hardly had time to know you…
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer.