Danny Schechter has been known as the News Dissector since his days as news director at radio station WBCN-FM in Boston, where from 1970 to 1977 his award-winning daily news program always started with the words “this is Danny Schechter, your news dissector.” News Dissector—Passions, Pieces and Polemics 1960-2000 brings together his writings on politics, human rights and the media from a span of four decades of activism and reporting, including ten years in radio news reporting and twenty years creating television news and public affairs programs and independent documentaries. Starting with the earliest days of the Civil Rights and Anti-War movements, these pieces provide a fascinating look at the trajectory of what was once simply called “The Movement.” Allen Ginsberg, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Abbie Hoffman and other key figures from the counterculture and radical politics come alive in these pages, and Schechter’s run-ins with the FBI and the CIA provide scary if entertaining reading. A large section covers Vietnam during and after the war. Another section exposes the practices and prejudices of the news media and proposes detailed corrective action. The collection also includes a number of pieces of a more personal and sometimes emotional nature, the observations, impressions and inspirations of a radical journalist. News Dissector is an enlightening and important book by one of the few working journalists to emerge from the alternative media of the sixties and seventies with his politics and principals intact.
Excerpts from NEWS DISSECTOR
Excerpts copyright©1960-2000 by Danny Schechter
These were the days of our dominion, the decade of generational solidarity and youth culture hegemony, of civil rights movements and anti-war protests, and of the illusion that we were living lives that were never lived before, that the time of new consciousness and radical change was here, that we were inventing it all anew, cut off from the movements that rose and fell, so gloriously and painfully, throughout the history of the Republic.
We were the students who marched, the hippies who dropped out, the organizers who organized, the preachers who preached and the freaks who freaked. I knew them all—the martyrs who flung their careers into jail cells, burned out and burned up in hyper-activism that should have been labelled Dead End, who drugged and rocked and fucked in the sunlight and flower power of the Summer of Love, who sank into the mud in the rainstorms at Woodstock and on battlegrounds that no had ever imagined, in a place called Vietnam and all the Vietnams in the world, in wars within families and wars between sexes, within lives that wanted it all and wanted it now.
I was part of that ferment. I sucked at its breast and fed off its energy. It defined me. It trapped me. I walked picket lines in Harlem and sang—scared shitless—in churches in backwoods Mississippi. I marched with Martin Luther King to the Lincoln Memorial in ‘63 and dreamed his dream, even as I identified with the freedom soldiers of SNCC and the saintliness of Fannie Lou Hamer et al. I read Ginsberg and later loved Leary. I advised Abbie and fought with the SDS to free the Chicago 8.
I was in the streets of London, Berlin and Paris in ‘68, all the while writing about it. I did LSD, inhaled pot, and wrote angry poems and some of the chronicles you will read in the pages that follow. I was an SDS symp, a Yippie in spirit, and an observer by training. I was cool. I was hip. I was sometimes full of shit. I was a participatory journalist, a down-with-the-movement reporter, a manic media maven. Yes, I was there, on many battlegrounds, here and overseas, and my life has never been the same, can never be the same, even though I know now how naive we were, how arrogant, how out-maneuvered, how cointelproed, and LBJed and Nixoned. We won the decade but lost our way, self-destructed and sub-cultured. We made mistakes big time, confused motion with movement, and radicalism with revolution—but Grandmaster Hoffman had it right: "We were right."
And once you kiss a possible future, or imagine a new way of living and being, its taste never quite goes away.
At least we tried.
I remember the night I went to meet my draft board. River Avenue, The Bronx, second floor, just around the corner from Yankee Stadium. I don’t think the Bombers were in town the night I almost joined some other bombers. I would remember if there had been roaring in the bleachers.
I was there to cop a plea, extend a 2-S student deferment. It wasn’t fear of the fighting that motivated me, but opposition to the war. I was anxious to avoid the dreaded 1-A classification which back in ‘66 meant only one thing: Vietnam. The draft board had me down as eligible but getting that reversed I thought, would be a sure thing. The London School of Economics had admitted me for the fall. It was August, and so all I was asking for was a month’s extension. Just one month! I wasn’t taking chances. I had flooded the Board with letters, testifying to my seriousness as a student, my good services as a Ford Foundation fellow in the offices of Detroit’s Mayor Cavanagh, my serious interest in urban affairs, surely a subject linked to preserving national security. At first, I was pretty cocky, impressed with myself, and my strategy.
Until I talked to Paul.
Paul Yergans had been a high school buddy, one of my closest running buddies.. The son of a black painter and white communist, he introduced me to black nationalist thinking literally years before it came into vogue. Paul had chuckled at my euphoria, my certainty. He was planning to go to Canada, ultimately did and is still there.
"Their job is to draft you, man, don’t you realize that? That’s their job. You’re a number and they have a quota. Look at the state of the cities. Do you think they give a shit about urban affairs? No, you’re going down."
His logic jolted me. He could be right. Flashes of Fort Dix and basic training convinced me to seek outside help. His name was Julius C.C. Edelstein, and he was at the time, a Professor of Urban Studies at the City University. Before that he had been the man who ran New York City for Mayor Robert Wagner. "Mr. Fixer," one newspaper called him. I had met Edelstein in Detroit and perhaps our kinship as New Yorkers in the Motor City served as a bond. He had taken a liking to me, and offered support. He had written a letter to my draft board on my behalf, but I realized that these letters were just stuffing in a file. What if no one read them? Maybe they couldn’t even read because if they could, how could they stay on the draft board. No, a more personal approach was needed. So, presumptuously, and in a panic, I called on him to take another step, to actually come with me that night, to serve as an advocate. In person. I guess I needed someone to hold my hand and speak up for me. It was a lot to ask—but I was in a sweat after Paul’s gritty dose of street realism. He agreed to come, no doubt as a favor for the Mayor of Detroit. In a gesture of by then deeply engrained intra-New York politics, he even called the Bronx Borough President to tell him he would be making a visit. Not only did he come, but we went in style, in his limo.
Draft Boards are made up of volunteer-appointees, civil servants who made some extra per diem cash for going to meetings and sending young men to war. They owed their jobs to politicians like Julius CC Edelstein and the machine he had served so faithfully. So when he showed up in the Bronx that night, live and in person, some eyebrows went up around the table. People of his stature didn’t visit everyday. The Board heard his short testimonial; and then asked me some perfunctory questions. Then, on the spot, my 2-S was granted.
I shouted; Mr. Edelstein smiled knowingly.
So would have Paul, because he always knew it was who you its know that counts.
I am a Vietnam vet although I didn’t fight in the war.
I fought against it as a veteran of the anti-war movement, and of the era for which it stands. It enveloped me for years. I confess: I supported the war at first, back in the days when the tabloid press in New York was running stories about the angel of Dien Ben Phu, some nurse who tended to the wounds of the French Foreign legion which was getting its ass kicked in 1954 when I was just 12. Ho Chi Minh and Co. was defeating a failed effort to save the croissant capital of Indochina with bills paid to the tune of eighty percent by Uncle Sam. Like most Americans at the time, I knew nothing about the people, the land, the context or the history.
Vietnam was a hot war in the name of the cold war—and who among us knew any better than to rally around the flag, except perhaps for a couple of commies who had not been browbeaten by McCarthyism, and a brave journalist like I. F. Stone?
As a kid, I played with bubble gum cards called "Fight the Red Menace." They were the Indians. We were the cowboys. That’s how I saw the world before I purged the toxins of cold war propaganda from my plasma. Soon, Vietnam became visible on my radar screen thanks to the anti-war teach-in movement, and the liberal voices that started raising questions, "concerns", speaking about dilemmas and painful choices. At first this policy debate was a polite one, a mild one, quarreling about means rather than ends, calling for "new thinking" and the like. Kennedy himself went back and forth, vacillating in the name of big power logic.
It soon became obvious that the liberals were not against the war; they started it, managed it, rationalized it, tried to win it.
And soon, my friends in the civil rights movement were declaiming, "no Vietcong ever called me nigger" and Martin Luther King Jr. was losing supporters for blasting the war. At first I cringed when a handful of activists carried Viet Cong flags, for fear they were "alienating public opinion." It needed some alienation. Within a year, large sections of the movement went from opposing the war to identifying with the Vietnamese cause, shouting "Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win." Who can forget the divisions and the debates, or the war on the war as hard hats battled draft resisters in the streets, and friends slipped off to Sweden and Canada?
As the madness escalated, the anti-madness mobilized, often infected with the same virus. I avoided the draft with a student deferment, just me and Bill Clinton and a few million more. In these pages you will meet my Vietnam—an unpublished account, from the controversial Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal back in ‘67 to the controversy over CNN’s expose of the use of nerve gas to kill defectors in 1998. In these pages you’ll read my report on reporting in Vietnam in 1974 and the trouble I got into when I talked with Hanoi’s Radio Vietnam as well as my account of returning to Vietnam in 1997.
For me, Vietnam was the teacher who became a member of the family, who invaded my life, who was in my face from the early news until the last body bag was stuffed at night. It’s the ring I wore made out of a B52 shot down over the North, and the respect I still have for those who fought in the war and turned to fight against it. If it needs saying, let me say that I know and respected many war veterans, and covered their protests and pain.
This section represents part of my war story, my Army without a uniform or dog tag, without tales of buddies dying or "gooks" taking fire. It’s about what I saw and felt in those dark years as I gravitated towards the other side without losing fundamental respect for my country and the traditions and principles for which it stands. I felt then and feel now that opposing the war was a form of patriotism. "My country right or wrong," was the slogan of the other side. Mine was a reaffirmation of the words of Carl Schurz before an anti-imperialist conference in 1899, when he added, "when right to be kept right, when wrong to be put right"
Together, these articles form a coming of age tale, with a glimpse of Vietnam at War, and a divided America.
From "A Hidden Hand At PBS?"
"Just because you’re not paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t following you."
In 1990 our company, Globalvision, was producing the weekly news magazine South Africa Now when one programmer at KCET, the PBS station in Los Angeles, called to challenge us on one story. The report in question investigated allegations of a "third force" in South Africa, what Nelson Mandela had called the "hidden hand" behind the violence that had suddenly erupted in the form of massacres on commuter trains and a spate of political assassinations. We were told KCET, L.A.’s public TV station, would be taking the show off the air because it considered the story "ANC propaganda"—in essence, advocacy masquerading as journalism.
The next day, the Los Angeles Times carried a report that David Horowitz, a leftist turned neo-conservative founder of the Committee on Media Integrity (acronym: COMI, pronounced "Commie"), "claimed credit" for the muzzling of South Africa Now. We later learned that he had been lobbying KCET to persuade the station to dump a wide range of PBS programming that violated his notion of political correctness. South Africa Now had, in effect, been offered up to appease him.
That disclosure prompted viewer protests in Los Angeles, several articles in the Los Angeles Times, and a debate within the station that led KCET to put the show back on the air, albeit with a disclaimer warning the unsuspecting that "this program reflects the views of its producers," a not-so-subtle attempt at further labelling our work politically. We called that decision a victory but knew that we had only won a small battle in a much more complicated war of images and legitimacy.
In the aftermath of this incident, virtually every press article about South Africa Now resuscitated this controversy, quoting Horowitz to the effect that we were Marxist propagandists and the like, as if he had any credibility as a media critic, much less as an expert on South Africa. In the name of balanced journalism, we were continually put in the position of defending ourselves against charges that were never proven and were never true. There was no evidence, but there was an odor—and it stuck. Many people believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, or at least a flame.
Now fast forward four years to March 18, 1994. A South African judge charged with investigating the causes of violence in South Africa produced witnesses who for the first time conclusively implicated high-level South African police and security personnel in a well-orchestrated campaign of murder that claimed as many as 10,000 lives. Nelson Mandela was proven right: There was a "hidden hand!" The mystery of the "third force" was finally substantiated and solved! A furious President F. W. De Klerk, who insisted he was not implicated, suspended the accused amid another major scandal.
The South Africa Now story, which had been confirmed in bits and pieces over the years, had now met the ultimate test: truth. According to a New York Times report: "The evidence indicated that the police network orchestrated massacres of train commuters, trained Inkatha hit men, and took part in killings of ANC rivals."
The fact that our report, four years and 5,000 lives earlier, pointed in this direction did not make us such great journalists. The same suspicions and more fragmentary reports were appearing in many South African newspapers even as the American mass media largely ignored them. I have dwelled at length on this issue for only one reason: It was this story that was used as the reason, or perhaps the pretext, for dropping our series, which in turn damaged our credibility and reputations throughout public television. WGBH in Boston took KCET’s signal and moved to drop the show too, wisely avoiding citing the same rationale but operating with the same spirit. Fortunately for us, in both cities, public pressure helped convince the stations to stay with the show—but the outcry was resented, and we were then blamed for orchestrating it, even though we had very little to do with it. It seemed like the last thing public stations want is to hear from the public!
That South Africa Now had been called into question on a story that was legitimate didn’t seem to matter. The controversy took on momentum of its own as the consequences began to ripple through a system where the details of the subject seemed to matter less than impressions and prejudices. Many programmers became "uncomfortable" with the show. Our funding problems became more intense. Even after we won some major recognition, an Emmy and the George Polk award, the handwriting was on the wall. South Africa Now’s run was ending. Politically motivated critics—who wouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good smear campaign—prevailed, not because they were right, but because they may have been right. A Horowitz group publication later cited this campaign as their "defining moment."
Many leading PBS producers stood on the sidelines, wishing us well but not speaking out publicly—that is, until Horowitz and his new allies in Senator Bob Dole’s office began turning their guns on them. The Frontline series was questioned. Bill Moyers was attacked. And then PBS itself stood accused of airing unbalanced programming. Suddenly a minor critic with a letterhead was able to get the Republican Majority leader to threaten the refunding of PBS. Ironic? Perhaps—but to us it was just new evidence of the old dictum: "When they came for the Jews, I did nothing because I was not a Jew . . . and then they came for me!"
It is worth revisiting this controversy only for what it implies for the present. We have learned the hard way that inaccurate labels can lead to smears that leave a permanent stain; that administrative bureaucracies have no use for controversy; that political criteria are utilized constantly in PBS program evaluation, although it is very rare for public television programmers to admit openly that they are not carrying a show, or are consigning it to an unwatched time period, for political reasons.
When one reads about the 1950s Hollywood Red scare today, it seems to crude, so blatant, so pathetic to see how powerful corporations cowered before breast-beating political demagogues. While only a relatively small number of people may have been fired, the whole culture was diminished by the movies that were and were not made in a climate of fear and repression. Television was also "sanitized." A small-town grocer with a mimeograph machine and a press agent was able to turn a self-produced magazine called Red Channels into a widely utilized blacklist of TV writers and performers against which there was no appeal or even verifiable standard of proof. Accusation was conviction.
The chilling effect then is easy to see now. The chilling effect today is more subtle but just as real. Today’s political litmus tests in news or entertainment are not as blatant. There are no loyalty oaths to swear to or Congressional investigators to placate. Yet a fusion of conservative political ideology and conventional market-driven wisdom continues to guide media gatekeepers in decisions about what to commission, fund, buy, and broadcast. Only no one talks about the political effects of the process. It is largely invisible. In some circles, even being considered liberal is still outside the pale of respectability: it is a Red scare—but this time without the Reds.
There must be a reason why conservative pundits like neo-con columnist Fred Barnes, who has never made films, just received hundreds of thousands from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, while a human rights series like Rights & Wrongs, with no less a PBS news star than Charlayne Hunter-Gault of the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour, is repeatedly turned down. (I have nothing personally against Fred’ the two of us were classmates at Harvard’s Nieman Fellowship program for journalists.) But it is hard not to wonder if the fact that Nancy Reagan’s former press secretary, Sheila Tate, is also CPB’s chairman has anything to do with it? Or that Spiro T. Agnew’s press secretary, Vic Gold, is also on the board? In politics, insiders have a way of staying in; outsiders are kept out.
That South Africa Now incident still hovers over us in an industry where perception is often more important than reality (the perception of imbalance, the perception of unfairness, the perception of perception, et cetera, et cetera). Today PBS refuses to support our well-received human rights series, Rights & Wrongs, ostensibly on the grounds that "human rights is an insufficient organizing principle for a TV series." A credible weekly series on human rights, they say, is not "appropriate" at a time when human rights is the universal post-Cold War challenge. Is this a political judgement? You bet. Does it reflect an agenda? No question. Are those issues ever raised and debated within public television in these terms? Rarely, if ever.
PBS still has a mandate to air programming that promotes controversy and diversity. It has a new president and board. It remains the only channel—in the new multi-channel environment—that is at least committed in principle to serving the public interest. If a channel dedicated to serving the public is so closed to public input, how can we expect to have any impact on the so-called electronic superhighway of the future? Will independents and documentary makers even have an on-ramp?
The PBS bureaucracy gets away with it because progressives—including many so-called Hollywood liberals—are not tuned into the issue. Many work in media but do not see it as a political arena for organization and lobbying. Right-wing extremists have mounted a permanent campaign to censor and suppress programming they dislike. They write letters, make phone calls, and use radio talk shows, direct mail, and newspaper ads. The far more numerous members of the liberal mainstream are disorganized, inattentive and ineffectual. They send in their PBS station pledge checks and complain that Rupert Murdoch will soon be running America. Self-fulfilling prophecies, anyone?
And as for South Africa Now? One of our anchors, Tandeka Gqubule, A South African print journalist who received her on-air training on the show, became the first black anchor for South African television’s principal network. Nelson Mandela, on whose story we often focused, went from prison to the presidency and has now made human rights the cornerstone of his new foreign policy.
Rights & Wrongs went on the air in the new South Africa.
And while I was there recently, documenting the election for an insider film modeled on The War Room, many former viewers, mostly black South Africans, but also fellow journalists, commented that I should be "proud" because "South Africa Now really contributed to the coming of democracy" in that country.
And that’s a feeling that makes it all worthwhile—the sense that media work matters and can impact the real world.
This article originally appeared in International Documentary July/August 1994
Don’t Mess With Public Access
Public access television makes news only when outrageous ideas threaten to disturb the domestic media tranquility. In July, "Race or Reason," a neo-Nazi show on Queens public access, was yanked off the air after protests. And in September, a Manhattan cable show planned to treat viewers to the "Chef de Cocaine," a crazed crack aficionado offering up his distinctive "home cooking" lessons.
Why do only these kinds of shows provoke debate—or even comment—about public access? The scenario is usually predictable. Some reporter or Mrs. Grundy sees the offending show late at night. An expose appears and public outrage mobilizes. The cable companies deny responsibility, complaining that they are forced to carry such electronic swill. They have even asked the Supreme Court to free them from the requirement to offer any public access.
The original concept of setting channels aside for public programming was forced down the throats of cable companies when they sought the right to wire our communities. It was argued then that their promises of diversity would never be realized unless the public was guaranteed the right to participate. The companies were supposed to help out with equipment, training and advice.
The spirit of public access has been honored more in theory than in practice. Producers have been given few resources to work with. Production values are laughable, programming concepts amateurish, promotion non-existent.
And yet public access has brought new voices into our living rooms, sometimes as a novelty, sometimes with real passion and information. Public access has never cloned the slickly packaged eye candy on the commercial spectrum. It remains idiosyncratic, plays to small audiences and is usually ignored. After all, the cable companies have better uses for their escalating subscriber fees than to plow it into programming by and for the public. If they did that, they wouldn’t have the billions needed for new acquisitions.
Beside cable companies would have you think all public access is just "junk" programming. But ask yourself: Is it really any junkier than so much else that’s on cable? The proliferation of channels has not ushered in a new dawn of diversity. The electronic Goliaths now positioning themselves to monopolize this growing media marketplace have no public interest agenda. Their vision of interactivity includes little more than personalized buying services, home banking, Hollywood movies on demand, and video games. So far, the brave new world of the "information superhighway" sees viewers as consumers, not citizens.
That is why it is so important to safeguard and defend public access. The irony is that the very worst of current TV programming—those tacky home video shows—may hold the key to the very best in the future. Thanks to home video cameras, if you don’t like the news, you can report your own. What Charlayne Hunter-Gault calls the "Rodney King Weapon" has become enormously powerful—and empowering.
And there are public access programs worth watching. Manhattan Neighborhood Network offers a fascinating smorgasbord of community and entertainment programming. Some of it is excellent, but it is rarely reviewed or even listed in the TV guides—probably because more people would watch if it were.
Recently, there were 2,000 entries in a Hometown Video Festival. The winner, Paper Tiger, a local video group, was honored for a show called "Video Dial Tone: Mailing our Free Speech," about the danger of telephone companies controlling your TV set. FAIR, the media reform group, has been presenting shows on media trends. Labor unions, like Local 1180 of the Communications Workers of America, are taking their cause to the public via access. CrossWalks, a city-operated network, is providing multi-channel access to community-based groups in all the boroughs.
Global issues can be covered, too. The Deep Dish Network, a consortium of public access producers based in New York, created an award-winning series on the Gulf war, offering perspectives not seen on networks, which seemed to allow the Pentagon to program their coverage.
A growing segment of the public wants to be involved with new media. The boom in on-line computer networks and even radio talk shows demonstrates the demand and the need—which the media giants are unlikely to satisfy. Let’s hope that the Congressional watchdogs who are questioning the anti-trust implications of these new monopolies-in-the-making will speak out to preserve public access. In commercial television, everything is slick, but little matters. Its edges may be rough, but public access should matter to us—not only for what it is, but for what it can become.
This article originally appeared in New York Newsday, November 3, 1993
From "Running With Abbie"
Introduction adapted from an article that appeared in The Real Paper in June 1979
Interview excerpts from interview conducted on WBCN-FM, November 2, 1979
The steps of the U.S. Capitol building were hardly the place that I expected to find—or rather to be found by—one of the country’s best known fugitives from justice. Yet there I was on May 6, 1979, a few feet from the speaker’s platform at a massive anti-nuclear rally in Washington, D.C., in the midst of a crowd of T-shirted activists and a couple of hundred reporters, photographers and undercover cops.
A rather straight-looking middle-aged man wearing a suit approached me. He looked like some college professor I might have known once. He asked me to join him, then introduced himself. I gulped.
It was Abbie Hoffman.
I hadn’t seen Abbie Hoffman since the early seventies: in fact, the last time we were together might have been the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami, when his Yippies were at war with a splinter action-faction called the Zippies, and one-time friends were denouncing each other as CIA agents and worse. At the time, Abbie was wearing Reader’s Digest press credentials (or were they for My Weekly Reader? I forget). A year and a half later, he would be busted by undercover narcs for dealing cocaine in New York City. Some months later, in February 1974, he would skip bail and repair to parts unknown.
Abbie and I had known each other quite well in the mid-sixties, and parts of letters we exchanged then inspired his first book, Revolution for the Hell of it, Abbie’s first book and the Yippie manifesto. I had always been a Yippie symp, admiring the blend of politics and theatre that was Abbie’s genius. Since his disappearance I had been following his exploits from afar, in articles by and about him in a variety of magazines, but itched for an opportunity to rap at greater length and catch up on old times.
I would soon get my chance. At our encounter I invited him to come to Boston and appear as a guest on Channel 56’s Joe Oteri Show—a nationally syndicated talk show that I was producing—as well as do an interview with me at WBCN. Not surprisingly, Abbie scoffed at the suggestion, stressing that an in-studio TV appearance would be unthinkable for security reasons. "Thanks, but no thanks," he said. "That would be tantamount to turning myself in." That was in May 1979. A year later he surrendered, Abbie style, to Barbara Walters for 20/20.
But several months before his surrender Abbie had changed his mind and agreed to a TV interview. On November 2, 1979. at 11:22 p.m., there were two knocks on the back door at WLVI’s Morrissey Boulevard studios. I opened it. In ran Abbie with an entourage that included two of his kids from a previous marriage, a woman wearing a Japanese Kabuki mask, and a clean-shaven "security man" who had brought along a metal detector. Abbie bounded to the set where Boston lawyer Joe Oteri waited with his questions, and for the next thirty minutes Abbie dominated the interview to the extent that it more closely resembled a Lenny Bruce monologue than a televised discussion. When the interview ended, Abbie thanked Oteri, presented him with a Havana cigar, and bolted out, yelling, "Yippie, I knew we could do it!"
The only ground rules he had insisted on before hand were that no one would enter or leave the studio during the interview, that no one would have access to a phone, and that only a few people at the station would know he was coming. We had complied with his request for partial anonymity. Only a few people had been told whom we would be taping: Joe Oteri was not one of them because as a lawyer, he might be duty bound to share the information. Joe was informed just a few hours before the interview, enough time for him to scan the manuscript of Abbie’s forthcoming book, his autobiographical Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture. When members of the crew asked me about our "mystery guest" I winked and asked if the Secret Service had been in to check out the studio yet: this led some of the staff to suspect we would be interviewing a prominent politician running for office rather than someone running from officers. Afterward, I heard a report that one member of the staff, eyeing a possible reward, said he would have called the FBI had he known the guest was Abbie.
* * *
Abbie had changed in the years since we had last seen each other: If both of us were older, Abbie truly looked it. His nose has obviously been altered, his long, frizzy hair was gone, and a bushy mustache flourished where none had grown before. He may have once been a flower child of the sixties, but now he was forty-three and a father of three. He was on his third marriage, and according to his new book, he’d gone through more than that many incarnations. He was living somewhere in America under another identity, active, he said, in local antinuclear organizing.
* * *
Abbie was more than a bit crazed. He was both brilliant and bonkers in Boston. At times, he was his old dazzling self—on the mark, witty, even wise. But at other moments—as this interview makes clear—he not only didn’t respond to queries, he didn’t seem to have even heard the questions. It was as if his occasionally near-hysterical performances were for the benefit of an imaginary audience. This was a foreshadowing of what was to come a few short years later—his suicide, attributed to manic depressive disease.
In his book, Abbie talks candidly about emotional problems that were pursuing him as doggedly as the authorities. He calls them "manic cycles," which he says plague creative people. "Mind and body fatigue seemed to overwhelm any effort I made to pull myself together," he writes in his recollection of one of the three breakdowns he’d had since going underground. "Everyday began with thoughts of suicide and turning myself in: I was convinced that I had failed all those real and imaginary people cheering me to go the distance. On more than one occasion I made plans to return to New York defeated."
I was hoping that Abbie could pull himself together and stay a step ahead of his pursuers—he was still several comfortable steps ahead of America. We still needed his energy, enthusiasm, and optimism. The eighties, he predicted, would be better than the sixties. "Revolution," as he wrote, "is not something fixed in ideology nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process embedded in the human spirit."
And in few other spirits is Revolution more deeply and playfully embedded than in Abbie Hoffman’s.
What is your legal status right now?
In which state? I’ve jumped bail four times under different names. There’s the coke bust in New York. Mandatory fifteen years to life. Rockefeller’s law. And then there’s an extra five years just for wandering away. Then there was blowing my nose in Kansas with the flag: I’m wanted there, too . . . Does Massachusetts have extradition?
Tell me about the coke bust.
It gets very complicated. It all started in Worcester when I was thirteen and the cops came to the door, asking my mother if she had any idea who was changing all the license plate numbers on the neighbors’ cars. She said, "No, I ain’t got any idea." She’s really hip.
Were you a big coke dealer in New York?
Was I a good coke dealer?
What were the circumstances surrounding your
Wait a second. I’m making a New Year’s resolution to never tell a lie. I’m also declaring myself innocent, okay? I’ve gotten out of politics and now I’m into the truth. But we have to clarify our language problems. I don’t even speak this language. This ain’t even my real accent. Savor en espanol se mas pas aprrio ken seraden Yiddish, ya know.
We’re talking about cocaine.
Cocaine . . . Ya got any? The coke dealers say that I’ve done more for cocaine than anyone since Sigmund Freud.
When were you busted?
I was busted, uh, in August 1973. I went underground in February, the end of February. They don’t count it till April 16 [when a warrant was issued for his arrest], but I actually disappeared in February so I’d have a head start.
What can you tell us about living
Well, it’s damp.
Is it lonely? Is it difficult? Is it romantic?
Do you want comedy? What do you want? You’re not paying anything for this, so you gotta be more specific.
* * *
Didn’t you get busted once while you were
I’ve been busted, locked in the cage once under another name for an hour and a half. Boy, I thought they really had me then, phew. But I got rescued by an old friend that I hadn’t met in twenty years. He took his bar mitzvah money and got me out of jail. You know, I got big friends. They were already getting fifty thousand dollars to bribe the police chief. So I asked the magic question of the police chief. You know what the question was? We were in a small town and I’m riding with the police chief out of the cell and he’s not sure who I am and there’s another police car following us, and I’m talking and I say, "You want to be rich or famous?" and he said rich. And I said to myself, that’s cool, this guy is in the bag . . . ’cause if he wanted to be famous, that’s a whole other problem. I would’ve had to give him a job in the movie.
* * *
You’re from Worcester, right?
Yeah, I always feel good about Massachusetts. But my big question about Boston is the Bill Lee trade. (Lee was a Boston Red Sox pitcher.) I don’t know who’s responsible for trading him, but it had to do with politics, culture, and the truth. Cause Billy Lee tells the truth. He just says, "Yeah I smoke marijuana, Bowie Kuhn, stick it up your ass." That’s free speech and it’s a higher rule than the rule of cutting your head off for baseball. I think Billy Lee is a good American, and they traded him to the National League, even. To another country! They sent him to Canada! Can you imagine that? And now I’m two hundred bucks behind because of the World Series, ’cause I went American League.
* * *
Where else have you been?
. . . especially being from Massachusetts, you know. The word revolution I was taught here was a good word. I wrote my term thesis on the battle of Lexington and Concord. I was somewhat of a scholar of that event. When we used the word revolution in Boston it was no big deal. It was the American Revolution. It was a positive word. The rest of America was saying, "UHHHHH." Until the Bicentennial year, they needed two hundred years to say, "Revolution, that’s okay." So in my new book I say I’m a revolutionary. I don’t say communist, anarchist, nistichist, distichist, because all those words get too confusing.
* * *
You were complaining about Playboy magazine. But weren’t
you a mastermind of media visibility in the sixties?
I’ve learned. You know what the Indians say. Every time somebody takes your picture they grab a piece of your soul. What do ya think it does when you’re dealing with ABC-TV? Did you ever see me on the Merv Griffin Show? Did you see my famous appearance on the Merv Griffin Show when they didn’t show me?
You were wearing an American flag shirt, weren’t
I’ve been accused of using it. I will use it. If you were in my position, kids on welfare and running for your life, you’d use whatever the fuck you could, right?
* * *
What would you have done differently, knowing what you
Uh, you want a one line answer? I would’ve taken my time a little more. I would have been a little more deliberate. And I would have been a little neater, and had a few more manners, and more respect for the elders, and things like that. And I would have known when to talk soft, and that it all doesn’t have to happen in one day. We were under war conditions, so I ain’t taking it back. like I say in my book, I ain’t got no regrets. You want me to read you the end of my book?
This is your book called Soon To Be a Major Motion Picture, which will be coming out in the spring,
There’s a money back guarantee on this book. If people are not completely satisfied, they’re to see me personally and I’ll give them their twelve bucks back. Now you remember I promised never to tell a lie? You know what happens when I tell a lie? My nose gets bigger. Okay, I’ll read you the ending of the book. It’s a serious book. I’m aiming for a Pulitzer.
"There is absolutely no greater high than challenging the power structure as a nobody, giving it your all, and winning. I think I’ve learned the lesson twice now, in two different lives. The essence of successful revolution, be it for an individual, a community of individuals, or a nation depends on accepting that challenge. Revolution is not something fixed in ideology, nor is it something fashioned to a particular decade. It is a perpetual process imbedded in the human spirit. When all today’s isms have become yesterday’s ancient philosophies, there’ll still be reactionaries, there’ll still be revolutionaries. No amount of rationalization can avoid the moment of choice each of us brings to our situation here on the planet.
"I still believe in the fundamental injustice of the profit system, and do not accept the proposition there will be rich and poor for all eternity.
"So, this is the end then. Well, I’ve had some good times. I’ve had some bad. I took some lumps, I scored some points. Halfway through life at forty-three, I still say, go for broke. No government, no FBI, no judge, no jailer is ever going to make me say uncle. Now, as then, let the game continue. Bet my stake on Freedom’s call. I’ll play these cards with no regrets. Signed, Abbie Hoffman, Underground, U.S.A., Autumn of the seventies."
That’s it. That’s it. I’ve got to