There was something symbolically appropriate about Tom Hayden, founder of the 1960s New Left and a Civil Rights activist, dying right as Hillary Clinton is about to assume the Presidency. For Hayden was proud of his connection to the 1960s; whereas Hillary, who once defended the Black Panthers, always tried to run from it. Only when cornered would the Clintons, who moved the Party from New Left darling George McGovern to the right, return to the 1960s by cynically appropriating its rhetoric–what we today call political correctness–as a defense mechanism; the purpose of which was to ennoble themselves and demonize their enemies.
But Tom Hayden was not above such spin. When confronted about the revolutionary violence the New Left had descended into by late 60s, he blamed it on the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King Jr.:
“I went from Robert Kennedy’s coffin into a very bleak and bitter political view,” Hayden recalled in an Associated Press interview in 1988. “I think it confirmed for me that there was no future and brought out a lurking belief that this was a really violent country and that I was headed into apocalyptic times.”
Most of the obituaries haven’t expounded upon this statement (apocalypse entails the ultimate battle between good and evil). Instead they have focused on Hayden’s non-violent tenure as a Civil Rights’ Activist.
But Hayden’s life was the perfect example of what the New Left mutated into. Indeed, he and his cohorts were what anti-communists once accused the Old Left of being: revolutionaries whose goal was to overthrow the United States government.
The origins of the rifle-touting Hayden did not stem from the Kennedy brothers’ death. Mere days before Sirhan Sirhan pulled the trigger, in 1968, Hayden called RFK “a little fascist.” As early as 1961, seven years before the New Left gave up hope for change from within the system, Hayden blamed the US for the Cold War. Two years before the death of King and RFK, 1966, he beamed:
“Perhaps a small minority, by setting ablaze New York and Washington, could damage this country forever in the court of world public opinion.”
Hayden sought to do the same at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968. Far from giving peace a chance, he urged destruction, and wanted to participate in it; he formed a “Red Family collective” and took up rifle practice. Like the Vietcong who the New Left was now emulating, he wanted to establish “liberated zones.” From advocating for civil rights for blacks, his late sixties’ speeches had degenerated into a performance art of karate kicks.
To his credit, Hayden did experience regret without migrating into what born-again anticommunists like David Horowitz called the Second Thoughts movement. Without abandoning the fiction of him being against Vietnam, rather than cheer-leading for a Vietcong victory, he acknowledged that he had been “overly romantic about the Vietnam Revolution.” And he noted that the New Left did embrace “hate” by the late 60s.
But such a warts-and-all-portrait is not appearing in today’s obituaries. They are instead lauding him as a liberal, an adherent of an ideology that Hayden, in his Weatherman days, hated more than Nixon.