Tom Hayden, reflections on an old friend

My old friend, Tom Hayden, died last week.

You may never have heard of him until the protest era of the 1960s, when he became nationally famous as one of the Chicago Seven, and later as the husband, for a while, of Jane Fonda.

But Tom and I go back to the late 1950’s, when we were both staffers on the Michigan Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Michigan. Although he was a year younger and a year behind me, we worked closely together agitating to get rid of the Dean of Women Deborah Bacon, organize a student-led Conference on the University and start Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

In fact, while I was sports editor of a newspaper in Fairbanks, Alaska and Tom was marching in civil rights demonstrations in the South, I drafted part of the preamble of the SDS founding document.

For somebody who became among the most famous of our generation, Tom was not physically prepossessing. Slim, with a nose slightly too large for his pockmarked face and a scramble of wiry hair that turned an early gray, he was hardly likely to be listed in his high school yearbook as most likely to succeed.

But he was very smart, compellingly articulate, and extraordinarily charismatic. Some of our colleagues resented his remarkable ability to bring people into the penumbra of his leadership influence. But to an extraordinary degree, he tapped into our generation’s unease at where the establishment was taking us.

Born in 1939, he grew up in the solidly middle-class town of Royal Oak, where his family was a member of Father Charles Coughlin’s Shrine of the Little Flower parish. Coughlin had been a nationally famous right-wing radio demagogue until silenced by the Vatican during World War II – and I always suspected Tom grew his early rebellious instincts from what he heard from the pulpit.

By the time he got to Ann Arbor, he was entirely ready to join in the The Daily’s distinctive mixture of slightly cynical yet naively hopeful brand of youthful progressive politics. He supported then-U-M President Robben Fleming’s decision to make bail for students who had been arrested demonstrating against the war in Vietnam.

Along with several faculty members, Tom had dreamed up the idea of holding anti-war teach-ins all across campus. He and I drove across the country together the summer of 1960, me to take a job harvesting wheat with migrants in Kansas and he the much more glamorous task of covering the Democratic National Convention in California, the one that nominated JFK, for The Daily.

By the time we got back to Ann Arbor, Tom had married Casey Cason, a beautiful young woman, making all of us slightly jealous. He threw himself into demonstrating against segregation in the South (where he was beaten and hospitalized) and pulling the sprawling student movement into the progressive (radical) SDS.

He went on to national fame as a leader of the Chicago Seven, arrested for fomenting the demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention in 1968 and, after his marriage to Jane Fonda, possibly the leading student activist against the war in Vietnam.

After that, I only saw him on his occasional visits to Ann Arbor, where – not surprisingly – he seemed preoccupied with more important things than his old friends.

But his death leads me to reflect on leadership and how it is expressed in and by various people. In Tom’s case, leadership at an early age was an essential component of his charismatic personality, as easy and as powerful as the rising sun. He didn’t dominate a room when he came in; he was too slight a physical presence for that.

But once he started talking, passionately and earnestly opening his heart and mind, he was a tremendous force.

Such people who come to leadership and fame so young and so easily often find it hard to recognize that times inevitably change and that the instincts that served one so well on the way up become slightly wrinkled and worn as one ages. To be sure, Tom had serious political ambitions once he moved to California: he ran for governor, senator and the mayor of Los Angeles, and was elected to the state legislature, both House and Senate.

But his career as an elected politician – which required him to work with others of differing persuasions but occupying the same positions of power – butted against his instinct to lead his crowd.

Others find longer, more aggregative or consensus-building routes to leadership. Michigan’s former governor, Bill Milliken, and his contemporary, Sen. Phil Hart, over the years grew as leaders through the thoughtful, gradual accumulation of experience, hard-earned judgment, and wise observation of their fellow men and women. They were never skyrockets, but they made a difference in other ways … mostly by just showing up, day after day, keeping at it.

Tom was a flaming Roman candle. He left earth early and suddenly on a spectacular flight that changed a nation’s political climate. He returned from the 60’s to find a slightly different world, one slightly less willing to follow his charisma but still filled with many who admired the once-young man from Royal Oak who could move hearts and minds as easily as the moon moves the tides.

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Tue, 11/01/2016 - 9:55am
Dear Phil: A beautiful eulogy for Tom from an "old" friend showing his smarts and his energy. Best wishes. Larry
Kenneth Earl Kolk
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 9:55am
Thanks Phil, I didn't always agree with Tom, you, and SDS on everything while I was at Calvin College in the early 60s, but over the years experience taught me that you guys were right! I have gone from being a member of YAF to being a socially liberal, fiscally conservative Democrat. I would have loved to hear Tom's opinions of the two candidates we have to choose from next Tuesday. I'm sure Tom would be "saying it like it is!" Thanks again for the wonderful, loving memorial.
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 11:11am
Phil, I guess you are pretty proud of helping to set up an organization that would protest against American military personnel on college campuses and greet proud American soldiers returning from Vietnam and spit on them and call them baby killers, and even mention Hanoi Jane who can never apologize enough for what she did. Those of us who served our great country voluntarily did not deserve the ilk that SDS passed out.
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:33pm
Mike Kraft
Fri, 11/04/2016 - 9:13pm
Ken: I had been in intermittent email contact with Tom--before and after his stroke-- and he definitively was not in favor of the fake "tell it like it is" Trump. I was a couple years ahead of him on the Michigan Daily and remember him as a bright guy. But because he was a sophomore and I was a senior editor and got a job in Washington right after graduation I did not witness his leadership potential the way Phil did. But years later, while covering Congress for Reuters, I attended a Jane Fonda press conference. She did all the talkingbut i could hear Tom's style in her anti-war statements.
Meegan Holland
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:10pm
Fascinating column, Phil. It's just as interesting to hear about your background as it is your observations on Tom Hayden! Thanks for sharing.
Fred Stonehouse
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 2:31pm
I second Rich's comments. As I vet I take great umbrage at your revisionist history of this miserable character.
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 5:34pm
Jim H
Tue, 11/01/2016 - 4:14pm
The article does give an insight into the constant left-leaning tilt of Bridge.
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 4:28am
You covered the man completely except for one word : GUTS. And, boy, did he have them. Great job!
Jan Barney Newman
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 7:56am
Phil, I found your portrayal of Tom Hayden moving and profound. Not only in your sensitivity into how Tom took the positions he did in the 60s, but how you define different leadership styles. Oh that in today's world we can find collaborative political leaders who can bring the country together. Surely that's what's needed for a return to democratic greatness.
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 12:23pm
"Communism is one of the options that can improve people's lives" - Tom Hayden. Pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Sun, 11/06/2016 - 1:56pm
In those earlier days, I had tried to talk Tom into becoming a journalist, but he opted for making the news, rather than reporting on it.I believe that he would have succeeded in either role.
Mon, 11/07/2016 - 10:00am
Well said and well written Phil, as usual. In the autumn of 1967, I left my home town of Saginaw and entered Western Michigan University. Receiving an education was a goal equal to escaping the draft and fearing the war in Viet Nam. Tom Hayden spoke on the WMU campus one afternoon that autumn to a crowd of a few hundred students; raising the consciences of many of us who were not old enough to vote at the ballot box. I followed him through the media for the next five decades. Yes, he was extreme. Yes, he was non-traditional. But he was effective in raising the awareness to tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands of students to the 1960's & '70 establishment.that perpetuated the political and social injustices of the 20th Century. Tom Hayden is proof that one person's work does make a difference.
Scott Roelofs
Tue, 11/08/2016 - 2:28pm
After reading Mr. Power's glowing words about the radical Hayden, I can't wait to read his eulogy of admiration when Fidel Castro finally leaves this earth.