Tom Hayden, 1960s radical and ex-husband of Jane Fonda, reflects on life at age 72

July 16, 2012

Few symbolized 1960s radicalism as boldly as Tom Hayden: co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, Freedom Rider in the South, member of the Chicago Eight put on trial for disrupting the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Vietnam war protester. Later he earned fame in other ways, by marrying actress and activist Jane Fonda (from whom he is long divorced) and serving in the California legislature. Now in his 70s, Hayden writes every day — newspaper columns, books, tweets — as part of a “moral obligation” that he says he feels to speak out. “I made that commitment after my heart surgery, which was at the time of 9/11, and I have kept that pledge,” he says. Hayden spoke to The Post from his office in Culver City, near Los Angeles.

Laura Hambleton

How are you?

I just turned 72. Physically, the deterioration is kind of obvious, but I’m on the lucky side of things. I’ve had heart surgery 10 years ago and carotid [artery] surgery last year. I am aware I have advanced heart disease. The interesting news is that I still play first base every Sunday on a baseball team. I have a 12-year-old son, a wife and quite a healthy family life.

How I take care of myself is I’ve stopped drinking any alcohol and changed my diet to try to manage the onset of diabetes 2, which can erupt as a pain in the nerve endings of my feet. That is manageable by a drastic reduction in sugar and an increase in kale.


Author and sixties activist Tom Hayden discusses aging. (Michael Buckner/GETTY IMAGES)

Do you like kale?

I like it in the way it varies. You can bake in the oven. You can put it in a shake. Kale. Kale. Kale. Anything that grows in the ground is the best approach to diabetes, I have found.

Tell me about your day.

I get up at about 6:30. The dogs are growling for food, and the cat is ready to roll. My wife wakes up a few minutes later. We get the kid up a few minutes after that. She prepares breakfast and lunch for him. I drive him to school. That is the way the day begins. He is in sixth grade, so it’s been going on that way pretty consistently.

I go to a local coffee shop. I have some egg whites and spinach. Then I go to my office. I mainly read and write there for four to six hours. I write online, and I write for the Nation. I write for the Huffington Post, and I write for the nytimes.
com. I write for the UK Guardian and other mainstream publications. But I mainly write for a daily post and bulletin that comes out every 10 days and goes to 25,000 people around the United States, Canada and Europe who have signed up at speeches I’ve given. I carry a little yellow pad wherever I go and I collect names.

I do tweet, because it is a way to bring in more people who hopefully become subscribers. It is also to let off my sarcastic sense of humor and irony. I don’t consider them substantive. They’re like talk radio.

I travel about once a week for a day, a couple of times a month for a day or two. I got an invitation to go to Earth Summit in Brazil with my family, but I’m not really up for 24-hour flights with depleted oxygen.

Have your political passions changed as you’ve aged?

Looking back on the ’60s, it was a crisis of the elders. They led us into the insanity of Vietnam and away from the path we were on in the civil rights and student movement. The lesson is to try not to repeat that. I can’t be young again, but the responsibility of the elders is to listen to and empathize with what is going on with young people.

You learn something every day, even at 72.

For the last 10 years, my focus has been to try to use my expertise to end wars and write about it, write books and give speeches, relentlessly. This just happens to be the 50th anniversary of the writing of the Port Huron statement in 1962, which was the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society and which proclaimed a vision of participatory democracy. It laid out a hopeful strategy for getting there.

I was the drafter. It went through a collective process. Some passages seem to be very stirring for younger and older generations, even today. Other passages could use a editor. It is 25,000 words.

So are you still a radical?

I would describe myself as someone who believes from experience in radical reform. Remember, I served in the legislature for 18 years in an early stage of my life. I believe a combination of outside and inside, in citizen action and strong advocacy from within, could produce a real difference in the lives of people. I stand by that.

All I can theorize is that it is truly possibly to achieve radical reform, if you stay at it. That is very hard for the young people in Occupy to believe. That’s what happened in the New Deal. That’s what happened in the ’60s. We achieved many reforms: black voting rights in the South; farmworkers’ recognition; 18-year-old vote; ending the draft.

Do you wish you were still young?

No. What I have to adjust to is that I am in the dying zone, the dead zone. No one knows what I am talking about unless they’re in the zone. There’s a finality coming, and I have to accept that and prepare spiritually for that and have a sense of humor. But you can’t prepare for the end while dreaming about recapturing your youth. That’s ridiculous. I don’t wish that.

How are you preparing for the end?

Judging by my conversations with my friends, I am ahead of many of them because they prefer denial. I know one case where a man took a hike in the Santa Monica Mountains and sat down. He died while sitting. No preparations needed, just a good hike. I am fighting denial.

One of my theological heroes is the late priest Thomas Berry. He lived until 94. He and his followers invented Creation Spirituality. The idea is [that] creation is ongoing, and you are part of creation. John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, had the same philosophy. This cycle of creation is a cycle and doesn’t terminate. Your spirit goes on into the unknown future. This is all I know. It is not satisfying to a lot of people.

Any regrets?

What kind of question is that? To some extent, you can learn from things that were done wrong, went wrong against your expectations. To some extent you can make amends, but you can’t rewrite your life.

Do you ever think about just retiring and playing golf?

Yeah, but not as a form of retirement. I was a caddy when I was a boy, but I was never a good golfer. I am still a baseball player, and I’m kind of a medical specimen. It is kind of unbelievable that I play hardball. Experience helps me along, and I am just physically fit to continue. I play against 20- to 40-year-olds.

What about retirement where you stop writing and speaking?

No. That will happen soon enough. I don’t feel I am doing what I do out of a sense of duty. I feel it is a honor, and it comes from my deepest experiences and feelings. When I wake up I want to read the paper, I want to exercise and I want to write. I don’t want to do anything else.

Do you miss the excitement of the ‘60s? Is being old boring?

I don’t miss it at all. I don’t miss the rush of being a young revolutionary. People who have those feelings at old age need to get a grip. You need to play your role, which is to carefully observe and listen and see if you have anything to offer.

Does your son know your history?

He is only 12. It’s not like we are running a propaganda center around the dinner table.

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