Book Review: 'Underground' by Mark Rudd
My Life with SDS and the Weathermen
By Mark Rudd
Morrow. 324 pp. $25.99
"So how does it feel to be the mouthpiece for the murderers?" Those were the first words of Mark Rudd, the former student radical and Weatherman revolutionary, when I called him for an interview five years ago and introduced myself as a reporter for Fox News. A dose of guilt ("This is how it begins, Mark?") calmed him down, and the interview lasted an hour. But the opening jab showed that Rudd, then 56, had not lost the cutting humor or antiwar fervor of his youth.
A good thing, too, for without those attributes, his memoir "Underground" would not be the gem it is. Even those who condemn Rudd's work in history can be grateful for Rudd's work of history. "Underground" is honest and funny, passionate and contrite, meticulously researched and deeply philosophical: an essential document on the '60s. While the author hasn't resolved all the contradictions inherent in his old urban-guerrilla guise, he confronts them admirably, ready to acknowledge the worst in himself.
Raised in a middle-class Jewish family in suburban New Jersey, Rudd was radicalized soon after his arrival at Columbia University in 1965. Disgusted by racism and the military-industrial complex, he became active in the Columbia chapter of Students for a Democratic Society, which applied the missionary zeal of the civil rights movement to what had become the defining issue for American college students: the Vietnam War. In April 1968, Rudd was a key figure in the events that culminated in the seizure of several buildings at Columbia. The crisis lasted six days before university administrators called in the cops, who evicted the students in a pre-dawn raid that ended with scores of injuries and 700 arrests. Rudd became an instant media icon, the model for Doonesbury's "Megaphone" Mark Slackmeyer and "in the eyes of the press an easy personification of an entire generation of students in revolt: the middle-class kid who had all the advantages, attended an elite university, but who angrily turned against 'the system' . . . [and] made campus revolt fashionable."
Expelled from Columbia, Rudd became a full-time SDS organizer, preaching antiwar radicalism across the nation and bedding every nubile believer who threw herself at this charismatic young evangelist of anti-imperialism. Internal feuding suffocated SDS by June 1969. That's when Rudd and a few hardened comrades -- among them Bill Ayers, whose early support for Barack Obama became an unlikely issue in last year's presidential campaign -- broke away to form the Weathermen. Determined to overthrow America's war machine, the Weathermen mounted the Days of Rage, a chaotic, bloody and sparsely attended three-day rampage on the streets of Chicago in October 1969. Five months later, three Weather members died in a New York City townhouse when the nail bombs they were constructing, for use at an officers' dance at Fort Dix, detonated prematurely.
After that, the group's members assumed false identities, changed their collective name to the Weather Underground and planted two dozen bombs at courthouses, correctional facilities, police stations, the Capitol and the Pentagon. Although his 1970 federal indictment (stemming from the Days of Rage) was dismissed amid revelations of government misconduct, Rudd remained a fugitive. He scouted an occasional bomb location, helped spring Timothy Leary from prison and drove the getaway car in an armed robbery before finally surrendering in September 1977 so that he and his wife could raise their two children in a "normal" home. He never served time and became a math teacher at a community college in New Mexico.
The recurring theme in all of Rudd's exploits was cognitive dissonance. He realizes now, he writes, that the Weathermen "reproduced conditions that all hermetically sealed cults use: isolation, sleep deprivation, demanding arbitrary acts of loyalty to the group, even sexual initiation as bonding." But he wouldn't admit this to himself at the time. Even as he "postured and gave speeches on the necessity for violence, I was terrified," he writes. "I knew I was no fighter. . . . I knew that the whole thing was nuts but couldn't intervene to stop it. . . . I felt like a member of the crew on a speeding train, dimly aware of disaster ahead but unable to put on the brakes." He recounts bouts of depression and breakdowns from the strain: "I was exhausted from playing a double role -- the public revolutionary leader and the private scared kid."
The irony is that Rudd's turn to radical politics at Columbia was cemented by a friend's remark that he couldn't watch America devastate Vietnam and stand by "like a good German." Yet from 1969 through 1977, no thought voiced or deed done by his Weather comrades, no matter how lunatic or murderous, could dislodge Rudd from his loyalty to their cause; and he is left today with considerable regret that he either took part in the madness or stood idly by, like a good German. The most wrenching scenes in "Underground" depict the suffering of the author's beloved parents, simple, hard-working people who found the whole business unfathomable. "I wonder if I'll ever be able to laugh again," Bertha Rudd said after her son's expulsion from Columbia, "my heart is so broken."
James Rosen is the State Department correspondent for Fox News and author of "The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate."