Abbie Hoffman, the Houdini of the media-political act, has done it again. After six years of life underground, where he resided after fleeing charges of cocaine possession, he is -- snap -- here again, all over the front pages and on TV screens, bringing with him tales of vertible prestidigitation. While the world wasn't looking, the counterculture's former court jester and provocateur was, under the cover of a new name and a cosmetically altered face, doing his bit for the environmentalist cause and becoming so successful and respectable in the process that Gov. Hugh Carey was moved to send him four letters of commendation and Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was pleased to be photographed next to him.
All of this can't help but evoke nostalgia, and it must have given the putative Barry Freed some moments of royal amusement. Clearly, whatever he was going through, Hoffman didn't lose his sense of humor. Or, for that matter, his sense of timing. His reappearance coincides, almost to the day, with the publication of his sixth book, an autobiographical romp through his checkered life and career, and through the high points of the '60s as seen from within the counterculture.
Now the secret is out. Hoffman is an artist of publicity and will use it blatantly and with unabashed flair on his own behalf. This is fair and square. But when applied to the larger political arena, his legerdemains have always raised some questions. Was he a con man, a clown, an opportunist? Or was he, perchance, in spite of his bufoonery and his wild exaggerations, sincere?
In "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture," Hoffman promises to level with us, to show us the man behind the con, and the truths behind the ruses. He comes off, on closer acquaintance, ambiguous still, both a bit better and a bit worse than might be expected.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise of these casual reminiscences is the personality that reveals itself through them, a personality that appears warmer, more generous and tolerant than could have been guessed from Hoffman's public act. He paints himself as a mischievous character with a natural inclination to rebelliousness; but if one looks, in these notes, for signs of Oedipal rage or Spock-spawned narcissism, one will be disappointed. Hoffman seems to like just about everybody: his family, his teachers and mentors at Brandels, even his fellow leaders in the often divided antiwar movement. He gives admiring vignettes of his intellectual heroes (who would have thought he had any?) like Marcuse and Maslow, and sketches affectionate, if sentimental, portraits of unsung flower-child denizens on New York's Lower East Side, where he himself was a raising flower-child maverick. The only person who seems to get his goat is Tom Hayden.
But after all, Abbie hasn't composed this communique to show us that he is a nice guy. His aim, no matter how disguised by self-mocking ironies, is to persuade us that he was also a Culturally Significant Phenomenon, a political strategist of some stature and shrewdness.
The motif connecting the book's short, breezy, nonchalanty written chapters is a running defense of Hoffman's zany brand of political activism. The gist of his argument is that just because he was funny and symbolic doesn't mean that he wasn't serious and real. He entitles one of his chapters "Festivals for Fun and Protest," and explains that given the madcap polymorphously perverse mood of his hippie constituency, imaginative, festive and fun protest was the only kind that made sense.
At the same time, Hoffman claims, oall of his pranks, capers and sometimes violent practical jokes were a form of "political theater," perpetrated with deliberate political intent and designed to puncture conventional pieties. When he wore a shirt with the American flag design on the Merv Griffin show (odd that it should have seemed shocking), led the magical chant to leviate the Pentagon, nominated a pig for the presidency and made mincemeat of court procedure at the Chicago Seven trial, he was engaging in an "image war" in which symbolic desecrations were the weapons and sanctified institutions were the targets.
The book does succeed in reminding us that Hoffman has always been clever and capable of witty comment on this culture's more incongruous absurdities. "It is indeed possible in the good old U.S. of A. to be wanted equally badly by the FBI and Universal Pictures," he says at one point, and the remark is both a zoom-lens view of his own career and an offhand gloss on much of Marcuse's weightier analysis.
It may be true that for a brief moment Hoffman scored points in the war of images. He offended, shocked, amused; he made some people very angry, and perhaps nudged some others toward an unaccustomed insight. But such flashy effects seem to have been the end of his political agenda. Even now, he shows no signs of having probed his own motives or analyzed the events in which he was such an embattled participant. Vietnam hardly figures in the book, aside from mentions of the North Vietnamese flag that some of his followers carried on protest marches and a sketch of a North Vietnamese official whom the Yippes "adopted" and proceeded to credit with mental telepathy and other acrane powers.
There is no discrimination, in this retrospective view, between moral and destructive dissent, between large projects and small. Was changing public perception of marijuana as important as attempting to stop the war? Was the judicial process as guilty and worthy of attack as Johnson's Democratic Party? Would Hoffman have held the anticonvention in Chicago in 1968 if he thought that Johnson's resignation would lead to a Republican victory? He doesn't say. His reactions, even from the distance of a decade, are described as reactions to available public events, part of an improvised catch-as-catch-can scenario. He describes the agitations in the midst of which he found himself as a rush, a high, a series of surprising and escalating excitements.
And yet, Hoffman seems neither morally callow nor a dissembler who was in it for celebrity, or merely for kicks. He had been politically involved before the antiwar movement, is anti-HUAC acitivies and civil-rights work. His activist credentials have now been substantially bolstered, but they have been from the beginning unexceptionable. sThe problem is not, then a lack of sincerity. Rather, Hoffman's tone like his former methods, bespeaks an insufficient sense that political events -- and his own actions -- had complexity, reality, painful consequences. His "acts" took place on an enormous but nevertheless theatrical stage where everything was permitted because it was all part of a play.
By his own admission, Hoffman was always angling for the cameras, and in this book he is more preoccupied with television than with actual events. He prides himself on his canny manipulation of the media. But each manipulation created, at best, a kind of demireality. When he and some of his cohorts floated dollar bills on the Stock Exchange, for example, nothing really happened. Speculators in the rotunda scrambled after the falling paper, thus demonstrating their devotion to the dollar. But the ticker-tape wasn't smashed, trading didn't stop for a minute. The "event" consisted purely in its being reported, covered, converted into "news."
Eventually, of course, news converage reified such happenings and made them bigger, until the self-perpetuating momentum exploded in violent and real enough conflicts that quite overtook Hoffman's expections, or the Yippies' ability to handle them. But ultimately such explosions came not from directed and purposeful action, but from the interplay between the "movement" and the media -- a heady, dangerous, closed-circuit affair.
Making a political revolution in the United States is a notoriously quixotic enterprise, and many American radicals therefore find it difficult to translate their impulses into realistic views and practical programs. Even the best and the brightest among them are often driven -- by the disjunction between their convictions and political reality -- either to intellectually dissociated theories, or to be determined but undeveloped idealism, or to compulsive joke-cracking. Hoffman belongs to the latter category. It is interesting that the most straightforward and convincing sections of the book are those describing the hardships of life on the lam, the nerve-wracking sense of isolation, the high psychological costs of a double identity. This is an experience whose impact Hoffman clearly felt on the skin, and on this subject he sounds utterly serious. On other subjects, if he cannot say anything straight, it is because he is unsure whether anything he says or does seriously matters.
"Self-advertisement, including self-indulgence and self-ridicule, seem to be important tools of my trade," he writes. "So I'm a stand-up comedian and not a scholar? So sue me?" So who is going to sue him? But few are going to be persuaded that self-ridicule is the same as seriousness, or that revolution for the hell of it is a revolution for real.
Flipness was the right-style at the right moment, a posure favored by large portions of the counterculture, which viewed straightness as dangerously close to sanctimoniousness. Hoffman's wild-and-crazy capers were entertaining, and often satrically just. But in trying to fix them in print and endow them with some lasting importance, Hoffman only points out how ephemeral, after all, they were.