One evening at the height of America's involvement in Vietnam, a Columbia University undergraduate, troubled by the war in Southeast Asia, called Saigon to speak to U.S. Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker. The two chatted, but the student remained unconvinced that America's army belonged there.
"Isn't it singular," wrote James Simon Kunen later, "that no one ever goes to jail for waging wars, let alone advocating them? But the jails are filled with those who want peace. Not to kill is to be a criminal. They put you right into jail if all you do is ask them to leave you alone."
They put Kunen in jail once, for participating in a protest at Columbia. Kunen's father, a Massachusetts attorney, was not pleased.
"How," he asked his son, "does it feel after you've been to all the best schools [Phillips Academy at Andover, Mass.] and had everything to end up in jail?"
"I told him," Kunen says today, "that I hadn't ended up in jail -- I was just passing through ."
In 1969, while still a student, Kunen suddenly found himself serving as a spokesman for his generation after publication of The Strawberry Statement: Nates of a College Revolutionist . The book later became a movie, and and at 20 Kunen was more successful than many writers twice his age. During the summer of 1969 he syndicated a series of newspaper articles he wrote about hitchhiking around North America. He married five days after graduation, and divorced his wife two years later. Today Kunen has a new hometown, a new job and a new wife. He recently began work as a trial lawyer in the office of the public defender in Washington.
"I have a history of only being able to be a free-lance writer for three years at a time," says Kunen, who was a regular columnist for New Times magazine until his second year of law school at New York University in 1976. "I always feared that if I died, no one would know until the neighbors discovered the smell from my apartment."
The life of law has meant Kunen -- whose shocks of hair on each side of his head give him a Groucho Marx appearance -- has not had the public forum writing allowed him. Naturally, now that he doesn't have to grind out a regular opinion column, he finds he has an idea every day. He and his wife, freelance illustrator Jan Drews, rent a Georgetown home "opposite the heating plant the Berrigans were accused of plotting to blow up."
Kunen seems to like that kind of touchstone to his radical past. And his job defending indigents accused of crimes satisfies his "lifelong desire to sort of hunker down and get into the streets" that grew out of his private school upbringing.
Earlier this month the Kunens were at a party when their home was burglarized. "Just redistribution of wealth," jokes Kunen, whose office could conceivably defend someone arrested for the crime. "I'd like to see him apprehended but also defended. I stick to my story."