Abbie Hoffman and the art of outrage

When the most famous figure of the counterculture of the '60s surrendered to his old enemy, the authorities, a radio reporter in Boston asked college students: "What do you know about Abbie Hoffman?"

The young of the '80s might as well have been asked: "What do you know about Spiro Agnew?"

The most popular answer was, "I don't know much," followed by "I think they ought to leave him alone," as if, in fact, he were Spiro Agnew, and the poor old guy had suffered enough.

To be left alone is the last thing in the world Abbie Hoffman ever wanted, and he makes this clear -- from the title on -- in his just published autobiography, "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture." He was left alone as a schoolboy in Worcester, Mass., though he strutted into the '50s like an extra in "Grease," dressed in pegged pants and a pink-on-pink Billy Eckstine shirt. He was left alone at Brandeis, though he drove a golden-bronze Corvette and became captain of the tennis team. When he got married, had two children, and became a medical supplies salesman in Worcester -- just like his father -- Abbie Hoffman seemed to have nothing to look forward to but a lifetime of being left alone.

Then one day, in an Unitarian church, he rose to his feet to criticize a film produced by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, and he discovered an extraordinary thing about himself: "I had an ability to make outrage contagious."

When he details the "half-hustler" ways he applied his gift, Abbie Hoffman is lively and thoroughly convincing. The civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam protest -- his causes -- he treats somewhat as a rock star might discuss hit songs that allowed him to perform. He confesses rather engagingly to being an "exhibitionist," a "faddist" with "a limited attention span."

When he dutifully struggles to write about history, the autobiography falls into dreary cliches: "I was a witness to events that were to mold my consciousness forever . . . generation-shaking events . . . the century's most turbulent times." A "spark had been lighted," and, yes, "it was a great time to be alive."

One hears the drone of a retired politician, puffing away at his memoirs.

And in an odd sense, "Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture" obeys the rituals of the standard American success story. It is one more autobiography about Making It -- about a boy from Worcester moving up to "New York and big-time protest, like a kid shortstop being called up to the majors."

One can indeed imagine Abbie Hoffman and Spiro Agnew meeting 25 years from now and recalling the Good Old Days of the '60s -- "a great time to be alive" -- when their names were in the headlines and their faces on the 7 o'clock news. They could laugh together about the ways they bullied the media, Even as they manipulated it. They might share their common taste for reducing history to epithets and a slogan that can fit on a button. They could agree in their contempt for effete weaklings who seek positions in the center between simplistic either-ors.

"Guys and gals that cling to the old rules, I see as 'sissies' afraid to meet the challenge and adventure of a new atittude" -- thus Abbie Hoffman sums up. Should we be surprised that he sounds so dated, so naive? With a frightening innocence he seems to believe equally in a clean environment and in the benign efficacy of drugs.

There is a sadness to this account of a man whose capacity for outrage so exceeds his capacity for anything else. He resembles a child actor who cries beautifully, but without understanding grief. He is not without his honesty. He is not without his courage. Surely he wanted to be more than a fist that keeps forgetting why it's clenched.

Since we must take a measure of responsibility for our unelected as well as our elected leaders, we ought to ask ourselves, in some humility: What does it say about all of us that a self-styled "action freak" with a "Do It" button became famous in our times?

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