The best tribute anybody can pay to Tom Hayden is that he exemplified one of the cliches of his generation.
“Never trust anybody over thirty.”
Born in 1939 to a middle-class Irish Catholic family in Royal Oak Michigan, came out of the University of Michigan as not only an important student leader, but as one of founders of what would become known as “the new left.” While the Port Huron Statement — the founding document of the seminal 1960s radical organization Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) — struck a middle ground between the Cold War Liberalism of John F. Kennedy and the battered and by that time thoroughly infiltrated Communist Party, Hayden would eventually move far to the left of social democratic mentors like Michael Harrington and Irving Howe.
The young Tom Hayden not only pushed the student left into an uncompromising position against the Vietnam War, his work as a welfare rights organizer in Newark, New Jersey – where he lived from 1964 to 1968 – helped lay the foundation for the 1967 Rebellion against police brutality and white supremacy. His book, Rebellion in Newark: Official Violence and Ghetto Response, flawed though it is, is still worth reading. By 1968, when he along with the “Chicago 7” stood trial for the trumped up charges of “crossing state lines to incite a riot” and “teaching the uses of an incendiary device,” few people would have laughed at the idea that Tom Hayden was destined to become an American Che Guevara.
So what happened?
Tom Hayden, like the rest of his generation, burned out and sold out. He married a movie star, Jane Fonda who he exploited for her money and fame, and in general treated badly. Then he entered the graveyard of the Democratic Party. Unlike fellow 1960s radical activist John Lewis, he never managed to get very far. Where Lewis would go onto a long and distinguished career in Congress, eventually serving as a leader of Hillary Clinton’s African American “firewall” against the left, the best Hayden could manage was a few terms in the California State Senate and years and years of trying to regain his relevance as part of ridiculous organizations like “Progressives for Obama.” On the whole, I suppose, Tom Hayden made a positive contribution to American politics, but rarely in American history has so much early promise come to so little.