A Bomb Chucker's Life
I had Abbie Hoffman all wrong, at first.
I met him back in August 1968, when Abbie was drilling protesters in Lincoln Park. It was hot and muggy, and the Democratic convention was about to start.
Abbie wore a pith helmet down over his eyes. His long black curls dangled to his shoulders. He was short and he seemed incredibly arrogant.
He carried a swagger stick which he kept whipping about like a villain in an old black-and-white movie.
He seemed outrageous.
But by that time, Abbie was already a scarred veteran of the civil-rights battles in the South.
"Don't you worry about the police?" I asked.
"Hell, I've been beaten up twenty times by the pigs," he said. Abbie always called them that, even the rare cops he liked.
"I've got scars all over my head and buckshot wounds all over my body. Most of that came from places like McComb and Yazoo City down in Mississippi." Abbie laughed out loud. His deep, shining eyes had a way of challenging you to maintain eye contact with him.
"It was in Yazoo City that I was supposed to have gone through a red light, and the sheriff stopped me. The only thing about it was that the town didn't have a red light.
"That's what I tried to tell the sheriff in a nice way.
"|`Are you trying to tell me that my eyes are bad?' he answered. Right away, I knew it was going to be heavy.
"I was right. They threw three of us in jail. Then they gave the other prisoners pints of liquor. They told them we were civil-rights workers and that if they beat us up, they'd go free.
"Well, they beat us up for seven hours. The sheriff was true to his word. He let the guys who beat us up go. He threw us civil-rights workers out into the gutter." Abbie gave a big grin and a wave to an angry-looking cop going by on a three-wheeler.
The cop stopped.
"Smile all you want right now," the cop said. "But after dark, you'll belong to me." The cop drove away.
"Freedom is like leprosy," Abbie said. "If you try to touch it, you'd better watch out. Next thing they'll say is you're trying to start a riot." How right he was. They arrested him and tossed him in jail before the first protest march even began.
In Lincoln Park that first day, Abbie was leading a Japanese marching drill. He promised this would prevent the Chicago police from stopping the protesters.
Abbie was always full of plans to disrupt authority. He never made a secret of any of them.
Abbie planned to march his army to the convention at the Chicago Amphitheatre and bring it to a halt.
They threatened also to release the lions and tigers from their Lincoln Park cages. And they would also put LSD in the water system.
Now, we all realize Abbie and the rest of the Yippies were taunting Mayor Richard J. Daley and the police into rash action.
And they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.
Those still frightening films of the battles in Lincoln Park and in front of the Hilton are testimony to their success.
The Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial lasted five months. It was at once an improbable and incredible series of set theatrical pieces running from farce to tragedy. And Abbie was its Groucho, Harpo, and Zeppo Marx all rolled into one. His comedic talents at that time were awesome.
The trial drew a full house every day.
In subzero weather, people stood in lines that ran all around the outside of the Everett Dirksen Federal Building, waiting for a chance to get in.
They wanted to be able to say they had been there.
And yet, nothing that has ever been written about the trial has captured the incredible mix of fear, outright displays of hatred and the continuing series of incredibly zany events.
They all revolved around Abbie. His mind was so quick. He always made just the right moves. Almost daily, he infuriated the judge and caused the spectators to erupt with laughter.
One day he accused Judge Julius Hoffman of being his "illegitimate father." He accused the judge of being a Jew who sold out his birthright to the establishment.
But as you read this, don't feel sorry for Judge Hoffman. He was extremely tough, cantankerous and capable of being totally unfair. He was also insensitive and a thoroughly detestable human being.
Clearly, Judge Hoffman thought that he was winning every exchange.
Judge Hoffman was 74 years old at the time. The trial was the highlight of his career.
He relished the personal duel every bit as much as Abbie.
Every time Abbie made a move, the judge gave him more time in jail for contempt of court.
Abbie got the flu during the days he was testifying. Judge Hoffman refused to allow him even a glass of water as Abbie sat on the stand.
I visited Abbie in Michael Reese Hospital on Christmas Day.
At first, he pretended to have an oxygen mask over his face.
"I hear the judge is going to bring me into court right on this bed to testify," he said.
Abbie seemed greatly pleased at the prospect.
"The last time I remember that happening," he said, "was when Bernard Goldfine, my neighbor up in Massachusetts, was carried into court in that way.
"He was the fixer in the Eisenhower Administration, you know, who gave away all those vicuna coats." Abbie was elated.
"How can anyone ever be satisfied with just going to see a play or a movie after they've seen this trial?" he said.
Clearly, Abbie could sense victory. But that feeling didn't last.
I met him in Miami during the 1972 convention when Richard Nixon was being renominated. Already it was clear Nixon would beat George McGovern.
We had a few drinks together.
"I guess we'll never beat them," Abbie said. "But you can't stop trying." I'll never forget the day they called Mayor Daley himself to the witness stand in the conspiracy trial.
Mayor Daley was brought up to the courtroom in the judge's elevator. He entered through a rear door to avoid the crowds waiting outside.
Daley sat erect and stiff on the witness stand. He wore a dark-blue suit. He seemed very serious.
Abbie and the rest of the defendants entered. They were surprised to see that Daley was already in the court.
This was a time when Dick Daley was one of the most powerful men in the country. He was the one against whom they had pitted their whole Chicago campaign.
Abbie strode quickly down the aisle. He waved his arms wildly at the mayor.
In a voice loud enough for all to hear, Abbie said:
"Let's just you and me settle this thing." Mayor Daley burst into laughter. Then Abbie did, too.
Maybe now they'll have a chance to do just that.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.