America’s great, homegrown activist-politician Tom Hayden has long been a hero of mine. Not because my politics are a perfect match for his; they simply aren’t. Although I must say, I do thoroughly admire Hayden’s tongue-in-cheek summary of his own views: “I’m Jefferson in terms of democracy. I’m Thoreau in terms of environment, and Crazy Horse in terms of social movements.”

Also, I admired the way he remained deeply committed to living as a citizen of a democracy. He got busy and stayed that way for all his professional years. He embodied the famous line, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”

For his entire life (1939-2016), Hayden talked the talk and fearlessly walked the walk. I first took note of him during the Chicago Riots of 1968. Of that whole scruffy lot agitating for an anti-war plank in the Democratic Party platform – and often catching a police baton on the side of the head for their troubles – Tom Hayden was the one who spoke most eloquently and convincingly about their cause, as well as the one who seemed to try the hardest to tame and channel the furious energies unleashed by that days-long clash on crowded downtown streets.

I didn’t meet Hayden until midway through his epic tenure (1982-2000) in California’s state assembly and senate, where he positioned himself as an ardent defender of environmental values and honest governance. He excelled at ferreting out inconvenient facts and blowing up falsehoods during committee hearings. He made sweat pop out on many, many foreheads in our state capitol in those days. For a former, long-haired radical agitator, the guy made a damn fine buttoned-down politician.

You should be easily able to score clues about Hayden if you study his character in the new film from Netflix, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. It will be released in just ten days, on October 16. (I, personally, will be quite excited to see Sasha Baron Cohen play Abbie Hoffman.) But right now you can find out more about Hayden by reading my 1995 interview with him, which runs below.

One fabulous aspect of my reporting years was the license that job gave me to put my questions to personages great and small. I met up with Hayden after business hours. My interview was an elective project, conducted on my own time, and he’d just finished attending a big biological conference in San Francisco. We met in his downtown hotel room, as his personal security goon (a tall, lean, former sheriff’s deputy from the Central Valley) hovered in the background. I didn’t want to ask Hayden any softball questions – in fact, I intentionally opened with a hardball query. I knew he played on an adult team as a form of recreation. But over the course of the interview, I did hope to prompt some sweeping observations – an aim which I’m happy to say I feel I achieved.

Because this interview now is a historical document, I’ll run it below in its entirety. (My biographical notes on Hayden appear at the end.)

I think you’ll be amazed – or at least impressed – by how relevant and perceptive Hayden’s remarks still sound today.

The Hayden Interview

Q: When you play hardball, what’s your favorite position?

A: I’d like to pitch. We don’t get to choose our favorite position in hardball, or in life; so I play right field. But it’s always open season for jokes about me coming from left field.

Q: You were recently pictured in the news as Governor Wilson signed your domestic violence bill (SB 169 makes a first instance of domestic battery a misdemeanor, establishing a criminal record a perpetrator can’t erase by seeking counseling).

A: I began crafting that bill at the start of the O. J. Simpson trial, and it got signed two days after the verdict. The governor decided his tough-on-crime rhetoric had to extend to domestic violence. (Attorney General Dan) Lungren came out for it, and the L.A. city attorney, but there was big opposition from some district attorneys.

Well, what’s so special about domestic violence that it should be treated as a victimless crime? Maybe we should just call it domestic gymnastics. But, you have to think, if you don’t treat it like a crime the first time it happens, what’s the consequence in giving that batterer a free ride? Doesn’t that teach the batterer and the victim that it’s not that significant?

Q: How would you define your working relationship with the Wilson administration?

A: I try to maintain a civil relationship. On issues where we agree, I appreciate it. We disagree politely. If you don’t do it that way, on the few occasions when you come together, if there’s no relationship, it’s very hard to build one.

On a more philosophical level, I’m deeply troubled by his turn to more demagogic, conservative populism. I think he has underfunded higher education by diverting money into prison expansion. Also, Governor Wilson and some of his allies have come in with fundamental undermining of the Endangered Species Act. But if we weaken the already frail protections for endangered species, there’s no restoring them after they’re extinct. It’s not like social programs or housing or tax breaks. Screw those up, and you can fight to reverse the trend. But when the salmon are gone, they’re gone.

Q: How do you feel about the current Democratic party leadership in California?

A: The 1,000 to 2,000 people who are active members of Democratic clubs statewide are on the whole very progressive and energetic. But the leadership tends to be caught in the vortex of constantly having to raise money from not-so-democratic sources. There were two campaign reform initiatives on the last ballot, and the leadership came out against both of them. To me, they shouldn’t be in that position.

I’m working to see if we can get a consensus to go to the 1996 national platform hearings, to get a pledge to phase out the influence of big money and lobbyists that have been corrupting the process as we know it. Then, have the Democratic presidential candidate run on that platform. That’ll be the test for me of the future of the party.

Q: Your 1994 run for governor of California was called “quixotic” by political pundits. Did you really hope that some electoral magic would occur, or did you want to just bring attention to issues by using your campaign as a pulpit?

A: I thought there was a remote possibility that there was a base that would respond. But I mainly wanted to build a base for alternative politics, not as a bully pulpit, but as a protest against “sameness.”

Q: You offered to pull out of the race if Kathleen Brown endorsed campaign finance reform, which she finally did. How important is such reform to the future of California politics?

A: Well, you’re in the land of unlimited contributions. It’s brought a climate of temptation to Sacramento, to which 10 to 15 people have succumbed and are now in jail on political corruption charges. Reform is central to any effort to resolve our major problems. It can’t be understood apart. If you think the environment is being ransacked, it’s because of special-interest dollars. If you wonder why we haven’t done more to curb tobacco addiction, it’s for that reason. As is the lack of health insurance solutions. As well as the constant raid on the tax structure by special interests — which is why we don’t have enough money to get our schools up from 41st place in the nation.

By analogy, if you go to the ball parks, all the box seats are taken by corporations on a full night. Ordinary fans sit in the bleachers or up in the decks. And that’s how the voting process works. Everyone attends the ball game, but some get better seats. The bigger contributors meet all the candidates, not once, but several times. They get to determine who is a serious candidate, because fund-raising is a criterion of seriousness.

So they run what we call the “wealth primary.” And that does cause a problem in terms of unequal access to decision-making.

Q: How would you respond to those who say the First Amendment (freedom of speech) is paramount, and it doesn’t make any difference who’s got the dough, all get to speak to their heart’s content?

A: Well, even under the First Amendment the present system is unjustifiable. Because if money talks, the loudest voice makes it impossible to hear everybody else.

You need an antitrust mechanism to prevent the rise of “oligopolies.” The marketplace concept is one of the free market of ideas. But it’s not free if one product enjoys an unassailable edge over every other product. Campaign reform, if you want to think in market terms, is equivalent to antitrust.

Q: What do you see as major legislative priorities in 1996?

A: Campaign reform, coping with the downsizing of higher education, the urban crisis in Los Angeles and the environmental crisis. But they are all related. If salmon are endangered, for instance, it’s because of uncontrolled growth and insatiable seizure of resources, so dealing with the issue of urban growth is dealing with the salmon issue, in my view.

The environment is often seen as a single issue; I see it as a framework. Since the time of John Muir, the environment has been defined as the outdoors. But obviously, if it’s the air we breathe, it’s not only indoors, it’s in our lungs. So, the environment is not really outside us. A city is just the most damaged part of the environment. The mountains are less damaged, but in trouble.

Typical politics, whether liberal or conservative, assume that the environment is a storehouse of raw materials that can be exploited and turned into products, and the job of politicians is to allocate the spoils to the most powerful constituents. Progress on the environment is just defined as slowing down the rate at which things get worse. And that’s another way of saying we live in a time of lesser evils. We have to get out of that, we just have to break it.

Q: What about the modifying role played by the State Resources Agency, the Department of Fish & Game, and State Parks?

A: They have been turned into the handmaidens of development – often against their better judgment. When Governor Wilson made his turn into a more anti-environment approach, the environmentalists in his administration got hung out to dry. So you get (Secretary of Resources) Doug Wheeler up there defending the weakening of the state’s Endangered Species Act as a strengthening of it. That’s like claiming up is down.

Fish & Game has been decimated. The agency was taken over by the former lobbyist for the Building Industry Association, Kassandra Fletcher. It’s caused tremendous chaos and demoralization. When Fish & Game wardens or scientists come to committee hearings so we can ask them about their jobs, and ask what the truth is about biological situations, they have to be subpoenaed. That tells you what kind of pressure they feel themselves to be under from the top.

Q: How do the environmental groups deal with this?

A: Here’s what’s going on. The Planning & Conservation League has been pushing a weakening of the (state’s) Endangered Species Act in exchange for a bill that would give tax credits to large corporations like the Irvine Company to preserve habitat. This was being pushed up to the 11th hour in Sacramento so there would be little or no public input, and it would be jammed. The Sierra Club people were quietly critical of that compromise, but they asked me to voice their criticism since they didn’t want to wash their dirty linen in public. So it reversed the usual process. Usually, the enviros are pushing the pols. Now, I frequently am trying to push the environmental groups.

It’s an understandable tendency, when the country is moving to the right, if the environmental organizations see themselves as lobbyists, that they scale back their objectives and embrace compromise. But a pattern of accommodation with the Gingriches of the world, or the Clinton administration, is a losing proposition if you care about endangered species. You should take your independent and principled position all the way. If the administration or the politicians want to compromise, you say, that’s not our position. You don’t need environmentalists to do the compromising. You need environmentalists to paint the big picture, to attack the status quo, and to project the vision.

Q: So how might citizen environmentalists more strategically advance their cause?

A: Several things. Remember that the roots of the environmental movement are not in law offices, they are in the culture of Native Americans and the tradition of John Muir. Remember where you came from. Secondly, in a consistent environmental view, there’s no outside. From a practical standpoint, as well as a philosophical one, environmentalists have got to win more support in the cities. Third, the movement has to be populist and political in the best sense, running independent candidates who focus on single issues.

I’m trying to get grass-roots enviros to see to see state politics as relevant, which is not so easy if they’re all absorbed in the global perspective. Many don’t know their senator, or who Senate President Pro Tem Bill Lockyer or Senate Minority Leader Rob Hurtt is. They don’t pressure Sacramento, they don’t write letters, they don’t go to district offices.

The problem is that culturally too many people are caught up in politics as a spectacle on TV, and are losing any knowledge that previous generations had about how it works. Spectators may know a lot, but they can’t imagine a role for themselves beyond watching. They vote less, and feel more powerless. And I’m not saying this is a conspiratorial plot to numb people and force them into apathy. I’m saying it’s the way our culture works now, and there’s a bit of it in all of us.

Q: You said the 1994 gubernatorial campaign “deepened and changed” you. How?

A: Back when I first ran for the state Assembly in 1982, I believed that the burden was on me to prove that I could work within the system. Many thought that I was a radical who couldn’t be elected, or if I was, that I couldn’t accomplish anything. That was a real burden on me, because I also didn’t want to play into the classic American myth that the young radical turns into the middle-aged conservative. That story’s been told often enough to create a whole generation of cynics.

So, by the time of the governor’s race, I’d come full circle. In my life, I’m not the angry young radical I used to be; I’m an older one. That’s the truth. I don’t mean radical in a scary or ambiguous sense. I just mean precisely that while I have proven I can work within the system, I also know in painful detail why the system doesn’t work. And I know that you have to unravel the strictures that come from money and lobbyists that throttle citizen access. Those (strictures) are absolutely fundamental to perpetuating a system that doesn’t work.

Q: By perpetuate, do you mean the political trends we see today are an effort to bring forward answers from 40 or 50 years ago?

A: Or even further back. Much of the backlash that’s going on today is misconstrued because it’s so devastating — the cuts in programs, the elimination of environmental laws and so on — that you tend to draw a conclusion that this is not a backlash, and it’ll always be this way. But I really think it’s a backlash, which means there’s still a steady trend toward women’s rights, human rights, environmental protection, and against hierarchy and bureaucracy. Now, we need to invent politics that are more appropriate than this backlash.

  • 1939: Born on December 11 in Royal Oak neighborhood of Detroit, Michigan
  • 1961: Graduated from the University of Michigan with a bachelor’s degree in English
  • 1962: Founded the SDS Students for a Democratic Society with 50 other student activists
  • 1969: Tried and acquitted with the “Chicago Eight” of inciting riots at the Democratic National Convention in August, of 1968. (Conviction later vacated on appeal.)
  • 1973: Married Jane Fonda (they divorced in 1989)
  • 1976: Founded Campaign for Economic Democracy; ran for U.S. Senate
  • 1982-1992: Held Assembly seat for West Side Coast District of Los Angeles in California Legislature
  • 1992: Elected state senator from Los Angeles
  • 1993: Married actress Barbara Williams at ceremony in Canadian rain forest
  • 1994: Ran for Democratic nomination for governor of California


Son of a working-class family in Detroit, Tom Hayden has inscribed a flamboyant trajectory across the American political scene for decades. In the early 1960s he participated in civil rights marches in the South, where he was beaten, arrested and jailed. In 1962, Hayden was a principal author of the Port Huron Statement, a populist manifesto decrying alienation in modern American life, which became a founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society.

Hayden was a leader of the 1968 marches in Chicago that sparked riots when thousands of young activists took to the streets to demand that the Democratic Party’s national convention adopt a resolution condemning the Vietnam War. After his acquittal (on appeal) of charges of inciting the riots, Hayden continued to voice his opposition to the war.

While touring with the Indochina Peace Campaign, he met and married actress Jane Fonda in the early 1970s. They had a son, Troy, shortly after. This marriage, which combined Hayden’s ideology with Fonda’s wealth, also produced the Campaign for Economic Democracy (later changed to “Campaign California”), which sought to elect candidates to various offices around the state and promoted issues as diverse as solar power, the plight of farmworkers and a shutdown of Rancho Seco nuclear power plant.

During this time, Hayden turned his hand to mainstream politics. A failed run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent John Tunney in 1976 evolved into a bid for an Assembly seat in the California Legislature in 1982. He won this seat, but lost it to redistricting in 1992, whereupon he became a state senator (D-Los Angeles). He now also serves as chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee and the Select Committee on Higher Education. Hayden relaxes from political labors by playing in recreational baseball leagues.

Hayden spoke to Paul McHugh while visiting San Francisco to address a conference of biological scientists and technicians.