The Yippie Show
How some media-savvy leftists inadvertently helped the right, and vice versa
"Viewing the trial as a theatrical experience, I had great respect for the judge. He was witty, filled with his own sense of drama, and committed to his role with a furious passion….The part did not call for a Solomon because the law stank. It called for a yippie judge who could play in a real-life political version of 'The Flintstones.' Julie was our man, and together we made it happen." —Chicago Eight defendant Abbie Hoffman on Judge Julius Hoffman, in Soon to Be a Major Motion Picture, 1980
Forty years ago this week, the Democratic Party gathered in Chicago to choose a presidential nominee. Protesters—some violent, most not—gathered there too, to denounce the Vietnam War. By the end of the four-day convention, the city's cops had gone berserk on national television, assaulting demonstrators, reporters, and random bystanders while the network cameras rolled. The police, wrote Mike Royko of the Chicago Sun-Times, "beat people beyond the point of subduing them. They chased them down and left them bleeding." Inside the convention hall, Sen. Abraham Ribicoff of Connecticut accused the mayor of unleashing "Gestapo tactics in the streets of Chicago."
According to a report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, the week was an extended police riot. According to a federal grand jury, it was a leftist conspiracy. Eight activists were charged with inciting the chaos; the accused included Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, the most public faces of a loose coalition of radicalized hippies called the yippies. The yippies had called for a Festival of Life in the streets and parks of Chicago—an alternative, they said, to the Democrats' Festival of Death. They brought a puckish sort of guerilla theater to the city, nominating a hog called Pigasus for president and threatening to add LSD to the city water supply. (The authorities actually stationed National Guardsmen by the reservoir, just in case the pranksters were serious.) Hoffman and Rubin weren't the only important yipsters, but they were the ringleaders of the gang. After the riots, when the news of the indictments came down, some other notable yippies—satirist Paul Krassner, disc jockey Bob Fass, Fugs founder Ed Sanders—formed a conga line on Hoffman's roof and sang, "We're not indicted! We're not indicted!"
After a three-ring trial, the defendants were eventually acquitted on all charges, though some of them had to appeal the initial verdict before they were completely cleared. The convention and its aftermath had been a victory for the yippies.
It was a victory for their enemies, too. The central story of Chicago wasn't just that cameras captured bloody police violence every evening. It was that the great American TV-viewing public overwhelmingly told pollsters afterwards that they sided with the cops. "That was our shortsightedness," says Krassner. "When we started chanting, 'The whole world is watching, the whole world is watching,' we didn't go to the next step, which was, And how are they gonna feel about it?"
The Polarization Artists
In Nixonland, his insightful study of the period, the historian Rick Perlstein points out that Nixon "welcomed conflict that served him politically. A briefing paper came to the president's desk in the middle of March instructing him to expect increased violence on college campuses that spring. 'Good!' he wrote across the face." Jerry Rubin welcomed the polarization as much as Nixon did. "We yippies must reprint [George] Wallace speeches, get him TV time and open up offices for him all over the country," he wrote in his 1970 book Do it! "He's the best Marxist rabble-rouser in Amerika today. He's our best organizer." And: "To build their myth they exaggerate our myth—they create a Yippie Menace. The menace helps create the reality."
Then there's this remarkable passage:
The right wing is the left wing's best ally.
Who was the first person to call the battles at San Francisco State College "a guerilla war—Vietnam at home"?
(I can now reveal a secret. The last time I voted in an election, I cast my free Amerikan vote for the only movie star in the race, Ronnie Prettyboy.)
I doubt it's literally accurate that Rubin voted Reagan for governor, but there's a poetic truth lurking behind the sarcasm. The party of anarchy thrived on repression. The party of law and order thrived on disorder.
Krassner never cared for that sort of thinking—as a stand-up comic, he says, he was "always willing to sacrifice a target" when an unjust leader left office—but he understands it, and occasionally he felt flashes of it himself. I mentioned the memo that made Nixon scrawl Good! He replied with a memory of his own:
When Cronkite came on and reported the Kent State shootings, he said, 'Something has happened that many Americans were afraid would happen,' something like that. It was a moment of horror, but I remember saying to myself, 'Good.' I wasn't glad it happened, I had terrible sympathy for the people who were killed and their families and fellow students. But a month or a couple of weeks before that, in some southern college, some black students got killed. And I thought, Now white people will see that it's their own that are getting it. Now maybe they'll get more involved.
That sort of strategizing doesn't always work out as planned. "The right wing believes so intensely in their own bullshit," Rubin wrote, "that they are too stupid to deceive and govern effectively. Unlike the liberals, they don't know how to divide-and-conquer." It turned out that Nixon and Reagan were adept at dividing and conquering after all. In politics, it's a mistake to assume you're the only one who understands how the media work.
Forty years ago, the yippies seemed unusual because they fused the political radicalism of the New Left with the long-haired, grass-smoking lifestyle of the counterculture. Today that combination is so familiar that many people don't even realize that the protesters and the hippies initially distrusted each other. What seems most curious about the yippies today is the way they mixed hard left politics with a deep appreciation for pop culture. Abbie Hoffman announced that he wanted to combine the styles of Andy Warhol and Fidel Castro. Jerry Rubin dedicated Do it! not just to his girlfriend but to "Dope, Color TV, and Violent Revolution." Even when praising a form of mass culture that had earned some grudging respect from the late-'60s left—rock 'n' roll—Rubin's list of musicians who "gave us the life/beat and set us free" included not just raucous originals like Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley but Fabian and Frankie Avalon, commercial confections that most lefty rock intellectuals disdained as insufficiently authentic. In one chapter, Rubin complained that if "the white ideological left" took over, "Rock dancing would be taboo, and miniskirts, Hollywood movies and comic books would be illegal." All this from a self-proclaimed communist whose heroes included Castro, Chairman Mao, and Ho Chi Minh.
It's not that the yippies swallowed pop culture uncritically. (Hoffman kept a sign attached to the bottom of his TV that said "bullshit.") It's that they saw the mass media's dream-world as another terrain to fight in. Krassner remembers the yippie circle analyzing virtually everything on the tube, even "watching shows like The Smothers Brothers and comparing that with Laugh-In, that Laugh-In was using easy reference jokes about controversial issues, whereas the comedy in The Smothers Brothers really represented how they felt."
Seven years after Chicago, Jerry Rubin turned up on the second episode of Saturday Night Live, pitching a product called Up Against the Wallpaper. Hoffman attacked the sketch as "a major sellout….He was a caricature of Jerry Rubin making fun of the '60s, but he was not pushing a point, an alternative." If you're plotting Rubin's political trajectory, you can mark 1975 as the year he moved to the right of Tommy Smothers.
To fully comprehend the yippies, you have to look at what they did in the '70s and '80s as much as the '60s. Hoffman got arrested on cocaine charges and subsequently spent six years underground. Rubin plunged into the New Age movement and sampled a series of self-improvement techniques. In his 1976 book Growing (Up) At 37, Rubin wrote about his experiences with everything from primal scream therapy to est; in one bizarre section, the man who once preached the life-changing virtues of LSD now waxed poetic about carrot juice.
Meanwhile, out on the lam, Hoffman wrote this in a letter to his wife:
Drugs have no intrinsic value. All communist countries have correctly outlawed them. There are loads of other exhilarating ways to get high. Communist governments have a cultural revolution to achieve that is national in scope. Our task in the U.S. is to build countercultural institutions that make the raising of children breeding grounds for revolution and rebellion against the wishes of the dominant, decadent culture.
His real views revealed at last? A temporary affectation by a man whose underground life had unleashed an identity crisis? Or maybe just a spasm of guilt in the wake of the coke bust? Who knows for sure? When he surfaced in the '80s, Hoffman crusaded against Reagan's drug war, and his passion for the issue certainly seemed sincere then.
By that time, Rubin had come up from the broader cultural underground, getting a job on Wall Street and later arranging networking parties for young professionals at the Palladium. I saw him debate Hoffman in the mid-'80s, when he and his sparring partner toured together as the Yippie vs. Yuppie show. Hoffman was high on the Sandinistas; Rubin preferred Gary Hart. The majority of the audience seemed to think Rubin was a right-wing sellout. Most of the rest thought Hoffman was a dinosaur who hadn't changed with the times.
Neither view was entirely accurate. Rubin insisted that his new self wasn't so distant from his old self, declaring in 1982 that his networking salons came "out of my 1960s organizing experience." He added, "I really don't think that I've become the person or symbol that I preached against in the '60s. I'm not a warmonger or munitions seller or corporate pig." Hoffman, in his own way, was intensely aware of the differences between the decades. In the last book he published before his death, 1987's Steal This Urine Test, he described a 1983 environmental fight in which "our protest song (as it should be in all environmental battles) was 'America the Beautiful.'…[I]t was very hard to sing it during the sixties as we were being shot, clubbed, jailed, and illegally wiretapped by the government. Especially hard while the mob sang all the patriotic songs. Today it seems appropriate." When Hoffman committed suicide in 1989, the Fifth Estate, an anarchist newspaper in Detroit, complained in an otherwise warm obit that his rhetoric had grown suspiciously patriotic in the last decade of his life.
This is what happens when the counterculture spills out of the '60s and sloshes all over society. It takes new forms, from Rubin's New Age capitalism to Hoffman's all-American socialism. I doubt the yuppie networkers at Rubin's Manhattan salons—young professionals hunting for business partners, bedmates, coke connections—thought of themselves as children of the '60s. But they were, just as surely as Hoffman's Springsteenian patriots were creatures of the Reagan era.
Yippies and CREEPs
The official yippie organization, the Youth International Party, kept chugging away in the '70s and afterwards, putting out a paper filled with conspiracy theories and paeans to pot. More recently, its surviving members have opened an archive and performance space in Greenwich Village, dubbed the Yippie Museum and Cafe. Jerry Rubin's favorite uncle was a vaudeville star; now the movement he helped to start has its very own vaudeville venue.
And that, in a roundabout way, leads us to one more parallel between the yippies and the Nixonites. Both were masters of the media-savvy political prank.
In 1967, for example, Hoffman called a press conference to announce the invention of LACE, a drug that made people have sex. Three couples in his apartment demonstrated the imaginary chemical's alleged effects for the onlooking press corps, who went on to report that the protesters were planning to spray their new weapon at cops and National Guardsmen at a demonstration outside the Pentagon. "The function of this was to manipulate the media," says Krassner. "We said we were going to spray them at the Pentagon. Of course this made the local papers, the newsmagazines, and the wire services—and a lot of people became aware of a demonstration that they hadn't heard of before." The possibility of seeing some cops and hippies getting it on, or perhaps getting sprayed themselves, surely swelled the crowds as well.
There are obvious differences between such antics and the dirty tricks deployed by Nixon's Committee to Re-Elect the President, but there are structural similarities as well, a common interest in cracking open the media and playing with the narratives being projected. In 1972, when Pete McCloskey challenged Nixon in the Republican primaries, a young conservative named Roger Stone made a donation to the insurgent's campaign in the name of the Young Socialist Alliance. (The original plan was to use the Gay Liberation Front, but Stone felt that would be an affront to his masculinity.) According to the Senate Watergate Report, Stone and his confederate Herbert Porter then "drafted an anonymous letter to the Manchester Union Leader and enclosed a photocopy of the receipt."
I called up Stone and asked him about the yippies. "Classic street theater," he replied, with a hint of professional admiration. "The voters or the consumers are getting too much information. You have to cut through that by being provocative. It's what the yippies figured out."
What does that have to do with the Yippie Cafe? Just that Stone, who shares the cafe proprietors' distaste for New York's draconian drug laws, showed up there last month. He brought along a bunch of College Republicans with short haircuts and ill-fitting suits, and he performed a stand-up comedy act cum political rant. Some of the spectators laughed, some heckled, some clapped, some stared.
"I did OK," says Stone. "They said, 'Who are these short-haired guys with you?' I said, 'This is the national committee of the Hitler Youth.'" When Abraham Ribicoff invoked the Nazis in Chicago, all hell broke loose on the convention floor. Forty years later, Stone was greeted with laughter and beer.
Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.