Abbie Hoffman is talking by telephone from Solebury, Pa., where he lives while scoping the world on his television like an avid sports announcer whose enthusiasm for the game has curdled.
"Look!" he chortles like Bill Murray satirizing Howard Cosell. "There's Lech Walesa! Wow! Union solidarity in Poland! Ha! Ha!
"No way does this TV ever relate to a rebel union leader over here the way it does to Lech! Big dissident! Is he getting his arms broken? His legs? My God! He's got 50 reporters around him! Wow!
"He's in terrible shape! He has a $2-million book contract! Try getting that as an American dissident!"
Hoffman is just warming up, as if rehearsing for one of the gleefully outrageous, wildly immodest speeches-lectures-stand-up routines that he's been delivering on college campuses lately and is bringing this week to the Southern California nightclub circuit.
In the past month, Hoffman says, he has appeared in Paris at the Sorbonne and at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan. Before that he lectured at Holy Cross on student activism, at Princeton on the CIA, at Tulane on ethics, at Duke on the history of the civil rights movement.
"I have enough frequent-flyer points to leave Earth for a month," he says with the humor that has also been a hallmark of his career.
The 51-year-old social activist will appear tonight at the Belly-Up Tavern in Solana Beach and Thursday at the Palomino in North Hollywood.
After nine books including a couple of best sellers, 53 arrests and a total of 2 1/2 years in jail, Hoffman remains as embattled as ever. His causes are legion, his tongue-lashings bitterly funny, his arguments with the Establishment unrelenting. He is fighting developers, nuclear power, the rape of the Delaware River, the pollution of the Great Lakes, acid rain.
"I cross the Rockies, and I'm a '60s legend," he says. "Here I'm still a pain in the neck."
Hoffman explains that eastern Pennsylvania's Bucks County took away his right to vote on a residency challenge, reminding that the pre-Revolution pamphleteer Thomas Paine used to live in Solebury. "That was a naughty thing to do (to me) because even homeless people can vote," he chides. "They didn't say I had no address. They said I had too many."
At present, he calls home "a former turkey coop," which costs him $400 a month in rent. "I'm a nomad," he offers. "A Jewish road warrior. I do not have a concept of home. I wish I did. But I live with the idea that we have to get out of town before dawn."
Hoffman is proud to tell you he owns no property, no stocks, no bonds, no insurance. He does have three grown children ("No yuppies in the litter; make note of that"), and he says he earns between $60,000 and $100,000 a year ("Nothing sticks"). For the past 14 years he has lived with Johanna Lawrenson ("My running mate, we run around").
Beneath the wisecracks, though, Hoffman has always been a serious grass-roots organizer.
He started out with the civil rights movement in 1960, traveled to the South with the Freedom Riders in 1964 and 1965 and founded the Youth International Party, better known as the Yippies, with Jerry Rubin in 1968.
A year later Hoffman achieved his greatest fame in the anti-war movement of the '60s as one of the defendants in the "Chicago Seven" conspiracy trial, which lasted for 20 weeks and became an unparalleled form of guerrilla theater. Though convicted of riot and contempt charges--his detractors liked to deride him as the court jester of the counterculture--Hoffman was exonerated of the original charges by a federal appeals court in 1972.
By then, however, the anti-war movement had dwindled and in 1973 Hoffman was charged with participating in the sale of three pounds of cocaine. Faced with a mandatory life sentence, he jumped bail and went into hiding for the next six years. He had plastic surgery, lived under many aliases, suffered a brief mental breakdown.
But Hoffman is nothing if not resilient. He staged an astonishing comeback, surfacing as environmentalist Barry Freed. Under this alias, he organized a Save the River Committee in Upstate New York and took on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which wanted a $20-million project to clear the St. Lawrence Seaway for winter navigation.
Hoffman became so respectable as Freed, who fought the project as a threat not only to the environment but also to the financial health of the Port of New York and other ports on the Eastern Seaboard, that he was singled out for praise by Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), invited to testify before a U.S. Senate panel and was even appointed to a federal water resource commission.
Hoffman finally revealed his true identity in 1980 and turned himself in to face prosecution. He was convicted of bail jumping and a reduced drug charge and served a year of a three-year prison term.
Since then the graying rebel has made new headlines, getting arrested at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst last year with former First Daughter Amy Carter and 58 others who occupied a building to protest CIA recruiting on campus. He also achieved victory in that case with what he calls "the necessity defense," by exploiting a Massachusetts law that makes it legal to commit a crime to prevent a greater crime.
"The jury declared us innocent because we proved the CIA was committing a greater crime," Hoffman exults, noting that "our trial defense is now being imitated by 20 others across the country." What is particularly noteworthy, he adds, is that "the jury of six consisted of four people who voted for Reagan, two of whom didn't vote and all of whom described themselves as conservative Americans."
Given his involvement with social causes--since last summer Hoffman has been arrested in Bucks County three times in an environmental battle with the Philadelphia Electric Co.--why has he suddenly decided to shift gears and go show biz with standup comedy?
"Funny isn't the opposite of serious," he says. "Silly is the opposite. If I tell racist or sexist jokes or just ethnic jokes, that would be funny for funny's sake, just like art for art's sake. I don't believe in that at all. There is a political impact I'm trying to make."
Besides, Hoffman offers, "I'm funnier than Meese, funnier than North, funnier than Bush and Dukakis combined.
"I'm not funnier than Ronnie and Nancy. No way. They've got astrologers running the country."
Moreover, long before that other '60s radical, Timothy Leary, ever took his "standup philosophy routine" on the road, Lenny Bruce showed how provocative and dangerous comedy could be. It is no coincidence that Hoffman's second book, "Woodstock Nation," was dedicated to Bruce, who Hoffman believes was the most subversive comic ever. In the late 1950s, Hoffman recalls, he used to memorize Bruce's records.
"Am I show biz?" he asks. "I'm an American. I render unto Caesars Palace that which is Caesars Palace in order to get a few simple points across."
Those points are sometimes not so simple. If you inquire about his current relations with former '60s radicals such as state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who was also a defendant in the Chicago Seven trial, Hoffman replies: "I only get asked that question in the West," implying that Hayden has lost his clout as a national figure.
"I used to refer to him as 'Mr. Warmth,' " says Hoffman, "because he was hard-edged, very calculating, theoretician-oriented, not very warm. But if you're asking how I feel about him, I have to say I have ambivalent feelings."
"The myth is that our generation made all those changes in the '60s," he continues, "when it was really just a minority of people who were taking risks with their lives, their careers, their marriages, and he was one of them. I'm not going to deny his historical contribution. But if you're asking would I rather see him inside the movement for social change instead of outside, as I view him now, of course I'd rather see him inside."
Hayden and Jane Fonda make "a nice couple," Hoffman adds sardonically, noting that he tended to see Fonda in those years more as a movement activist than as a movie star. "She went beyond the celebrity appearance thing. Plenty of celebrities made appearances and they could speak about three minutes on an issue--maximum. But Fonda could go an hour or two."
Now, however, Hoffman has his doubts.
"Look at her," he declares, veering into comedy. "Jumping Jane. Wow! Does she take things serious! I once proposed the idea that Jerry Rubin and Jane Fonda merge. You could have taut strong bodies with shallow minds. You'd have the perfect yuppie prototype. The Jerry Janes."
Hoffman maintains that in the post-McLuhan age of television you have to communicate in punch lines because the public's attention span is so short. That is why even his "serious" campus speeches frequently resort to comedy, sometimes with surprising results.
He recalls, for instance, giving a speech at Washington University several months ago during the Gary Hart fiasco that was supposed to be broadcast on cable television. "It was C-SPAN," he recounts. "They said they never take a line out of anyone's mouth. With me they took out the whole speech."
And what did he say that was so terrible that it couldn't be broadcast? Just a few quips about the Reagans, Barbara Walters and Roy Cohn and Donna Rice and Hart that might have sent them all into cardiac arrest, he contends.
But not everybody wants to censor Hoffman. Last year the mayor of Worcester, Mass., Hoffman's hometown, gave him the key to the city.
"I said the right thing to the mayor," he recalled. "I asked him, 'Is it the key to get in or out?' They laughed. They said, 'He hasn't changed.' People don't want me to change."
"Would you want me to change?"