A daughter of the revolution

Michael Kazin is the co-author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s." He teaches history at Georgetown University.

Nearly every reader of a certain age has heard about the Weathermen, that wild fragment of the New Left that brought the '60s to a violent close with street fights, bombings and jailbreaks. The group went underground in the early 1970s and slowly dissolved. In 1981, a handful of dead-enders got mixed up in a robbery in Nyack, N.Y., that killed two police officers and the guard on a Brink's truck.

But how many know that one of the ringleaders of the failed insurgency, Kathy Boudin, was the daughter of a brilliant, philandering lawyer, Leonard Boudin, once famous for defending accused Communist spies as well as Paul Robeson, Benjamin Spock and Daniel Ellsberg? Or that her mother stuck by her man, even inviting his lovers to cocktail parties, then tried to commit suicide? Or that her brother Michael rebelled by becoming a federal judge with strongly conservative views?

Susan Braudy set out to show that the old feminist slogan, "the personal is political," could have a deadly meaning. Boudin, a utopian zealot from a deeply neurotic family, seemed a tragedy waiting to happen. By telling her story, Braudy seeks to expose the depravity that supposedly lies at the heart of the American left. And her major source was Jean Boudin, Kathy's mother and Leonard's widow.

Unfortunately, the author is not up to the job. Braudy approaches the story of this intensely political family as if she were writing for People or, at best, Vanity Fair. All the traits of celebrity journalism are here: the precise details about the clothing and diet of the stars, the damning or admiring quotes from friends and lovers, the anecdotes about the Boudins' many sexual partners. Braudy writes like someone on deadline. Many sentences are short and brusque, as if on guard against any thought that might stem the revelatory deluge: "Leonard hosted past and present lovers at the brunch. Jean invited Doriane and Georgette Schneer. He patted and kissed hands."

Missing are historical sensibility and some psychological acumen. Braudy essentially reduces the motivations of these celebrated leftists to their greedy ambitions. She makes several vague references to Leonard Boudin's "imaginative legal stratagems" but doesn't otherwise account for his becoming the attorney of choice for so many prominent clients. To the author, what matters about a case is whether Boudin won it and which beautiful young woman he talked into bed along the way. At Bryn Mawr College in the early 1960s, Kathy Boudin boldly campaigned to raise the wages and living conditions of the black maids on campus. But Braudy, her older classmate at the time, spotlights only her "public temper tantrums" and defiance of the college president, a patrician who spoke like Katharine Hepburn.

One does not, of course, have to sympathize with a political tendency to illuminate its past. From the 1930s through the 1950s, Leonard Boudin used his talents to serve a party that blinded itself to the awesome butchery of Lenin and Stalin. Then his daughter persuaded herself that the cause of liberation required her to blast apart a bathroom in the U.S. Capitol.

Indeed, the Weathermen formed perhaps the most idiotic, self-destructive phenomenon in the whole checkered saga of the American left. (Embarrassing disclosure: For one long month in 1969, I belonged to its Boston "collective.") In March 1970, Boudin narrowly survived a bomb that exploded accidentally in a Greenwich Village townhouse where she and several of her comrades were staying. The three would-be terrorists who died that day were the only people the Weathermen ever killed (the Nyack shootings occurred after the Weathermen had dissolved). The group never attracted more than 200 or 300 members. But it included some of the best, most charismatic figures in the white radical movement, and this star quality has given the Weathermen a longer postmortem existence than they deserve.

Yet to restate such truths is only the beginning of the biographer's task. Braudy's challenge was to understand how a bright, persuasive young woman who wanted to transform the world detoured into self-delusion and worse. So, it appears, she grabbed a copy of "Freud for Beginners." "I blame your father," Braudy told Boudin during the only interview her protagonist allowed her, held inside a New York prison where she was serving a long sentence for aiding the Brink's robbery (she was paroled this fall). "You felt you had to risk your life," Braudy continued, "... to compete with Leonard to get his attention, and at the same time keep him at arm's length."

Nothing in the book connects that potted diagnosis to her subject's journey into radical hell. For most of the 1960s, Boudin toiled in the mainstream of the New Left. She picketed for civil rights, organized welfare mothers in a Cleveland ghetto, traveled to Chicago in the summer of 1968 to protest the Vietnam War at the Democratic National Convention. The Weathermen (the name derived from a Bob Dylan song) emerged from a burning frustration that peaceful demonstrations had not stemmed the carnage in Southeast Asia. Boudin and her comrades vowed to "bring the war home." In league with a similarly minded faction of the Black Panther Party, they would make America pay for its crimes against humanity.

The white New Left was a movement famously led by privileged young people who clashed with their parents. Many, like Boudin, were "red-diaper babies." Yet few radicals with prominent, difficult fathers chose to become urban guerrillas. Braudy accumulated a wealth of anecdotes about the Boudins' intimate conflicts. But to lay the blame for the Weathermen at the feet of Leonard Boudin and his ilk is akin to tracing the Nazi Party's rise to Hitler's abusive father and rejection from the Vienna Art School.

It's also hard to understand what happened if one's knowledge of the past is full of holes. Braudy gives an erroneous account of the factions that destroyed Students for a Democratic Society, the largest group on the white New Left. She mistakes the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group, for the reformist Socialist Party. She misdates several landmarks in radical history, such as the Haymarket affair of 1886. More egregiously, Braudy has her protagonist doing things she did not in fact do. Boudin was not "a member of the Venceremos Brigade" when she traveled to Cuba in 1962. That American support group for Fidel Castro's regime didn't form until seven years later. And the young Boudin was not one of the Weathermen who rampaged through a foreign policy think tank at Harvard in September 1969, an act Braudy claims made her father and brother "furious." I know because I helped plan that ridiculous "assault."

Only when Braudy retells the story of the 1981 Brink's holdup and killings does her prose become convincing. The interracial squad that Boudin joined was a mixture of guilt-ridden whites and blacks "high on cocaine and adrenaline" -- no one had the cool needed to pull off a major heist. Braudy, who has written several novels, uses multiple voices to evoke the havoc caused by this gang. Perhaps her next book should be a crime narrative.

Obscured by the simplistic psychodrama in "Family Circle" are far more compelling aspects of the period when the Weathermen were born. The close of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s were a particularly heady time for the American left. The feminist and gay movements were in their first bloom; environmentalism had become a mass faith for the first time in history. Defying the fatalism of Boudin and her friends, the antiwar movement was growing daily, had pushed a vindictive President Nixon down the road to Watergate and played a major role in nominating George McGovern as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1972.

Someday, someone will write an intelligent book about American radicalism during these years. It will make sense of the will to self-destruction and the spirit of untrammeled hedonism that coexisted in the same places and within the same individuals -- the paranoia about "the pigs" and the visionary groping at Woodstock and other venues. This author will empathize with the leftism of the older generation as well as condemn it, when necessary. Above all, she will understand the reciprocal influence of history and individual psychology on a moment in time. Until then, we will have to endure the coarse reductionism of a book like "Family Circle."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°