Right Side of History

New book reconsiders the legacy of Cincinnati-born activist Jerry Rubin

SEP 27, 2017 


If you’ve been watching The Vietnam War, Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s epic new documentary series on PBS, you realize that not only did the U.S. lose that war at the time, but it has — we have — been fighting ever since with the social and cultural divisions it caused. Doomed from the start, the U.S. involvement was prolonged by our government’s deceits and delusions of possible victory (or at least a salvaging of pride).

As the series’ narrator Peter Coyote intones at the start of the first episode: “For those Americans who fought in it and against it, the Vietnam War was a decade of agony, the most divisive period since the Civil War. Vietnam seemed to call everything into question — the value of honor and integrity, the qualities of cruelty and mercy, the candor of the American government, what it means to be a patriot…”

The late Jerry Rubin, a Cincinnatian, was one of the most provocative and outrageous persons of the Vietnam era to upend that definition of patriotism. In the 1960s, Rubin believed one should actively resist, on the streets and in the classrooms, the government — the culture — that waged and supported the Vietnam War. He helped create a politicized, countercultural youth movement (the Yippies) that he hoped would change American society forever.

He died in 1994 at age 56, long past the Yippie era, after being struck by a car while crossing a busy Los Angeles thoroughfare. He and his wife Mimi Leonard had divorced two years earlier but remained close; they had two young children.

Rubin is the subject of a new biography/oral history, the first since his death. Titled DiD iT! — a play on the title of Rubin’s own 1970 book, DO iT! Scenarios of the Revolution — and subtitled From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary, it includes deep information on his Cincinnati roots and doubles as a scrapbook; the author, Pat Thomas, had access to Rubin’s archives. Thomas will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion Monday at 7 p.m. along with such guests as Leonard, her and Rubin’s son Adam, Rubin’s brother Gil and several Cincinnati friends.

Rubin’s Cincinnati life was traumatic. His parents, Esther and Robert, both died young — she in 1960, after struggling with what apparently was cancer; he in 1961 from a heart condition. Rubin, in his early 20s and already interested in leftist politics, became the guardian of his 13-year-old brother Gil and took him first to Israel and then Berkeley, Calif. (Thomas says Rubin was surrounded by Jewish customs growing up, but “mostly ignored them.”) Neither ever lived in Cincinnati again.

“It just seemed like the right thing for us to do at the time,” Gil Rubin says, via email, of the guardianship arrangement. He is a retired dentist living in Connecticut. “Let me just say that taking responsibility for running a household and raising a 13 year old is a task that should not be given to the average 23 year old. In terms of being my legal guardian, I’ll give him a C+ for parental technique, but an A+ for both effort and for just showing up.”

Still, there were shared events that Gil savors today. He was a gifted young pianist at the time. “In l962, Jerry and I went to a concert in Israel and watched Igor Stravinsky conduct his Firebird,” he says. “We were seated in the balcony behind the orchestra watching, as if Stravinsky was conducting us. It was an incredible experience.”

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures


Roughly speaking, there were three phases to Rubin’s life — the Cincinnati years, the long-haired and larger-than-life radical years of the 1960s and his transformation in the 1970s into a neatly dressed entrepreneurial proto-Yuppie (young urban professional) active in promoting goods, services and his own books related to self-improvement, personal health and networking.

Many of those who supported him in the 1960s derided his change as a sell-out; many of those who opposed him saw that last phase as proof he was an opportunist rather than an idealist. To his contemporaries, he became largely forgotten. To younger generations, he became an unknown. Until, perhaps, now.

One key purpose of Thomas’ book is to defend the last phase of Rubin’s career and life — he sees it as being heartfelt and genuine. “If you look at those Yuppie years, remember that corporate America still didn’t trust Rubin,” he says. “So he was forced to come up with his own way to make money.”

He was also, Thomas says, fearful. “Both his parents died in their 50s. That drove his health-food kick in the ’70s. He became paranoid he was going to die in his 50s. Ironically enough, he did. That was one of the reasons he was selling vitamin drinks the last few years of life. He was on a kick — ‘I’m going to live to be 100 and I want everyone else to live to be 100.’ He was reading longevity books.”

But the greater overall purpose of the book is to teach new generations, and remind Rubin’s contemporaries, that he made a positive contribution to American society when it really needed to change: the 1960s. “Desperate times call for desperate measures,” Thomas says.

The somewhat-anarchic Yippies were both confrontational and funny, often at the same time — Rubin admired the edgy, profane comedian Lenny Bruce.

The Yippies incorporated elements of performance art and pure theater into their political actions. Their popularity, in turn, pushed the more traditional anti-Vietnam War movement further to the left. In this, Rubin was aided enormously by the late Abbie Hoffman — “Abbie and Jerry” became inseparable. After creating the Yippies in late 1967, they planned a Festival of Life in Chicago to coincide with the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The city’s mayor, Richard Daley, was nervous about the upcoming convention and angry at anyone who might cause trouble. Everyone was apprehensive — the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had occurred earlier that year, and there was a feeling the violence of the Vietnam War was spreading to the nation, destroying it from the inside.

Meanwhile, anti-war protestors were coming to Chicago to challenge the fact that Lyndon Johnson, the Democratic president, supported Vietnam involvement. He wasn’t seeking renomination and there was a battle between war supporters and opponents to replace him. The Yippies added yet another volatile layer to the mix. Eventually, Daley’s cops attacked all protestors and anyone else in the way in what a study team of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence later called a “police riot.”

Police arrested Rubin when he and others introduced the Yippies’ candidate for president — a giant pig named Pigasus. Thomas says Pigasus was among those arrested.

In 1969, the administration of the new Republican president, Richard Nixon, charged eight activists, including Rubin and Hoffman, with inciting riots at the convention. (One of those charged, the Black Panther member Bobby Seale, had his case separated from the others.) It became a show trial, marked by constant protestations and interruptions by the defendants. There were convictions that were eventually overturned and the Yippies emerged more popular than ever.

“The Yippies were part of a turned-on movement in every sense,” says Abe Peck, who covered the convention as a Chicago Seed writer and editor and was friends with Rubin. He is now a professor emeritus at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. “That was very, very attractive at a time when everybody was turning on.

“Jerry and Abbie were both tremendously charismatic,” he continues. “The Yippie thing was very attractive to me — it wasn’t like some lengthy tract. It was exciting. We talked about living our politics. We saw ourselves as a tribe as 1968 unfolded, and the Yippies spoke to that.”

Still, some on the political left felt the Yippies were opportunists. Just two weeks ago, in its obituary of the radical professor Douglas Dowd, The New York Times recalled how in 1968 he agreed to be nominated in New York as the running mate for Peace and Freedom Party presidential candidate (and Black Panther) Eldridge Cleaver “to thwart the nomination of Jerry Rubin, the Yippie leader whom Professor Dowd considered a publicity hound prone to violence.”

It is one of author Thomas’ contentions that, just maybe, Rubin’s best contribution to the American left came well before the Yippies. After returning to the U.S. from Israel in 1964, he enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley as a graduate student in sociology, but he dropped out to become a political activist.

As a leader of the Vietnam Day Committee, he was part of an early group of war protestors who practiced such acts of non-violent civil disobedience as trying to block troops from departing Oakland for Vietnam.

That earned him, in 1966, a subpoena before the long-feared House Un-American Activities Committee, which was targeting the anti-Vietnam movement. In the 1950s, the powerful committee had scared those it subpoenaed — they worried they would be jailed for contempt if they protested or be professionally blackballed after being called “communists” by an arm of government.

But Rubin was defiant. He wore a rented costume, the uniform of a patriotic American Revolutionary War soldier, to the hearing and tried to explain to the committee that, “I am wearing it because America is degrading its 1776 ideals.” The befuddled committee dismissed him without testimony; his act made international news.

“He was the first person to mock them,” Thomas says. “That became national news. Nobody took them seriously after that. If he had turned up in regular clothes and said, ‘Fuck you, bastards,’ they would have arrested him. But this caused pandemonium.”

The committee, much diminished after this, continued until 1969 (subpoenaing Rubin again) and then changed its name before being finally discontinued in 1975.

Curiously, Thomas discovered, Rubin was scared to death the night before the event. The author says he was told that, “Jerry was sitting there the night before and said, ‘Are people going to laugh at me or will this be the coolest thing ever?’ It could have backfired as a statement — people on the left could have mocked him. He was really ahead of the curve for doing that.”

Studious and Argumentative

The portrait of the Cincinnati Rubin that emerges in the book is fascinating. Living in Avondale and Bond Hill, he appears to have been an industrious and gifted communicator. At Walnut Hills High School, which he attended from 1952-56, he moved from sports reporter to co-editor of the paper, The Chatterbox.

He then got hired at the Cincinnati Post, the afternoon daily, and became the paper’s youth editor and wrote a weekly Campus Capers column. For a semester in 1957, he attended Oberlin College and interviewed Adlai Stevenson, who had been the Democrats’ presidential nominee in 1952 and ’56. He also had time to graduate from the University of Cincinnati in 1961.

Gil Rubin says via email that his older brother was a pretty amazing person to be near. “Jerry was driven by success and competition. He was very smart, curious, articulate, a voracious reader, a tireless learner and he was able to write persuasively, easily and well. He was extremely well-read — he not so much read a book as devoured and digested it.

“These were political, philosophical, sociological and psychological works that were controversial for their times. When completed, these books were well-worn, with way too many sentences underlined and with copious notes, questions and observations in the margins.”

Aided by his access to Rubin’s archives — “he kept everything,” Thomas says — this book includes reproductions of all manner of material from his youth — even a baby picture with his parents. There is his first article from The Chatterbox — “Freshmen Defeat West Hi, 19-12” — as well as his first bylined article — “Frosh Tie Purcell To Close Season.” And there’s the postcard he sent to “Daddy and Gil” while en route to study in India in 1961. He learned in West Berlin that his father had died, and returned.

Rubin’s relationship with his father, who drove a truck for Rubel’s Bakery before becoming a Teamster’s Union rep, was contentious. In the book, Gil recalls his brother and father arguing a lot at the dinner table in their apartment.

“They were both very strong people,” he says. “It’s funny because there were arguments that were so loud that my uncle who lived four doors down the next day would come by and say, ‘Wow, that was some argument between Jerry and Bob last night.’ I spent much of my growing-up years underneath the bed, just hiding.”

John Schneider, who lived close to the Rubin family before moving to Amberley Village in 1959, can vouch for how Rubin could be argumentative. Schneider and Gil, close in age, became best friends in Bond Hill. He remembers Rubin as a “Jimmy Olsen-type” cub reporter, often wearing a bowtie. Schneider, a Cincinnati heart surgeon and history/biography buff, also recalls the day Robert Rubin died — “it was the same day Ernest Hemingway killed himself,” he says. Sometime afterward, his family invited Rubin and Gil to their house for dinner.

“I remember having a nice dinner and then they (his father and Jerry) started talking politics,” Schneider says. Cuba came up and Rubin became argumentative. “This was like 1961 or ’62 and Castro had declared himself a communist. Jerry was a big supporter. My dad was just sort of shaking his head. He said, ‘You know Jerry, you’re a nice kid. Someday you’ll want to have a family and have kids and settle down.’ Jerry just stopped at that and changed the tone.”

Rubin’s Legacy

The picture that emerges from the book is of a complex and gifted individual who also, maybe, could get a little too excited. So how will history judge him?

“Look, he won’t be remembered as the father of our country,” Gil says. “He’ll never have his picture on U.S. currency. But, more often than not, he was on the right side of an issue, from the war to income inequality to self-determination. Will a 22nd-century Lin-Manuel Miranda look back and write a Broadway musical called Rubin? I doubt it. But Jerry definitely moved the historical needle, and not many people get to do that. As democracy and its institutions are challenged today, this book is incredibly relevant.”

PAT THOMAS, author of DiD iT! From Yippie to Yuppie: Jerry Rubin, an American Revolutionary, and guests will be at Joseph-Beth Booksellers at Rookwood Pavilion 7 p.m. Monday. More info: josephbeth.com.

 CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosenone@aol.com

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