Dan Walters

Jerry Brown, Tom Hayden had an uneasy relationship

Gov. Jerry Brown, showing the effects of a long day, reads paperwork on board a flight from San Francisco to Sacramento in January 1975. Seated beside him is Tom Hayden, antiwar activist and freelance writer.
Gov. Jerry Brown, showing the effects of a long day, reads paperwork on board a flight from San Francisco to Sacramento in January 1975. Seated beside him is Tom Hayden, antiwar activist and freelance writer. Sacramento Bee file

When Tom Hayden, the onetime antiwar radical who later became a fairly conventional California politician, died last month, there was a great outpouring of laudatory statements from pundits and politicians.

One of the tersest, and least effusive, came from Gov. Jerry Brown:

“Tom took up causes that others avoided. He had a real sense of the underdog and was willing to do battle no matter what the odds.”

The comment’s flat tone may have been a little surprising to many, given the lavish praise from others – but not to those who knew that they had history.

When Hayden first came to California, after achieving fame – or infamy – for antiwar protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, he was drawn to the San Francisco Bay Area, which had developed a very lively, radical political culture.

It seemed a natural fit, but Hayden quickly learned that the Bay Area’s radical leaders didn’t take kindly to someone coming in from the outside and, implicitly at least, trying to take over their movement.

Rather quickly, therefore, Hayden decamped for Southern California and became the nucleus of a leftist community centered in Santa Monica and focused not only on the Vietnam War and other big issues, but more localized ones as well, such as rent control.

Hayden also gained entry into Southern California’s left-leaning entertainment community through his marriage to actress/antiwar activist Jane Fonda – a community to which Brown, then living in the Hollywood Hills, also had strong ties as he climbed the political ladder into the governorship in 1974.

Hayden took his first big political plunge in 1976, challenging Sen. John Tunney’s re-election in that year’s Democratic primary and indirectly confronting Brown, who was Tunney’s honorary campaign chairman.

Hayden – and Fonda – were unsparing in their personal attacks on Tunney and even though the challenge failed, it so damaged Tunney that he lost to Republican S.I. Hayakawa.

Brown himself ran unsuccessfully for president that year, then had to face a re-election campaign in 1978 – and Hayden signaled that he might mount the same kind of challenge that had wounded Tunney.

Hayden and Fonda had founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy, and he penned “an open letter” to Brown in 1977: “If you’ve only been promoting your own personality, you’ll have nowhere to go but down. Merely being president didn’t seem to have done very much for Johnson, Nixon or Ford and I don’t see Jimmy Carter’s grin getting any wider. So what’s the point?”

It shook up Brown’s inner circle, and his response was an exercise in pure politics. Brown quickly gave Hayden several high-profile, if powerless, positions – in effect, platforms from which he could pursue his career and causes.

In return, Hayden protected Brown’s left flank and soon embarked on what became an 18-year legislative career that was surprisingly lackluster, followed by a couple of quixotic campaigns for other offices.

  Comments