The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

You Don't Need a Weatherman to Write the History of the Weathermen
Daniel J. Flynn - 02/18/08

Review of Cathy Wilkerson, Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2007), 422 pp. $26.95.

In 1962, Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) called for “participatory democracy” in its Port Huron Statement. It ended the decade by spinning off into Weatherman, a self-styled vanguard that eschewed democracy, participatory or otherwise, for fantasies of violent revolution. Nerdy, well-groomed idealists in the early SDS practiced nonviolent civil disobedience to counter Southern racists. The unkempt greasers that Weathermen posed as planted bombs in solidarity with such racist groups as the Black Panthers and Symbionese Liberation Army. The organizational long, strange trip through the 1960s mirrored the peculiar journey of individual members. Cathy Wilkerson, former Swarthmore SDS activist and editor of its New Left Notes, chronicles her path from SDS activist to Weatherman terrorist in Flying Close to the Sun: My Life and Times as a Weatherman. Unfortunately, Flying Close to the Sun names few names and solves no mysteries. Writing as though the government were still hunting Weathermen, Wilkerson, save for when she implicates herself, omits such crucial information as who bombed what when. This is a tell-some memoir which is more faithful to friends than to facts.

Wilkerson surrounds her ground-zero account of Weatherman’s most infamous action with a rewrite of history too recently experienced to endure such a dramatic reconstruction. Indeed, if not for Wilkerson’s friends blowing themselves up in her father’s Greenwich Village townhouse, no publishing house would have printed her autobiography. That event, which ended three of her comrades’ lives and dramatically altered her own, makes the book marketable. But there is too much missing for the book to be interesting. Wilkerson bowdlerizes the back story. The hard-to-believe narrative that emerges depicts the author as shocked, shocked by the Left’s violence and its victimization by conspiratorial forces within the government.

Whereas red-diaper babies peopled the SDS gathering that produced the Port Huron Statement, many of those behind 1969’s “You Don’t Need a Weatherman to Know Which Way the Wind Blows”—the jargon-laced manifesto of Weatherman—came from incredible wealth. Political indoctrination had ushered the former group into action. Class indoctrination characterized the childhoods of future Weathermen. The abnormal upbringings of the trust-fund revolutionaries, so normal to Wilkerson, get overlooked in explaining the self-righteousness, entitlement, and elitism of Weathermen in contrast to the humility and egalitarianism of old-guard SDSers. Despite their Marxist analysis of society, Weathermen never applied their Rosetta Stone to themselves.

Cathy Wilkerson’s father served as vice president of Young & Rubicam’s international division. Wilkerson’s childhood was one of boarding schools, maids, motorboats, and extended European vacations. Likewise, the backgrounds of the two other young women whose destinies intertwined in the ruins of Daddy Wilkerson’s Greenwich Village townhouse reflected the economic privileges that Weathermen enjoyed. Diana Oughton grew up in a massive brick mansion surrounded by a goose pond, swimming pool, deer park, and one-hundred-foot-high windmill. Kathy Boudin spent her childhood in the townhouse whose façade The Cosby Show later used to convey the opulence of the Huxtables.

Wilkerson and her Weatherman comrades imagined themselves as possessing superior morality, vision, and leadership. The super-rich Hessians fighting the class war on behalf of the world’s poor and oppressed, however, lobbed friendly fire early on and never paused to correct their aim. At Bryn Mawr College, Boudin protested to the school’s president, “The maids are grotesquely underpaid and are an extension of the slavery system.” Bryn Mawr responded by dispensing with maids altogether. In Ann Arbor, where as a young teacher she poured herself into an experimental school, Oughton was stunned when local blacks—the very people the school embraced—persuasively urged a Great Society board to deny it funds. “The single most important failing of the school,” Oughton biographer Thomas Powers noted, “and the one on which it foundered in the end, was the fact that no one ever learned to read there.” Similarly, Wilkerson recounts instigating black tenants in Chester, Pennsylvania, to conduct a rent strike, only to pull back support once her own group of activists decided upon another course. “I had led people to go out on a limb, to take risks, without being able to back them up,” she recalls, noting that angry landlords responded by seeking to evict rent-withholding tenants. The trio never learned how precarious the connections are between intentions and results. 

From Swarthmore’s SDS chapter, Wilkerson became editor of the group’s national publication, New Left Notes. She made headlines in 1967 by meeting with representatives of the Vietnamese Communists in Phnom Penh and Bratislava. As Wilkerson ended her tenure as editor that year, New Left Notes demeaned Martin Luther King’s “Vietnam Summer” as “liberal cooption,” urging students to steer clear. “King is purposely diverting our attention from the real purposes of that foreign policy,” New Left Notes charged. While Wilkerson mentions SDS participation in Vietnam Summer, she neglects to mention her publication’s harsh criticism of King and its hair-splitting opposition to his antiwar activities. Some facts are better left in the past.

In 1968, when SDS jeered the campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy, urging young people to “vote in the streets” instead, Wilkerson was among the SDS troublemakers who descended upon Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago during the Democratic National Convention. Though other movement histories place her at the scene of hotel stink-bombings, graffiti assaults, and telephoned bomb threats, Wilkerson ignores all that to bemoan the “largely unprovoked violence” by the police.

In 1969, after the Nixon “counter-inauguration,” where SDS alum Marilyn Webb’s speech for women’s liberation elicited sexist catcalls from fellow protesters, Webb received a phone call: “If you or anybody else like you ever gives a speech like that again, we’re going to beat the shit out of you. SDS has a line on women’s liberation, and that is the line.” Webb believed the voice sounded a lot like Wilkerson’s distinctive transatlantic accent. According to Wilkerson it is likely that not only were the catcalls the product of an FBI conspiracy, but the ominous phone call was too. “It’s more likely, however, that this too was part of COINTELPRO’s [the FBI Counter Intelligence Program’s] dirty tricks, and it is probably not a coincidence that the caller sounded like me,” Wilkerson maintains thirty-eight years later.

When COINTELPRO, the diablo ex machina in the New Left’s narrative (just as “McCarthyism” had been in the Old Left’s), is not blamed for Wilkerson’s excesses, her credulity is. Wilkerson claims that she felt “blindsided” when her Weatherman cohorts bombed a statue memorializing the policemen killed in the Haymarket Square attack of 1886. “Could it be possible that someone in Weatherman had done it?” The Days of Rage, the scheduled Chicago riot in which police arrested Wilkerson for assaulting one of their number with a club, caught her off guard too. “To my astonishment,” Flying Close to the Sun maintains of the fall 1969 rampage, “the march leaders and many others were smashing windows of stores and cars as they ran full speed down the street.” Pictures of her on day two of the Days of Rage with a motorcycle helmet atop her head and a club in her hand belie claims of innocence. When the mayhem permanently crippled mayor’s aide Richard Elrod, an associate of Wilkerson’s penned a parody of Bob Dylan’s “Lay, Lady, Lay”: “Lay Elrod lay / Lay in the street for a while / Stay Elrod stay / Stay in your bed for a while. . . . Play Elrod play / Play with your toes for a while.” Without quoting from this or other similarly vile rhapsodies, Wilkerson imagines such songs as “exaggerated caricatures,” and wonders whether they were “parodies of our excesses.” “I was coming to accept that the slogans ‘Off the Pig,’ or ‘Smash the State’ were meant to challenge people to think creatively,” she maintains, “but I assumed they were not meant literally.”

With indictments from the Days of Rage looming, Weatherman held one last hurrah in Flint, Michigan, in late December 1969 before becoming Weather Underground. Wilkerson recalls movement sex symbol Bernardine Dohrn’s praise of the Manson Family as “satirizing the public’s prurient interest in the murders” or perhaps evoking the “spirit” of Franz Fanon’s “cleansing and resurrecting violence.” Rather than an isolated bit of lunacy, Dohrn’s rhetoric reflected the hard Left’s glorification of Manson, whose “family” so closely resembled Weatherman in everything from finding meaning in meaningless rock lyrics to stripping its members of their identities to prophesying a cataclysmic race war. At the Flint “War Party,” Weathermen employed a split-fingered greeting to symbolize the fork with which the Manson Family stabbed victim Leno LaBianca. Victim Sharon Tate’s name, alongside the names of other “pigs,” was spelled out in bullets. A banner touted “Charlie Manson Power.” The cell of Kathy Boudin and Diana Oughton even nicknamed itself “The Fork.” None of this, however, makes the final edit of Flying Close to the Sun, omissions lending themselves to the notion that Dohrn’s remarks were an abberation.

One wonders whether Wilkerson was gullible then or believes her readers to be so now. “The intention, as far as I know, was not to cause carnage but chaos, the disruption of life as usual,” she writes of the Weatherman’s plot to bomb a soldier’s dance at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Why not, then, target an empty building rather than a makeshift dance hall? Why stockpile dozens of sticks of dynamite? Why pack the dynamite with nails? “With little discussion we agreed,” she writes. “I was thinking that even if the dynamite didn’t cause much damage, at least the nails would go into the lights and walls and curtain and make a mess. The nails would wound people, too, and, in their suffering, perhaps they would develop more empathy for how the Vietnamese felt when the United States dropped daisy bombs, the antipersonnel bombs that had been dropped in huge swaths across Vietnam. Maybe this experience would set some limits on the willingness of GIs to violently interfere in other people’s lives.”

The most persuasive reason to take Wilkerson at her word about her naïveté regarding the bomb’s effect on despised GIs was her naïveté about the horror it ultimately unleashed upon her beloved comrades. Former boyfriend Terry Robbins was so obliterated that the identification of his remains came only through a Weather Underground communiqué. Ted Gold, who had ironically championed the go-slow “praxis axis” against Mark Rudd’s “action faction” before the Columbia student strike of 1968, was crushed to death. A headless Diana Oughton, the idealistic Bryn Mawr graduate who had heeded President Kennedy’s call for service abroad by working as a missionary in Guatemala and President Johnson’s call to create a Great Society at home by toiling at an experimental school in Ann Arbor, was identified by a severed finger. When Wilkerson rallied behind the slogan “Bring the War Home,” she didn’t realize how close to home she would indeed bring it.

Boudin, showering upstairs, and Wilkerson, ironing sheets, began to sink. “A blast reverberated through the house and in place of the ironing board, a mountain of splintered wood and brick rise up all around me. Plaster dust and little bits of debris blew out from everywhere, instantly filling the air. . . . For a fraction of a second I worried that . . . the hot iron might start a fire.” A bare-foot Wilkerson and a nude Boudin emerged onto West Eleventh Street. After Henry Fonda’s ex-wife helped clean and clothe the pair, they were gone—deeper into the underground.  

It is Wilkerson’s unique, first-person account of this most audible coda to the 1960s that separates Flying Close to the Sun from other Weatherman histories. Wilkerson relates the story of the townhouse explosion in a compelling manner unmatched in previous accounts. Whereas Bill Ayers, emanating a juvenile defiance, boasts in his memoirs, “I regret nothing for myself,” Wilkerson reflects with horror: “Like most people, I was corruptible, able to be seduced by power and everything that went with it,” she concedes. “I was ashamed to admit that I now shared qualities with those who I had considered implacable, myopic, and selfish, with violent human beings, Nixon and Kissinger among others. My comrades and I had chosen to ignore whole chunks of reality so that the rest would fit nicely into our theory of change.”

It was the fear of being a “good German,” Wilkerson insists, that spurred her to drastic action in the 1960s. But by going along to get along—as her fellow Weathermen directed her to steal purses, bed another woman, and transform her father’s townhouse into a bomb factory—Cathy Wilkerson became Weatherman’s “good German,” never publicly questioning the idiocy of the group’s schemes or the immorality of their violence. Not until half a lifetime later, in these memoirs, and then only incompletely.

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