The strange life of Rennie Davis

Rennie Davis died earlier this month. Davis was a radical community organizer back when radical community organizing was hot, not cool. He is best remembered for being part of the “Chicago Seven,” a group of left-wing radicals tried for the disruptive activities they organized and led at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

The jury convicted Davis, along with five co-defendants, for conspiring to incite a riot. However, the convictions were overturned when an appeals court found errors by the trial judge, Julius Hoffman.

The original eight Chicago defendants were a mixed a bag. Bobby Seale, who ended up being tried separately, was a member of the thuggish criminal outfit known as the Black Panthers. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were celebrity rads — a couple of Jewish guys who craved publicity, and mixed comedy and theater with their activism.

Unlike the aforementioned three, Davis and Tom Hayden were not outsiders. In fact, Davis was the son of the chief of staff of President Truman’s Council of Economic Advisers. The Washington Post’s obituary says this of Rennie Davis:

With his short hair and bookish glasses — a Washington Post reporter once described him as looking “more like a seminarian than a revolutionary” — Mr. Davis appeared at least superficially to be an outlier among his more hirsute colleagues.

Davis and Hayden were the organizers and theoreticians of the New Left. As I understand it, Davis was more the former; Hayden more the latter.

Davis helped Hayden draft the Port Huron statement in 1962, This was the founding document of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), to which I once belonged, and more broadly, the founding document of the New Left.

Behind Port Huron stood an old leftist — Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers and a longtime socialist. As Amity Shlaes shows in Great Society, A New History, it was Reuther and the UAW that, in effect, sponsored the Port Huron conference. Indeed, the site of the conference belonged to the UAW and its parent organization, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Reuther wanted an updated left, with its own slogans and missions. However, he insisted that the updated left be anti-communist. And, though he fervently desired that America become socialist, Reuther wanted to accomplish this by working within the Democratic Party.

This was a realistic vision, as we have seen in recent years. But naturally, some of the young rads at Port Huron had other ideas.

This tension boiled over when it came to drafting the Port Huron Statement. The very act of calling it a statement, rather than a manifesto, as some wanted, was a victory for the non-communists.

With Davis’ help, Hayden threaded the needle. The Statement criticized “unreasoning anti-communism” but included what Shlaes describes as “anti-communist boilerplate.” Hayden promised that the Statement would be a “living document” that could be amended.

By 1968, SDS had, of course, abandoned any pretense of trying to work within the Democratic Party. The battle at the 1964 Democratic Convention over how to treat the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party delegation ensured that divorce.

Nor was SDS at all anti-communist by the late 60s. Its movement away from that noble stance might always have been inevitable. If not, America’s massive involvement in the Vietnam War made it so.

Looking back on my SDS days, I would describe the organization as unhinged. Some of its positions were irrational.

These characterizations are disputed, but few would deny that Davis himself became unhinged in the years following 1968. His Washington Post obituary makes this clear:

As the 1960s gave way to the ’70s, Mr. Davis appeared to become increasingly militant, particularly in his opposition to the Vietnam War. In 1970 he told a gathering of Columbia students that if the 1960s had called for sit-ins, then the new decade demanded the burning of banks. . . .

Traveling to communist North Vietnam, he later wrote, he “started to feel like someone who had slipped into one of the American colonies from Great Britain to witness a small band of freedom fighters during our own country’s war of independence.”

Soon, Davis would graduate from the unhinged to the truly bizarre:

Two years later, Mr. Davis announced that he planned to forgo traditional activism and pursue a more just social order as a devotee of Guru Maharaj Ji, a 15-year-old Indian mystic who had cultivated an international following.

“I would cross the planet on my hands and knees to touch his toe,” Mr. Davis said in 1973, describing the guru’s teachings as a “practical way to fulfill all the dreams of the movement of the early sixties and seventies.”. . . .

To paraphrase G.K. Chesterton, when people stop believing in traditional American values and ideals, they don’t believe in nothing, they become capable of believing in anything.

According to the Post, at the time of his death, Davis was chairman of a foundation established, according to its website, to remake a human society that has become “a wrecking ball to every natural living system” and to forge “an unstoppable force for a new way of living on Earth.”

But Davis had come around to the virtues of making a buck. According to the Chicago Tribune’s obit, he did so as a life insurance salesman, venture capitalist, and lecturer on meditation and self-awareness. As far as I can tell, however, he never went into banking.

Nicholas Von Hoffman, the acid-pen chronicler of the radical movement to which, as a disciple of Saul Alinsky, he belonged, had this to say about the strange trajectories of Davis, Hayden, and others like them:

It was one thing for Tom Hayden to marry a well intentioned if slightly flat-headed movie star, or some of the other movement heavies to turn into the psychological basket cases a number have become.

[But] Rennie was the most stable, the calmest, the most enduring of that group of young people who set out to change America at the beginning of the 1960s.

Like the others, though, Davis played with fire and got too close to the flame.