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Autumn 2014
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Books and Culture

John M. Murtagh
Tanned, Rested, and Unrepentant
Ex-Weatherman Mark Rudd sets out to promote his self-serving memoir.
27 March 2009

I’m looking forward to Ted Kaczynski’s book tour. Sure, it will have to be beamed remotely from the Unabomber’s prison cell, but it’s always interesting when terrorists try to justify themselves. Ted hasn’t found a publisher yet, though, so for now we’ll have to content ourselves with Mark Rudd. HarperCollins has just published Rudd’s memoir, Underground: My Life with SDS and the Weathermen, and the author is embarking on a promotional tour.

For the uninitiated, Rudd is the former adolescent who organized the sit-ins at Columbia University in the late sixties, helped lead the so-called “Days of Rage” at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and helped found the violent Weather Underground. He went into hiding during the 1970s following the death of three of his cohorts, who blew themselves up while assembling nail bombs destined for the Officers’ Club at Fort Dix, New Jersey. Three weeks earlier, on the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, the same crew had firebombed my home. My father at the time was a New York judge, and Rudd and his collaborators apparently objected to his presiding at the then-pending trial of several members of the Black Panther Party on charges they had plotted to bomb several Manhattan department stores.

Rudd resurfaced in the late seventies, settled in New Mexico, and became a teacher and self-styled community activist. Now, at 60, he has retired and is dedicating himself to “organizing,” according to his website. Indeed, in an interview on the website Gothamist, Rudd says he became inspired to write his book through “talking with young people who are organizing now” and realizing that “they very much wanted to know what was good organizing and bad.” What exactly it is that he and these young people are organizing Rudd doesn’t specify, but one hopes that he cited nail bombs as an example of “bad organizing.”

The Weather Underground is a sore spot for me. I’m funny that way about people who try to kill me. Yet, I like to think that I’m clear-headed enough to object to the sentimental lionization of aging terrorists regardless of personal connections. We’re about to be subjected to the media’s breathlessly reporting the groundbreaking insights of an individual who—even as his contemporaries were fighting and dying in Southeast Asia—traveled to Cuba to meet with the North Vietnamese. All these decades later, he still sees the U.S. as an oppressor: “It will take an enormous struggle to change the direction of this country from the free-market militarism which has been in power for the last 28 years, and the global empire-building that has characterized US power for more than a century,” he tells the Gothamist. And he’s still willing to minimize the Weathermen’s deeds: “’Okay, the Weather Underground killed exactly three people, all our own comrades,’” he notes (incorrectly), but “’how many people did John McCain kill by dropping thousand-pound bombs on cities and towns from 10,000 feet in the air?’”

As for long-term goals, Rudd wants to see President Obama “shrink the military, use the money for domestic needs, and provide security through diplomacy and international law.” That’s an ambitious, if not terribly original, agenda. Good thing he’s getting organized.

No doubt Rudd’s book tour will include obligatory stops on cable news and friendly chat shows. There we can count on sepia-toned reminiscences about young students seeking to make America a better place without any messy questions about the police officer murdered in a 1970 San Francisco bombing or the triple murder by some late-blooming Weathermen during a botched bank job in 1981.

To her credit though, the Gothamist’s interviewer, Jen Carlson, did ask Rudd if he had “ever addressed those who had family members that died” because of the Weather Underground’s actions. No, Rudd said with refreshing frankness, “I haven’t had the guts.” But then he also added: “I didn’t want to stir up their bad memories out of the blue.” That’s a curious attitude for a fellow about to launch a national book tour.

John Murtagh, a practicing attorney, is serving his second term on the Yonkers, New York City Council. In 2008, he was a candidate for the New York State Senate.

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