In 1965, when Carl Oglesby threw himself into the New Left—“the movement” was the more intimate term, meaning life-force, energy, motion—he was a 30-year-old paterfamilias with a wife and three small children, living in a nice little Ann Arbor house on (he relished the memory) Sunnyside Street, making a solid living as a technical editor-writer for a military-industrial think-tank called Bendix. He golfed, drove a snappy little sports car, wrote plays, and smoked good dope—a damn fine life for the son of an Akron rubber worker and the grandson of a coal miner. He’d been a champion debater in high school and at Kent State University, and for a time an actor. Pretty much an autodidact, he was reading Cold War revisionist scholarship in an effort to figure out why America, the only country on earth he could ever have hailed from, was burning up peasants on the other side of the world.
At high velocity, as people did then, he “went through changes.” One minute he was writing against the Vietnam war for a Democratic congressional candidate (who refused to deliver the speech); the next, he was writing it up for the University of Michigan literary magazine; the next, he was turning it into a pamphlet for Students for a Democratic Society, which was organizing a national demonstration against the war but didn’t yet have any antiwar “literature” on offer. In June 1965, Oglesby, the evident talent of the hour, was elected president of the organization, and as the antiwar movement burgeoned, he was much in demand. Whirlwind tours ensued. In November, as SDS president, he was the token radical at a Washington Monument rally, placed late in a program of moderates. Many had drifted away when he stole the show with the finest piece of oratory ever to emerge from the white New Left.
It was a dream moment for an unabashed moralist skilled in the dramaturgical arts. The moral stakes of the moment, he insisted, rested on both an intellectual and an existential choice between “two quite different liberalisms: one authentically humanist; the other not so human at all.” The bad one was “illiberal” and “corporate.” The alternative, “in the name of simple human decency and democracy,” was nothing less than “a humanist reformation.” “We radicals,” he said, asked liberals to “risk a leap. … Help us build. Help us shape the future in the name of plain human hope.” Can you imagine a time when a radical orator spoke like this?
Idealistic he was, but not naive: “Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes. … It is only the poets who make them lovely. What the National Liberation Front is fighting in Vietnam is a complex and vicious war.” He was all-American, Midwestern, and original: “We have lost that mysterious social desire for human equity that from time to time has given us genuine moral drive. We have become a nation of young, bright-eyed, hard-hearted, slim-waisted, bullet-headed make-out artists.” Was Soviet Communist not a rotten system? Of course. But “my anger only rises to hear some say that sorrow cancels sorrow, or that this one’s shame deposits in that one’s account the right to shamefulness. And others will make of it that I sound mighty anti-American. To these, I say: Don’t blame me for that! Blame those who mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart.”
People heard this intense American voice rising in indignation, and patriotic disgust, and “plain human hope,” and felt spoken for. They joined SDS. Thousands of young people, on fire, imagined that they could change the world. Here was a man old enough to be their older brother, a man of neither their generation nor their parents’, an accomplished man who had thrown in his lot with the big new thing that was happening—who had picked himself up and transformed his own life. His passion and persuasive power were infused with the sense that he poured his whole self into the new possibilities that the movement stood for. He was at stake. He wasn’t playing a role; he was living a life.
He had found a world where words mattered, drama mattered, and intellectual life was neither arid nor necessarily credentialed. Words counted. Whether from the podium, or face to face, or over the kitchen table, he loved putting words together. He spoke in whole sentences, often enough in great rolling cadences, accelerating with Faulknerian momentum. (When I was working on my first book, which would consist mostly of narratives from Southern whites—“hillbillies”—living in Chicago, he told me to read As I Lay Dying.) He was pungent, not showy. To say he was a master of rhetoric would be to cheapen his achievement, now that we live in an age when the word connotes windy clichés and the art of communicating in 140-character bursts is more highly prized. On paper, he dazzled. SDS reprinted the text of his Washington speech in many thousands of copies.
A lot of restless, estranged, disgusted young people who read him or heard him speak felt—still feel—that he changed their lives. Years later, Newsweek wrote about one Wellesley student in particular who subscribed to a Methodist student magazine called Motive, where she had read a piece of his—or anyway, Newsweek reported in 1994, “a Methodist theologian, Carl Oglesby.” “It was the first thing I had ever read that challenged the Vietnam war,” she said years later. The student was named Hillary Rodham, and the misattribution wasn’t far off. Oglesby preached. His theology was an improvised search for a political faith, riddled with doubt as it had to be, offering something deeper—more spiritual, indeed—than either liberal or Marxist clichés about the inevitability of progress.
At the time, his high art was the art of intellectual dismantling. He delivered to the crackpot Cold War theories of the time—especially the one about dominoes flopping over, ostensibly at the behest of China, which in fact had been Vietnam’s enemy, not leader, for a thousand years—the scathing demolition they deserved, and helped make it respectable to unearth the imperialism that formed the unspeakable part of America’s Cold War self-righteousness. But his analytic equipment wasn’t capable of laying a new intellectual foundation. (No one’s was.) Sometimes the drama he conjured was too bare, stripped down to caricature. Corporate liberalism was too shaky a concept to hold the intellectual weight he wanted to place on it.
“Why the New Left? Why not the current Left?” he asked, trying to find out. Well, the political generation that followed him, two or three years on, under pressure of war and revolutionary delusions and their own shallowness, decided it no longer wanted to be a New Left at all. They wanted to be The Left, meaning an all-or-nothing, go-for-broke, Leninist-based left. Carl was in shock when they accused him of having “bad politics.” How could he have bad politics, he asked, when he didn’t really have politics at all—or rather, when he was trying to find what an actual American left-wing politics would be? He flirted with libertarians and they flirted with him. He flirted with liberal businessmen. But clarity didn’t take shape, neither for him nor his most trusted colleagues, and in the meantime, the cocky revolutionists were in a hurry. Self-infatuated revolutionists with no talent for clear thinking but plenty of melodramatic impulse drummed him out of the movement that had become his whole life. At 35, he was dumped on the ash-heap of history.
The implosion of the New Left hit Oglesby especially hard—inner Pascalian that he was, he had wagered everything on a movement that had now gone berserk. Nothing could follow but burn-out. Having entered the movement as l’homme revolté, in Camus’ sense, he was now equally revolted by the revolutionary “solution” that had become, itself, part of the problem. His flair for both high and low drama led him down the path of conspiracy theories. His best work after the ’60s was lyrical. Even when melancholy, he smoldered, ever unreconciled to conquerors of all stripes. You catch a whiff of his force in these brief PBS interview excerpts. There’s a fit trace of his lyrical melancholy in this song from his second folk album. (A vinyl of the first, Carl Oglesby, is hard to find but deeply worth the effort.) “No more illusions could begin,” he sang. One song, “Cherokee Queen,” he wrote upon discovering that he had a Cherokee grandmother.
No one I ever met loved America so much as to feel such anguish at what it was becoming. We shall not look upon his like again.
Todd Gitlin is a professor at Columbia, a former president of SDS, and the author, most recently, of Undying, a novel.