I was 16 when Patty Hearst was kidnapped, just three years younger than the victim herself — a fact I find astonishing — and was only paying a teenager’s attention to current events, so this is what I know and recall from that time:
Hearst, a wealthy heiress to the publishing fortune, was kidnapped by a radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. She was held for a long time, during which the SLA called not for ransom, but for her father to distribute millions of dollars’ worth of free food to the poor in California. There was a fire in Los Angeles that killed most of them, but Patty wasn’t in that group. She was later spotted on a bank security camera helping surviving SLA members rob it. Arrested later, she raised a clenched fist to news cameras. She was tried, convicted, sentenced and did prison time, after which she was released, married a cop/security/bodyguard type, submerged herself in American anonymity, wrote a memoir, received a presidential pardon and most recently owned the Best in Group winner at the Westminster Dog Show. And that’s pretty much it. Oh, and it’s where I first learned of the concept of Stockholm Syndrome, the condition where kidnapping victims are said to identify and sympathize with their captors.
And that’s probably more than most Americans know. But the story is so much richer that that, and I’m glad to be reading the current On the Nightstand book over to your right, Jeffrey Toobin’s “American Heiress,” about the case. Toobin crafts his story as a case of not ’60s counterculture America, but the ’70s post-counterculture era — with Vietnam winding down and the air rapidly leaking from the antiwar movement, leaving behind only the craziest and most dangerous radicals. The rest of youth culture was entering adulthood or grad school, starting to ask the big questions of self-discovery that led to the Me Decade. The Beatles had broken up, disco was right around the corner and serial killers with names like Zodiac and Zebra were terrorizing places like San Francisco. It was this period, February 1974, when the SLA knocked on Hearst’s apartment door and, despite being so bumbling they couldn’t even tie her hands correctly, managed to get away with their prize more or less cleanly, leaving behind Patty’s dork fiancé, Steven Weed, whom I will always remember wearing a bandage, black eye and walrus mustache.
The SLA was equal parts crazy, dangerous and inept, led by an ex-con named Donald DeFreeze, aka Cinque M’tume, and staffed mostly by whack-job women who were themselves equal parts crazy and smart. One worked in a library, and kept very good notes. Others found their way via acting (acting?) or teaching or whatever. Paranoid and deadly, they lurched from missions to safe houses to whatever. They assassinated the Oakland school superintendent, of all people, thinking it would set off a people’s revolution. (In this, they reminded me of Charles Manson, who thought slaughtering a houseful of Hollywood types would start a national race war.) When it didn’t, they thought kidnapping might be the way to go. Patty and Steven’s engagement photo, in the pages of the Hearst daily in San Francisco, gave them their target.
I’m not very far into it, and I’m noticing how many of these anecdotes mesh with other stories that broke earlier or later. Angela Atwood, one of the kidnappers, the actress, went to college in Bloomington, Ind., with Kevin Kline. When three of the group accidentally touched off some full-auto rounds at a firing range, one of the people who noticed was none other than Lance Ito, the O.J. Simpson judge. The Hearst family’s hastily thrown together food bank had its books kept by Sara Jane Moore, who would later try to assassinate Gerald Ford. Jim Jones, of the notorious mass-suicide People’s Temple cult, tried to horn in on the food giveaway. One of my old editors, Richard, covered it for the San Jose Mercury. I get the sense that California is a very big state and a very small world at the same time.
But my biggest takeaway — so far — is how insane the world was then, emerging from the cataclysmic ’60s into the burned-out ’70s. It’s somehow…familiar, the end of a period of idealism into a darker one of cynicism, full of hustlers and flatterers and a corrupt president who exposed how broken the country was. The SLA signed its communiques thusly: DEATH TO THE FASCIST INSECT THAT PREYS UPON THE LIFE OF THE PEOPLE. All caps. It seemed to fit the times.
An enjoyable read. And the previous paragraph leads us into the first bit of bloggage, this essay by Rebecca Solnit on…can you guess? Can you guess? Yeah, you guessed!
A man who wished to become the most powerful man in the world, and by happenstance and intervention and a series of disasters was granted his wish. Surely he must have imagined that more power meant more flattery, a grander image, a greater hall of mirrors reflecting back his magnificence. But he misunderstood power and prominence. This man had bullied friends and acquaintances, wives and servants, and he bullied facts and truths, insistent that he was more than they were, than it is, that it too must yield to his will. It did not, but the people he bullied pretended that it did. Or perhaps it was that he was a salesman, throwing out one pitch after another, abandoning each one as soon as it left his mouth. A hungry ghost always wants the next thing, not the last thing.
This one imagined that the power would repose within him and make him great, a Midas touch that would turn all to gold. But the power of the presidency was what it had always been: a system of cooperative relationships, a power that rested on people’s willingness to carry out the orders the president gave, and a willingness that came from that president’s respect for rule of law, truth, and the people. A man who gives an order that is not followed has his powerlessness hung out like dirty laundry. One day earlier this year, one of this president’s minions announced that the president’s power would not be questioned. There are tyrants who might utter such a statement and strike fear into those beneath him, because they have installed enough fear.
And here’s the Financial Times, proclaiming the end of the American century:
Mr Trump’s impact on the very idea of the west is already significant. The western alliance is still the world’s biggest economic bloc and largest repository of scientific and business knowledge. But it is disintegrating. As Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, admitted, Europe can no longer rely on the US. It might have been unwise to say so, but she was surely right.
Mr Trump seems to prefer autocrats to today’s western Europeans. He is warm towards Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, not to mention Russia’s Vladimir Putin. He appears to care not at all about democracy or human rights. Neither does he seem committed to the mutual defence principles of Nato.
Mr Trump’s “alt- right” supporters see not a divide between the democracies and the despotisms; but rather between social progressives and globalists, whom they despise, and social traditionalists and nationalists, whom they support. For them, western Europeans are on the wrong side: they are enemies, not friends.
Depressed enough yet? The Onion is here to cheer you up.
Me, I’m out.