January 2010 / Remembering KLJ and Eric Hoffer
K. L. J.
I met Eric Hoffer in San Francisco, a few years after President Kennedy's 1963 murder in Dallas. The Nation was still young then, but ageing fast. The generation before had won the Second World War and now wanted, like Napoleon, to police the World for the greater good of things and reason increasingly unclear to we the young.
By the time I reached California, America was up to its eyeballs in the Vietnam War. Much of America's youth was in open defiance of our elders -- who were, after all, trying to kill us. And San Francisco had become the sex, drugs and rock'n roll magnet of that tune-in, turn-on, drop-out era.
They were a time of fables. Eric Hoffer was a living one. He was a son of immigrants, and a longshoreman who wrote books. These were the days when philosopher poets walked among us. He was a self-educated, hard-headed realist who wrote, he said, as a way of experiencing Life. More than once I found him sitting on the waterfront at the foot of Market Street, talking about Schopenhauer and America's China trade. His audience would be another longshoreman or some beguiled tourist.
His tenth book was titled, THE TRUE BELIEVER. It was enormously popular and wildly praised by college professors, whom we also suspected of being in the conspiracy to kill us.
TRUE BELIEVER was promoted by no lesser "true believers" than Lyndon B. Johnson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike passed out copies of the book to his buddies. When Hoffer heard about this, he said, "It proved to me that this is the kind of book any child can read."
Hoffer was already a minor celebrity in literary circles when L. B. J. heard of him. The gentlemanly Eric Sevareid, one of television's first talking heads, had him on several P. B. S. and C. B. S. specials airing in prime time for an amazing number of hours of intelligent television. They talked of great ideas, without dancing contests or homey makeovers. They talked about work, war and hardhat politics.
During those conversations Hoffer commented that he thought well of Lyndon Johnson and his escalating war in Vietnam.
Lyndon Johnson -- smarting inside the White House over draft-age youths dancing not only in San Francisco but right under his own windows, when they should be in Asia making his war -- did not let the TV set cool before he booked Hoffer in for a five minute photo shoot that stretched into an hour-long, jaw-and-gum-flap session.
Reporters leaned in close to hear Hoffer, the New York born German-American Jew, and L. B. J., the Texas-American President, finding out that they shared a ten gallon hat full of good ideas.
Alas, the world came to see those ideas differently.
We saw the early part of those days on college television sets in Carbondale, Illinois. The vertical hold button on ours was tricky. After a debatable eight freshman years the university president booted me out and San Francisco welcomed me in.
In San Francisco, Hoffer ate his breakfast in a Polk Street cafe where I came to work as a cook, and philosophize with the geezers. Our ages were roughly 70 and 25.
Hoffer mused that his visit with "the man," L. B. J., in "the house," the White House, might have put his soul in exploitation.
Probably it had, I reckoned. It was a time of exploitation.
"Dance lithely," he said, "they all are."
In 1982, Ronald Reagan (also, not a friend of youthful dancing) presented Hoffer with the Presidential Medal of Honor -- no small achievement for two elderly would-be Union men.
Hoffer died the next year, at age 80.
To my knowledge, Hoffer never retracted his support for the war in Vietnam, even after it had clearly failed.
He said at the time of his publicly announced retirement from wharf and his newspaper column, "I knew when to catch the train, but it is harder to know when to get off."
We now approach Hoffer's years of then, and we got off the train at New Orleans. It was what our ticket said to do. Hey, Eric, you self-reliant old cuss, you think we are the one who put us here?
Copyright, 2010, Leonard Earl Johnson
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