Does this seem like an odd couple? Abbie Hoffman and Dolph Briscoe.
Yes, it does, but the two came together in a post-mortem way via a Tuesday announcement from the Briscoe Center for American History, a fine local depository of historical materials. It is unlikely that Hoffman and Briscoe had much in common pre-mortem.
First, let’s meet our cast of characters. Briscoe was governor of Texas from January 1973 until January 1979. He was a Texas Democrat, back when that label included conservatives as well as politicians with ideologies that today could be called "Republican."
Briscoe, of Uvalde, also was a capitalist, at one time the largest landowner in Texas. He also was a banker and, being kind here, not exactly a firebrand politician. Briscoe was ousted from the Governor’s Mansion after he was defeated in the 1978 Democratic primary by then-Attorney General John Hill, who then made history by losing to Republican Bill Clements and becoming the first Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Texas to lose to a GOP foe since Reconstruction.
Briscoe died in 2010 at age 87.
Hoffman was neither a Texan, nor a landowner nor a governor nor a banker nor much of a capitalist. Born in Massachusetts in 1936, Hoffman died in 1989 at age 52 after ingesting an unhealthy volume of phenobarbital and liquor. He had earned fame as a founder of the Yippies, the Youth International Party, and one of the "Chicago Seven" defendants in a trial stemming from protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
I also remember him as the author of a book with perhaps the greatest title ever: "Steal This Book." Published in 1971, it included a collection of workarounds for paying for stuff. The book was presented in sections titled "Survive!" and "Fight!" and "Liberate!"
Briscoe and Hoffman (sounds like a law firm with obnoxious TV ads) came together Tuesday via this announcement: "Briscoe Center Acquires the Abbie Hoffman Papers."
I didn’t see that crossing of paths coming. And I doubt Briscoe did when he and Hoffman inhabited their widely differing spaces on God’s green and diverse Earth.
The Briscoe Center says the Hoffman papers "join others at the center related to social and racial justice, anti-war protest and environmental activism, as well as political organization and free-speech activities across the ideological spectrum."
Briscoe Center Executive Director Don Carleton summed up the acquisition thusly:
"Abbie Hoffman's historical importance stems from his role in two of the 1960s’ most important flashpoints over the First Amendment — the Chicago police riot of 1968 and the ensuing trial of the ‘Chicago Seven.’ In addition, he pioneered new forms of activism that combined celebrity, media spectacle, comedy and cynicism — a mix that was new at the time but which we now think of as a natural part of the cultural landscape."
Carleton thanked Johanna Hoffman Lawrenson, Hoffman’s third and final wife, and the center's donors "for making this acquisition possible." The center paid Lawrenson $300,000 for the collection. Carleton said Lawrenson had the materials stored in about 70 boxes in her one-room Manhattan apartment for 30 years.
"That’s where I went through it," Carleton said. "I don’t want to be buying 70 boxes of sawdust."
More from the Briscoe Center about Hoffman, a leader of the party that nominated a pig for president in 1968. The candidacy was unsuccessful.
"In 1967, he organized a publicity stunt at the New York Stock Exchange, dropping dollar bills on Wall Street brokers from the balcony, some of whom halted their work in order to scramble for the money. The same year, he led a group to the Pentagon with the ostensible intent of levitating the building through an exorcism ritual. Both events were well-covered in the national press and garnered a mixture of outrage, confusion and laughter."
Hoffman and fellow protesters at the Chicago convention had their case dismissed in an appellate court ruling upholding the right to public demonstration and free speech. The case was finally dismissed in 1973 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
"However," the Briscoe Center said in its Tuesday announcement, "that same year Hoffman was arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking in New York. To avoid a mandatory life sentence he skipped bail, underwent plastic surgery and lived as a fugitive until 1980."
He did a short prison stint and then returned to his version of social activism, which included a 1987 arrest with Amy Carter during a protest at the CIA.
At his funeral, Rabbi Normal Mendell said Hoffman lived "in the Jewish prophetic tradition, which is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
Famed tennis commentator Bud Collins, who was Hoffman’s tennis coach at Brandeis University, noted that on a tennis court, Hoffman was "a boringly conservative, possibly right-wing, performer. He camped on the baseline … never venturing to the barricade to shake things up."
The Abbie Hoffman Papers (which, at one time, might have connoted a different product) include speech drafts, FBI records related to its surveillance of him, photos, posters and a category listed as "ephemera."
There’s also correspondence with a cast of characters including President Jimmy Carter, author Norman Mailer, musicians John Lennon and David Bowie, and writers Allen Ginsberg and Studs Terkel.
There’s no mention of any Hoffman correspondence with Briscoe or vice versa.
Portions of the collection, which will be opened in full for research next year, now are on display in the Briscoe Center’s exhibit hall.
Carleton told me it’d be OK to tell Briscoe about it.
"I knew Gov. Briscoe very well," he said. "It may surprise you but I’m confident he would approve. He understood the need to document history from every angle. He was more broad-minded than what some people might think. He approved my collecting the papers of his political opponents and journalist critics, (including) Sissy Farenthold and Molly Ivins."
Nice to know. But I still have trouble conjuring up a photo of Briscoe and Hoffman hangin’ together.