Tam Valley writer discusses civil disobedience, solitary confinement, his personal hero and what might have been
Photo by Tim Porter
Around Marin, say the name David Harris and the response usually is, “Isn’t he the anti–Vietnam War activist who married Joan Baez and went to prison?” Well, yes. But spend time with Harris and it’s apparent there’s far more to him than that.
For starters, 61-year-old Harris, who lives high on a hillside above Tamalpais Valley, has authored seven major nonfiction books on subjects as diverse as the 1979 Iran hostage crisis (The Crisis) and Bill Walsh, the late, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49ers (The Genius).
As a Stanford University junior in 1965, Harris was elected student body president. Just 10 years later, he was the Democratic congressional candidate from Silicon Valley (he lost). Harris is also the devoted father of two adult children and he has written extensively for the New York Times, Rolling Stone and other periodicals. In 1975, he married New York Times reporter Lacey Fosburgh, who died from cancer in early 1992; they had one daughter. For the past 12 years, Harris’s companion has been Mill Valley physician Cheri Forrester.
And yes, following his 1968 marriage to Baez, the famed folksinger and fellow anti–Vietnam War advocate, Harris did go to federal prison for almost two years. After he was paroled, Harris and Baez amicably divorced.
In his most recent book, The Genius: How Bill Walsh Reinvented Football and Created an NFL Dynasty, Harris credits Walsh with “saving” the city of San Francisco. “Think about it,” he says. “In the late 1970s, Mayor (George) Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk had been murdered, the Rev. James Jones had taken a respected Bay Area congregation down to Guyana where they all wound up committing suicide, and the AIDS epidemic had broken out. It was a terrible time for San Francisco.” Then, says Harris, “Walsh and the 49ers won the ’82 Super Bowl, there was a victory parade down Market Street and the city began feeling good about itself again.”
About his earlier work, The Crisis: The President, the Prophet, the Shah—1979 and the Coming of Militant Islam, Harris has this to say: “It really marked the beginning of the so-called ‘war on terror,’ where America and Islamic extremism first started doing battle.”
Harris sees himself as a “popular historian” and his subtitles tend to summarize his book’s subject matter. His other work includes Our War: What We Did in Vietnam and What It Did to Us; The Last Stand: The War Between Wall Street and Main Street Over California’s Ancient Redwoods; Dreams Die Hard: Three Men’s Journey Through the Sixties; The League: The Rise and Fall of the National Football League; and Shooting the Moon: Story of an American Manhunt, Unlike Any Other, Ever.
Only that last title leaves a prospective reader guessing about the book’s subject. “It details the process leading up to America’s invasion of Panama and capture of that nation’s de facto president Manuel Noriega, and how he was brought to the U.S. to stand trial on drug charges,” Harris says. “It’s quite a story.”
The same could be said of Harris’s life.
Let’s start with high school; when and where was it—and what kind of a kid were you? I grew up in Fresno, and being born six hours after the cutoff date, I was always the youngest one in my classes. In the eighth grade, I wanted to grow up and join the FBI. In high school, I was on the debate team along with being a football player, a gym rat and “Boy of the Year” for 1963.
I was absolutely straight. Fresno had no radicals in those days. Yet, I was a little different in that early in high school I went to a conference given by the American Friends Service Committee where the speaker was Martin Luther King’s right-hand man and the topic was civil rights. It was a natural for me as I had been one of only three white kids on my West Fresno Little League team. That experience started me thinking about things.
How did your post–high school evolution come about? I chose Stanford over Cal because the scholarship was a little better. The big moment for me there came when the Mississippi Project showed up. It was 1964 and blacks had been registering blacks to vote, but no one outside of Mississippi was paying any attention. So their strategy was to get some white guys to come down and hope they’d bring the press with them. Allard Lowenstein, a protégé of Eleanor Roosevelt, recruited me. Right away I felt it would be one of the great adventures of our time and I didn’t want to miss it. I knew I could get myself killed.
Sure enough, on my second day in Lambert, Mississippi, I was alone in a black neighborhood when two white guys in a pickup drove up; one had a pistol in his belt, the other put a shotgun in my face and said: “Nigger-lover, I’ll give you five minutes to get out of town before I blow your head off.” I did the stammering student routine, saying: “Oh yeah, well who are you? And what makes you think?” The guy just repeated, “Like I said nigger-lover, five minutes.” Just then three of my co-workers arrived, threw me in their car, drove off, and fortunately, we never saw those two and their pickup again. A week later, an FBI agent who was sent down to supposedly protect us also called me a “nigger-lover.” We were there three weeks, got considerable attention and helped register hundreds of blacks. It was an eye- opening experience. Afterward, I didn’t look at America in the same way.
How did you transition into anti-Vietnam War activism? In 1966, I made the decision I wouldn’t take my student deferment. I simply believed that if you have a war, everyone should fight it — not just the poor people. So when my draft card arrived, I sent it back, saying I opposed killing people for no reason other than to prop up some tinhorn dictators. Then, after my year as student body president, in 1967 a bunch of us organized the resistance, which was dedicated to organized civil disobedience, publicly defying draft laws and refusing to cooperate with the Selective Service Act, the latter being an offense punishable by up to five years in prison.
Did I have any doubts about what we were doing? You bet. Here was a bunch of 20-year-olds taking on the most powerful entity in the world and all we had was a printing press out in the garage to make flyers. When I was ordered to report for induction, I refused to go inside the courthouse building. I knew exactly what would happen. I was arrested, indicted and put on trial in May of ’68 and convicted.
Truthfully, I told my attorney not to fight it on technicalities even though there were numerous legal infractions. All across the country I’d been telling guys to be ready to go to prison, so I felt obliged to go. It was an act of civil disobedience. The law said you had to carry your draft card at all times and I refused to do that. Also, I refused to report for duty. Both were felonies and I was sentenced to three years in prison.
Talk about your time in prison. I served a month in San Francisco County Jail where I led my first strike. We weren’t going to put up with any of their shit, whether it was the food, medical care or visitation rights. Then they drove me to the federal prison camp at Safford, Arizona, where I stayed for seven months. Next, because of the role I played in a strike, they packed me off to the federal corrections institution at La Tuna, Texas, right outside El Paso. At each place, again because of the strikes, I did a total of four months in isolation, all of it at La Tuna. It was grim, but I didn’t let it eat me up—that’s what they want it to do. Somehow I got by. It helped that I was there for a cause I believed in. My approach was to be my own man and behave accordingly.
What was your longest time in solitary confinement? The longest stretch was 45 days. At La Tuna, isolation was in the basement. They take away your belt and your shoelaces so you can’t hang yourself; the only light is from a window high up the wall; there’s no light bulb in your cell; there’s no one in the cell across from you, so you never see whom you’re talking to—or yelling at; and there was nothing to read but the Bible, which I reread, and The Cross and the Switchblade, a cheesy memoir by a Catholic priest; I swore I’d burn it if I ever saw it again. Oh, and they let you out once a week for a quick shower. The worst part of all of it was that I was a smoker—and smoking wasn’t allowed. I knew I couldn’t survive in isolation by wanting to be somewhere else, so I played mind games, invented stories and exercised in my cell.
How did it affect you? It was a learning experience, a coming-of-age, its own kind of manhood ritual not unlike—in form if not substance—the one I would have gone through had I enlisted in the Marine Corps.
After being released from prison you were a convicted felon, soon to be divorced, a father with joint custody of his son, without a job, and 15 units short of graduating from Stanford. What happened? I went back to organizing. Two weeks after I was released I was driving along the San Diego Freeway and heard on the news that Vietnam vets were throwing their medals on the White House lawn. I broke down and cried—back when I entered prison we’d been trying so hard to organize the soldiers, so this felt pretty damn good. In San Diego, we organized an ad hoc vote on whether or not the U.S.S. Constellation should return to Southeast Asia and resume bombing raids over Vietnam. A little later the peace accords were signed and I was 25 years old and needed a job.
So I wrote to Jann Wenner at Rolling Stone. He knew of me and told me to submit something. I wrote a story titled “Ask a Marine” about a sergeant named Ron Kovic, which Kovic later wrote as Born on the Fourth of July. It eventually became the Oliver Stone–Tom Cruise movie of the same title. It was from there, I guess you’d say, that my career as a writer started.
There was, however, one interruption: nearly three years after I started at Rolling Stone I ran for the U.S. Congress against the Republican Pete McCloskey—and I lost.
What causes you, or inspires you, to select a topic for one of your books? Let me start with the exception, Dreams Die Hard: Three Men’s Journey Through the Sixties. One night in 1980, I got a call from New York and a voice asked, “Do you know Allard Lowenstein?” I answered that I did and that I’d worked with him on several occasions. Then the caller wanted to know if I knew a man named Dennis Sweeney. After I said that some time ago Sweeney and I were good friends, I was told, “Lowenstein has just been shot and killed, and the killer has been identified as Dennis Sweeney.”
After my shock wore off, I got the inspiration for Dreams Die Hard. Obviously, it’s about the three of us. However, most of my books have come from instant impressions, such as The Last Stand, which resulted from a Chronicle article about Humboldt County and the battle for the Pacific Lumber Company that captured my interest. The same for Shooting the Moon, about General Noriega. Except for Dreams Die Hard, I started from scratch and did an enormous amount of research before starting to write.
As a “popular historian” do you have a personal hero? Is there one person in modern history that could have made a difference in America’s history, but for one reason or another, it didn’t happen? For me, the critical moment in America’s history would be the summer of ’68 and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. That act condemned the nation to almost another six years of war. In modern terms, it would be like Obama being killed before he got the Democratic nomination. As a result, the election of 1968 offered no real choice: it was Nixon versus Humphrey and both were hawks. If Kennedy had lived, he would have won and America would have been very different. The Vietnam War would have ended sooner and there wouldn’t have been Watergate. That was a defining time for America and it would have been different had Bobby Kennedy lived. However, he’s not my personal hero. My personal hero is Mahatma Gandhi.