(June 1974 pages 107-108, 112, 236, 238-240.)
DEATH OF THE SALESMAN
for rennie davis (model high school student, antiwar spokesman and chief proselytizer for guru maharaj ji) the media always meant the message
So we'll have an organization like SDS, only God will be the Commander in Chief.
- RENNIE DAVIS
History repeats itself … the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.
- KARL MARX
IN RETROSPECT, the scene could have been staged by the Committee for the Re-election of the President: There was Rennie Davis and an apparently drunk Jesus freak getting it on about whether the Messiah had as yet returned. It ended with the freak waving his Bible while Rennie knelt to light incense under his guru's larger-than-life color portrait, which was resting on a red-velvet throne. Rennie then rose to proclaim that his guru was "God, alive and walking around on the planet, the source of all creation, here now, with a plan to end all poverty, racism, sexism and other suffering."
Most of the 30-odd spectators had come to Stanford as part of Rennie's coterie and were chanting something supportive in Hindi. The few Stanford students who had turned out didn't seem very interested in the Messiah issue and were arguing among themselves about whether this could actually be the same Rennie Davis as the antiwar radical made famous by the Chicago conspiracy trial of 1969. I assured those near me that it was. The Jesus freak assured me, on his way out, that there was only one true God and that it wasn't Rennie's boy.
Much relieved on this last point, I turned my thoughts to how Rennie, whom one had thought to be an eminently sensible and serious type, could have arrived at this bizarre place, and what it said about the history we shared. As I left, it didn't help matters to hear Rennie's all-too-familiar voice urging us to "join me in crawling on my belly, if necessary, across the surface of this earth to kiss the lotus feet of the Guru Maharaj Ji."
Rennie's God has, for more than a year, been peering out at you from numerous wall posters under the headline "WHO IS GURU MAHARAJ JI?" Without spoiling the ending, we know that, among other things, he is purportedly a 16-year-old kid from India who's a Perfect Master in all matters, as well as being addicted to Mercedes-Benzes, color TV, Disneyland and Abbott and Costello movies. He is also fond of pushing his top aides into swimming pools (Rennie got dunked seven times one day) and occasionally trying to run them over with his motorcycle. The Indian government is investigating the organization on jewel-smuggling charges, requiring that the guru post bond before exiting, and the city fathers of Detroit have given him the key to their city.
A very modern funky kind of God. Except that he claims a fanatical following of 7,000,000 (with 50,000 in the U. S., the new center of his world-wide operation). Their explicit aim is to bring us all peace through the complete control of our emotions, thoughts and life force. The game plan is a familiar Brave New World, one in which we find contentment by becoming a race of celibate, hypnotized, austere inhabitants of a divine kingdom, taking all our orders from the kidgurugod. In this religion, the escape from freedom is total. God is here on earth with all of the answers, and an independent mind is defined as the "main obstacle to peace." The converts, or "premies," as they are called, are led into a tightly structured existence. They live in disciplined "ashrams," cut off from competing external stimuli, be it beer, family, television, novels or sex. Nothing is allowed to interfere. Once zapped into this hypnotic trance, the fix is maintained by incessant group meditation and guru babble on the brilliance of the "holy family" - the kid, his mother and three brothers.
It all has a veneer of modernity and technology. God wears business suits, charters jumbo jets and insists that his various offices be equipped with telex machines and WATS lines. The premies are inevitably short-haired, clean-shaven and decked out in Fifties suits.
In 1971, having failed in India, where gurus are plentiful (the kid was getting older and losing his novelty), Maharaj Ji turned his sights on the West. He is, in fact, planning to become a U.S. citizen. In the past two years, he has transformed the Divine Light Mission from a small, traditional, mom-and-pop guru business centered in rural India into a thriving multinational corporation.
When Rennie first talked to me of his conversion, after a hostile, tomato-strewn opening in Berkeley, he was nonplused. "This thing is so big everywhere else you wouldn't believe it. Our magazine, And It Is Divine, is doubling circulation every month, ashrams are springing up all over. He has to be God or this wouldn't be happening. We're going to grow so fast that even you'll have to admit it's true." (By early 1974, the magazine had folded in the wake of the Houston flop.)
Following the Berkeley event, I tracked Rennie down to the ashram in Mountain View, California, a typical stucco affair, where he and a handful of devotees were meditating out by the swimming pool. The only one awake was a very smily young man (all the guruites have a particular smile, something like that on HAVE A NICE DAY buttons. "It comes with knowledge," I was told.) in a front office that reeked intolerably of incense He quickly informed me that he was "blissed out" and also doing his "service," which meant watching the telex machine. Being new to all this, I asked him what he was on and he said, "Guru Maharaj Ji." The guruites hardly ever inter a sentence that does not include his name. "This soup is fantastic by the grace of Guru Maharaj Ji"; "Guru Maharaj Ji is in the ceiling, in my heart" would be typical repartee.
After sun-bathing for about 20 minutes, and not seeing any rainbows or other promised visions, I poked Rennie awake. He flashed the bliss smile, looked deep into my eyes and said, "Far out, you've come - it's a divine coincidence happening everywhere - there's a lot you can do here. We really need someone with your skills." It quickly became clear that Rennie had taken my request for an interview to mean that I wanted to join up. When I demurred he said, "Listen, Bob, even if you don't believe in this, it's still a great opportunity for you as a journalist. This is the biggest story in the history of the planet and you can break it." Then, warming to the subject, he said. "You can go around recording all of the stories of how devotees came to convert and publish it as a book of divine coincidences. It will be the biggest seller of all Time, it'll replace the Bible in every hotel room."
Same old Rennie, selectively leaking to the press about the next biggest-ever Happening. He was an old friend and I had a go at it, though later, when he and the guruites realized that I was being a journalist ("Your mind is very much in the way"), it was about as blissful as trying to photograph the Onassis family at play, private guards and all. Only with the guruites, these guards were called The World Peace Corps, just as money is "green energy" and junk shops that they run Divine Sales. But doublethink language is not the only modern American hype they have adopted. It is a religion that at best co-opts and at worst worships all that is tinselly and transparent; a pop religion a bit late for pop America.
Not surprisingly, the most recent basilica of this idolatry was the Houston Astrodome. In his Berkeley speech, Rennie had told me, "The Astrodome was built for Guru Maharaj Ji"; so, some months before the event, I went down to watch Bobby Riggs practice lobs for his forthcoming pagan rite and check out the sacred territory of this year's God.
God was having one of those weeks. First he had gotten bit in the face with a shaving-cream pie and shortly thereafter he had to be admitted to a Denver hospital with an ulcer in his small intestine. Arriving in Houston in the wake of these events, I found some dismay among the 300-odd devotees assembled there under Rennie's command to put together the Astrodome jamboree. To some, at least, it was no minor matter that the pie thrower lay in critical condition in a Detroit hospital after two of the gurus followers had attempted to bust his skull open with a blackjack. The blackjack wielder himself, described simply as an Indian in the first press accounts, had turned out to be Mahatma Fakiranand, one of the gurus high priests; in Rennie's words, "a man of extreme devotion and internal peace who had given knowledge to many of the American premies."
Rennie was less disturbed. "The mahatma had great love for Guru Maharaj Ji and his emotions got the best of him. These things happen in any movement." In any event, there was much work to do right there in Houston, with Soul Rush only two months away, and Rennie was totally caught up, as is his custom, in the myriad details of the event.
Back in the spring, soon after his conversion, Rennie had said: "If between now and mid-September this country is debating - and by that I mean it's in the press and it's in every household and it's in every bar and it's in every shop in America - if this country is debating 'Is God on this planet and is He walking around in the United States?,' if that debate has broken out, and I believe that is going to be the situation, then the name of [the Astrodome event] is going to be 'The Messiah Is Here.' "
The biggest event in the history of the planet has come and gone: a depressing show unnoticed by most. And I will leave it to religious scholars to determine if a one-fifth-filled Houston Astrodome is more divine than a Billy Graham sellout. While there were certainly plenty of guru posters wheat-pasted around major cities, the attention of the country was elsewhere-on meat prices, Watergate and Spiro Agnew. Even among the proselytizing sects, the guruites hadn't made much of a dent in the market of traditional contenders such as Jehovah's Witnesses.
Original plans for the Astrodome event had called for a revelation of "the major secrets of life" in the adjoining Astrohall, which gets thrown in with the rental price of the dome. There were plans for seven spectacular exhibits revealing the "great unknowns of human history," with particular emphasis on psychic phenomena. These plans soon collapsed, dwindling to a photo exhibit about the guru.
Which was just as well, given the weirdness of some of the original plans. One, suggested by the gurus brother Bal Bhagwan Ji, whom Rennie claims was Christ in his last life, was recounted last May by Rennie: "You would walk into this room and all of a sudden all of the lights would go out and you would be thrown into complete blackness. At the same time, all of the doors would be shut. People would be trying to get out, but they couldn't, and they would be stumbling all over each other. All of a sudden you would hear a muffled loud-speaker that was clearly out in the Astrodome, not in the room itself, and the loudspeaker voice would want everybody to immediately clear the premises, that tremors were being detected in the area and that the Astrodome was not safe as a structure. Then the floor of the building would begin to shake (at this point, the premies listening to Rennie's story broke into hysterical laughter). As the floor shook, you'd get the distinct sensation that you were in a room that was on top of the earth, that was experiencing an earthquake. Then suddenly the lights would go on and a very soft voice would come on and say, `When you face death you face it alone,' and then give a rap about the knowledge of Guru Maharaj Ji."
Now, that's a hard-sell. If Astrodome officials had permitted it to go on, some visitors would no doubt have cracked up. The premies lapped it up. It's what the kids in Lord of the Flies do when they grow up.
The children in the guru crusade seem, in fact, to have found a profound release from the personal quest for freedom and meaning in life, which was driving them nuts. These are the children born to the largess and illusions of postwar America, the scions of people who for the first time had made it and possessed an exaggerated view of their gain. While their parents thought of themselves as "damaged" by earlier struggles against poverty and ethnic identification, they were determined that their children would transcend all that and be "free" - which is what they then proceeded to order, cajole, beg and bribe them to be. So off the kids went to special high schools and out-of-town colleges, to acid and orgies and wild music. If freedom had meant buying an unusual car, they could have had it. But it was their special misfortune to wander out of the cave of American consumerism, to rasp visions of love, morality and meaning, and to return stumbling, blind and unfit for anything but shock therapy, false poverty or jail. The gurus prime pickings are among the children of the dead American dream.
He has been less successful elsewhere. "Milky," an Englishman, told me, "In England, there's more of a cross section of ordinary types and the Divine Light hasn't taken off. But here in America, it's more sophisticated people. Most of them, maybe 70 percent, are upper-middle-class Jewish, from places like New York and Los Angeles - the kind of people who pick up on fads." The average parent is a professional, nonreligious and urban. Very few, if any, come from structured religions backgrounds, and ex-Catholics on the campuses seem the least turned on by the guru. One graduate of a Catholic parochial school told me, "If I wanted that figured-out authority trip, I'd go back to the nuns. They've got it more together."
The human wreckage that is both attracted to and perpetuated by the guru's crusade should figure in any future accounting, divine or otherwise, of the crimes of our culture: There is the 32-year-old devotee who tried unsuccessfully for ten years to lose his virginity, was deathly ashamed of his few homosexual encounters, tried to kill himself in his college chem lab and came to in a small private mental hospital where his parents had approved electric-shock therapy for his salvation. Then back to gay bars, back to hopeless cruising for women, back to therapy. Finally, release in meditation. He was even able to cease being a virgin, that dread curse of American sexism: He made it with a fellow devotee after "consulting with Guru Maharaj Ji in my mind and deciding I would be celibate the rest of my life. But I wanted once to know what it's like."
Or Joan Apter, the second American convert (the one accused of smuggling the jewels into India), who had tasted the "freedom" of so many hundreds of acid trips and sexual encounters and was so exhausted from the San Francisco-Mexico City-Amsterdam air triangle ("I was on acid continuously. I'd go up as fast as I got down.") that she ended up destitute and half-crazed in India - a "white saint" cared for by the peasants, wandering in search of truth until she stumbled upon the Guru Maharaj Ji.
Joan's father was a Washington liberal lobbyist. Another devotee escaped from the mendacity of life at the American Embassy in New Delhi, where her father was the acting American Ambassador. "He was forced to lie for the Government. It destroyed him and I wanted to find the truth." Virtually all were white and privileged; they were also in a good deal of pain.
These "mad people who are into Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," as the guru defines his constituency, are undoubtedly happier, or at least suffering less, and it is for this therapy that Maharaj Ji now receives the key to cities such as Detroit and Oakland. In some sense it is progress, the guru "knowledge" being to frontal lobotomy what acupuncture is to anesthesia - it's more organic. But it is also quietism, which does not ultimately work if the source of the illness is outside the patient.
And what has Rennie Davis to do with all of this? How can it be that Rennie, whom columnist Nicholas von Hoffman called "the most stable, the calmest, the most enduring of that group of young people who set out to change America at the beginning of the Sixties," is once again earnestly and brightly standing up in front of college students, urging them to kiss the lotus feet of the Guru Maharaj Ji?
To hear Rennie tell it, there was simply a sudden and mysterious conversion: "I was just going along like usual, on my way to see Madame Binh and the N.L.F. delegation in Paris, and boom. I was given this ticket to go to India. I received knowledge, but I still didn't know what it meant, and this mahatma came up to me and threw his arms around me. And if there was one thing I needed at that moment, it was for someone like that to put his arms around me. I just poured out to him! Yeah, I received knowledge and I was just run over with these doubts and I didn't know what was going on, what was happening to me. I was losing my mind and he said simply, `All your, life you have been thinking, all your life your mind has been in control, and the secret to life is this: that your mind must not be master. As long as the mind is master, there is suffering on the planet. Be kind to your mind and let your mind go.' I said, `But I received knowledge and I still don't know who Guru Maharaj Ji is.' And he said, 'It's like when a child is born he doesn't know who his mother and father are, but if you keep looking and meditating, you will discover that Guru Maharaj Ji is your father and your mother and everything.' "
The others were already, by their own accounts, "mad," but Rennie claims to have been suddenly smitten - "I was never saner or happier in my life." The facts, however, show otherwise. Since I wouldn't be interested in this movement were it not for Rennie's conversion and since I liked and respected him, I began what the guruites call an investigation. Not of "Who is Guru Maharaj Ji?"" (that one's easy, gods always pop up in times of social disarray) but of "Who is Rennie Davis?," who was, after all, one of us.
I asked Rennie for some biographical detail. Determined - under the orders of the gurus PR advisors - to "come off as the epitome of the American trip," he wove a story of innocent rural youth sailing out to do battle with a corrupt urban world. His tale begins with "the farm," a modest 500 choice acres in the Virginia countryside. While his father commuted to Washington to serve on Truman's Council of Economic Advisors, Rennie helped the hired hands tend to the needs of the 6000 chickens and the prize steers. He particularly loved accompanying Tick, the old family retainer, on his Pence-mending chores. In later life, it was his habit to return to the farm in times of mental anguish to mend some fences with Tick.
This farm period accounts for only three of his high school years. Prior to chat, he'd been raised in a sophisticated suburb of Washington, where his playmates were also the children of top bureaucrats. He has always been caught somehow between the roles of bureaucrat, farm boy and rebel.
Jason Epstein, a Random House editor who wrote a book about the Chicago trial, caught this tension:
On the witness stand Davis revealed the manner and skills, and perhaps also the character, of a bureaucrat. Though he, too, had begun to wear his hair long, the style seemed hardly appropriate to someone whom Hayden had called the "organization man" of the movement. His police and earnest testimony, his innocent and cautious manner, and his effort to convey an air of simple candor recalled the style of the Government witnesses … For this reason, presumably, Foran [the Government prosecutor] called him "two-faced" and scorned him for trying to seem like "the boy next door."
But Rennie was way ahead of the boy next door, even beating the bumpkins in the 4-H chicken-judging contest (he was Eastern United States champion), "because I read up on it and figured it all out scientifically."
Sitting, feet up, at his desk in the guru's Denver headquarters, decked out in his Sta-Prest summer suit, busily taking phone calls, his high school days didn't seem so far behind, as he recalled: "I didn't have to sweat grades, athletics social life. I was athletic, played varsity, basketball, was president of the student body, editor of the school paper, in every organization. It just sort of happened. I found early an ability to organize people looked to me in kind of a leadership way. I guess I was considered a catch. I was the best-known person in the school, awarded best all-around in the yearbook personality thing."
Rennie does not appear to have joined the New Left out of any deep-seated alienation. On the contrary, he was merely continuing his father's role as the upper-class missionary who, having experienced the good life, insists on bringing it to the rest of us: "I remember it was this whole thing about going into the world versus staying in this valley that was paradise on earth."
Then, as now, it was a white-middleclass paradise. The blacks in that very Southern Virginia county must have numbered among their lesser deprivations the fact that they were not allowed to attend Rennie's segregated high school. He does not remember writing any editorials in the school paper about local race problems, and yet "national race problems" were the main reason he felt the rest of the country needed saving.
When I pressed him on this, he got angry: "Why are you making such a big thing out of this? It has a lot to do with my karma, my family, my sense of being able to take on big projects, not small projects, you know, get things done." And he added, in that inevitable blending of the missionary and the careerist, "The cities were where it was at … I was going out into the world, and the world was going to be dark."
If Rennie had accepted the 4-H scholarship offered him to study animal husbandry at Virginia Polytechnic, he might have joined a fraternity and gone on to become a bright young face in Kennedy's agricultural program. He went instead to Oberlin on the advice of his father's friends, who were active liberals and thought Oberlin was more "with it." And it was the emerging generation of New Leftists who were the most with it at a place like Oberlin.
Rennie's first political guru was Paul Potter, who was a year ahead of him and who later became head of SDS. Paul was putting together a campus political party that soon became the center of action at Oberlin. Rennie chose to be the "behind the-scenes organizer" who put the party's election slate over the top. Then the sit-ins began in the South, and his next guru appeared: "Tom Hayden came to town and talked about our organization's becoming part of SDS. From there it has been uphill ever since - from then I would say I have been full time in the movement. That's where my head was at up until now."
Rennie's entry into the movement was at the top; "I was national from the beginning. One of my first acts was to organize a national conference of campus political parties. I went to the National Student Association convention and then joined the SDS leadership group."
It was a heady time and no one was likely to question the ability of a confident young upper-middle-class white male to save the poor and the blacks.
The older generation of radicals that had knocked about since the Thirties was dismissed as square, and its ideas as needless intellectual baggage: "I didn't study Marxism and felt that those groups which did were stuffy. They were out of the mainstream, they were old and we felt - I think there was even a touch of arrogance in our style - we were the wave of the future."
When he chose the path of the New Left, it was definitely with the sense that it was an upbeat career: "We didn't feel unequal to anybody in the society, including the top executives we could have been. If anything, we tended to look down on them. We didn't suffer from any class problems - you know what I mean? - we didn't feel out of class with a university president or corporate head or Government person or anything like this."
Rennie now recalls those days as times of selfless puritanism. At one point, we were talking in one of the back rooms of the gurus national headquarters in Denver, an old tombstone of a building honeycombed with bustling offices. I had spent a week with this vegetably holier-than-thou crowd and was by then having lecherous fantasies of beer and pizza. I confessed to Rennie that I've generally thought of myself as being in large part "corrupt," or at least petty. It occurred to me that Rennie seemed to have more ambitious proportions in mind - that he thought of himself as 90 percent noble and virtuous. With total seriousness he corrected me to say that he had generally tried to keep it at 100 percent. "I did all those things like sleeping with people, drinking bourbon and beer, going to parties," he told me. "But it was like a very secondary thing, it was not my life. I felt my life was getting to an office early and staying there late, working very long hours. The appetites I had were for the movement."
Anne Weills, who worked with Rennie in Chicago, recalls a very different history: "Rennie needed women. He couldn't be alone for a day without a woman to take care of him. He drank more than anyone I knew in the movement. Later he changed to dope and then to acid, but whatever it was, it was always much more than the average person. He was an addictive personality. I think he was terrified of being alone, of confronting himself and seeing who he really was."
The Chicago demonstration and trial of 1968-1969 was the time of his time. "Dustin Hoffman was going to play me in the film version of the trial." Better Audie Murphy. Rennie was the grand mediator of the political left and the Yippies, between the old and the young.
Never offensive, all things to all people, he came to be known for his ability to hold things together, even when they should, perhaps, have come apart.
It all began to come visibly apart after the trial. For Rennie, it was a break with his guru, Tom Hayden. Hayden's memoirs of the trial recall this debate: "During and after the trial, we argued over the future of the conspiracy. Differences emerged around whether we should become a permanent leadership group in the movement. The Yippies wanted a kind of American Apple Corporation: conspiracy books, posters, records, sweat shirts, and so on. They and Rennie wanted the conspiracy to be a kind of high command of the revolution." The main obstacle to all this was the developing militance of radical women amid a rising annoyance with "media heavies." Hayden split to begin organizing in Berkeley and Rennie had a guru crisis. This time he chose a Vietnamese: Madame Binh, the spokeswoman for the N.L.F. in Paris. She was, conveniently, a woman, which helped undercut criticism of his leadership from the women's movement. He made no fewer than 15 personal visits to Madame Binh and, in what must be the ultimate derogation of women's political leadership, came to see her not as a political revolutionary but as his mother.
It was Rennie's particular arrogance to parlay his Vietnamese contacts into a unique pipeline, so that when he spoke, it was of "their" mind, not his. Attack him or his latest scam and you attack the Vietnamese. "I have just spoken on the phone to Madame Binh, who assured me that …" was the familiar salutation that led into a typical Rennie speech telling the audience to go somewhere to do something.
I recall coming back to New York after almost a month in North Vietnam to be met by Rennie at the airport, breathless to get in on the act. Ignoring the fact that only days before I had been in Hanoi, he pressed me to endorse his latest scheme - because the Vietnamese wanted it, he said - and was unaffected when I said I had spoken to Pham Van Dong and he'd pointedly told me that it was not their business to direct the activity of American radicals. "Summarize your own experiences," had been the advice of the Vietnamese prime minister.
The national antiwar movement reached its apex after the Chicago trial in the spring of 1970 with the huge Cambodian-invasion demonstrations and a final massive mobilization that fall, but even then the time had passed for that style. People seemed generally burned out by the big march, the national action with its media build-up around key personalities, and were searching for more meaningful, less elitist forms of organizing.
The next few years witnessed the fitful and increasingly desperate attempt by Rennie to lead a mythical youth army into a nationally spotlighted Armageddon. There was enough momentum left for the 1971 May Day action in Washington, where 13,000 people were arrested. But after that, any attempt to rally the troops failed. Even May Day saw Rennie increasingly isolated from his older friends and peers and working for support with a weird mixture of teenagers, police agents and Yippies. Typical of this mélange was Larry Canada, who became Rennie's roommate in the months before the event and ended up bank-rolling much of it. It was this same Canada who later put Rennie in touch with the guru and came up with the $20,000 for his eventful trip to India.
Rennie was searching for funds for May Day, so the story goes, and heard about a rich freak - Canada - who had married an heiress to the Lilly fortune and lived on a communal farm in Indiana. He was heavily into the hippie scene and definitely nonpolitical, but Rennie went to the farm and, according to one confidant, "sold Larry on the excitement of May Day as a military Happening." In addition to contributing large amounts of money for the event, Canada got very heavily into the military-theatrical logistics contemplated for May Day, none of which ever seemed to come off. (He was one of the geniuses behind the plan to "invade" Washington via the Potomac with a fleet of canoes.)
As he passed his 30th birthday that same May, Rennie began to adopt all the trappings of the youth culture. The boy-next-door image was simply dropped and the acid freak, stringing necklaces of corks and beads, emerged. Rennie took his first acid at the time of the Chicago trial, having put it down for a number of years. According to many who worked with him on May Day, he was high most of the time, a practice that continued up to the time of his religious conversion almost two years later.
Predictably, he turned to Yoko Ono for his next guru figure. Elaborate plans were made to launch a nationwide touring company. Jerry Rubin would play in the band, there would be a light show and Rennie would speak. But Yoko tired of his plans and abruptly dropped him.
By his account, the central problem in Rennie's life then was the intrusion of the women's movement into his relationship with Sue Gregory, the woman he "had been searching for all my life and finally found." Although they were "meant to be together," they fought a great deal and were actually apart most of the time. What followed was one of those sad, bizarre jokes of the movement's worst times. There would be fitful attempts at role reversal; Rennie would stay home and watch Susan's seven-year-old son while Susan went out and gave speeches. To be accurate, it should have been called reverse elitism, Susan's claim to expertise being that she lived with Rennie. And, indeed, her speeches would center on such phrases as "When Rennie last spoke to the Vietnamese. …"
All such tensions, it appears, have now left Rennie and Susan's life. "Our relationship is perfect right now"; they are accountable only to the lotus feet of the Guru Maharaj Ji. Susan converted soon after Rennie. They live in separate ashrams in Denver. Susan has her son and Rennie has his work - as well as his new love, Annie Bishop, a singer in the gurus rock band. She is considered by premies to have been the Virgin Mary in a past life, while Rennie was Saint Mark.
After the success of May Day, Rennie was to go through one dismal failure after another, each of which heightened his sense of isolation and impotence. The movement was also going through hard times, The national scene, particularly after the moratorium of 1969, had increasingly become a floating crap game. It was attracting the more disturbed elements thirsting for a quick shot of power-rising egomaniacs fully, convinced that without the stripe of a national action one didn't count. And as subsequent trials have shown, there was a large contingent of paid Government agents. This group grew absurdly large in proportion to the dwindling number of stable New Left people willing to participate in national demonstrations. The various Watergate investigations have provided an abundance of evidence on the increasingly paranoid response of the Nixon Administration during this period toward demonstrators. There seem to have been literally thousands of police agents posing as gay radicals, crazies, veterans, hippies. There must have been more than one occasion in that period between May Day and the Miami convention when Nixon's paranoia and the movement's hostility to national politics intersected to leave Rennie Davis alone in a room totally filled with various Government agents, all frantically plotting a strategy of just one more demonstration to overthrow the Government. Since these agents most often did not know one another's identity, their cumulative reports must have been truly alarming to the President.
In the immediate aftermath of May Day, Rennie had what non-mystical people might call a nervous breakdown. His vulnerability and isolation had gotten to him, at least temporarily, and he retreated to that bountiful valley in Virginia. This time to a small shack, all that remained of the family estate.
He bounced back for his last hurrah in Miami during the 1972 Presidential conventions. But it got really rough, with Rennie caught among Yippies and Zippies, women's lib, gay lib, militant and moderate blacks, all trying to lead an army that had no basis of unity in program, nation or class, and probably in agreement on only one thing: They didn't want either Rennie or Nixon to lead them. It was here that his last constituency, "youth," finally turned against him. The college students had stayed home, and the few thousand street kids who were there scoffed at his moral appeal. The bottom had fallen out of the market for a 31-year-old male movement heavy.
"I'm very isolated now and I don't want to be isolated anymore," he told George Katsiaficas, an antiwar activist at the Miami demonstrations. When George suggested that what was needed was a more responsible leftist political organization, Rennie snapped back, "George, there are more people in this country into Eastern religion than into Marxism."
He found relief from all this in a 42-day fast during which the real or pure Rennie seemed to emerge. Free of the problems of eating, sex or physical movements, it "reduced all of my activities to the essential work of the demonstration." Shari Whitehead, who fasted with him, recalls that he "even increased the amount of time he spent hustling on the phone, holding press conferences and dealing at endless meetings." To the end, the justice Department would deal only with Rennie, it, too, being a creature of habit. But events were beyond his or its control. New realities, forces and battlegrounds were setting in. The student movement had done its work. The Cold War was ending and with it, for the time, certain types of demonstrations.
It is an irony of that period that, while Nixon's belated recognition of China, the Vietnam cease-fire and Watergate all confirmed the essential accuracy of the left's analysis and should have provided movement people with new energy, it had, for some, the opposite effect. It disoriented those, like Rennie, who had come to view politics not in terms of the advance of popular awareness but as the preservation of familiar rituals or activities and their own unique roles.
After Miami, Rennie showed up briefly in California before the fall election to work with the Indochina Peace Campaign as a secondary speaker, appearing where fane Fonda or Tom Hayden couldn't make it. He was going through the motions only, though, giving the same speech again and again to school crowds that in most cases numbered fewer than 50. He disappeared for days on end, was rambling in his delivery and generally distracted.
Bruce Gilbert, an I.P.C. coordinator who traveled with Rennie, noticed that "he tended to get more and more crazed and started affecting a sort of crypto-English accent."
Jane Fonda recalls sharing a stage with him in Orange County. A Jesus freak heckled them during her talk and out of nowhere Rennie started screaming, "Jesus Christ is the Viet Cong! Jesus Christ is the Viet Cong!"
One night he went out to look at the sunset and didn't show up until late the next day, having in very un-Rennie-like fashion missed a speaking engagement. A few days later, he wandered off into Yosemite and, when he emerged, abruptly canceled a string of speaking engagements.
In any event, the Vietnamese made it through without Rennie and the ceasefire was signed. With that, the last thread connecting him with the political world of the New Left snapped. It was at the very time of the peace agreement that he made his last pilgrimage to Madame Binh in Paris. There, Larry Canada introduced him to some of the guru's aides and they all "just went on to India." Exit the Vietnamese, enter God. This could occur because Rennie had never viewed the Vietnamese as political revolutionaries but rather as part of a Happening or at best as suffering, innocent, pure children. For him, the cease-fire meant that they had entered adulthood. They spoke directly to Kissinger, no longer needing his intercession. Miami had spelled the end of a particular type of white-youth-led street action and the cease-fire (and Nixon's visit to Peking) had spelled the end for this particular knight-errant.
The revolution would not come to America within two years, as Rennie and some others had expected. A more serious and sustained political style was required. But this did not fit in with Rennie's messianic view of himself. Jack Davis, part of a May Day delegation to Paris, was told by the Vietnamese that Rennie's view of politics "was too cataclysmic." But it was precisely this cataclysmic vision that made Rennie run. The imagery of a monumental clash between darkness and light, with massive disaster followed by paradise, was his impetus. In his titanic battle, he would mobilize the forces of light.
With the ebbing of the Vietnam war, politics could no longer feed Rennie's vision. History had ceased to be personally useful, so he went outside of history and found a guru-god.
I last saw Rennie with his guru at the ashram in Houston, prior to their "biggest-ever event." He was once again obsessed, organizing office meetings with city officials, spelling out epic visions. We tried to talk for several hours, but Rennie wouldn't depart from the party line. As usual, we could not be alone. There was a group of the faithful gathering around and, aside from feeling creepy, I suddenly felt a very nonprofessional sense of loss. I was witnessing the desperation of someone who, for all his very human failings, had been a moral comrade. I realized that in figuring out Rennie, I had taken him on his own terms; a solitary pillar of strength, an intact individualist. But instead, here was someone so scared and alone that he was willing to appear totally ridiculous, that he had suspended all restraints of logic and friendship to find some peace. It didn't matter whether he was a New Left heavy; a professional athlete or a Houston businessman, the individualist fantasy that one could, through personal heroics, alone transcend the social environment and alter the facts of life and death on this planet was doomed from the onset. It is to be expected that one who lives the American dream as fully as Rennie did should end up dependent for his salvation upon a god who has an ulcer. It was equally to be expected that his politics should become suprahuman and divine - not a communion between him and other roughly equal mortals but a personal dialog with his very own god.
Rennie's rarefied life had become so divorced from the stuff of ordinary human existence that his politics had become a game. This is not without precedent in earlier political movements. Lenin once described some of his contemporaries as "petty bourgeois driven to frenzy by the horrors of capitalism. … The instability of such revolutionism, its barrenness, and its tendency to turn rapidly into submission, apathy, phantasms, and even a frenzied infatuation with one bourgeois fad or another - all this is common knowledge."
This frenzy and instability came to be characteristic of many of the speaker-leaders of the left youth culture.
To Rennie, and a good portion of the media that covered him, the movement had consisted of himself and several hundred equally mobile and self-conscious young, white, mostly male radicals. Within that group there were at most a dozen that he considered peers in any sense. Those people beyond the chosen and aware few thousand were a vague blur of stereotyped "constituencies" - street-fighting youth, freaks, campus radicals, the poor, blacks and, of course, liberals (read most people). Such a view is built into the basic functioning of any speaker-leader, whose position makes it almost impossible to experience people in more than two ways - as the handful of locals who appear at the airport to greet him and the large crowd waiting at the hall.
The whole shot usually takes up an evening, perhaps a few hours in the afternoon, and, if the schedule is relatively relaxed, a sleep-over and breakfast before dashing back to the airport. An early-morning flight takes you to some other small group waiting at an airport, and so on for maybe two or three weeks. Then it's back home to an even tighter, more isolated group to whom you tell stories of the outside world.
These are relationships of calculated shallowness - the mystique is dependent upon their staying that way. The speaker-leader instinctively knows that to touch base by entering into more complex relations with the locals would mean the beginning of the end of an image that in many ways is as satisfying as it is unreal. We are not dealing with a leader in the sense of one who has risen organically out of the life experiences of a people and who, through deep understanding of their needs, can articulate their hopes and fears. That category includes authentic leaders such as Ho Chi Minh, Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman and even Mario Savio during the Free Speech Movement days. But the speaker-leader (and I have been there) is of another ilk. His organic connection is with the media and the only people whose aspirations he really understands and caters to are reporters.
The speaker-leader did not grow up in the primary context of a village, extended family or ethnic or class grouping within a city. He grew up in front of a television set. From this box a child was born. It was the TV that defined the parameters of reality, not the folk stories of village elders or family tradition. That which did not appear on TV by definition either was frivolous or did not exist. And that which did appear was important in direct relation to the prime time it received. The genius of the speaker-leaders is that they internalized this truth like no one else around them.
Rennie and the others most often began conversations with me in the old days with the phrase "Hey, Scheer, you think the media would cover … ?" This was in deference to my being an editor of Ramparts and presumably in possession of some insights into media magic. The sine qua non of any action was the press conference that would inevitably precede it. Feeler phone calls would be made to friends in the media to get their likely reaction - would they come to such a conference and how much play would it get? If the press conference looked like a bummer, then the inner group would most likely move to off the action (or alter it to make it appear more exciting to the press). Jerry Rubin was good at gimmicks that would titillate the media and maybe supply a few good camera shots, but Rennie was the master of the grand strategy that would hold the reporters' interest. These were the bloated campaign promises that fell under such rubrics as "election-year strategy" and "people's peace treaty." He had predicted at a press conference that his October 1971 rally would be "the most important gathering of people in 25 years." The New York Times later reported: "Most of the world failed to notice when the most important gathering in 25 years was postponed … on account of rain."
The problem with all this is that to surrender oneself to be simply buffeted by the fickle and co-optive forces of the media is to take the path of insanity. It is a process that destroys any real roots, anger, love or joy in the speaker-leader and leaves him increasingly frenetic, upwardly spiraling into a shrill and ultimately, broken record. It is a process that substitutes contrivance for spontaneity and press notices for human affection. It begins with the speaker hearing his own voice, in mild schizophrenic detachment, and ends in messianic flip-out where the voice itself assumes the dimensions of truth. The speaker-leader inevitably reaches a point where he recoils from that estrangement and challenges the role that he is in or surrenders to it and ends up going off the deep end. The human brain has its own truth and when that is taxed, it gives out external signs that something is berserk.
But Rennie did not invent this culture of ours and he must be numbered among its victims. In what meaningful sense was there ever an American life outside prime time that he could have inhabited? In a basic way, Rennie did what was expected of him from high school on. He never really rebelled but rather accepted all of the prevailing myths of success, individuality, freedom and sexuality that are dominant in this society.
It is not entirely a personal problem that he found these wanting, nor that he was incapable of developing a collective, loving and nonexploitive alternative. But it was his vanity to presume that he alone could transcend this reality.
There are many religious and/or mystical experiences that Rennie could have turned to, but none would have accepted and maintained his privilege any better. The kidgurugod has magically transformed Rennie's sin of elitism into blessed virtues of divine service. He now transcends earthly criticism by simply terming his ambition God's will. And if everyone else will only get plugged in by receiving "the knowledge," they too will see that it is indeed God's will that Rennie Davis once again fly from campus to campus with the word.