Howard Zinn: People's President & American Patriot

Our country lost one of its greatest patriots yesterday, and I lost a friend and longtime role model and inspiration, when historian and activist Howard Zinn passed away.

I still remember as if it were yesterday the first time I ever saw him. It was the tumultuous year of 1968 and I was sixteen years old. I had just arrived in Boston a few days earlier to attend Boston College, a Jesuit institution that, like me, was still mired in the past and wholly unprepared for the political and cultural turmoil erupting all around us. But just a few miles down Commonwealth Avenue Boston University, where Zinn was a popular professor, was already knee-deep in what would soon come to be known as “The Sixties.”

A marine who had gone absent without leave to avoid service in the illegal and unconstitutional war in Vietnam had taken refuge in BU’s Marsh Chapel. Upon hearing the news, I promptly went to take a look and found him ringed by hundreds of demonstrators who had taken over the chapel and refused to allow the authorities in. Instead they were invoking the ancient tradition of “sanctuary” to protect him and staging an ongoing teach-in about the war — and Howard Zinn was leading it.

I wasn’t in Kansas any more…

As the years and the war dragged on, I only came to admire Zinn more, not only for his courage and outspokenness, but also for his willingness to stand up to all sorts of abusive authorities. This was most evident in his longstanding feud and constant combat with BU’s rightwingnut president John Silber, who for years did everything he could to remove Zinn from the campus — and vowed to stop at nothing until he succeeded, which fortunately he never did.

Later I had the honor of taking over for Zinn (who had succeeded News Dissector Danny Schechter) as a political commentator on WBCN-FM. ‘BCN’ was then the most popular radio station in New England and a center of the “counterculture” that had sprouted most vigorously in Boston, fueled by alternative media that included the Boston Phoenix and the late Real Paper of Cambridge and nourished by the many colleges and universities there, the students who poured in from all over the country — and radical academics like Howard Zinn.

Somewhere along the way, Howard and I became friends. He wasn’t a difficult person to befriend – ever mellow, unassuming and open, his graceful manner and easy acceptance helped me put aside my awe and hero worship to view him as a real person. But I never lost the initial feelings of respect for his intellect and ideas—and the willingness to put them into action — that first drew me to him at Marsh Chapel.

Over the years we stayed in touch, meeting from time to time – at the tiny, out-of-the-way office to which Silber finally succeeded in exiling him, at a friend’s wedding, down in Wellfleet on Cape Cod where he famously summered. He was always completely approachable and totally supportive of the work of others, even as he deprecated his own output – which was of course prodigious, original and unique.

His most famous and important work, arguably, is “A People’s History of the United States,” which stood the standard texts on their head to give a bottom’s up, inside out, and truer version of our country’s progress—and lack thereof. By giving voice to “ordinary” people – millworkers, seamstresses and other working folk, to minorities and women and immigrants and others who had been excluded – he also gave voice to hidden but recurrent strains of our history. These subterranean streams tell us more about who we are as a people than any dozen biographies of the great…

Sometime in the late 1990’s, I approached Howard and asked him to grant me the rights to develop A People’s History as a television project. He promptly agreed. At my insistence, we wrote a contract and set a price — $1.00 for the exclusive rights!

After more than a year of unsuccessful slogging through the vast wasteland and money trench that is American television, our agreement expired. I went to Howard, confessed my inability to place the project, and asked for a six-month extension. He quietly coughed and then murmured, “Well, actually someone else has approached me with the same idea, and maybe I should go ahead with them?”

That someone, of course, was Matt Damon, a young man on his way to becoming a global superstar, who had grown up near Zinn. (Damon had rocketed to fame, along with his friend Ben Affleck, by writing and starring in Good Will Hunting, a popular film that had a scene calling People’s History the “best book ever written.”)

Needless to say, I quickly stepped aside, hoping only that the project would finally come to fruition. Despite Damon’s and Affleck’s involvement, however, it languished for years, first at Fox Television and later at HBO, before amazingly appearing at long last on the History Channel recently – ironically the first network I had approached more than a decade earlier. When I wrote Howard to congratulate him on finally getting to air, his response was typically understated, thanking me for my efforts and slyly noting, “You work in a very strange business!”

Right until the end if his life, Howard Zinn was always there, on the front lines, observing and writing in sharp, concentrated prose that went right to the heart of matters and distilled their essence. (His comments on Barack Obama, and his insistence that social change comes not from messianic individuals but from movements, are but the latest evidence of his continued involvement and genius.) But he still always found time to help and to encourage others. When I wrote a book in 2008 about the surge in hate speech on our nation’s publicly owned airwaves, I asked him for a blurb. He responded almost instantly, and sent back such effusive praise (comparing me favorably to Upton Sinclair and George Seldes!) that it was almost embarrassing – except for the fact that it had come from Howard Zinn.

Now he is gone, rejoining his beloved partner Roz, and we—and our country—are greatly the worse for his passing. For Howard Zinn was above all a true American patriot, one who stood up and spoke out for the ideals and values that have always promised - but too often been honored only in the breach – to make this the greatest country on the planet.


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