The Magazine

A Family Affair

Kathy Boudin and the generations of the radical life.

Oct 27, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 07 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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While underground, Kathy participated in at least half of the Weathermen's two dozen or so bombings; she planted one device in a women's bathroom at the United States Capitol and probably helped set off a bomb at the Pentagon. After a split among the Weathermen, Kathy drifted into a small sect called the May 19th Communist Group that formed an alliance with a remnant of the Black Liberation Army. She helped obtain cars for bank robberies and the jailbreak of convicted cop-killer Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur.

By 1980, however, she had a baby, fathered by fellow revolutionary David Gilbert, named Chesa Jackson, after Chesimard and another murderer and self-proclaimed revolutionary, George Jackson. Leonard, delighted by a grandson, pressed her to surrender. Instead, she dropped her year-old son at day care and went to Nyack to rob a bank with a group of street thugs who had already killed people in other robberies.

NEITHER KATHY BOUDIN nor her defenders have ever come to terms with her behavior in Nyack. Leonard tried to argue that because she had surrendered before the two policemen were murdered, she was legally not responsible for their deaths. He pushed David Gilbert, whom she married in prison, to commit perjury to exculpate Kathy; only after Gilbert balked at cooperating--even by lying--with the judicial system, did Leonard negotiate the plea bargain which sent Kathy to prison for twenty years, pleading her guilty to one count of murder. At her sentencing hearing, he told the court that her "contribution to political action" had been influential and denied she was a terrorist.

As Braudy shows, however, Kathy Boudin bore direct responsibility for the killings of both policemen. At her first, failed parole hearing in 2001, she lied about trying to escape from the scene of the crime and denied taking part in Weathermen bombings or knowing that a bomb was being built in the townhouse that exploded. She claimed: "I was never involved in violence directly." Even when she expressed remorse for the murders, she continued to insist that she was some kind of idealist working to reform the political system or comparable to people who helped escaped slaves make their way to freedom via the Underground Railroad.

For all its virtues and refusal to accept the self-interested rationalizations of the Boudin family for criminal behavior and murder, "Family Circle" suffers from several defects. Although many of the anecdotes about the Boudins are revealing, the book sometimes feels like a series of vignettes. Nor is it carefully documented; the sources for many of the stories are not clear. Braudy also makes a number of errors: The Venona project did not originate because of the capture of a Finnish code book, nor did FBI agent Robert Lamphere give cryptanalyst Meredith Gardner one-time pads that he then used to crack the code. Gardner and the other cryptanalysts did not work for J. Edgar Hoover. The Reverend William Melish did not have a major position in the CPUSA but was active in a front group. And Kathy could not have adopted Steve Nelson, "who'd jumped bail in the early 1950s" as a role model because Nelson did no such thing, although he did cooperate with Soviet intelligence.

ALTHOUGH SHE ADMITS that some Communists were spies, Braudy seems to exculpate many of them. Judith Coplon was far more than a "lowly clerk in the Justice Department" who clipped newspaper articles. Leonard Boudin never demonstrated that "Hoover's FBI had framed Coplon"--because she was, in fact, guilty. Nor did Hoover frame the Rosenbergs.

For someone with no illusions about the criminality of the Weathermen and the fatuousness of their supporters, Braudy still has some odd fixations about the Communist party and its supporters. "What red-haters did not understand was that American communist sympathizers were mostly theorizers--not doers--and most had left the party because they balked at being told what to think."

Apart from the fact that sympathizers could not have left a party they never joined, Braudy's own book demonstrates just how many illusions the pro-Communist left continues to hold onto. In his autobiography, "An Unrepentant Leftist," Leonard's long-time partner Victor Rabinowitz complained that while her means were "tragically wrong," Kathy Boudin's cause was entirely just: A corrupt, racist American state deserved to be attacked and destroyed.

Despite the angry protests of police and the children of the men she helped murder, Kathy Boudin is now free. Her son Chesa, raised by fellow terrorists Bill Ayres and Bernardine Dohrn, graduated from Yale last year and won a Rhodes scholarship. One can only hope that he will reject the legacy that his parents, foster parents, and those he is named for have bequeathed him.

Harvey Klehr is Andrew Mellon professor of politics and history at Emory University.