In an obit published on February 7, 2023, The New York Times called David Harris “an unlikely avatar of the antiwar movement.” That’s a ridiculous statement. Harris was as likely an avatar as anyone else in a movement that numbered at its height several million and that included Buddhists, atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Protestant. So what if his dad voted Republican? Nearly a whole generation rebelled against parents.
Born in 1946, and a lettuce picker as a boy in Fresno, his home town, Harris carved out a niche for himself beginning in the mid-1960s as one of the preeminent, impassioned anti-war activists of his generation, while an undergraduate and the student body president at Stanford University. Found guilty of refusing to serve in the military, he was sentenced to a prison term in Texas. “You may be right, but you're going to be punished,” the judge told him.
In 1968, the year when everything happened, Harris married folk singer Joan Baez and served as half of a power couple in an era of radical celebrities, until he and Baez were displaced in the media by Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden. More than anyone else at that time, except Hayden, Harris was among the most prolific and the most versatile writers on the Left. I met him soon after he published The Last Scam, a novel about an American smuggling weed from Mexico to the US. His anti-hero, Henry Amazon, was inspired, Harris told me, by a real Norcal person. The title was and still is apt. Smugglers are always on their last scam, much as growers are always on their last season. They're always getting out and going legit.
Harris and I were both ganga journalists. He worked for The New York Times and operated as freely as he could on a very short leash, which meant that he was not permitted to ride in the same vehicle carrying the contraband weed. I worked for High Times magazine which gave me a long leash and expected me to take the fall if need be.
By the time my path crossed Harris’ path, he had separated from and divorced Baez and had married Lacey Fosburgh, a New York Times reporter and the author of a fine novel titled Old Money. Harris went on to write and publish a total of eleven books, including one about General Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, titled Shooting the Moon. When I interviewed Harris in the 1980s he told me “We need to act outside our traditional role as Americans, and act instead as human beings. We need to look at ourselves critically and make a bond with the rest of the planet.”
When I read the announcement from Book Passage that he had died of cancer in Mill Valley I shed tears. It’s a cliche I know, but they don’t make men or women like Harris anymore. None I know of. An American original, he deserves to be remembered and honored as an anti war activist and as a principled writer who didn’t take the easy way out.