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David Kipen on ‘Freedom’s Orator’

Posted on Jun 25, 2010

By David Kipen

If Columbia students were marching on Albany this year and a biography of Mark Rudd had just come out, you could bet the book wouldn’t go unreviewed in the so-called national media. Berkeley has erupted again, and a fascinating biography of Mario Savio—a figure far more influential than Rudd, and not just because he helped lead a sit-in at Berkeley four years before the Columbia protests—has just come out. But its author, Robert Cohen, would have to stage a sit-in at 42nd Street and 8th Avenue for much of anybody to notice. Could it be that, for all the supposed decentralization of media in the age of Twitter, what’s left of the commentariat is more Manhattanized than ever?

That would be a shame, because “Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s” rescues from creeping amnesia a student firebrand perhaps second only to Tom Hayden in his rhetorical gifts. What Hayden did in his epochal Port Huron Statement over a stretch of weeks—give eloquent voice to a generation—Savio did from the top of a squad car on no sleep. “Freedom’s Orator” succeeds in taking us back to a time when Berkeley students would actually fight not just to speak freely on campus, but also to “emphasize intensive study of the classics in intimate seminars.” The more things change, apparently, the more they get completely different.

Mario Savio grew up Sicilian in Queens, an altar boy and a physics prodigy. He had a paralyzing stammer, which Cohen persuasively argues made his later leadership in the Free Speech Movement not so much ironic as deeply personal. Savio loved free speech as maybe only someone denied it since childhood could. It wasn’t till his fairly banal high-school valedictorian address that he discovered public speaking didn’t compound his disability, but actually seemed to cure it.

For most of his life, Savio had a horror of private, individual speaking. Fired with the idealism of his work in Mississippi during the Freedom Summer of 1964, he resisted the cult of personality with which journalists kept trying to saddle him. In the unpublished memoir Cohen tantalizingly quotes from, Savio consistently deflects credit toward his comrades for the movement’s success in overturning UC Berkeley’s limits on free speech, and away from himself.


book cover


Freedom’s Orator: Mario Savio and the Radical Legacy of the 1960s


By Robert Cohen


Oxford University Press, 544 pages


Buy the book

In that sense, alas, Savio got the biographer he deserved. About Savio’s private life, Cohen is discreet to the point of incuriosity. The only major exception to this reticence comes when Cohen turns up evidence of Savio’s childhood molestation by a relative. Otherwise, the author checks in on Savio’s personal doings only intermittently, and even then with all the depth and perspicacity of a class notes entry by a none-too-close friend: Savio “had recently become engaged to Suzanne Goldberg,” we learn in passing, and 13 pages later that his family “now included Suzanne and their son Stefan.”

On the one hand, an aversion to prurience is a desirable quality in a book about and for serious people, which “Freedom’s Orator” most definitely is. Yet if the personal is political—as so many of Savio’s co-generationists legitimately argued—then who we are remains relevant to what we say, and think, and try to do. Whom we marry, or don’t, and the children we bear, or don’t, bear in turn on the ideas we espouse, and hope to embody. Mario Savio had a mental breakdown later in life and was institutionalized, only to re-emerge as a loving though flawed husband, father, teacher and activist. That’s a whale of a story, but, despite all Cohen’s research, we glimpse it only at infrequent intervals, as if on visiting days.

Amid exhaustive accountings of arcane schisms and doctrinal splits, Cohen can be stingy with some details. We do discover, fascinatingly, that a viewing of “Becket”—the 1964 movie from Jean Anouilh’s play, starring Peter O’Toole as Henry II and Richard Burton as the troublesome priest pricked by conscience—probably had an important influence on Savio’s words and ideas atop a police car a couple of nights later. But other, fetishistic if forgivable, questions nag. Who christened the Free Speech Movement, anyway? And you don’t have to be a quondam museum curator to wonder: Rusting on what municipal surplus lot might that fateful police cruiser be found today?

Prophetically, Savio’s last campus crusade for justice had less to do with free speech than with student fees. This year, 36 years after Savio thrillingly—and effectively—exhorted his peers to “put your bodies upon the gears and ... make it stop,” UC students have been demonstrating mostly for the right not to see a good education priced beyond their reach. Also this year, as in 1964, the kids won. They dodged a bullet last month in California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget, which balances precariously and fleetingly on the backs of the poor, the sick and the elderly instead of their own. In state government, as in the office of any decent book review section, it’s triage every day.

In one sense at least, Schwarzenegger’s decision was exactly the right one. It’s a bet on the future of California. If he had crucified University of California students to spare the needy, instead of the other way around, the needy would have had no opportunity to pay the students back. In the years ahead, however, with libraries, community health centers and other public institutions slashed to the marrow, these students will have more than enough opportunities to service their debt of gratitude. Like Savio in Cohen’s imperfect but useful book—the altar boy who lost God but found a different calling—they should remember the story of the thief who was spared. Others will die for the UC class of 2014, just as Jesus died in place of Barabbas. This is a crime, but it will be a tragedy only if the victorious students forget how much more they owe, now, than just student loans.

Thanks to the pitiless Darwinism of YouTube, Savio’s legacy primarily rests on his brief, astonishingly extemporaneous “bodies upon the gears” speech, delivered right before the Free Speech Movement’s climactic sit-in on Dec. 2, 1964, and included here in a 75-page appendix of Savio’s speeches and writings. In a way, it’s a speech made for YouTube, since it starts out with Savio’s fairly extraneous trash-talking at the expense of the student body weenie up before him, and winds up with a movie announcement plus his short, almost Ed Sullivan-style “take it away” intro of Joan Baez. In between, the nut of his soliloquy is all but made for YouTube’s pruning.

Savio gives ragged but eloquent voice to the rage and especially the pain of a cohort that, in the words of a John Updike poem, did not yet know it was a generation. “There’s a time,” he says, unmistakably wincing, “when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. ...” Refusing to get sidetracked by the inadvertent rhyme, he drives on: “... you can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.”

So long as we’re discussing Berkeley, one of the last campuses that still offers a degree in rhetoric, it may be worth uncoiling a last strand or two of Savio’s powerhouse speech. The “bodies upon the gears” imagery is straight out of Chaplin’s “Modern Times,” of course. And “make it stop” becomes the perfect phrase, half rallying cry and half tantrum, to bring this youthful incantatory litany to a halt. With it, Mario Savio—who grew up considering the priesthood and wound up a plaster saint to Cohen, but an enduringly human inspiration to generations beyond just his own—Savio found the congregation he was born for.

David Kipen is the author of “The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History.” Until January 2010, he was the literature director of the National Endowment for the Arts. He served from 1998 to 2005 as book critic, and before that book editor, for the San Francisco Chronicle. He lives in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles and can be reached at


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By ardee, June 27, 2010 at 7:56 am Link to this comment

As one who shared both a Physics class with ‘Bob’ Savio and sat through his very painful valedictory address at our high school graduation I can attest to his horrific stutter. Also his amazing mind.

Mario, as he will be remembered by history ( though we who attended Martin Van Buren H.S. will always call him Bob) was responsible , in part, for my political radicalization, though not during our school years. Bob was a devout Catholic then, attending freshman year at Manhattan College, a Jesuit School, during his Senior year in High School.

When we met again it was in Selma,Alabama and we renewed our friendship amidst that turmoil. We were fast friends thereafter, sharing many political and social goals, though he became a confirmed communist and I remained a semi committed socialist. He became a math professor at a small college in northern California and died far, far too soon. I offer this portion of a speech he delivered at Sproul Plaza in Berkeley more for my own remembrance I confess:

“There comes a time when the operation of the the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you cannot take part, you cannot even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies on the gears, and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus. And you’ve got to make it stop.”

Mario Robert Savio

I would offer that this speech rings true for this moment in our history as it did then.

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By bogi666, June 27, 2010 at 5:16 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

EARTHLING, I wasn’t smart enough for the U.C. system and went to the State University system about the same time you did. Almost no tuition, although Reagan was governor by then and his mission was to destroy the State’s education system which he based his campaigns on.It’s a shame Calif., was a great place to live and Reagan used it as an example to destroy government which he carried into the USG and this country and the world is the worse off for it.Thanks for the comments.

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By Earthling, June 25, 2010 at 9:40 pm Link to this comment

I haven’t read the book, but perhaps Mario was not unlike Biden in overcoming his stammer; and if memory serves correctly, Mario was in the Philosophy Department - modest Moses Hall!
  When I was at Cal, there was no tuition - “educational fees” was the euphemism used. However, I remember the days of our denouement so clearly: my father’s rage against Prop 13, my tears at hearing Carter’s concession speech….
  The students have to continue the fight: a moral responsibility they have to their grandchildren. Ironically, the very responsibility their own grandparents failed to honor. Those grandparents have a choice: to humbly accept their vilification or to participate in the fight and earn some vindication!
  LBJ’s recitation “... and we shall overcome” can still be voiced only in the future tense.

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By Bronwen Rowlands, June 25, 2010 at 6:30 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Though it’s handy for the shaping of your review, Mr. Kipen, it’s simply not true that “the kids won” this time at UC Berkeley.  The privatization of UC is only accelerating. Have a look at this:

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By bogi666, June 25, 2010 at 4:42 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Mario,, the best spokesman for “free speech” provided the platform that Reagan used to become governor in 1966. Reagan’s campaign was against free speech and those whom voted for him are so ignorant,  Reagan’s opposition to the Constitution which is probably why they voted for him. This is significant because it shows that the American voters are so gullible they will vote against their best interest and the laws that are meant to protect them from government tyrrany.The fact that Reagan was probably re-elected because he had alzheirmer’s is another tell of the ignorance and gullibility of the American public.

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