By People Staff
December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

What Gordie Howe is to pro sports, Joan Baez is to protest minstrelsy—the graceful holder of a longevity record. But for her, as for him, it doesn’t get any easier.

Her consuming cause this year has been the plight of the Boat People and the refugees of Cambodia—and the savagery of the Hanoi regime. Her greatest disappointment has been the accusation of old allies in the antiwar movement that she has changed her tune on Vietnam. “It is a question of broken promises,” she explains. “Hanoi promised free speech, free elections and no retaliation. They broke all that. It was time to speak very openly about promises not being kept.”

Her recent first-hand investigation of refugee camps and the scene at the Cambodian border left her devastated. “It was a nightmare,” she recalls. “Dark-skinned people wearing black clothes, carrying a pot in one hand and a bundle in the other, were coming across. One woman held a baby who was dying. She had sardines and other food the baby could not eat. She asked us if we had anything in our purses for her baby, and we wondered why we didn’t.” Baez gave what she could—a concert. “I would have stood on my head. I saw a little boy whimpering, hungry, his parents gone, and I flashed back on my son with his record player and his books and his comics…”

In this crusade, Baez finds herself awash in mainstream support. But controversy engulfed her earlier in the year when she criticized the Vietnamese government for jailing and torturing political dissidents. Of the 350 old antiwar activists she asked to sign an open letter against repression in Vietnam, only 83 agreed. “The left peaceniks of the 1960s didn’t want to talk about it,” she observes. “I wrote a note to Jane Fonda telling how important I thought her name would be, and she sent a letter attacking one of our sources as a CIA agent.”

Another occasional critic of Joan’s politicking is her son, Gabriel, 10, who moves in with her ex-husband—writer David Harris—when Joan is away from their home near Palo Alto. “Gabriel starts making car noises whenever he hears about human misery,” Joan remarks. “It has been a hard period—I go in and out of his life. But he knows Mama is worthless if she has to stare at the walls. So I’ve learned to spend the hours with him more intensely.”

Baez is happily astonished at the support she’s received in her campaign for the refugees. For some Oakland benefit concerts planned for January, she has already signed up Linda Ronstadt, the Beach Boys and Santana. “President Carter thanked me for being an inspiration,” she says with laughing incredulity. “The wife of the American ambassador to France said, ‘You are a great American.’ I winced. What would she have thought of me in the ’60s—or next year, when I’m out there marching against the death penalty?” Now 38, Joan Baez is not fooled. “The safest bet you have,” she says, “is a starving child.”