The Promised Land (1991) 

Nicholas Lemann



Part Three: Washington (pp. 111-221)


Thesis Question: Why did LBJ’s ‘War on Poverty’ fail? What happened to the one chance in the last half century that the federal government had to make an intensive effort to deal with the problems of our city’s ghettos?


Class Discussion: What does it take to fight a “War on Poverty”? (just like a “War on Drugs” or a “War on Terrorism”)


As you read Lemann’s chapter on Washington, think about how well the government responded to the task of waging war on poverty.



 Study Guide


  1. What was the long term Democratic policy regarding poverty in the cities? (111-112)


Why was urban poverty not on the public opinion radar before 1960? (111-112)


  1. Why was JFK so unresponsive to the needs of urban black voters in the 1960 presidential campaign? (112-13)


Under what circumstances did JFK decide to call Coretta Scott King? Why was this decision so important? What was RFK’s reaction to the call?


What was the record of the JFK administration toward civil rights? When, according to Lemann, did it begin to change?


  1. How did John Kenneth Galbraith articulate the ‘conventional wisdom’ among liberals about the problem of poverty (The Affluent Society)? (117)


  1. List the “fringe” people who challenged Galbraith’s conventional wisdom that urban poverty was not an issue. (Put an asterisk next to those whom Lemann emphasizes.) (117-123)


In 1961, poverty is not even on the radar. Only a few pointy-headed intellectuals on the left were interested in the issue.  After JFK’s slim election over Nixon, the War on Poverty had no resources, no leadership and no momentum.


    1. Robert Lampmann (1959)


    1. Harris Wofford


    1. Glazer and Moynihan (1963)


    1. Leonard Duhl’s “space cadets” (1955), regarded as ridiculous at the time, but prescient in hindsight.


    1. Ford Foundation’s “Gray Areas Project’ (ie “Black areas”,  but he could not say that and get Ford Foundation funding (119-120)


    1. How was the sociological theory of ‘anomie’ different from earlier Freudian psychological theories about the origins of juvenile delinquency? What sort of program did these sociologists recommend? (120-22)
    2. How did the experience of the Woodlawn Organization in Chicago rebut the theory of ‘political  empowerment’? (122-23)


  1. Who was David Hackett and how did his relatively obscure committee manage to rise to a position of power in the Kennedy administration? (128-134)


        Who were the ‘radical chic’, and why did RFK feel like he needed to meet with them? (127-29)


How did Michael Harrington’s book stimulate JFK’s interest in a potential anti-poverty program? (130-31)


Where did the idea of “community action” come from and why did it suddenly seem so appealing? (133-34) What was it all about? (128)


What problems would community action provoke?


What was ominous about the intrusion of Congressman Powell and Mayor Daley into the projects sponsored by the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency? (128-29)


  1. Why did Walter Heller, JFK’s head of the Council of Economic Advisors, want to couple community action with his income tax cut to the middle and upper classes? (129-135)


What kind of hurdles did Heller have to overcome in his search for an anti-poverty program? (131-133)


Where did the idea of an anti-poverty program stand when JFK was shot? (134-35)


  1. What is Lemann’s assessment of LBJ’s attitudes towards civil rights, liberals and the Kennedys? (135-140)


  1. How did Hackett’s ‘community action program’ suddenly turn into a half billion-dollar program and the centerpiece of LBJ’s 1964 ‘War on Poverty’? (136-145)


How was LBJ’s War on Poverty initiative greeted? (145)


The Liberal Dance with the Leftists:


  1. Why was Sargent Shriver a poor choice as the head of the ‘War on Poverty’? (145-147)


  1. Why were liberals so optimistic in 1964? What was their attitude towards income redistribution/doles/welfare? (148-50)


        How did more traditional liberals like Oscar Lewis define the term ‘culture of poverty’?


        How did the community action program satisfy the liberal ‘culture of poverty’ concept? (150-51)


How did ‘maximum feasible participation’ become a central tenet of community action programs? (151-153)


        Who originally conceived of this approach, and what was the theory behind it?


        What doomed the community action program almost from the start?


  1. Why were ‘New Deal’ job programs like the ones supported by Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz (and Daniel Patrick Moynihan) not included in the ‘War on Poverty”? (153-155)  


  1. How did Shriver get the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 through Congress? (156-57)


What was the gist of the Elizabeth Wickendon’s warning to LBJ? (157-58)


  1. How had changes in the Civil Rights Movement in the mid-sixties altered the expectation that moderate civil rights leaders would step up to lead community action programs?  (158-164)


Which political faction took advantage of the leadership opportunities offered by community action programs? (162-64)


  1. In Washington, what immediate problems emerged for the community action programs? (164-170)


Describe the early relationship between community action programs and local authorities (including Baltimore).


Describe Daley’s attitude toward the OEO (Office of Economic Opportunity). (166-167)


What was the attitude of the traditional Washington bureaucracy toward OEO? (167-68)


How did the ‘maximum feasible opportunity’ people react to Shriver’s efforts to appease Washington and local officials? (168).


Explain the extent and the impact of community action “screw ups”. (168-170)


What was Shriver’s response to crises within the program by mid-1965? (170)


  1. What was the high water mark of civil rights solidarity between the movement and the government? (170-71)


How did the Watts riots and the escalation of the war in Vietnam cause the sixties to ‘turn on a hinge’ during 1965? (171-72)


Describe the firestorm of criticism that greeted the 1965 White House’s Moynihan Report on “The Negro Family”. How did this event help open rifts in the whole civil rights and anti-poverty coalition? (172-179)


How did the left’s unity deconstruct in the wake of the Moynihan Report? 


What is Lemann’s point about the Banfield brouhaha? (178-79)


What effect did this new, militant mood of the black power movement have on the community action program? (179-181)


  1. What had been LBJ’s political goal in his ‘war on poverty’ (181-190)


What did he personally believe would be the answer to the defeat of poverty?


How did his rivalry with RFK affect the progress of his anti-poverty programs?


What was LBJ’s state of mind in 1965-66? (182-188)


What happened to the relationship between LBJ and RFK? (184-88)


        How did LBJ respond to the outbreak of rioting in the cities in 1967?  (190-91)


  1. What is Lemann’s assessment of the consequences of the war on poverty’s community action focus? (192-202)


        What positive results did these programs achieve? (193-94)


        What path does Lemann argue should have been followed instead? (193-96)


According to Lemann what was the central problem in the cities that none of these programs succeeded in addressing? (199)


        List Lemann’s summary of the dual influences of the Great Migration? (199-202)


1968 Presidential Election: Hubert Humphrey vs. Richard Nixon


  1. What was Nixon’s attitude towards these issues and how did Moynihan influence him? (202-210)


Why should Richard Nixon be remembered as one of the most liberal presidents in American history?


  1. What was Moynihan’s analysis of the deepening problem in the cities? (210-221)


Describe his ‘Family Assistance Plan’. Why did he support the reform and expansion of welfare, ‘a guaranteed fixed income’, instead of a jobs program?


How did the Poor People’s Campaign end Moynihan’s influence? (216-218)



Look at Lemann’s conclusion about the period when our federal government had its best opportunity to pass national legislation addressing the problems in our inner cities. At what point was the moment truly gone lost? (218-19)


Does Lemann agree with Reagan’s assessment that “we fought a war on poverty and poverty won”?  (218-219)


What is Lemann’s final assessment of LBJ? (219-221)