The Promised Land
IT REQUIRES a real leap of the imagination, a willed immersion in the mind of another time, to understand the attitude of the American establishment at the outset of the 1960s toward the issue of race in the big cities. The United States as a whole was in a kind of moral slumber about segregation in the South; white liberals were officially against it, but they held out little hope that it could be eliminated. The South was still an essential part of the Democratic Party's coalition in presidential politics-- John F. Kennedy carried the old Confederacy in 1960. Southern Democrats held the highest leadership positions and controlled the most important committees in Congress. The white champions of civil rights were mostly people like Eleanor Roosevelt, religious leaders, and figures from the Congress of Industrial Organizations side of the labor movement, like Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers-- in other words, not members of the tough, pragmatic tendency within the Democratic Party. Kennedy, as a senator preparing to run for president, voted with his Southern colleagues to put an amendment into the Civil Rights Act of 1957 that guaranteed jury trials (that is, certain acquittal) to people accused of violating blacks' voting rights.
The development of the mechanical cotton picker had barely been
noticed outside Southern agricultural circles. The epochal black migration to
the North took place substantially without attention from the opinion-making
classes. Conditions in the big-city black slums were an obsessive local issue
that somehow did not rise to the level of national concern. The cities'
successful assimilation of immigrant slum dwellers at the turn of the century
was still fresh in people's minds, and there seemed
to be no reason why it couldn't happen again. Simply by virtue of having left the South, blacks in the North were already on an upward trajectory. As late as 1964, Business Week wrote, "The basic cause of Negro poverty is discrimination-- in education, jobs, access to medical care. Many Negroes have improved their lot by moving to the cities. But many others still live in the rural South." Slum clearance and the construction of decent housing for the poor-- a cherished goal of reformers since the days of Jacob Riis-- were proceeding on a far grander scale than ever before, without any noticeable bad results.
Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1960 operated on the assumption that blacks in the North were machine voters who could be reached through businesslike dealings with their political bosses-- not people with special problems and a unique moral claim on the government's help. Kennedy staked out with some care a position on civil rights that was slightly less ardent than that of his main liberal rival for the Democratic nomination, Hubert Humphrey; when Roy Wilkins, the head of the NAACP, criticized Kennedy in the late 1950s, Kennedy responded not by making fiery speeches or adopting new positions, but by cultivating the publishers of black newspapers, who were powerful figures with no hesitance about getting directly involved in politics. After Kennedy got the Democratic nomination, the burning issue in the minorities section of his campaign was that the Democratic Party owed the black publishers $49,000 in unpaid bills for advertising space during the 1956 presidential campaign, and the publishers wouldn't get behind Kennedy unless he paid up. The feeling that money changing hands was a precondition of black support led the Kennedy campaign to offer to buy Simeon Booker's column in Jet magazine, meaning that the column would continue to appear under Booker's name but would be written by the Kennedy staff until November; Booker and his publisher refused.
The two leading black politicians in the country, Congressmen William Dawson of Chicago and Adam Clayton Powell of New York, were both regarded with some disdain by the Kennedy campaign-- especially by the man running the campaign, Robert Kennedy. Bobby Kennedy disliked Dawson and Powell for different reasons-- Dawson because he was an old-fashioned politician and Powell because he was a rogue. Kennedy saw himself as a moral crusader, even in the days when he was a conservative Democrat whose favorite issues were crime-fighting and anticommunism. He didn’t like rogues because they were impure. He didn't like politicians because they were talky, dilatory, and
favor oriented, and couldn't perceive issues in terms of right and wrong. In 1968, after a long meeting with the California boss Jesse Unruh, Kennedy said to one of his aides, "God, I hate that. I really don't like to sit around and bullshit with those guys . . . . We used to send Larry O'Brien [John Kennedy's emissary to the world of political patronage) to do that. . . . He could talk the balls off a brass monkey."
Both of these opinions shaped Kennedy's relations with the whole political world, not just blacks; for example, they help to explain his lack of respect for Lyndon Johnson, which created a tension that ran through nearly every aspect of domestic and foreign policy in the 1960s. Kennedy objected violently when his brother picked Johnson as his running mate in 1960. After Johnson had accepted, Robert Kennedy visited his hotel room and asked him to change his mind and turn the vice presidential nomination down. "I thought he'd burst into tears," Kennedy later remembered. “He just shook, and tears came into his eyes….” A show of weakness of that kind was a serious violation of Kennedy's standards of acceptable adult male behavior.
In the particular case of black politicians, Robert Kennedy said in 1964, with obvious contempt, "I think those running for office in the Democratic Party looked to just three or four people who would deliver the Negro vote. And you never had to say you were going to do anything on civil rights." In 1960, Kennedy at first refused to speak to Dawson, who was one of those three or four people. Louis Martin, a member of the inner circle of black newspaper publishers who was temporarily helping the Kennedy campaign, met Robert Kennedy for the first time at a meeting called for the purpose of Kennedy's chewing out the staff of the minorities section. Martin says, "Bobby jumped on us-- he said we were not doing enough. I said, 'You don't know anything! You've got to meet with Dawson!' I didn't agree with Dawson, but he could deliver two hundred thousand votes. The Kennedys had never called him, and Dawson thought they were a little prejudiced. After the meeting, I went in and told Bobby to make sure the black political leaders were on board, including a personal meeting with Dawson. So I put Bill in a cab, brought him over, and left-- Bill liked to do business. And after the meeting, Bill was still cool. He wouldn't say what happened, but he didn't like it."
Adam Clayton Powell presented himself to the world as a crusader, but Robert Kennedy didn't believe him. He once said that Powell "always exacts a price, a monetary price, for his support"; surely this explained Powell's endorsement of Dwight Eisenhower in the 1956 presidential campaign.
Also, Kennedy saw Powell as lazy, and sloth was to his mind the deadliest sin. In 1960 Powell endorsed John Kennedy; knowing that there would be some expectation on the part of the campaign that he get out and speak for the candidate, Powell had a member of his staff call and magnanimously announce that the congressman was available for a multicity tour of the South. The last thing the Kennedy campaign wanted was Adam Clayton Powell's picture on the front page of every Southern newspaper, but Bobby Kennedy was so annoyed by Powell's gambit that he decided to call his bluff. He had an aide call Powell's office and say that a travel schedule was on the way; the call was not returned.
Both Martin Luther Kings, the prominent Atlanta minister and his son the young civil rights leader, were leaning toward Richard Nixon for president at the outset of the 1960 campaign. The elder King, who at one point formally endorsed Nixon, had, as his son later put it, "a feeling that a Catholic should not be President for religious reasons; the younger King didn't share that prejudice, but he had other reasons to look kindly on Nixon. He told an interviewer in 1964, "I had known Nixon longer. He had been supposedly close to me, and he would call me frequently about things, getting, seeking my advice." What brought both Kings around to the Democratic ticket was John Kennedy's famous phone call to Coretta King in October 1960, when her husband was in jail in Georgia, but the call was made only after a great deal of maneuvering by the liberals on Kennedy's staff.
Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's brother-in-law and the head of the family's Merchandise Mart in Chicago, was in charge of the campaign's minorities section, but he was not a member of Kennedy's inner circle; he was considered too soft, too much the goody-goody, too close to the dreamy intellectual wing of the Catholic Church. In the words of one of his aides, Harris Wofford, "Shriver was the house communist." When Wofford first met John Kennedy's chief of staff, Theodore Sorensen, Sorensen, displaying the Kennedy family's suspicions about where Shriver's priorities lay, "said he wanted to make sure I knew the definition of good and bad: whatever helps the nomination of John Kennedy is good; whatever hinders it is bad." It was Wofford who suggested to Shriver that Kennedy call Coretta King. Shriver rushed to O'Hare Airport in Chicago, where Kennedy was waiting for a plane, to make the suggestion.
As Wofford remembered it later, “He got into the room and he looked around and he saw all the campaign aides and he concluded that if he brought it up in that crowd it would never happen. There
would be a committee, and out of the committee would never come anything like this. So he waited, precariously because the plane was going to leave pretty soon. But Pierre Salinger, [the press secretary] went out to the press, and Ted [Kennedy] went to finish a speech, and finally Kenny O'Donnell [a close aide specializing in the tough side of politics] went into the john. Shriver put his foot against the door to keep it closed and said to John Kennedy, ‘I know you can't issue a public statement, but Mrs. King is very upset and pregnant. What about just telephoning her?’ And he said Kennedy looked up and said, 'That's a wonderful idea. Do you have her number?' Shriver did; put the call through."
When Robert Kennedy, whose overriding moral crusade at that moment was getting his brother elected president, heard about the call to Mrs. King, he was furious. He called Wofford and Louis Martin into his office and said, as Wofford recalled it, "'Now you bomb-throwers have done too much in this campaign!' or, 'This is the last thing you bombthrowers are going to do in this campaign.' He was livid and angry, and I would have said perhaps frightened. In any case, he was pale, seemed so. And he told us about Southern states that were probably going to be lost because of this. He was very exercised." Kennedy gave Shriver a severe dressing-down too. But only a few hours later, Robert Kennedy called the Georgia judge who had put King in jail to demand his release-- an incident that has gone down in history as an example of Kennedy's awakening racial conscience as well as of the imperious, bullying streak in his character. In truth, though, as Kennedy himself admitted long afterward, he made the call at the request of the governor of Georgia, Ernest Vandiver, who thought that a long, well-publicized jail term for King would hurt John Kennedy's chances of carrying Georgia in November (which he did).
During his presidency, Kennedy's support for civil rights always came as the result of the black movement's prodding him into action. In civil rights leaders' discussions of him, words like "cautious" and "technical" come up again and again. "He didn’t quite have the emotional commitment," King told one interviewer; "the moral passion is missing," he told Wofford. Kennedy's heart was in the great struggle with the Soviet Union, and he didn't conceive of race relations in the United States as a problem of similar magnitude and complexity. One day during the 1960 campaign, Harris Wofford was standing on a street corner in Washington waiting for a cab when John Kennedy, driving past in a red convertible, stopped and picked him up. "He was driving very fast and his left hand was tapping
on the door of the car," Wofford remembered. "And he said, 'Now, in five minutes, tick off the ten things that a President ought to do to clean up this goddamn civil rights mess.'" After the election, Robert Kennedy rejected Wofford's candidacy for the job of assistant attorney general for civil rights because, as he said later, "Wofford was very emotionally involved in all of these matters and was rather in some areas a slight madman.”
During the 1960 campaign, John Kennedy had promised to sign an executive order that would eliminate discrimination in housing "at the stroke of a pen." In office, he delayed the order until after the 1962 congressional elections, and Robert Kennedy issued it from the attorney general's office, after having made sure it was worded in a very limited way. In the spring of 1961, Robert Kennedy asked King to try to postpone the Freedom Rides (which were sure to lead to patently unjust arrests at the Southern bus stations where the riders stopped, and so to create bad international publicity for the United States at a crucial moment in the Cold War), and offered James Farmer, the head of the Congress of Racial Equality, tax breaks if CORE would stop demonstrating. As late as 1963, during a White House meeting to discuss the legislation that became the Civil Rights Act of 1964, John Kennedy's concern about the political perils of civil rights was obvious; Francis Keppel, commissioner of education, said later, "I had never seen President Kennedy so nervous as he was at that particular meeting . . . . I got a real sense of tension in him."
What made the Kennedys move over time toward a closer embrace of the civil rights cause was in part the series of atrocities visited on the civil rights movement's ground troops in the South, but it was also that the forces of segregation affronted them personally. Robert Kennedy's aide John Siegenthaler was beaten in Alabama in 1961. In 1962 Governor Ross Barnett of Mississippi fundamentally violated the Kennedy code by breaking his promise that he would allow the orderly integration of the University of Mississippi. Before that it was possible for the Kennedys to see the leading segregationist politicians as canny, practical men who possessed their most cherished virtue, toughness. (After the 1960 election, job-seekers would call the Kennedy transition office and announce, "I'm tough.") Afterward, Robert Kennedy dismissed Barnett with a withering one-word assessment: "Weak."
AMONG PUBLIC-policy experts, the idea that an important national problem was brewing in the black slums of the Northern and Western cities was not at all a part of the conventional wisdom. In fact, the book in which the term "conventional wisdom" was introduced into the discourse-- John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, published in 1958-- mentions race only once, as a mere aside in its sweeping vision of the form that liberalism should take in the years to come. Galbraith's idea was that the United States had largely conquered the problem of poverty during World War II and the postwar boom, and that now the country should address itself to the issue of ''public squalor'' by increasing the government's spending and the scope of its activities. John Kennedy's campaign slogan, "Let's get America moving again," echoed Galbraith; it was a politically attractive packaging for liberalism after Eisenhower, because it tapped into the impatient energy of the veterans of the war without contradicting the reigning idea that since the Depression, the United States had become a consensus society whose citizens could go forward all together, without bitter conflicts of class and region and ethnicity.
There were respectable liberals who disagreed with Galbraith, but they were well aware of being outside the mainstream of American thought. In particular, anyone working, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, on the assumption that a Northern racial crisis was on the way had ventured into daring, avant-garde intellectual territory. It wasn't just that among white intellectuals little was known about the urban black ghettos; the very notion that an enormous racial problem existed in the North caused the whole consensual vision of American society to crumble. Segregation in the South was a regional issue with deep historical roots. The civil rights movement was, obviously, the kind of bloody conflict that the country was supposed to have gotten over, but its end result would be the bringing of the South into the healthy, rational mode of operation of the nation as a whole. Deep-seated conflict in the North was another story-- it wasn't supposed to exist. The realization of it popped up in a series of places on the fringes of the government-university-foundation nexus.
States to see whether it was really as insignificant a problem as Galbraith had said it was. Robert Lampman, an economist from the University of Wisconsin-- an institution still imbued with the legacy of the great Wisconsin Progressive politician Robert M. LaFollette-- published the study in 1959, and found that the rate of "exit from poverty'' had already begun to slow considerably in the late fifties.
Harris Wofford, before going to work on the Kennedy campaign, was a law professor at the University of Notre Dame and a protégé of Notre Dame's president, Father Theodore Hesburgh. Hesburgh was a member of the United States Commission on Civil Rights, which undertook a major study of American race relations in the late 1950s. Wofford did some of the research for the study; when he traveled to Chicago, he was shocked to find that the conditions in which poor blacks lived there seemed to be even worse than they were in the South. The commission's report, also published in 1959, contains a mild warning about race relations in the North.
Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, two young social scientists, published a book called Beyond the Melting Pot in 1963. Glazer and Moynihan belonged to the first generation of city-bred white ethnics to rise to the highest level in American academic life; as such, they were far more street-wise than their elders, having actually grown up in the kinds of communities that the leading sociologists of the day knew only as researchers. They put forth the notion that ethnicity, supposedly a dissolving pill in the American body politic, was remarkably persistent as an organizing principle for urban society. The vision of Beyond the Melting Pot is of a pluralistic, quarrelsome society, especially on the subject of race.
Leonard Duhl, a psychologist at the National Institute of Mental Health, began in 1955 to assemble a loose group of experts to discuss cities. Duhl, a freewheeling character, was operating under an extremely generous interpretation of the charter of the NIMH, which directed it to look after "the mental health of the population of the United States." He was interested in creating a countervailing vision of urban life to the one that prevailed in the Eisenhower years. The urban renewal program was financing the demolition of older inner-city neighborhoods and the relocation of their (mostly black) residents, so that private developers could get rich building big, ugly new projects. The interstate highway program was encouraging the flight of the white middle class to the new, sterile,
soulless suburbs, and helping another set of private developers-- homebuilders-- to get rich. Nobody seemed to be objecting; Duhl wanted to marshal the intellectual opposition. His idea was, in the context of the time, not so much politically radical as it was weird; on the day that the Soviet satellite Sputnik was launched, in 1957, one of his experts said, "If they think they're out in space, they should see us," and thereafter Duhl's group was known as the Space Cadets.
Cadging money from here and there, Duhl began to finance a series of influential research projects: Herbert Gans’s book The Urban Villagers, which attacked the urban renewal program for destroying a vibrant Italian-American neighborhood in Boston so that a luxury high-rise apartment complex could be built on its site (Gans wrote later that "the low-income population was in effect subsidizing its own removal for the benefit of the wealthy"); Elliot Liebow's Tally's Corner, a depiction of the drifting life lived by "street-corner men" in a black neighborhood in Washington; and Behind Ghetto Walls, by Lee Rainwater, which showed how frighteningly disorganized the all-black high-rise Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis had become only a few years after it was built.
Paul Ylvisaker was a mid-level official at the Ford Foundation, where he went to work after suffering a heart attack at the age of thirty-three and deciding he had better abandon his career as a fast-track aide to a United States senator for something more sedate. Ylvisaker lived in a suburb in New Jersey, and when he had to travel on Ford Foundation business, he would take a bus to the Newark airport that passed through Newark's black ghetto. "You could see the frustration," he says. "You could read it. You come to the North, where it's supposed to be better, and you find this!" Ylvisaker talked his superiors at Ford into letting him set up an organization called the Gray Areas Project to find ways to improve conditions in the ghettos. Gray Areas was a euphemism for black areas, necessary because the foundation's board was terrified of getting involved in anything that dealt explicitly with the subject of race. In 1914, a Ford Foundation subsidiary called the Fund for the Republic had made a $25,000 grant for a national study of housing segregation, and this set off a storm of protest; Ford automobile dealers in the South complained to Henry Ford II that they were afraid they might be boycotted. For years afterward, the foundation was willing to study racial issues only under some kind of cover.
One of the Gray Areas Project's first grants was to an organization in New Haven, Connecticut, run by a former regional director of the United Auto Workers named Mitchell Sviridoff. Sviridoff was close to the mayor of New Haven, Dick Lee; they both believed that something needed to be done to help the black migrants who had been streaming into New Haven from Georgia and the Carolinas. With abundant funding from the city and the Ford Foundation-- $12 million a year-- Sviridoff set up a series of programs to improve education and job training in the black slums. In early 1963 there was a great controversy in the New Haven Gray Areas Project: Jean Cahn, a lawyer working in the project's legal aid department, took on the case of a black man accused (and eventually convicted) of raping a white nurse. Sviridoff was caught between the mayor, who wanted him to dissociate himself from the case, and Paul Ylvisaker, who wanted him to support it. He decided to side with the mayor, and as a result the New Haven project maintained its good relations with the local political order, but Jean Cahn's program was made a separate entity from the Gray Areas Project.
Another important recipient of the Gray Areas Project's largesse was an organization on the Lower East Side of New York called Mobilization for Youth, which was the brainchild of two sociologists at the Columbia University School of Social Work, Lloyd Ohlin and Richard Cloward. Ohlin and Cloward were an unlikely-looking pair-- Ohlin had the appearance of an apple-cheeked Midwestern uncle, while the younger Cloward played the part of the academic as urban hipster; their partnership represented the marriage of two great traditions in American sociology. Ohlin's Ph.D. was from the University of Chicago, which was the Olympus of sociological research. The founding fathers of the Chicago sociology department, Robert Park and Ernest Burgess, encouraged their students to roam the streets of the city, especially the slums. Park, a former newspaper reporter, dispatched his students to the funerals of the victims in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre because he thought they'd get good stuff there. Burgess, Park's drab and systematic partner, was Ohlin's thesis adviser (and also Saul Alinsky's, before Alinsky dropped out of academic life). There was a longstanding feud at the University of Chicago between the sociology department and the School of Social Service Administration. The social workers, strongly influenced by Freudian psychology, saw the slums as a mass of individual problems rooted in poor early-childhood development; to the sociologists, the slums were a part of a vast urban organism, and their problems were a natural part of the life of the city. Adherents of the Park-Burgess school liked to point out that certain Chicago neighborhoods always led the city in juvenile delinquency, no matter which ethnic group happened to be occupying them, because high delinquency was an unavoidable stage in each group's process of assimilation.
As a part of the cleanup campaign that followed the Chicago machine's dumping of Edward Kelly as mayor, a member of the Chicago sociology department named Joseph Lohman was made head of the Illinois Parole and Pardon Board. Lohman hired Ohlin, who spent nearly a decade as a parole official, using the job, of course, as an opportunity to do studies of criminals. In one of the studies, Ohlin looked at the records of juvenile delinquents who had been paroled to serve in World War II, and found that they usually served with distinction-- proving that the social workers' idea that delinquents were psychologically crippled was wrong. Another defector from the Chicago sociology department to the parole board, Richard Boone, says, "We went through the inmate ‘jacket’ or file. It was all there. Every goddamn case was in the mold of psychiatric social work. 'Breast-feeding ended early.' 'An Oedipal complex.' It went on and on. It was appalling. For parole, you could just throw the jacket and ask the other inmates."
Richard Cloward was a student of the leading theoretical sociologist of the day, Robert Merton of Columbia. Merton, who did his research at the library rather than on the streets, explained juvenile delinquency through the sociological concept of anomie: when teenage males in the success-obsessed American culture saw that it was not possible for them to achieve their goals through legitimate means, anomie set in, and they turned to the illegitimate means of crime. Cloward met Ohlin at a conference in the early 1950s, and in 1956 Ohlin left parole work to become a professor at the Columbia School of Social Work, where Cloward was teaching. Together they began working on a book that would synthesize Merton's theories with the Chicago school's field research, while also putting a slightly more positive spin on delinquency, which previously had been portrayed as an irrational and counterproductive response to difficult conditions. Delinquency and Opportunity, published in 1960, argued that society denies poor young men, especially blacks, any form of real opportunity, so that the ones who become delinquents are acting rationally, on the basis of a perceptive critique of society. Black delinquents did not even have the chance to get involved in profitable illegal activity, so their forays outside the law were more random and violent than those of white delinquents. It followed that if more real opportunity became available, there would be less delinquency.
Even before they finished the book, Ohlin and Cloward were in touch with the Gray Areas Project, which wanted to fund an organization in New York but was looking for, as Cloward puts it, "something a little more theoretically glitzy" than the traditional approach of the old-line settlement houses of the Lower East Side-- hence the appeal of creating a social welfare agency on the basis of their new line of argument. The proposal that established Mobilization for Youth was an elaborate document that was years in the making-- Mobilization didn't open its doors until 1962-- but the fierceness of the analytical back-and-forth among academic experts on the slums somewhat obscures the reality of Mobilization. For the most part, it was set up to do exactly what the settlement houses had been doing for years, and what the less theoretically glitzy Gray Areas Project in New Haven was doing: help speed up the assimilation process for poor migrants recently arrived in the city by providing them with special training in the ways of industrial society. What else could Mobilization do? It was founded on the concept that American society pervasively denied opportunity to the poor, but it is beyond the power of a neighborhood social service agency to solve that problem.
There was one crucial difference between the activities of Mobilization and the traditional forms of social work. Although Mobilization could hardly create more opportunity in the nation as a whole, it could at least try to create more opportunity on the Lower East Side by organizing the community to take political action. The theory here was a Marxian one: that poverty is more a political than an economic condition and that if the poor become politically "empowered," they will soon cease to be poor. Empowerment would give poor people a new spirit of community; they would run their own lives, and their neighborhoods, with renewed purposiveness and vigor, and they would learn to get things from the powers that be. Leonard Cottrell, another Chicago-trained sociologist who was head of the Russell Sage Foundation and a close associate of Ohlin's, put it in 1960, speaking about black migrants from the South, "you get a community of people who have lost the competence to act in a community problem …. the way to attack it would be to restore the community's confidence to act…."
The history of The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago was a perfect demonstration of the shortcomings of the empowerment theory in the real world of a late-twentieth-century American city: no matter how well organized a poor community was, it could not become stable and not poor so long as the people with good jobs kept moving out and the people left behind had very little income.
This lesson was not yet clear in 1962,though: along with its education and job-training programs, Mobilization began to organize rent strikes and political protests on the Woodlawn
The Woodlawn Organization, funded as it was by a Cardinal who had absolute power over his dominion in Chicago, did not have to worry that its protests against Mayor Daley and the University of Chicago might imperil its financial base. The same was true of the civil rights groups organizing in the South: the order they were attacking had nothing to do with their sources of funds, which were church collection plates in the South and North, and Northern philanthropists. Mobilization was in quite a different situation, though nobody seems to have recognized that in 1962. It was founded by the still fairly cautious Ford Foundation, and early in the planning stages it began to seek financial support from the federal government. This meant that it did not have anything like total independence. Confrontational tactics could imperil its existence, because it was dependent on the largesse of the power structure it intended to confront. In the New Haven Gray Areas Project, Mitchell Sviridoff perceived this problem and decided to abandon confrontational tactics, focus on education and training, and retain the support of the mayor. Mobilization went in the other direction, and soon it would suffer the consequences.
TO THE EXTENT that all these early tendrils of white liberal activity around the issue of blacks in the Northern cities came together, it was in an odd location: the office of the proud holder of the number one job in the American law enforcement hierarchy, Robert Kennedy. Even more odd, the person most responsible for bringing the ghettos to Kennedy's attention was a complete stranger to the arcane byways of liberal intellectual life; he was Kennedy's best friend from prep school David Hackett.
Hackett grew up in the proper Boston suburb of Dedham, the scion of an impeccably respectable (though not rich) family of Episcopalian naval officers. As an adolescent he was a golden figure, a superb athlete (he played on the U.S. Olympic hockey team) and a natural leader, the kind of boy who inspires the worshipful respect of other boys. As a student at Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, he was a legend: the character Phineas, the campus hero in John Knowles's novel A
Separate Peace, is supposedly based on Hackett. Bobby Kennedy enrolled at Milton in his junior year of high school, joining his class late after having already attended six different schools over the preceding ten years. Even if he had started at Milton when everyone else did, he would have been an outsider there: he was Irish in a school with no Irish, Catholic in a school with no Catholics, runty, shy, and the son of Joseph P. Kennedy, a hated figure in the Boston WASP culture that dominated the school.
Hackett, alone of all the students at Milton, reached out to Kennedy. They became close friends; Hackett brought Kennedy home for visits, over his parents' objections. The psychological grounding of their friendship contained an element of Hackett’s reaching out to the oppressed and of Kennedy's feeling oppressed himself, though clearly Kennedy also touched some strain of the outsider that lay beneath Hackett's glittering exterior. "We were both, in a way, misfits," Hackett said later. Together they developed a mistrust of what Hackett calls, pejoratively, "normal behavior"-- the kind of normal behavior that had led to Kennedy's ostracism at Milton.
In the years after Milton, Hackett appeared to be on his way to becoming an example of that common type, the glorious young student athlete whose magical aura evaporates after graduation and whose adult life is quite ordinary. The late 1950s found him in Montreal, working as the editor of an entertainment guide distributed free to hotel guests. When John Kennedy's presidential campaign began, Robert Kennedy brought Hackett on as a delegate-counter, and after the inauguration Hackett was installed in a small office adjoining Kennedy's at the Justice Department. In the array of law review editors, Rhodes Scholars, and Pulitzer Prize-- winners with whom Kennedy surrounded himself at the Justice Department, Hackett stood out as exceptionally unexceptional. The Kennedy circle cultivated a laconic style, but Hackett was simply inarticulate-- he would begin a sentence, get lost, and extricate himself by saying "et cetera,"-- with a helpless wave of the hand. It is natural for the circle of advisers around a powerful man to be rivalrous; in Hackett's case, the natural tensions of the attorney general's suite were exacerbated by his fundamental difference from the other top aides to Kennedy, the bright, tough world-beaters. They didn't understand him. Some of them made cruel jokes about his having been hit by too many hockey pucks, or wondered out loud what exactly it was he did in the Justice Department, or spoke of him as belonging to the category of people the boss inexplicably adored, such as the singer Andy Williams.
Kennedy's sister Eunice Shriver, who had many years earlier assumed the informal role of family social worker (she was especially close to the retarded Kennedy sibling, Rosemary), was keenly interested in the issue of juvenile delinquency, and back in the late 1940s had worked on the staff of a government commission studying delinquency. She persuaded her brothers to set up a similar commission in the Kennedy administration. The President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency was put under the purview of the Justice Department, and David Hackett was made its director-- an assignment that did not enhance his status within the department, since the committee was seen as a pet project that had been created to placate Eunice, a world-class nagger. Such were the inauspicious beginnings of the American government's response to the consequences of the black migration.
Hackett began to travel around and meet the leading experts in the field. When some people at the Ford Foundation introduced him to Lloyd Ohlin, he instantly thought he had found the best way to attack delinquency- "it just made sense to me," he says, that, in his words, "barriers to people caused it." Ohlin became a consultant to the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, and so did his old Chicago friend Leonard Cottrell of the Sage Foundation. Hackett hired Richard Boone, who had done parole research with Ohlin in Chicago and then gone to work at the Ford Foundation, as his full-time deputy. Boone looked the part of the Kennedy aide much more than Ohlin did. He was trim and compact with crew-cut hair and a piercing gaze. In Chicago he had remained on Joseph Lohman's staff after the machine elevated Lohman from head of the state parole board to Cook County sheriff, which meant that Boone, though he was entirely a creature of the academic-foundation culture, eventually held the rank of captain on the Chicago police force-- a wonderful credential for someone in the Kennedy Justice Department to have. Boone had the preferred Kennedy spirit: government was a cause for him, but it was also a game to be played with skill and daring.
Soon Hackett's office had formed an alliance-- with Leonard Duhl's Space Cadets, drawing on them for ideas and helping them get funding. (Already, Duhl was sending some NIMH money to Mobilization for Youth.) And it had relations with the Gray Areas Project, though Hackett had reservations about Ylvisaker, considering him too closely attuned to the established way of doing things. Hackett was also in touch with Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In effect, the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency became the government agency with the black-ghetto portfolio, which it was able to acquire largely because nobody else in the government was interested. Hackett and Robert Kennedy visited Harlem and other ghettos together.
The juvenile delinquency committee was the passageway that led Kennedy from his background as a conservative lawman into the political persona for which he is remembered, as the soulful champion of the downtrodden-- it connected the two versions of himself. Delinquency was at first blush a law enforcement issue, so attending to it was consistent with the main thrust of Kennedy's career thus far; it didn't have the soft, abstract quality that he associated with most of the leading liberal issues and personalities. Unlike other criminals, though, delinquents were people he could identify with personally. They were troubled adolescents just as he had been-- outsiders; the most common nickname for delinquents at the time, "young toughs," was a marriage of two words that carried the most positive possible connotations for Kennedy.
Kennedy liked to be out on, or even ahead of, the front lines. Once at a party at his house, a parlor game began in which everyone had to say what he would do if he could have a different life, and Kennedy said, "I'd be a paratrooper." At a time when no prominent figure in Washington was aware of the problems of young black men in the cities, for Kennedy to begin to comprehend the dimensions of the issue instantly put him in the vanguard of a great cause. Kennedy had never been a good student, and it was a part of his mystique that he wasn't scintillatingly intelligent in the way that his brother John was, as if that left room for simpler moral virtues to come to the fore. He was governed more by his heart than his head, more by his Catholicism than his Irishness; he was one of the rare politicians who see the world in terms of a battle between good and evil. His relationship with Hackett, another highly moral, not very clever man, was especially suffused with this idea. "The brightest people-- that wouldn't include him," Hackett says of Kennedy. "But he had a quality. He went after the brightest people. Tremendous records. They were attracted to him because they saw a quality in him they didn't have-- the guts, the ability to zero in and move in on issues." Kennedy began to include black people in the wide circle of friends and advisers who were invited to his house on weekends. Burke Marshall, his assistant attorney general for civil rights; was also becoming concerned about racial problems in the North, and when the comedian Dick Gregory introduced him to James Baldwin, Marshall was so impressed that he invited Baldwin to have breakfast with Kennedy. Kennedy was impressed too; he asked Baldwin to set up a meeting in New York with people who could suggest ways to alleviate the urban racial crisis.
The meeting, held in May 1963, at the Kennedy family's New York apartment, was a famous disaster. Rather than gathering the group of policy experts whom Kennedy expected, Baldwin brought black intellectuals, activists, and performers who used the occasion to pour out their anger. One of the people there was a young CORE worker named Jerome Smith, whose initial commitment to nonviolence had been such that his nickname within the civil rights movement was Gandhi Two but who had lost that spirit in the course of receiving beatings in the South so severe that you could feel a soft spot on his skull. Smith told Kennedy that he would not fight for his country, a statement that Kennedy, who had lost a brother in World War II and had named one of his sons after General Maxwell Taylor, found profoundly shocking. Lorraine Hansberry, the author of Raisin in the Sun, the celebrated play about black family life in Chicago, said she would like to arm blacks so that they could start shooting white people in the streets. Kennedy was used to meetings that crisply followed an agenda and in which he was treated with respect; now these people, to whom he had reached out because he wanted to help them, were berating him with out making any constructive suggestions.
As the experience sank in, though, it joined the list of Kennedy's redeeming trials by fire. There was a pattern in Kennedy's life in which he would have a hostile first meeting with someone, usually a person from a humbler background who thought of him as an arrogant rich boy, and then would become extremely close to the person, winning him over by proving his essential down-to-earthness. In the first encounter between Kennedy and John Siegenthaler, in 1957, Kennedy greeted Siegenthaler with "a veil over the eyes, tense lips, flared nostrils, his overcoat on with the collar turned up," Siegenthaler says; he immediately accused Siegenthaler of being late and stalked out. Within a year they were boon companions. Richard Harwood, of the Washington Post, one of Kennedy's closest journalistic friends and a veteran of many Marine landings during World War II, started out as a great Kennedy-hater but quickly came around. "Dick Harwood was a tough guy," says Hackett. "He had to find out if this guy was phony, and he found out he was real." The meeting with Baldwin's group, an early example of a much-repeated scene in the 1960s, in which an unsuspecting white liberal would be berated by blacks and, most of the time, leave feeling somewhat less liberal-- was for Kennedy another opportunity to prove that someone's suspicions about him were wrong. It deepened his understanding and drew him emotionally closer to the slums; it was something nobody else at his level in Washington had been through.
It became explicit in Kennedy's mind that the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency was a program for the black ghettos. Hackett wrote to him in 1963, "Most of the programs in action or being developed will affect primarily minority youth-Negroes in almost every city.'' What the committee actually did was make grants to local organizations, many of which were already receiving help from the Gray Areas Project. Hackett had become convinced that the government's efforts in the ghettos had to have a from-the-bottom-up quality: the residents of the community should decide for themselves what their needs were, and then the government would try to provide it for them. The very process of formulating a plan would bring the community together and serve as a first step on the road out of poverty. Hackett believed that, as he says today, "the federal government is terrible- - rather an unusual conviction for someone to have then, when the federal government had had a thirty-year run of spectacular successes. Kennedy was sympathetic to Hackett's idea, because of his natural impatience with the slow, clumsy ways in which the post New Deal consensus society moved. He believed in government as an instrument, but he preferred for it to operate through small, quick, anti bureaucratic organizations. He admired the Green Berets, the elite corps of dashingly costumed anti-insurgency shock troops, much more than the infantry. It was no accident that the ghetto experts who were meeting regularly with Hackett began to call themselves "the guerrillas.''
The organizations that received the monies of the President's Committee
on Juvenile Delinquency were rarely true exemplars of Hackett's Zen-like
notion of programs arising naturally from the people they were meant to
serve. Usually they were run by social service professionals, albeit local
ones. Even Mobilization for Youth, in its proposal, said it intended to
provide delinquents with "opportunities for conformity." Hackett
and Kennedy had no intention, either, of getting into battles with local politicians.
In Harlem, the juvenile delinquency committee was funding an organization
called HARYOU, which was run by Kenneth Clark, the black psychologist
(Clark's classic book Dark Ghetto
was funded by Hackett). When Adam Clayton Powell demanded a piece of the
action, Kennedy, despite his personal feelings about Powell, assented, and
Clark resigned in protest. In Chicago, when the director of the program
began to attract the displeasure of Mayor Daley, Hackett wrote a memo reporting this to Kennedy, and Kennedy wrote in the margin, "l would get rid of Shuler if he doesn't get along 'With Mayor." Kennedy's accommodationism is perfectly understandable: he may not have liked traditional politicians, but politics was his business. Neither he nor anyone else in his family had any thought of doing anything else.
Today it is possible to view the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency in the same spirit with which the hero of Delmore Schwartz's story "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities" looked at an imagined movie of his quarrelsome parents' courtship while shouting, "Don't do it!" Here was a Democratic administration, understandably heedless of the full consequences, embarking on the disastrous course of allowing itself to be identified with efforts to understand the urban street criminal, and helping to fund organizations that opened fissures in the urban political coalitions on which the Democratic Party completely depended. At the time none of this must have been apparent; Kennedy could not have seen that he was doing anything but strengthening the family political base by providing money and services and by developing his own powers of empathy toward a loyal and traditionally shortchanged Democratic constituency.
Lloyd Ohlin briefed both Kennedy brothers on his theory of juvenile delinquency, at different times. In May 1962, just before the ceremony at which the juvenile delinquency committee's generous grant to Mobilization for Youth was to be announced at the White House, Ohlin was brought into the Oval Office for ten minutes with the president. John Kennedy listened impassively, walked outside, delivered a flawless summary of the goals of the program, and then went on to the next item on his agenda with customary coolness. Robert Kennedy, who had invited Ohlin to breakfast on the day he was to testify in Congress in behalf of the authorization of funds for the juvenile delinquency committee, took much longer to get Ohlin's point. Finally, in the car riding to Capitol Hill, he said, "Oh, I see-- if I had grown up in these circumstances, this could have happened to me.”
WALTER HELLER, the head of President Kennedy's Council of Economic Advisers, was by virtue of his background and his training the kind of liberal who inhabits a clean, precise world of numbers and orderly concepts. Heller's father was a civil engineer in Milwaukee-- "a good German," in his son's words. When he lost his job during the Depression, the family was rescued from destitution through
the good offices of the Works Progress Administration, which gave him temporary employment and so won Walter Heller's undying gratitude to the New Deal and the federal government. The Hellers were devoted admirers of Robert La Follette; as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Walter Heller toured the country by car, on a grant from the National Youth Administration, to do research for his Ph.D. thesis on the wonders of the state income tax.
He became an economics professor at the University of Minnesota, preaching to his students the gospel of Keynesianisrn and, because he was the kind of intellectual who was good at presenting his ideas crisply to busy people in the world of affairs, working on the side with liberal Minnesota politicians like Hubert Humphrey and Orville Freeman. In the 1950s Heller built a house in a neighborhood owned by the university, where professors were given vacant lots on the condition that they spend no more than $17,000 on their homes. Heller's was done up in the preferred academic style of the time- - modern and unembellished, with picture windows, walls of exposed brick and wood, and Scandinavian furniture upholstered in honest stubbly fabrics, giving the overall impression that all frills and adornments had now been relegated to the dustbin of history.
Heller was not as wholehearted a believer as John Kenneth Galbraith in the tonic of increased federal spending, because he thought it would affect the economy too slowly. Increasing spending in the Kennedy administration was an elusive goal anyway, because the White House had a hard time getting the plumed dukes of Congress to pass new legislation. Heller began to focus on the possibility of pumping money out into the economy in another way, through an income tax cut. In March 1962, he began pushing the idea on Kennedy, and in January 1963, Kennedy finally agreed to it. Heller waited a couple of months and then suggested to Kennedy that the tax cut might come under attack for being a subsidy to the middle class and the rich unless the administration also did some thing for poor people, who didn't pay any taxes.
The White House was hardly a locus of intense interest in the problem of poverty. Michael Harrington's book The Other America, which claimed that one-third of the country was poor (and had one chapter on black city slums), had been published in 1962, but it attracted very little attention until one of the country's leading literary critics, Dwight Macdonald, rescued it from obscurity with a long
review in The New Yorker (aptly titled "Our Invisible Poor") that appeared in January 1963. It is part of John Kennedy's legend that The Other America spurred him into action against poverty, in the same way that Upton Sinclair's The Jungle had motivated Theodore Roosevelt to create the Food and Drug Administration, but the consensus among Kennedy's aides is that he read Macdonald's review, not the book itself. Certainly Macdonald's dry, witty, elegant essay was more up Kennedy's alley than Harrington's earnest, impassioned book would have been. Kennedy's one moving personal experience with poverty had been during his campaign in the 1960 West Virginia primary, when he saw Appalachia at first hand (and beat Hubert Humphrey, thus incurring a heavy political debt to West Virginia); as president his main antipoverty measure before 1963 was the creation of the Appalachian Regional Commission.
Kennedy told Heller to look into the idea of creating a new poverty program. Heller brought Robert Lampman, who was a former student of his at Wisconsin, onto the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers and asked him to condense the poverty research he had done for Paul Douglas into a memo. On May I, 1963, Heller wrote Kennedy, "Bob Lampman, CEA's expert on poverty, has updated his 1957 data on this subject. The results are distressing …. Table 1 -A shows the drastic slow down in the rate at which the economy is taking people out of poverty." On June 3, Heller asked Lampman to write another memo that would answer the question, "Specifically, what lines of action might make up a practical Kennedy antipoverty program in 1964?"
Lampman considered himself much more the political realist than Heller, who had a practically unbounded faith in the influence of the Council of Economic Advisers; he thought any program explicitly aimed at doing something about poverty was doomed. His answer to Heller, dated June 10, 1963, is a subdued document that ends by saying, "Probably a politically acceptable program must avoid completely any use of the term 'inequality' or of the term 'redistribution of income or wealth,'" although those were just the terms in which Lampman, as an economist, was accustomed to thinking about the problem. In August, Lampman returned to Wisconsin, convinced that the poverty initiative wasn’t going to get anywhere.
Heller pressed on without much success. One day in that summer of 1963 he convened a lunch at the White House mess with Galbraith, Willard Wirtz, secretary of labor and an old Adlai Stevenson hand, and Wilbur Cohen, a first-generation New Deal social welfare planner who was deputy secretary (but the real power) at the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to sell them on the poverty idea. Heller had every reason to expect that they would be a sympathetic audience, but the lunch didn't go well. As Heller remembered it, "Galbraith sort of took the position he took in The Affluent Society. 'We even build our superhighways over them, on concrete stilts.' His position was, the poor were not a major element in the picture-- not that it wasn't a problem, but that it was a problem the political system wasn't going to address. That disappointed me. Second, Wirtz, a friend since World War II, said, 'An attack on ignorance, on slums-- fine. But on poverty? That's too diffuse.' He couldn't see it. That flabbergasted me. Then, I wanted a new agency. That's where I stepped on Wilbur Cohen's toes. He was interested in the objective but felt it should be done in HEW. I left that lunch crestfallen. I couldn't even get Lampman enthusiastic about it."
Heller did not display his doubts to the president. On June 20, in a memo to Kennedy covering several points, he wrote, in blithe disregard of the spirit of what Lampman was telling him, "Poverty. I have asked Bob Lampman, CEA's poverty expert, to consider what might go into an Administration's 'assault on poverty' program in 1964." Heller also began to talk up poverty among the political people around Kennedy who would make the final decisions about the I964 legislative program. He told them that a poverty program might help pull in votes-- not from Northern blacks, who were going to vote Democratic anyway, but from good-hearted suburban Republican Protestant church women who might be wooed away from a moderate Republican presidential candidate like Nelson Rockefeller. The reaction of the political people, notably Theodore Sorensen, was that Heller should stick to economics. Yet another problem emerged when Heller, after Lampman's departure, had another one of his assistants, William Capron, take over the job of formulating a real program. Capron created an interagency task force-- that most dreadedly slow-moving of all possible government entities-- consisting of representatives from all the federal departments and agencies involved in social welfare issues. It was a miserable failure.
During the New Deal, Franklin Roosevelt had packed the federal bureaucracy
with idealistic young reformers in their twenties and thirties. By the time
of the Kennedy administration, most of them were still around, only now they
were entrenched civil service lifers in their fifties and sixties. Every
agency had a long list of programs that hadn't quite made the cut for the New
Deal; now they were taken down
from the shelf, dusted off, and presented to Capron, always with the proviso that only the agency suggesting the program was competent to run it. The Labor Department wanted jobs programs. HEW wanted education and welfare programs. Agriculture wanted farm programs. In October, after months of meetings, Capron, intending to demonstrate what a mess the agencies were making, presented Sorensen with a list of 150 separate programs for fighting poverty and got the reaction he was hoping for: Sorensen firmly told him to come back with something better.
Heller and Capron were badly in need of the public-policy equivalent of the cavalry riding to their rescue. Sure enough, one day that fall, they met David Hackett and Richard Boone and heard about the idea they had been developing at the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, to which by now they had given the name "community action.” There were three key elements to community action at that point: It would operate at the ground level; community action agencies would be located in poor neighborhoods, not downtown office buildings. It would coordinate a wide variety of social services in a single location, so that poor people wouldn't have to spend half their lives shuttling between the welfare office and the public housing office and the job placement office, Finally, it would plan its activities based on what the poor people actually wanted from government, rather than what bureaucrats in Washington thought they needed.
"Community action appealed to me immediately," Heller remembered. "The moment I heard about it, it became part of my thinking." Capron brought Paul Ylvisaker and Mitchell Sviridoff down to Washington to meet with Kermit Gordon, director of the Bureau of the Budget, and Ylvisaker's eloquently low-key sales pitch instantly made Gordon into another convert to community action. Finally the antipoverty idea had come into focus.
Community action had the excitement of a new idea; it seemed fresh and vigorous, and lent a groundbreaking spirit to the creaking antipoverty effort. Bureaucratically, it provided a wonderful rationale for doing what Heller and Capron wanted to do anyway, bypass the old-line departments and start an adventurous new government agency. Having originated in the financially constrained venues of a minor committee and a foundation, it was cheaper than the big Cabinet departments' ideas. It also struck the deep-seated chord of dissatisfaction with the New Deal approach to government that was floating around in the Kennedy administration. As Capron says now, a little ruefully, "I was an arrogant smart-assed economist, disdainful of the bureaucracy."
Heller was used to the idea of local governments being the fount of public-sector innovation, because that was the tradition he had grown up with in Wisconsin. After World War II , he had worked for a time in Germany with E. F. Schumacher, later the author of Small Is Beautiful, and had become convinced of the merits of decentralizing power. During 1963, Heller had begun to develop a friendship with Robert Kennedy, whose connection to community action gave it the best possible patron that a new initiative could have in the Kennedy administration. One evening at a gathering at Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s house in Washington, George Kennan, the magisterially gloomy diplomat, said to Heller, "I hear you're working on the problem of the poor. The poor are always with you. If you lift up the poor, you'll just create more poor." Robert Kennedy, who was also there, immediately leaped to Heller's defense.
On October 21st, 1963, Heller had an encouraging meeting with President Kennedy. According to Heller's notes, Kennedy said that an article on a poor white area of Kentucky by Homer Bigart in the previous day's New York Times had convinced him that "there was a tremendous problem to be met." The notes continue: "It's perfectly clear that he is aroused about this and if we could really produce a program to fit the bill, he would be inclined to run with it." On November 20 Heller and six members of the Cabinet were going to leave Washington to attend a meeting in Japan. Heller decided he'd better check in with Kennedy about the poverty program before he left, so on November 19 he asked Kennedy's secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, for some time with the president. She told him she would squeeze him in at seven in the evening. When Heller arrived, he found John Kennedy, Jr., waiting for his father outside the Oval Office. The president told his son he'd be out in a minute and ushered Heller in. "We had ten minutes and covered enough things that it took me half an hour to write a memo to the staff on what he'd said," Heller remembered. "I popped the question: 'Mr. President, I have Bill Capron working on poverty, but I'm not sure after talking to Sorensen that you're willing to commit."' Heller's notes record a response notably more lukewarm than Kennedy had given him a month earlier: "His attitude was, 'No, I'm still very much in favor of doing something on the poverty theme if we can get a good program, but I also think it's important to make clear that we're doing something for the middle-income man in the suburbs, etc. But the two are not at all inconsistent with one another. So go
right ahead with your work on it.” Evidently political considerations had caused Kennedy's enthusiasm for the poverty program to cool. Sorensen later remembered, "He was a little shaken . . . by a political strategy meeting we held on the 1964 campaign shortly before he died in which during a discussion of issues census director [Richard] Scammon talked about the number of people who did not feel they could identify with federal programs, and the President mentioned a poverty proposal. Scammon pointed out that most people did not consider themselves impoverished, and those were not the people we were trying to reach, and so on. But in a subsequent conversation the President told Walter Heller that while he would include other programs in his 1964 message, he still recognized the importance of going ahead on poverty." Capron describes the final signal from Kennedy as "an amber light tinted green." Everyone close to Kennedy agrees that he certainly did not have any kind of major effort in mind.
Heller was on the way back from Japan in a military plane, preparing to take a swim during a refueling stop at Wake Island, when the news came that President Kennedy had been killed. The plane stopped instead in Hawaii, so that the Cabinet members could receive a military briefing on the situation in Dallas, and then flew on to Washington. During that long trip, Heller remembered, "All we talked about was, what kind of man is Lyndon Johnson?" On the day Heller got home, Saturday, November 23, he got a chance to find out: he was called in to brief the new president.
LYNDON JOHNSON came to the presidency possessing intense feelings
about liberals, especially liberal intellectuals. He considered himself a
liberal, essentially-- a practical liberal from a conservative state, not a
dreamer or an idealist. His political roots were in the New Deal. He was
uncomfortably aware, though, that liberals disliked and mistrusted him. One
reason for this, Johnson felt, was that the leading liberals didn't
understand the complexities of his own position or
the nature of the real world of politics, in which nothing ever got done
without compromises being made. As long ago as the 1930s, when Johnson was a
loyal follower of Franklin Roosevelt, he fell out with his liberal friends
when he refused to join in a fight against the poll tax. Johnson was planning
his unsuccessful 1941 campaign for
the Senate at the time, and all through the years when he knew that
establishing a statewide
constituency in Texas was a prerequisite to his realizing his ambitions, he kept his liberalism well hidden. In his 1948 Senate campaign, he supported the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act, and opposed Harry Truman's civil rights bill (which he called "an effort to set up a police state in the guise of liberty'') and the establishment of the Fair Employment Practices Commission.
Johnson was a man with enormous insecurity and capacity for self-pity, and for years he told friends that no matter what he did, Eastern liberals wouldn't like him simply because he was a not-very-well-educated Southerner. "He used to tell me that even back in the 1930s, when he was meeting people from the East, he loved to be in their company, but they'd taunt him," says Johnson's longtime aide Horace Busby. "He said they said, 'What's a hick like you know about this stuff?' l don't know if they really did, but he said they did. He said his comeback to them was, 'If you're so close to Roosevelt, how come you can't get things done?' But I think he was inventing some of this."
The sense of being excluded from a charmed circle was painful enough on its own, but also, Johnson felt, the liberal wing of the Democratic Party could effectively block him from becoming president. Liberals' suspicions about Southerners were centered around the race issue, and Johnson knew well from personal experience how careful a Southern politician with national ambitions had to be about race. He had always considered himself to be a friend of civil rights at heart. As Texas state director of the National Youth Administration in the 1930s, he had befriended Mary McLeod Bethune, the great black educator, and funneled money to black colleges over the objections of the governor of Texas.
The very day that Horace Busby went to work for Johnson, in the late
1940s, Johnson out of the blue gave him a peroration about race relations,
saying, as Busby remembers it, “The Negro fought in the war, and now that
he's back here with his family he's not gonna keep taking the shit we're
dishing out. We're in a race with time. If we don't act, we're gonna have
blood in the streets." Johnson made the same speech to David Ginsburg,
one of his New Deal friends in Washington. "I remember him always making
the point over and over of the need to avert a crisis," Ginsburg says.
"The issue had to be obliterated from our society. Blacks had fought in
the war. They'd manned the factories. You couldn't treat them as second-class
citizens.'' Johnson was never one for quixotic stands on issues, but even
during his publicly segregationist days he would some times let nobler
feelings about race show if he
was sure the cost wouldn't be high. In 1948, at a campaign stop in the out-of-the-way town of Cleveland, Texas, which his opponent was sure to carry, he announced that he wouldn't start talking until the blacks in the audience crossed over and stood on the same side of the railroad tracks as the whites. Afterward in his hotel room, Busby says, "He called me in: 'Buzz, Buzz.' Beaming. He said, 'How many votes you think I'll get here?' I held up both hands: ten votes. He said, 'Oh, no,' and held up two fingers."
In the late 1950s, as Johnson began to think in terms of making himself attractive to a national constituency, his public position on civil rights began to change. His great triumph as Senate majority leader was pushing through the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Because he had accepted the jury-trial amendment, though, the liberals still mistrusted him, which wounded him. Why were the Galbraiths and Schlesingers willing to sign on with John Kennedy, who had agreed to the same amendment but done nothing to help the bill pass? Why did they love Senator J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, who had signed the Southern Manifesto, the congressional resolution condemning the Supreme Court decision in 1954 that struck down segregation in local public schools- as Johnson hadn't?
Still, he stayed interested in civil rights, out of some combination
of sincere belief, a desire to redeem himself for his long silence on the
subject, and ambition for the presidency. He would occasionally lecture his
aides on the subject of great Southern politicians who had thrown away their
chance to be national figures because of segregation. Once Johnson told Bill
Moyers, his closest aide in the early 1960s, that the one senator from history
he'd like to meet was Pitchfork Ben Tillman of South Carolina, because, as
Moyers recalled the conversation, "He might have been president. I'd
like to sit down with him and ask how it was to throw it away for the sake of
hating." Another time, after Johnson as president had finished a meeting
with his old friend Richard Russell, the senator from Georgia, he told
Moyers, “God damn it. Jim Crow put a collar on more smart men as sure as if
they were sentenced to a chain gang in Georgia. If Dick Russell hadn't had to
wear Jim Crow's collar, Dick Russell would be sitting here now instead of
me." The idea that his renunciation of segregation had enabled him to
break the barrier keeping Southerners from the presidency was so important to
Johnson that he once asked Moyers to commission a study from the Library of
Congress proving that Woodrow Wilson wasn't really from the South. When
Johnson was vice president, there was a certain amount of ill will between
him and the Kennedy brothers on civil rights issues. It wasn't something that attracted any public notice, but it was there. The Kennedys, especially Robert Kennedy, thought that Johnson wanted to apply the brakes where civil rights were involved; Johnson thought the Kennedys were developing the habit for which he held liberals in contemp- - choosing to take the position that would make them look good rather than doing what was necessary to achieve something substantive. President Kennedy made Johnson chairman of the President's Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which was supposed to promote the hiring of blacks as federal employees and contractors. Robert Kennedy also served on the committee, and several times during its meetings he and Johnson quarreled in a way that went far beyond the bounds of usual behavior in government. ''I saw Bobby Kennedy treat Johnson in a most vicious manner. He'd ridicule him, imply he was insincere," says Robert Weaver; "I'd shudder at the way those two men would cut each other up in meetings," says Willard Wirtz.
Johnson removed the original executive director of the committee, a Kennedy appointee, and set up a program called Plans for Progress, which tried to get government contractors to hire more blacks voluntarily, nudged along by Johnson-style persuasion. Kennedy, who was worried about how the administration's hiring record would look in the 1964 campaign, favored a tougher (but in Johnson's view, less effective) approach, and considered Johnson's vice chairman, a black man, to be an Uncle Tom. At one meeting, Kennedy walked in late, sat down, and immediately began attacking Plans for Progress. He tore into James Webb, the director of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (a favorite agency of Johnson's), for not doing enough, then got up and left. As one man who was at the meeting remembered it, "It was a pretty brutal business, very sharp. It brought tensions between Johnson and Kennedy right out on the table and very hard. Everyone was sweating under the armpits and so on."
The enmity was visible outside the confines of the equal opportunity
committee, too. Once President Kennedy was called away from a White House
meeting with civil rights leaders and asked Johnson to carry on as chairman.
Louis Martin, who had stayed on in Washington after the 1960 election as an
official of the Democratic National Committee and was close to both Johnson
and Robert Kennedy, was at the meeting. He remembered: "At one point
Bobby looked up at me and motioned me to come over. . . . So I went over, and
he whispered in my ear, he said, 'I've got a date, and I've got to get on
in a few minutes. Can you tell the vice president to cut it short?' So knowing something of the relationship of Bobby and the vice president at the time, I was absolutely thunderstruck. So I went back to my former position and did nothing, Then he motioned again. I went back over there and he said, 'Didn't I tell you to tell the vice president to shut up?' And Bobby was-- I can't explain and describe adequately how he could talk to you. But anyway I was in such a dilemma I had to do something. The vice president was going full steam. I went around the table and got close to him, and he saw me. I whispered in his ear, 'Bobby has got to go, and he wants to close it up.' He glared at me, and didn't stop for a moment. He just kept going. I thought surely this was the faux pas of the year, as far as I was concerned, but l didn't really know what to do. I knew that the vice president, once he was aroused, was a pretty tough gentleman, and I was really sick. Fortunately, the meeting lasted only another ten or fifteen minutes.''
When President Kennedy was formulating the civil rights bill, in the spring of 1963, Johnson was full of doubts. A tape recording was made of a remarkable long telephone call between Johnson, in his office at the Capitol, and Theodore Sorensen, at the White House, in which Johnson, one of the great monopolists of conversations, expresses his worries about the bill at great length without any response from Sorensen beyond the occasional terse, perfunctory, and somewhat patronizing expression of sympathy and agreement. Johnson's position was that before proposing the bill (which Kennedy did a week after the conversation occurred), Kennedy should soften up the Congress, and also stake some of his presidential prestige by giving speeches on its behalf in the South, It's obvious that Johnson had some grasp of the function the civil rights bill would serve in black America-- it would be an important signal and a symbolic victory, but it would hardly solve the problem of the exclusion of most blacks from the mainstream of American society, He wanted Kennedy to propose education programs and to create government jobs for blacks along with the civil rights bill. One typical exchange will convey the flavor of the conversation:
JOHNSON: I know these risks are great and it might cost us the South, but those sorts of states may be lost anyway. The difference is if your President just enforces court decrees, the South will feel it's yielded to force. But if he goes down there and looks them in the eye and states the moral issue and the Christian issue, and he does it face to face, these Southerners at least will respect his courage.
They feel that they're on the losing side of an issue of conscience. Now, I think the Southern whites and the Negroes share one point of view that's identical. They're not certain that the government is on the side of the Negroes. The whites think we're just playing politics to carry New York. The Negroes feel…. that we're just doing what we got to do. Until that's laid to rest I don't think you're going to have much of a solution, I don't think the Negroes' goals are going to be achieved through legislation…. I think the Negro leaders are aware of that. What Negroes are really seeking is moral force and to be sure that we're on their side and make them all act like Americans, and until they receive that assurance, unless it's stated dramatically and convincingly, they're not going to pay much attention to executive orders and legislative recommendations, They're going to approach them with skepticism. So . . .
SORENSEN: I agree with that and I think that's very sound.
Robert Kennedy saw Johnson as simply vacillating and unhelpful, possibly even lacking in guts, about the civil rights bill. He said later, describing his brother's attitude but plainly speaking for himself as well, "The President was rather irritated with him at the time because he was opposed to these things-- this and a good number of other measures-- but did not come up with alternative suggestions." By the time of the assassination the civil rights bill had gotten nowhere in Congress, so both Johnson and Robert Kennedy would have had no cause to revise their opinions about each other’s shortcomings as champions of civil rights.
WALTER HELLER'S meeting with Johnson on the day after the assassination was mostly devoted to a review of the broad range of economic policy-making, but Heller did make sure to bring up the subject of his antipoverty program, perhaps exaggerating somewhat the extent of its progress so far. In his notes, made just after the meeting and marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL, Heller wrote:
Then I went over with him the attack on poverty work. I indicated
that this was an important theme for the 1964 program that we were working on
with the hope (a) that we could develop a good basic
concept for it and (b) that we could develop a good program content, mindful of the budget constraints in the first year, I noted that the Departments were quite stirred up about it, that there was a good deal of enthusiasm for it, though we did not yet know whether we had the final answer to an attractive program. I told him about my last talk with President Kennedy, about the fact that while he was interested in doing something for the middle income groups and suburbanites-- or at least pointing out what we had done-- he had also strongly urged me to move ahead on the poverty theme in the hope that we can make it an important part of the I964 program. The new President expressed his interest in it, his sympathy for it, and in answer to a point-blank question, said we should push ahead full-tilt on this project,
Years later, Heller remembered Johnson also saying, "That’s my kind of program.'' The meeting took place late in the day, after seven o'clock in the evening, Johnson and Heller were both overwhelmed and exhausted, and when he had finished with his business Heller made ready to leave Johnson alone. According to his notes,
Just as I was about to go out of his office and had opened the door, the President gently pushed it shut and drew me back in and said, "Now, I want to say something about all this talk that I'm a conservative who is likely to go back to the Eisenhower ways or give in to the economy bloc in Congress. It's not so, and I want you to tell your friends-- Arthur Schlesinger, Galbraith and other liberals-- that it is not so. I'm no budget slasher. I understand the expenditures have to keep rising to keep pace with the population and help the economy, If you looked at my record, you would know that I am a Roosevelt New Dealer. As a matter of fact, to tell the truth, John F, Kennedy was a little too conservative to suit my taste.
In the weeks following the assassination), however, John F. Kennedy, as his associates went to work burnishing his reputation, began to become more liberal-- in particular, more liberal than Lyndon Johnson. Caution and pragmatism do not make an easy foundation on which to build an argument for historical greatness, and they were not stressed in the memorialization of Kennedy, In early December
1963, in a eulogy that appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. wrote, "In one of the last talks I had with him, he was musing about the legislative program for next January, and said, 'The time has come to organize a national assault on the causes of poverty, a comprehensive program, across the board.' " The severely grieving Robert Kennedy found a piece of note paper on which his brother, during the last Cabinet meeting he had conducted, had scribbled the word "poverty" several times and circled it; he framed it and kept it on display in his office at the Justice Department. Theodore Sorensen, who had been so skeptical about the antipoverty program before the assassination, now became an enthusiastic champion of it. Walter Heller was not averse to letting it be known that fighting poverty had been President Kennedy's last wish.
Johnson was certain that he could accomplish much more as President than Kennedy had, and he saw the poverty program as the most immediately available way to prove it. A week after the assassination, he invited two old liberal-bureaucrat friends from the New Deal days, Arthur Goldschmidt and his wife Elizabeth Wickenden, to Sunday dinner at his house in Washington, where he and his family were still living while Jacqueline Kennedy prepared to leave the White House. "Johnson talked very freely at that Sunday dinner," Wickenden says. "He said, 'I have a very difficult problem. I feel a moral obligation to finish the things that JFK proposed. But I also have to find issues I can take on as my own.' So he came to this poverty program-- making it nationwide. He didn't go into what it would do specifically. He said, 'I have to get reelected in a year and a half, so I have to have something of my own.' '' Very quickly, however, Johnson realized that the Kennedy people had succeeded in changing the stakes of the poverty program: the question, instead of being whether Johnson could take over what had been a small, stagnating Kennedy idea and make it his first major initiative without appearing to be one-upping the dead President, became whether Johnson could possibly be as fully committed to fighting poverty as Kennedy had been. He was suddenly at risk of bringing another hail of sophisticated liberal contempt down on his head if he made a misstep.
Before he had been President two weeks, Johnson wrote (and made public) a letter to the American Public Welfare Association promising, in words identical to those Schlesinger had ascribed to Kennedy, "a national assault on the causes of poverty." At that point Johnson had no idea what the assault would consist of. What few signals he had given to Heller indicated that he envisioned something along the
lines of the National Youth Administration, in which young people would be taken out into the clean air and put to work creating visible accomplishments. Heller remembered, ''He had this sort of concrete idea. Bulldozers. Tractors. People operating heavy machinery." Meanwhile, Heller’s staff was moving full steam ahead on community action, which, since it had originated in the Justice Department, had begun to look like the one way of fighting poverty that was most faithful to the Kennedy legacy.
The idea of community action was still so new that it was completely unclear whether it did in fact work as a way of reducing poverty. Most of the projects being funded by the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency were barely more than a year old. David Hackett believed that the new antipoverty program should be tiny and hesitant, in recognition of how little the people running the government knew about community action: he suggested that it be funded at the level of $1 million a year, with the money going to small, closely watched experimental projects in just six cities. Walter Heller wasn't going to have any of that: he knew that he had the first chance in the generation since the sputtering out of the New Deal to get a big new federal social welfare program enacted, and he didn't intend to let it slip past him; anyway, Heller knew that Johnson wanted something big. On December 20, 1963, Heller sent a memo to Sorensen, who was still running the White House staff, laying out his idea for the poverty program. It would have community action as its centerpiece, and, true to the Hackett spirit, it would concentrate on "a limited number of demonstration areas-- our current thinking is a total of about $10 million." But the budget would be nearly half a billion dollars a year, and in addition to community action, Wilbur Cohen of HEW (who was an old friend of Johnson's) would be given more than a dozen small new programs to run himself.
Heller's next task was to sell Johnson on community action. Over the Christmas holidays, he and Kermit Gordon of the Budget Bureau flew down to Johnson's ranch in Texas, where they laid out the idea. Apparently Johnson didn't like it. William Cannon, who was the member of Gordon's staff assigned to the poverty program, says, "Kermit told me he and Heller presented it to Johnson, but he was scared. He killed the community action part of it. But the next day they persuaded him, so they came back to Washington with it in." It isn't difficult to see what Johnson's reservations about community action would have been. It had a vague, tentative quality that was exactly what he didn't like in a government program; there was no guarantee that it would do the things Johnson instinctively believed in, teach children and put adults to work.
As a limited demonstration program, it would seem unimportant, and it would be difficult to pass because it didn't funnel money into many congressional districts. To the extent that it set up local agencies that were independent of mayors, governors, and members of Congress, it would attract political opposition. On the other hand, community action had already become a cause for the Kennedy people, so that if Johnson rejected it, he might be portrayed as having betrayed the legacy, "The idea didn't come from him. But these things get momentum," says Busby, who was the lone dissenter in the staff discussions of community action at the ranch that Christmas, "The forces of learning and light said it's the way to go. If he'd said no to it, people would've said, 'Oh, he's not really sincere, he's just a Southern racist.' "
On December 10, 1963, Busby stayed up late in Johnson's office at the ranch, writing Johnson a memo that urged him to watch out for the poverty program. "There is no workable program yet conceived," Busby wrote; he suggested (as Richard Scammon had suggested to Kennedy a few weeks earlier) that Johnson take care to show that he was paying attention to "the American in the middle." The memo went on: "People know instinctively these are your kind of folks-- not the extremes. The politics of the extremes is what the typical American expects you to break away from. If you can do so, you can broaden the Democratic Party base as it has not been broadened in two decades."
Another doubter was Elizabeth Wickenden, On January 4, 1964, she wrote to Sorensen's deputy, Myer Feldman, objecting to community action on the grounds that it was too narrow in its focus and too politically perilous: "The problems of poverty are only in limited instances localized in character. They are for the most part widely distributed, related to economic and social factors that operate nationwide, and would require more than local action for solution." Also, community action could "be subject to severe political attack" because "a federal agency would be short-circuiting the normal channels of relationship to states and localities in their own areas of responsibility." In response, Wickenden received a brief, patronizing note from Sorensen's deputy. "Obviously, you have given careful consideration to the points you have raised and they are set forth in a concise and orderly fashion," it said. The die was cast; as Busby says, "If they thought it up, that was it."
On January 8, 1964, in his first State of the Union address, President Johnson said, "This Administration today, here and now, declares un conditional war on poverty in America." Sorensen was the primary author of the address; "war on poverty" was a phrase first used by John Kennedy in a speech delivered in 1960 on the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Social Security Act. A research study Johnson ordered up after the State of the Union showed that it had been interrupted by applause more times than any other State of the Union address since 1933. He was a liberal hero at last.
IMMEDIATELY after Johnson declared war on poverty, Walter Heller issued the annual Economic Report of the President in Johnson's name, and in it promised that the war on poverty would spend "over $1 billion of new funds in the first year.'' Having secured Johnson's support of a new poverty program based on community action, at a far greater level of spending and of rhetorical commitment than he ever could have extracted from President Kennedy, Heller left center stage. Now it was up to Johnson to get the program up and running.
On February 1, Johnson announced the appointment of Sargent Shriver as head of the war on poverty, Johnson always devoted a great deal of care and cleverness to appointments, even when the most minor jobs were involved; in this case the stakes were especially high, and his choice was especially shrewd.
To all outward appearances, Johnson was putting a Kennedy family member in charge of the war on poverty and thus demonstrating that the program would be conducted in a manner faithful to the martyred president's conception of it. One of the reigning ideas in Washington was that the Kennedys were all eternally bonded to one another. The family itself had so much invested in its image of magical clannishness that by appointing Shriver, Johnson neatly headed off the possibility of Robert Kennedy's publicly criticizing the poverty program.
In truth, though, there was a palpable distance between Shriver and
Robert Kennedy, and Johnson knew it. The Kennedys had made Shriver feel that
he would be forever limited to supporting roles in the family drama, partly
because he was only a brother-in-law and partly because they found him
lacking in the essential quality of toughness, Shriver was noticeably rankled
by the way he was treated. Through Eunice, he had been concerned with the
issue of juvenile delinquency long before Robert Kennedy had been. In I960 he had seen Robert Kennedy
consistently try to cut back on the campaign's
commitment to civil rights, The Kennedys were supposed to be aristocratic, handsome,and heroic, but Shriver was more aristocratic (coming from an old Maryland family), more handsome (conventionally, anyway with his barrel chest and resolute chin and jaw), and more heroic (he had a distinguished though unpublicized war record, having served four years in the Navy in the South Pacific). He was also more seriously Catholic and, unlike the Kennedys, had much deeper roots in the socially concerned branch of the church, having been a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul at a time when Robert Kennedy's Catholic heroes were Pope Pius XII, Cardinal Spellman, and Joseph McCarthy. In the Kennedy administration Shriver had been put in charge of a small, somewhat bleeding-heart program, the Peace Corps, and had turned it into the most successful new agency in Washington.
Shriver had signaled Johnson that he wasn't so blindly loyal to Robert Kennedy that he couldn't devote himself fully to serving the new president. A few days after the assassination, Horace Busby came upon Johnson in the Oval Office studying a note-card headed "What Bobby Thinks” which contained a list of Robert Kennedy's complaints about Johnson's conduct since the death of his brother. Johnson had kept Jacqueline Kennedy waiting on the ground for two and a half hours inside Air Force One in Dallas so that he could be sworn in as President; he had been too quick to clear President Kennedy's things out of the Oval Office. These were not rational complaints-- in fact, it was somewhat embarrassing to Robert Kennedy to have them circulated-- but it was useful to Johnson to know about them. Who told you this? Busby asked him. Sargent Shriver, Johnson said.
During the Kennedy administration, Shriver's deputy at the Peace Corps had been Bill Moyers, Johnson's right-hand man. The two men became close friends, which gave Shriver an only slightly indirect line to Johnson; it was Moyers who persuaded Johnson to give Shriver the poverty job, hoping to open up the directorship of the Peace Corps for himself. (Instead, Johnson kept Shriver in both jobs simultaneously.) In the weeks before Shriver was appointed, some people in the administration had the impression that Robert Kennedy wanted to be asked to run the war on poverty himself, so by accepting the job Shriver was muscling his brother-in-law aside. Also, Bobby Kennedy was known to harbor the ambition of being Johnson's running mate in the 1964 presidential campaig- - and Shriver had the same ambition, which was another violation of the family rule that he should never compete directly with a Kennedy. In appointing Shriver, Johnson was doing something he knew would annoy Kennedy, and for him that was always an attractive proposition.
Shriver had other qualities that Johnson liked. He was hardworking and buoyant, and he shared Johnson's taste for the unembarrassedly grandiose approach to government. Shriver loved the application of the war metaphor to poverty-- the idea of himself as the general in charge of managing, if not an actual military operation, at least something that belonged on the honor roll of large successful American efforts. "I said, 'Where's poverty? Where's the enemy?"' he remembers. He used to tell one of his department chiefs to think of himself as running the Chevrolet division of General Motors. When he was being briefed on what would become the Foster Grandparents program, a small part of the war on poverty, Shriver broke in impatiently, "It’s not big enough! Not big enough!" He was a salesman, not an administrator; he naturally thought in terms of what would play well in Congress and in the press, and he liked to operate by charging ahead. Once during a weekend at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Shriver was playing in the customary afternoon touch football game. His side was losing, and one by one the relatives who were his teammates began to drift away and trudge back to the house. Shriver stayed on the field; in a tone of wounded pride, he said to one of his aides who was also playing, "See? The Kennedys know when to quit.”
Johnson announced Shriver’s appointment on a Saturday. It was characteristic of Shriver that by Sunday he was already hard at work. In his office at the Peace Corps, he convened a meeting of the people who had already been working on the poverty program, along with a couple of his own assistants. Johnson had told Shriver only vaguely that, as Shriver remembers it, "The White House has a plan and I'll have it sent over"; now Shriver heard about community action for the first time, and discovered that the people from the Council of Economic Advisers and the Budget Bureau expected him to build the whole poverty program around it. As Johnson had been at the ranch, he was immediately wary. During a break in the meeting Shriver found himself alone in the men’s room with Adam Yarmolinsky, whom he had in mind as his deputy in the war on poverty. Yarmolinsky was a small, tightly wound man who wore tiny bow ties and a bristling crew cut and, as an assistant to Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, had gotten a reputation as one of the most brilliant of all the brilliant young men in the Kennedy administration - someone who worked ceaselessly and got things done. Shriver said to Yarmolinsky, "It'll never fly."
ONE SIMILARITY between Shriver and Robert Kennedy was that they both loved to surround themselves with a group of scintillating people and debate the great problems of the world. In Chicago in the 1950s the Shrivers’ living room had been the scene of frequent gatherings of politicians, artists, writers, and Catholic intellectuals; out of this kind of relentless, energetic cross-fertilization of the talented, a higher understanding was supposed to emerge. Harris Wofford met Shriver for the first time when he gave a speech in Chicago about his work on the civil rights commission and Shriver, who knew from Wofford's introduction that he had spent time in India, rose from the audience and asked how Gandhi's methods could be used to solve the racial difficulties of the Chicago school system.
The planning sessions for the war on poverty quickly turned into a typical Shriver seminar, a loose group of ebullient characters from inside and outside government. Frank Mankiewicz, a Peace Corps official in Latin America who happened to be in town, was brought into the meetings by Shriver; he mentioned the work of Michael Harrington, and Shriver immediately said, "Who's that? Get him in." The freewheeling nature of the proceedings served to obscure how much was at stake: this was, as it turned out, the one chance that the American government would have to create a paradigm by which the federal government made an intensive effort to deal with the difficulties of the black ghettos. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another participant later put it, "a big bet was being made."
It is easy to see how unclear this must have been at the time. The
country was finally beginning to seem reliably liberal in its political mood
for the first time since the Depression, and it looked like this liberal
heyday would be better than the last one. In 1964, the economy was
prosperous-- eternally so, it seemed, because of the success of Walter
Heller’s Keynesian techniques-- and the house of liberalism was in much
better order than it had been in the 1930s because there weren't any
destructive internal battles-- with communists this time around. Surely
whatever Shriver's group came up with would be merely an opening salvo;
Johnson would be president until 1972, so there would be many years in which
to fine-tune and expand the program. The idea that the federal government
might have trouble
solving a large problem was completely foreign to Shriver and his associates, whose formative experiences were watching Roosevelt defeat the Depression and then the Nazis. Because all the key participants in the meetings were white and from the North, they didn't have that ingrained awareness of the tragic potential of the national enterprise that virtually all African-Americans, and many white Southerners possessed; to them, America almost by definition couldn't fail at anything. "For the proponents of social legislation, this was our Camelot," Adam Yarmolinsky says.
One person who wasn't at Shriver's meetings was Robert Kennedy, though he did let it be known that he was a strong supporter of community action. "We went to see him early on," Mankiewicz says. "Sarge and I, maybe Harrington, Moynihan, Dave Hackett, and Dick Boone. He looked awful. He just sort of sat there. He was still in shock. He asked if what we were doing was what President Kennedy had in mind, and Hackett and Boone assured him it was. He said, 'Fine.' " On the staff of the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, there was a sense of reservation about the Shriver operation, a feeling that community action was going to be ruined by being made too big too fast. Hackett went to some of Shriver's meetings, but he didn't say much, and his disapproval was obvious. Lloyd Ohlin had his doubts. The one exception to the rule was Boone, who perceived that the war on poverty was his big chance: "You had to be pragmatic- where was the power, and what could be done with it?" Ohlin says. "Boone told me, 'Look, let’s take advantage of the opportunity we've got now. Let's get the money out there.' It was a war. The notion of moving slowly was simply not appealing.'' When Paul Ylvisaker was summoned to Washington and asked to draw up a budget for community action, he came up with a grand total of $30 million; he was told to add another zero.
Of all the people at Shriver's meetings, Boone was the one whose ideas about the war on poverty departed most sharply from the liberal orthodoxy of the time, because he had in mind the politicization of the poor not in the Bill Dawson join-the-machine sense, bur with the goal of their becoming an opposing force to the establishment. There were several different strains in liberal thought about poverty in the early 1960s, but that wasn't one of them.
Most economists, and economics-oriented liberals, believed that the real cure for poverty was income redistribution but that was not an option for the war on poverty, because Lyndon Johnson was unalterably opposed to it. "You tell Shriver, no doles," he told Moyers; on Johnson s instructions.
Lester Thurow, then a junior member of the staff of the Council of Economic Advisers, was given the task of going through the Economic Report of the President removing anything that could be construed as a reference to putting cash in the hands of poor people. There had to be programs to end poverty.
The need for programs meshed nicely with the reigning belief of liberal sociologists, anthropologists and social welfare experts about poverty among the able-bodied, which was that it was caused by a "culture of poverty." The concept of "culture" as a shaper of behavior was invented by early twentieth-century anthropologists with the intention that it would refute the idea that people who did not live in bourgeois societies were innately inferior in some way. In The Affluent Society, Galbraith divided poverty into two categories, “cases” which was related to some characteristic of the individuals so afflicted," and "insular” which manifests itself as an 'island' of poverty. Insular poverty was cultural in nature, the product of group folkways rather than individual failures; in the early 1960s, the term "poverty pockets" entered the language as a mutation of Galbraith's notion. The term "culture of poverty" had been invented in 1959 by a popular anthropologist named Oscar Lewis, who described it as "a way of life which is passed down from generation to generation" and produces people who "are not psychologically geared to take full advantage of changing conditions or increased opportunities which may occur in their lifetime."
The culture of poverty was an attractive notion for liberals because the obvious cure for it was for the government to act as an agent of acculturation. If poor people did not train their children well for school, the government could train them; if poor people did not eat properly, the government could give them nutritious food; if they did not have good work habits, the government could teach that, too. The urban ghettos were a perfect place to try all this, because black sharecroppers who had migrated to the cities seemed to fit Lewis's paradigm perfectly; as he wrote, "The most likely candidates for the culture of poverty are the people who come from the lower strata of a rapidly changing society and are already partially alienated from it. Thus landless rural workers who migrate to the cities can be expected to develop a culture of poverty…." Much of the promising work then going on in black ghettos, such as the Gray Areas Project in New Haven, appeared to be precisely aimed at breaking the culture of poverty through the use of special programs.
Oscar Lewis, a man who liked to move in nonacademic circles, turned up at Shriver's planning meetings. Michael Harrington, who was probably America's most famous socialist was then an avid purveyor of the culture of poverty idea and had used the phrase "culture of poverty'' repeatedly in The Other America. Shriver immediately became engaged in converting the concept into politically salable slogans for the war on poverty, such as "a hand up, not a handout." Almost all the programs that Shriver's group was considering fit under the rubric of acculturating poor people into the folkways of the middle class. Community action could be thought of that way. Head Start, the preschool program that has been the war on poverty's most enduring success, would prepare poor children for school better than they'd be prepared at home. Legal Services would help naive poor people master the art of not being constantly gouged. The Job Corps, Shriver's favorite antipoverty program, would do for teenagers what Head Start did for toddlers, get them ready for a successful entry into the job market by taking them out of their poverty pockets and putting them in healthy rural camps for a period of intensive job-skills training.
Dick Boone's conception of the way to end poverty was substantially different: people were poor because they lacked political power, and the way for them to escape poverty was to get political power-- through the war on poverty, for example. The best instrument at hand for achieving this goal was the community action program, and the best way to ensure that community action would be a means of empowerment for the poor was to guarantee poor people "maximum feasible participation" in the local community action agencies.
Boone prided himself on being a master operator in the respectable not-for-profit sector, a mole of sorts. He describes his technique as "persistence and infiltration." At Shriver's meetings, he was playing a very tricky game. His hole card was his link to Robert Kennedy, through the juvenile delinquency committee, so he had to conceal the juvenile delinquency crowd's skepticism about the war on poverty and present himself as the attorney general's man on Shriver's team. At the same time, he took pains not to make his own view of community action crystal clear to his overwhelmingly acculturation oriented colleagues. As one participant remembered it, "Dick Boone was careful not to raise with Shriver issues in which he felt that he would get the wrong answer from Shriver.”
This wasn't so difficult as it might sound. Community action could be made to sound like an updated, streamlined version of what settlement houses did, with the cumbersome, overlapping federal
bureaucracies neatly sliced away; indeed, when Ylvisaker or Sviridoff (who was also at Shriver's meetings) described it, it did sound that way. Boone's disdain for social workers played well, too, with his vigorous male audience. The term "ladies bountiful" began to be bandied about as the derisive name for a type who would have no place in the war on poverty. Frank Mankiewicz was an enthusiastic proponent of community action because it reminded him of a community-organizing effort the Peace Corps had launched in Latin America (not entirely successfully, the Peace Corps' own internal evaluation department thought). Boone liked to present himself as a protégé of Saul Alinsky-- Alinsky's portrait hung on his office wall-- and he could point to The Woodlawn Organization in Chicago as a success that the war on poverty could copy.
The practical selling point of maximum feasible participation was that it would be useful in the South, as a way of circumventing segregationist politicians' attempts to set up all-white poverty programs. Most of the people at Shriver's meetings had no inkling that it might be unpopular with politicians in the North. Shriver himself, during his Chicago days, had become close to Mayor Daley, and wouldn't have dreamed of doing anything to offend him. No one could ever be quite certain exactly what Boone had in mind, anyway. That was part of his technique; as Capron puts it, "People wondered-- is Boone crazy?"
Boone didn't know exactly how maximum feasible participation would work when it was put into practice, and the uncertainty was part of the appeal. He liked to think of himself as a light-spirited, adventurous government officia- - liked, as he puts it, "just shaking things up." The highest accolade he can bestow on something he has done is to say, "That was fun." Pushing maximum feasible participation was fun. It might mean simply soliciting poor people as to their needs. It might be a way of funneling the social service jobs the poverty program would create to poor people instead of civil servants and social workers. It might, in the Chicago reform spirit, be a way of wresting control of a government entity from the machine. It might create some action in local elective politics. As Boone says, "It might lead somewhere, but we didn't know where."
Shriver's initial resistance to community action began to melt away. He had tremendous faith in experts, and nearly all of the experts he had gathered around him believed strongly that community action was the way to go. There was a theory going around that Bobby Kennedy got hold of Shriver
early on and prevailed on him to include community action in the war on poverty, but Shriver categorically denies this. To his mind, he had the same instructions from a higher power, President Johnson-- "the only thing he gave me was community action" he says. Community action was cheap, relative to every other idea being bandied about. It was the best way to make the war on poverty appear massive on a billion-dollar budget. There were myriad other issues to be resolved quickly. Instead of fighting it, Shriver focused his energies on getting other programs into the war on poverty, and on making community action more politically enticing to the Congress, which he did by departing completely from the concept of it as an experimental demonstration program. Community action went from Hackett's six cities, to Heller's ten, to fifty in Shriver's meetings, to two hundred and fifty in its first year in operation, to a thousand cities by 1967.
Boone's concept of maximum feasible participation sounded like a minor point not worth arguing over at length. On Tuesday, February 4, the third day of the meetings, as Yarmolinsky remembered it, “Dick Boone kept bringing up the idea of maximum feasible participation. Whether he used those words then I don't recall. I said to Dick, 'You've brought that idea up several times’ and he said, 'Yes, I have. How many more times do I have to bring it up before it gets into the program?' And I said, 'Oh, two or three.' He did and it did." Like supply-side economics in the 1980s, maximum feasible participation was a new and untested idea that, because it happened to hit Washington at a propitious moment, overnight became a sweeping national policy.
IT WAS A sign of Boone's cleverness that he was able to push relentlessly for community action without making Shriver and the others feel were fighting with him. The great bureaucratic battle of the planning sessions for the war on poverty was with someone else entirely, Willard Wirtz, the secretary of labor. Wirtz rubbed Shriver and his people the wrong way. He was a big, ponderous, humorless man who lacked the informal spirit that pervaded their meetings. He was intensely aware of being the head of the smallest of the Cabinet departments, and saw himself as having to be constantly on guard against humiliating slights. "Wirtz had to be seen to be believed,” says Yarmolinsky. “One time he came to a meeting-- with McNamara at the Pentagon on a Saturday, in his limo. The security guard asked him
for identification. Wirtz said, 'I'm the Secretary of Labor!' and got back in his car and drove off. He was that kind of person-- terribly insecure. I met with him once, in his paneled office, to discuss some minor bureaucratic struggle. He said, 'I'd never have thought this of you, Adam.' Everything was a moral issue with him." Some years later, when Wirtz's son married a woman who worked in the Budget Bureau, he solemnly told one of the Budget Bureau officials who came through the receiving line that this union meant that the infighting between the Labor Department and the poverty program could now end.
Wirtz overplayed his hand badly by proposing that the war on poverty include a massive jobs program to be operated solely by the Labor Department, with a budget in the $3 billion to $5 billion range- much more than President Johnson was willing to spend on the entire poverty program. Besides the problem of the money, everybody knew that the AFL-CIO, which as the most powerful Democratic interest group was an organization whose support of the war on poverty was essential, disliked government jobs programs, believing that they took work away from union members. There was one jobs program that Shriver was interested in above all other aspects of the poverty program, the Job Corps, but he wanted to run it himself rather than ceding it to Wirtz. Wirtz made the disastrous tactical error of going over Shriver's head to Johnson with a proposal for a new federal tax on cigarettes to finance his jobs program. At a Cabinet meeting on February 18, Wirtz delivered an impassioned pitch for his idea, and Johnson made his un-enthusiasm clear by reaching over, picking up the telephone that was always at his side, and, while Wirtz was still talking, placing a few calls.
Since it was beneath Wirtz's dignity to attend Shriver's meetings himself,
he sent a representative to look out for his interests: Pat Moynihan, who was
his assistant secretary for policy. Moynihan had practically invented the
role of the social welfare intellectual in government- his job had no
operating responsibilities, so he
could devote all his energies to generating new ideas. As a thinker, he was
not so much profoundly original as he was nimble. He had extraordinary radar
that enabled him to pluck significant bits of information out of government
reports or scholarly journals, and an ability to dramatize his findings in a
way that would get the attention of high government officials. Like Wirtz,
Moynihan was a great believer in government jobs programs, but the Labor Department
had a difficult
time making the need for them clear, because the unemployment rate was low, and dropping. Much earlier than the rest of federal officialdom, Moynihan realized that unemployment, especially among young men, was a big problem in the black ghettos, and he saw that this might provide the justification Wirtz needed for his jobs programs.
In 1963, Moynihan spotted a tiny item in the Washington Post saying that the Selective Service was rejecting half of all potential draftees because they couldn't pass a standardized eighth-grade equivalency test, and that the rejectees were disproportionately black. He talked Wirtz into commissioning a national study of the rejectees, and wrote a report about them, called "One-Third of a Nation" to evoke the memory of Franklin Roosevelt’s stirring reference in his second inaugural address to the Americans who were ill-fed, ill-clothed, and ill-housed. The report was published just at the time that Shriver was holding his meetings to plan the war on poverty-- in fact, Moynihan missed the press conference at which his findings were announced because he was at Shriver's office. The Pentagon did start a special program for Selective Service rejectees, called Project 100,000, but Moynihan's report did not electrify Shriver's group. It seemed too much an instrument of Wirtz's bureaucratic interests, and FDR was not the war on poverty's patron saint, anyway.
Personally, Moynihan was not nearly so skillful a player of the game as Boone. Shriver's aides thought of him as an impractical intellectual and as a water-carrier for Wirtz; Moynihan was given the job of drafting the presidential message to accompany the war on poverty legislation, and, in the minds of Shriver's people, he bungled it by emphasizing jobs programs to the exclusion of practically everything else. Wirtz, on the other hand, thought Moynihan had been captured by Shriver's crowd. He was furious when he learned that the Labor Department would be in charge of only a small jobs program in the war on poverty, the Neighborhood Youth Corps, and not the Job Corps; he blamed Moynihan for having been insufficiently protective of the Labor Department's interests. The final form the war on poverty took was a clear loss for Labor and a win for community action. Jobs would be created, but they would be jobs in the community action agencies-- meaning that they would be social service jobs in the ghettos, locally controlled and subject to whatever political winds buffeted the community action program, rather than muscular, Washington-controlled construction jobs of the Works Progress Administration variety. It was a distinction that would make an enormous difference in the life of black America.
AS THE WAR on poverty took shape, Shriver began to focus on passing the law authorizing it, a daunting task at a time when Congress hadn't enacted a major piece of social legislation for a generation. One key point was not to make it look like a program for the black ghettos, although that was what most of its founders thought it really was. By 1964 there was beginning to be talk in Washington about the racial problems that would remain after the long fight against legal segregation in the South was finally won. In 1963, there had been a summer race riot in Rochester, New York, and James Baldwin had published The Fire Next Time, an eloquently bitter screed about conditions in the ghettos. Like the staff of the juvenile delinquency committee before them, the poverty warriors thought of themselves as an advance guard worrying about the racial issues that lay over the next hill (whose true dimensions even they severely underestimated), while most of the government was still focused on the Civil Rights Act. Of course all this had to be concealed; Congress was still an institution with a pronounced Southern flavor. As Yarmolinsky says, "We were busy telling people it wasn't just racial because we thought it'd be easier to sell that way, and we thought it was less racial than it turned out to be."
Although the heart of the war on poverty, to Shriver, was community action and the Job Corps, the legislation, announced by Johnson on March 16, contained ten new programs, including three aimed exclusively at rural areas. Shriver persuaded a Southern congressman, Phil Landrum of Georgia, to be the legislation's chief sponsor. There would be a new community action agency in a majority of the congressional districts. Job Corps centers were to be distributed all over the country, including places far from the homes of the ghetto teenagers they were meant to serve. The mantra of the people lobbying for the bill was that American poverty was mostly white and mostly non-urban. So when James Sunquist, the Agriculture Department's man on Shriver's team, was trying to talk the old-fashioned Texas congressman W. R. Poage into voting for the bill, he laid on thick the vague phraseology of "opportunity'' and "coordinated service delivery." Poage looked back at him with blank incomprehension. But finally, a light seemed to go on in Poage's head, and he smiled broadly and said,
"Oh, I see! You ‘re talkin’ about the niggers!" Another man lobbying for the bill presented a document to Wilbur Mills of Arkansas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, that was supposed to answer Mills's objections; as he remembered it later, "He took that piece of paper and threw it across the room and said a few choice words about how he was not going to be involved in any program to help a bunch of niggers and threw me out of his office."
When more negotiable conservative objections to the poverty program came up, Shriver compromised. One idea that was bounced around was instituting Third World-style land reform in the Mississippi Delta and similar areas by breaking up the big plantations into family farms and turning them over to the sharecroppers-- forty acres and a mule nearly a century late. When Jamie Whitten, the Mississippi congressman who was chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made known his displeasure with the idea, it was dropped. A much more damaging compromise came when members of the North Carolina delegation, especially Congressman L. H. Fountain, demanded as the price of their vote the jettisoning of Yarmolinsky as deputy director of the war on poverty: he was Jewish, from a liberal-activist background in New York, and, in his Defense Department days, had helped to force the integration of public places near military bases in North Carolina. Yarmolinsky was convinced that Shriver would stand behind him; instead, as he remembered it, "It took me completely by surprise when Shriver, coming back from the Hill quite late one evening, stumbled into the room between our two offices and announced: 'We've just thrown you to the wolves, and this is the worst day of my life.” Yarmolinsky and Shriver had made a good team, the manager and the salesman. Shriver never again found someone he fully trusted to run the poverty program while he attended to its reputation.
President Johnson signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law on
August 20, 1964, thus creating a new government agency, the Office of
Economic Opportunity, with Sargent Shriver as director. It was a great
triumph-- President Kennedy's hesitant
effort brought to fruition as a major program-- but it isn't entirely
clear that Johnson, focused on the win as he was, fully understood the
implications of what he was signing. The act had actually been drafted in a
place that should have immediately raised Johnson's suspicions: an office in
Robert Kennedy's Justice Department, -- with Dick Boone present to ensure
that the language of maximum feasible participation of the poor in the
program got into it. While Shriver was engaged in lobbying, Johnson's friend Elizabeth Wickenden got in touch with a veteran member of Johnson's staff, Walter Jenkins, to raise again her fears about the political problems that community action might create. As director of the Peace Corps, Shriver had gotten a reputation as a master of politics; he had supposedly called personally on all 535 members of Congress. What he hadn't learned, Wickenden felt, was that politicians always want to maintain control over government programs operating in their districts, so that the community action agencies would either have to knuckle under or would create powerful enemies.
"I feel this is a very real political problem for which Mr. Shriver's experience has not prepared him,” Wickenden wrote Jenkins. "As I said to you on the telephone, it is quite a different problem from the Peace Corps since Nigeria does not have a delegation in Congress."
Very late in the game, after the bill had passed, Yarmolinsky was amazed to hear from Bill Moyers, "the President thinks that community action will be a publicly managed program like the old National Youth Administration he administered in Texas in the 1930s." There is some evidence, though, that Wickenden's warning got through to Johnson, even if he didn't do anything about it. Years later, Abe Fortas, the Supreme Court justice who was another member of Johnson's old New Deal crowd, told her that Johnson had said to him, "I should have listened to Wicky."
INSIDE THE civil rights movement, too, the question was being raised of what to do after segregation in the South was defeated. Of course, there had been civil rights activity outside the South for many years. The NAACP and the Urban League, both Northern-based organizations, dated back to the first decade of the twentieth century. CORE was staging demonstrations against housing segregation in Chicago and other cities as long ago as the 1940s. Only as the Southern struggle gained momentum did it absorb nearly all the movement's energies. CORE moved south with the Freedom Rides, in 1961. The two newest major civil rights organizations, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, were active only in the South. During the early 1960s, it became an uphill struggle to focus attention on the problems arising from the black migration to the North.
Bayard Rustin, a socialist, pacifist labor intellectual who as protégé to A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was the chief organizer of the March on Washington in 1963, conceived of the march as the great event that would signal the broadening of the movement's attention beyond the borders of the South. The march's official name was "A March for Jobs and Freedom," which signified Rustin's conviction that the main long-range issues in black America were economic ones. Rustin had always regarded Martin Luther King a little patronizingly, in roughly the way a television producer views his on the air talent. He felt he had had to instruct King in the merits of non-violence, and he liked to think that he had to provide the conceptual direction for the use of King's awesome oratorical talents. "What are we going to do with Martin next?" Rustin used to ask his friends in the movement. After the March on Washington, Rustin was annoyed that King's overwhelmingly powerful "I Have a Dream" speech, in which he painted for a huge, rapt crowd a gorgeous picture of life under racial equality, had gotten most of the attention; in focusing on civil rights, King had departed from Rustin's carefully prepared script, and for years afterward Rustin would tell people that the real milestone speech delivered that day was the barely noticed one by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, which stuck to the theme of economic justice.
Another aspect of the March on Washington that annoyed Rustin was the
behavior of the members of SNCC-- "the kids," as Rustin
called them. They had set up a chant, "Pass the bill, pass the
bill," that had made the march look like a gigantic lobbying effort for
Kennedy's Civil Rights Act, when to Rustin's mind it was really an effort to
address a different and more important set of issues. John Lewis, head of
SNCC, had almost caused tremendous trouble for the march by writing a speech
that called for a black version of Sherman's march through Georgia; cooler
heads read the text and prevailed on Lewis to take that line out, but he
didn't give in until only a few moments before he took the podium. Lewis
himself was already becoming known as the voice of moderation within SNCC,
which was undergoing an internal split. On one side were the original
members, most of whom, like Lewis, came from poor, religious Southern
backgrounds and would probably have gone into the ministry if the movement
hadn't come along. On the other side was the ''Howard contingent,'' so named
because most of its members were students at America's most prestigious
black university. They came from Northern, urban, middle-class backgrounds.
The leader of the Howard contingent was Stokely
had grown up in the Bronx, the son of Trinidadian immigrants, and as a teenager had often listened to the black-nationalist oratory of street-corner speakers in Harlem, the most eloquent of whom was Elijah Muhammad's man in New York, Malcolm X; Lewis's father was an Alabama sharecropper who had saved up enough money to buy his own small farm. Carmichael was tall, slim, handsome, and spectacularly eloquent; Lewis was short and plain-looking, and he mumbled. Carmichael was deeply interested in the African independence movement and in the black-liberation theories of Frantz Fanon; Lewis's whole world was the rural South.
Lewis had been to the North only a couple of times. In 1951 he was brought to Buffalo, New York, to visit relatives who had made the migration North, and it looked to him like a paradise, in which blacks sat next to whites in restaurants and held down solid blue-collar jobs. In 1963 he made his first trip to New York City, to attend a planning meeting for the March on Washington, and he was shocked by the difference. "I saw a crowd of people on the street corner in Harlem chanting and raving about what they were going to do to whitey," he says. "The boarded-up buildings, the chains, the grates on store windows-- it was very different from what I'd seen in Alabama or Nashville. It was despair." Carmichael wanted SNCC to mount operations in the North. A friend of his, Bill Strickland, ran a SNCC affiliate called the Northern Student Movement, and prevailed upon Carmichael to spend half of the summers of 1962 and 1963 in Harlem. But Lewis insisted on SNCC's confining itself to the South, and saw the Northern Student Movement as a supply and fundraising operation for the Southern struggle.
The Howard contingent was much more interested than the Southerners in the issue of black consciousness. In the 1950s Howard had been, like other elite ethnic-group institutions of the time, permeated by an ethic of extreme assimilationism which led to a cutting off of the students' grounding in black culture and history in a way that would have been impossible for ordinary black people in the South. Harris Wofford, who taught part-time at Howard Law School then, was surprised to find that the prevailing style among his students was an especially pronounced version of the conformity of white students of the Silent Generation. All the men wore ties to class, and all the women dresses; the students called each other "Mister" and "Miss” E. Franklin Frazier, who was teaching at Howard also, told Wofford that every year he asked whether anyone in his class was the descendant of slaves, and never a hand was raised. Howard was always firmly allied with the struggle for civil rights, but there
was an undercurrent of rejection of blackness there, and therefore of rejection both of self and of the black masses. Carmichael sensed this and began to speak out against it. As Roger Wilkins, a young lawyer in the Johnson administration who, like many prominent blacks of his generation, had been touched by Carmichael’s message, later wrote, "Stokely and the other young intellectuals in the movement knew what they were doing. They were purging themselves of all of that self-hate, asserting a human validity that did not derive from whites and pointing out that the black experience on this continent and in Africa was profound, honorable, and a source of pride." For the Howard contingent, the civil rights struggle in the South was a point of access to the main African-American experience and therefore to self-discovery.
In the summer of 1964, when the Civil Rights Act and the Economic Opportunity Act passed, the civil rights movement appeared to outsiders to be unified and, finally, fully in command of events, but inside the movement there were strong tensions. Hundreds of white college students from the North were going south for Freedom Summer, a protracted civil rights event that was covered ecstatically in the national press. The operations of Freedom Summer were not so pacific as they looked. Within the consortium of civil rights organizations that sponsored it, there was some ill will between the NAACP and SNCC, which always wanted to be more confrontational and often relied on the NAACP for bed, board, and bail money.
Within SNCC, there was a note of racial hostility. The interracial romances that naturally developed during Freedom Summer usually seemed to involve a black man and a white woman, which left the black women, especially, feeling angry and rejected. The press coverage created further ill will, because it seemed to focus on the nobility of the white johnny-come-latelies instead of the blacks who had been risking their lives in the South for years. The whites had a tendency to want to take over. "Up to the summer of '64, SNCC was busy developing local leadership," says Bob Zellner, a white Southerner who was a veteran member of SNCC. "Things like typing, stenciling, mimeographing-- we were always teaching young local black people these things. Press releases. TV. Radio. Fundraising. How to run a meeting. All these things middle class white kids just know. So here we had kids that were blossoming, bright kids-- this is the chance of a lifetime for them. Suddenly, in an instant, in our town are five or six brightly scrubbed white kids from the North. Here's Jesse laboriously doing the stencil. Sally from Rutgers comes along and says, ‘Here, I type I20 words per minute, let me do it.’
Toward the end of the summer, the top civil rights leaders traveled to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to push for the seating of the integrated delegation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party instead of the all-white official Mississippi delegation. President Johnson, who finally had the chance to be the emperor of a Democratic convention, was extremely eager that everything go smoothly, and by dangling the vice-presidential nomination before Hubert Humphrey, he was able to induce Humphrey and the whole liberal wing of the party to work out a compromise under which two members of the Freedom Democratic Party (one of whom was Aaron Henry, from Clarksdale) were seated. The SNCC leadership believed that the liberals and the more centrist civil rights people had sold them out, and they left the convention bitterly disillusioned. Bob Moses, SNCC's ace organizer, resolved to leave the country. In October, SNCC held a retreat at Waveland, Mississippi, at which, for the first time, the issue of limiting the white role in the organization was raised. The overall level of commitment to such apparent conceptual bulwarks of the civil rights movement as integration, non-violence, and cooperating with the federal government was palpably beginning to fade.
Perhaps they weren't really bulwarks, anyway. The civil rights movement in the South had brilliantly practiced media politics, and its historic victories were immensely aided by the presence of easily identifiable heroes (like King) and villains (like Governors Ross Barnett and George Wallace, and Sheriff Jim Clark of Selma, Alabama), dramatic scenes of courage and oppression that could be broadcast on television (like black children in Birmingham being attacked by police dogs and fire hoses), and a clear overall goal whose moral righteousness was plain. Non-violence and integrationism were crucial to the movement's public reputation, but they were never unshakable tenets in black America, especially given the brutal nature of the white resistance to civil rights all over the country. Medgar Evers, the Mississippi field secretary of the NAACP, owned a gun. In the 1950s, Bayard Rustin, on a visit to King at his home in Montgomery, Alabama, found a gun lying on an armchair in the living room. Kenneth Clark, a symbol of integrationism, was a friend of Malcolm X, who was becoming the country's best-known separatist; Clark arranged for King and Malcolm to meet one another.
Malcolm, more than anyone else, illustrates the difference between white and black perceptions of the civil rights movement, As the head of the Nation of Islam in New York and a street-corner orator
of great eloquence, Malcolm became a minor national figure in the early I960s. The white press portrayed him as a black racist, a hate-monger in the service of a bizarre cult whose success in the ghettos was a sign of how twisted black society had become after so many decades of oppression. But to young well-educated blacks he was a galvanizing figure, perhaps even more so than King: the only black leader who seemed absolutely focused on the problems of the ghettos, the only one who spoke directly about the issue of black self-denial, and the only one who could simultaneously stir poor street-corner people in Harlem and students at Howard. He was a black nationalist who was neither a cosseted intellectual-- he hadn't finished school, and had served a long stretch in prison-- nor a folkish figure like Elijah; there were few references to the evil Yacub and the island of Patmos in his speeches. To whites Malcolm looked like a divisive figure who was the antithesis of King; to blacks he looked like a generator of pride and self-reliance who belonged right next to King in the pantheon of black heroes.
The civil rights movement's relations with the federal government
were another area where things weren't quite the way they seemed from the
outside. Newspaper readers regularly saw pictures of high government
officials and movement leaders shaking hands at bill-signing ceremonies, but
as everyone in government and the movement knew, the truth was that there was
a great deal of friction and mutual suspicion. James Baldwin told Clark in
the mid-196os that he was convinced his famous meeting with Robert Kennedy
had been secretly taped, and that Kennedy had later turned the transcript
over to President Johnson to help him plan the Great Society. In the Johnson administration, the
officials who negotiated with leaders of the movement over the Civil Rights
Act felt themselves to have been subjected to humiliating abuse just when
they were putting everything on the line for the black cause. There certainly
wasn't a clear agreement in the movement about how to put pressure on the
government after the demise of Jim Crow. Camera ready segregation did not
exist in the North. The ghettos were not hotbeds of the spirit of nonviolent
resistance to white power. There was no obvious organizing principle. In
December 1964, after King received the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, he flew
directly to New York; but when he got there, Louis Martin says, “Martin was
the toast of the world, and he couldn't think of what to say in Harlem.'' It
was anything but plain what the movement's next step
would be. Into this breach came the war on poverty. It had been conceived without the participation of the civil rights people, but there was some hope in Shriver's group that through the community action program, the war on poverty might serve as an enabling device for the movement in its next phase. Many local civil rights leaders were supposed to emerge to help run the community action agencies in the ghettos. What the planners of the war on poverty didn't realize was that these positions, partially protected as they were from elected officialdom, constituted an opening for the new black mood of mistrust of government and whites to be expressed. They were also naive to think that the community action program could serve as the incubator for something along the lines of the civil rights movement in the South. The leadership it would create was a diffuse and instantaneous one, with little chance to build strength and unity over time, and community action was wholly dependent on the good will of the federal government in a way that the movement in the South never had been. The Southern movement would have died out at a hundred points of controversy along the way if it hadn't been independent. Community action, if it offended mainstream American sensibilities, would be much more vulnerable-- doomed, as it turned out.
FROM THE perspective of the White House, the war on poverty was a problem program almost from the instant it started, and the main reason was Dick Boone's "maximum feasible participation" clause. Within a matter of days of Johnson's signing the Economic Opportunity Act, there was trouble at Mobilization for Youth in New York, one of the seedbeds of community action. Mobilization's relations with the police had been rocky for some time; it had even sued the New York Police Department. In the summer of 1964, a riot in Harlem followed the killing of a black teenager by a white policeman. Just before the riot, posters had appeared in Harlem saying WANTED FOR MURDER: GILLIGAN THE COP. The head of Mobilization for Youth publicly demanded the establishment of a civilian police review board, and the police suspected Mobilization of having generated the posters and therefore of fomenting the riot. On August 17, the New York Daily News carried a story by its police reporter with the banner headline YOUTH AGENCY EYED FOR REDS. All through the fall-- campaign seasonfor Johnson and for Robert Kennedy, who had left the Justice Department and was running for the Senate from New York-- Mobilization was the subject of a controversy over the presence of several ex-communists on its staff. After election day, Johnson sent a couple of his Cabinet members up to New York to work out a compromise, but Mobilization's director resigned. It never got back on a good footing with the local political order.
In other cities, too, the community action agencies quickly ran into trouble with political officials. On January 20, 1965, not yet half a year into the life of the Office of Economic Opportunity, Johnson received a confidential letter from Theodore McKeldin, the Republican mayor of Baltimore, complaining that "your plans are being hindered at the federal level by individuals who insist on unrealistic requirements and who do not understand the problems and requirements of local governments"-- a reference to the community action program. McKeldin said he spoke also for the mayors of St. Louis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia, who were Democrats. By the fall of 1965, the mayors had openly revolted. In September, Charles Schultze, who had taken over from Kermit Gordon as budget director, wrote to Johnson, "Many mayors assert that the CAP is setting up a competing political organization in their own backyards.'' He warned that "we ought not" to be in the business of organizing the poor politically." In December, Hubert Humphrey, who as vice president was Johnson's liaison to the mayors, reported that Richard Daley and several of his colleagues were planning to meet in Miami to share their complaints about the poverty program. "I see no conflict between full involvement of local government officials and 'maximum feasible participation' of the poor," Humphrey wrote Johnson. "What disturbs the Mayors is their belief that OEO is building and funding in the community action committees opposition elements to the city administration."
The best evidence that these complaints were not taken lightly is that on December 18, 1965, Johnson's aide Joseph Califano submitted to him a full-scale reorganization plan for the war on poverty in which the OEO (and Shriver's job) would be eliminated entirely, and its functions parceled out to the old-line departments and agencies that the planners of the war on poverty had wanted so badly to cut out of the action. Califano suggested putting the best face on it by making Shriver the first head of the new Department of Housing and Urban Development. He wrote: "My personal feeling is that the whole package-- the reorganization of the War Against Poverty, the designation of Shriver as HUD Secretary (with a Negro as Under Secretary), the placing of the Community Action Program and Poverty coordination functions in the HUD, would be a typically dramatic Johnsonian move that would be received with applause across the board."
Mayor Daley was by far the most important enemy of community action. In Washington, he was regarded then as the essential Democratic mayor-- not a crusader, to be sure, but a good guy, solid, reliable, and efficient. Shriver's people had expected to alienate some politicians-- Southerners and Republicans-- but the whole idea of the antipoverty program was that it would have the support of Northern white Democrats. Daley's respectability was backed up by his power, which, in national affairs, was at its peak then. Without his help, John Kennedy (and by extension, Lyndon Johnson) would never have become president. (Myer Feldman, an aide to Sorensen, later recounted the scene on election night, 1960, at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port in a way that makes it perfectly clear what Daley's role was: "I remember Steve Smith [another Kennedy brother-in-law] saying to me over the phone that, 'Well, we can always count on Mayor Daley, And if the ballot boxes down state aren't in, why, he'll hold out a few ballot boxes in Chicago too to equal them.' ")
Daley's clout extended far beyond the borders of his home state and the confines of the US, Conference of Mayors, because he controlled the largest bloc of votes in Congress that would reliably move on one person’s orders. During the early machinations with Congress on the Civil Rights Act, when President Kennedy was still alive, one member of the Illinois congressional delegation, Roland Libonati, gave Daley his word that he would support the administration's position and then backed out at the last minute. When Daley heard about this, Robert Kennedy later remembered, he "reported back that Libonati wouldn't be running for Congress any more. And Libonati then retired from Congress, and they put a new man in." To Johnson, whose presidential ambitions lay largely in the area of passing legislation, someone who could manage a group of congressmen that tightly was a necessary ally whose wrath was not to be incurred.
As he had done when the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency
began giving grants to cities, Daley moved quickly after the war on poverty
began, and submitted a long, expensive plan for the program in Chicago, drawn
up in such a way that he would control it absolutely. William Cannon of the
Budget Bureau flew out to Chicago to have a talk with him about maximum
feasible participation, It did not go well. "It was clear that there
would be no poverty program without Daley running it," Cannon
says. "He was explicit with me. I was explicit with him that there had to be local participation!” The OEO began to push Daley to loosen his grip on the program, and Daley began to call the White House to complain, "We had problems with Daley on everything, and he always went to the White House, and always won," says Frederick Hayes, who was the director of operations for the community action program. Bill Moyers received one of the first calls from Daley. As he remembered it, Daley said, "What in the hell are you people doing? Does the President know he's putting M-0-N-E-Y in the hands of subversives? To poor people that aren't a part of the organization? Didn't the President know they'd take that money to bring him down?" When Moyers told Johnson about the call, Johnson immediately returned it, though before doing so he instructed Moyers to leave the room, "The clearest picture Johnson got of the bad image of the OEO was from Daley," Moyers says, "He really began to rage at Johnson. That began to form a dark cloud in Johnson's mind."
Sargent Shriver was thus on the defensive almost from the start. He was surrounded by enemies, Kenneth O'Donnell, the old Kennedy political hand who stayed on for a while in the Johnson White House, didn't like him, and fed Daley's suspicions about the OEO, (After the vice presidency went to Humphrey in 1964, Shriver began to toy with the idea of running for the Senate from Illinois, and this made him especially eager not to incur Daley's displeasure, because he knew that the Senate race was an opportunity Daley could eliminate with a wave of the hand,) Johnson's old friend John Connally, governor of Texas, was another frequent caller to the White House with complaints about the OEO. An important liberal Democratic member of Congress, Edith Green of Oregon, had been suspicious of community action ever since its emergence in the juvenile delinquency committee days, and was a persistent critic of the OEO from the beginning.
The Cabinet departments, predictably, despised the OEO, "All
these agencies at the time were run by people who were just as liberal as
OEO, and just as committed," says Joseph Doherty, who was the
Agriculture Department's liaison with the war on poverty, "They felt
they'd been there first, and now OEO was shoving them aside and getting the
money and glory!” Wilbur Cohen annually tried to get Johnson to transfer most
of the OEO's functions to HEW, In January 1965,
Moynihan went to see Kermit Gordon to lobby against community action.
"If you're an assistant secretary of a small department, you can one
time ask to see the budget director on a point of personal privilege,"
he says. "I used my one
time.” I said, 'I know you've thought of community action as a way of coordinating services at the local level, but another view is, they could raise a lot of hell.' But there was no point in going on because it was clear Kermit Gordon thought I was out of my mind." The tenor of Willard Wirtz's behavior toward the OEO can be adduced from the contents of a confidential handwritten note from Lloyd Cutler, a prominent Washington lawyer, to Shriver, which was passed on to Moyers: "Sarge: The strongest critic of the unit costs of the Job Corps is Willard Wirtz. Competition is good at this stage, but the Republicans get their best arguments from inside the Administration-- the N.Y.C. [Wirtz's National Youth Corps] saying it does better than the Job Corps, etc."
Every accommodation Shriver made to the politicians who wanted the doctrine of maximum feasible participation toned down brought him criticism from the left. Dick Boone left the OEO in 1965 and started an organization called Citizens Crusade Against Poverty whose purpose was to make sure that the community action program didn't sell out. Adam Clayton Powell, who was chairman of the House committee that authorized the OEO’s funds, was a constant thorn in Shriver's side; at one point he banned all OEO employees from his committee's offices. Certain offices inside the OEO-- for example, the research division of the community action program, and the evaluation division-- were openly more loyal to the spirit of maximum feasible participation than to Shriver. In April 1961 Shriver agreed to address a convention of Boone's organization in Washington, but he was, according to The New York Times, "booed, jostled, and almost hooted down" by the audience and was spirited away, badly shaken, immediately after delivering his remarks.
Shriver's hope was that he could keep all the forces aligned against him at bay by producing well-publicized successes in the field. This was made difficult by the forced departure of his key administrator, Yarmolinsky, and, even more, by the way the war on poverty was set up. Almost by definition, a community action agency could not quickly be shown to be producing results; on the other hand, Shriver and Johnson had made the program so large that the risk of occasional horror stories emerging from the local community action agencies was very high. The community action office in Washington could, and did, labor long and hard to give its grants to reputable organizations and to create harmonious relations with mayors, Hundreds of the local agencies could, and did, go about their business with efficiency and dedication. By an iron law of journalism, however, the handful of messy situations got most of the coverage.
Head Start, from the very beginning the one major part of the war on poverty that was popular in Congress, was structured in such a way that its programs were run by local community action agencies; in fact, probably the main real activity of community action all over the country was operating Head Start programs. It was never possible fully to decouple Head Start's good image from community action's bad one.
It was impossible for Shriver to accept the inevitability of operational problems at the agency. In the words of one of his former aides, be wanted "to score a hundred on every test." He insisted that 10,000 kids be enrolled in Job Corps camps by the end of June 1965; his staff had them sleeping on the floors of gymnasiums to meet the quota. At the signing of the first batch of grants to community action agencies, Shriver picked out one, the agency in Albemarle County, North Carolina, and
asked Fred Hayes, “How do you know this one will work? It doesn't even have an executive director's name on the application. How do you know they won't pick someone incompetent?’ I said, ‘You don't know he won't be an incompetent,' " Hayes recalls today. "'He may well be. You can't control the grant recipients, and some of them are going to screw up.' "
Indeed, some of them did screw up. HARYOU, the agency Adam Clayton Powell controlled in Harlem, was under investigation for financial irregularities almost from the moment it received its first OEO grant, of $1.2 million, in June 1965. In Syracuse, New York, the community action program gave Syracuse University a grant to train community organizers in Alinsky' s organizing techniques, thereby infuriating the mayor. Even in Chicago, an internal OEO report circulated in May 1965 showed that no books were being kept, that a subcontractor was working without a written contract, and that there was a one-to-one ratio of clerical to professional employees.
At the Job Corps camps several embarrassing incidents of violence occurred.
At Camp Atterbury, in Indiana, one trainee was
sodomized by several others. At Camp Gary, in Texas, five trainees held up
and shot two enlisted men from a nearby Air Force base, and another trainee
was stabbed to death outside a dance at the YMCA. At Camp Breckinridge, in
Kentucky, a recruit shot a woman and then, while awaiting trial, managed to
steal a car and ran into a family of four on the highway, killing them all.
Probably incidents like these
could have been avoided if the Job Corps had proceeded with great
care from the start, rigorously screening its applicants, limiting the size of its camps, and providing very strict supervision of the enrollees-- but Shriver wanted a big program right away, and he was under constant pressure from the left to minimize the program's rules and restrictions. It became a joke among the OEO's lobbyists in Congress that they should tell every recalcitrant member that if he didn't vote right on OEO bills they would put a Job Corps center in his district.
Shriver reacted to the problems of the OEO more by emphasizing his strength, salesmanship, than by correcting his weaknesses, conception and administration. He invented citizens' support groups, such as Athletes Against Poverty. He tried to hire Al Capp, the creator of the comic strip "Li'l Abner," to produce a comic book advertising the Job Corps. He barraged President Johnson with memos, written with the specificity and enthusiasm of a professional publicist, claiming that the image of the OEO was turning around. In a typical passage he wrote, "I can't remember hitting five major American newspapers simultaneously on any program in recent years. An eight-column head in the Cleveland Plain Dealer certainly marks some sort of high point."
By midsummer 1965, when he was beginning to prepare his first regular budget, Shriver had become converted, mainly through the efforts of the liberal economist James Tobin, to the idea of a guaranteed annual income as the best solution to the problem of poverty. He decided to ask Johnson for a very. large budget increase-- from the planned-upon $1.75 billion a year to, eventually, $10 billion-- under which the OEO would become a much bigger and more comprehensive agency, presumably with community action becoming a less audible section in the symphony of anti-poverty programs. "I said, 'Mr. President, we can actually eliminate poverty in the United States,' " Shriver says.' He said, 'Well, Sarge, we can't spend that kind of money.' I said, 'Well, if you want to wage war on poverty, this is how to do it.' He said, 'Congressional elections are coming up. After that we'll be out of this Vietnam thing, and I'll give you the money.' I knew the jig was up.'' Shriver threatened to resign, and backed down only when Johnson, playing to his sense of duty, told him, "if you quit, we'll just quit," meaning that he would follow Califano's suggestion and abolish the OEO. The agency, and Shriver, soldiered on.
THE LAST glorious event of the Southern civil rights movement was the Selma-to-Montgomery march, in March 1965. SNCC had been trying unsuccessfully to register voters in Selma, Alabama, since 1963; in January 1965, King arrived in Selma and announced that he would wage a campaign against the town's voter registration policies as a way of drawing national attention to the issue of black disenfranchisement in the South. Over the course of the weeks of rallies and marches, two civil rights people were murdered. Malcolm X came to town and criticized King's commitment to non-violence. The dramatic climax of the campaign came in a series of marches across the Edmund Petros Bridge. In the first one, a column led by John Lewis was repulsed by Alabama state troopers who used tear gas, horses, police dogs, and clubs to turn back the movement's foot soldiers. In the second, two days later, King, who had been frantically trying to maintain relations with the administration on the one hand and SNCC on the other, led the marchers up to the point where the state troopers were waiting, and then ordered a retreat. Finally, armed with a court order and protected by federal troops, a brigade of four thousand people, with King at the head, crossed the bridge and marched to the state capitol in Montgomery, where King delivered one of his greatest addresses. The movement had held, and triumphed; Jim Crow had finally received its mortal wound.
King and his lieutenants were talking about moving North all during their months in Selma, and immediately after the march, the Big Six, leaders of the major civil rights organizations, met to discuss the North. A few weeks later, one of King's best organizers, James Bevel, moved to Chicago to explore the possibilities for a civil rights campaign there.
Just before the Selma march got under way, President Johnson used the phrase "we shall overcome" in an address to a joint session of Congress, and proposed the Voting Rights Act. In June, Johnson moved rhetorically North himself, delivering a commencement speech at Howard in which he called for "not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result," and promised to hold a White House conference in the fall on what the government's new racial agenda should be. Johnson and the civil rights movement were hardly in perfect harmony, but it did appear that the time for everyone involved with civil rights to turn the spotlight onto the racial problems of the cities had finally arrived.
Just at that moment, the summer of 1965, the 1960s turned as if on a hinge. In July, Johnson announced the commitment of 100,000 additional American ground troops to the war in Vietnam. In August, five days after the signing of the Voting Rights Act into law, an ordinary incident in which a white policeman pulled over a black driver in a black neighborhood in Los Angeles mysteriously escalated into a riot in the section of town called Watts, which lasted for five days and left thirty-four people dead and more than a thousand injured. Watts instantly convinced the whole country that there was a severe crisis in the black slums, and so, ironically, gave the mission of the war on poverty a force and immediacy that it had lacked up to then; the ghettos moved in the blink of an eye from being an issue only among a small coterie to being a national obsession.
At the same time, Watts and the escalation of American involvement in Vietnam destroyed the mood of triumphant liberal comity that was supposed to be the foundation on which the solution to the crisis would be built. The first sign that something had gone profoundly wrong came in the weeks following Watts, when the White House released a report by Moynihan called "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." The Moynihan Report was the product of two of its author's distinguishing traits: his ability to spot trends in intellectual life, and his thirst for more attention than intellectuals were accustomed to getting. The roots of the report lay in a book called Slavery, published in 1959 by a young historian named Stanley Elkins. During the years after World War II, historians were only just beginning to portray slavery as brutal, rather than benign and paternalistic. Elkins, working in the long shadow of the seminal work in this line, Kenneth Stamp’s The Peculiar Institution, wanted to darken the picture of slavery even further by showing that it had so devastated African-Americans as to have reduced them to a state of dependency. His evidence was that slaveholders among the Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, had portrayed slaves as being childlike, but he didn't really try to prove this assertion, only to offer an explanation supporting it; even the most liberal white historians of the day believed that there had been no such thing as a genuine, strong African-American slave culture. Elkins compared the effect of slavery on blacks to the infantilization that Bruno Bettelheim had noted in the Jewish inmates of Nazi concentration camps.
When Slavery was published, it got respectable reviews and sold at a rate of four hundred copies a year. After four years, it abruptly started to catch on. Nathan Glazer, Moynihan's friend and co-author, reviewed Slavery in Commentary and then gave Moynihan a copy; it became one of Moynihan's discoveries, and he began to pass it around Washington. Besides having the appeal that dramatic new
argument always had for Moynihan, Slavery served his political need to justify new social programs run by the Labor Department. "Why?" asks Elkins. "It provided a historical formula that was attractive to Northern liberals: ours was a particularly harsh form of slavery; we had a responsibility to correct it." It was especially important at that moment for liberals to drive home Elkins’s point. All through the civil rights movement, liberals were able to argue that although they were supporting a lot of legislation aimed at helping blacks, the overall goal was simply to provide blacks with the same legal rights as everyone else; the second wave of racial reforms, aimed at the North-- not just the war on poverty, but also affirmative action-- had to be justified on the grounds that blacks deserved help from the government above and beyond what everyone else got.
Moynihan had already, with "One-Third of a Nation,” written one sensational document based on what he knew about the problems of the ghettos, and it had failed to loose an avalanche of social programs. He needed new ammunition. Also, he was involved in complex career machinations that a stunning new report might serve. In the fall of 1964, he had campaigned for Robert Kennedy in New York, and Wirtz, still angry at him for having let the Job Corps slip away, had told Johnson, who had become predictably furious. Some masterstroke might repair Moynihan's relations with Wirtz and the White House. At the same time, though he hadn't told Wirtz about it, Moynihan was contemplating a run for the presidency of the New York City Council in the fall of 1965; being known as the author of a great liberal call to arms might help his chances there.
During the Christmas season of 1964, Moynihan called in his chief assistant, Paul Barton, one morning. "Pat said, 'We just have to do something,' '' Barton says. "'We have to be different. We're not going to get attention to this problem because of the low unemployment rate. We're going to do a report."' Moynihan told Barton he wanted to concentrate on the perilous state of the black family. Black out-of-wedlock childbearing had always been very high, and now it appeared to be rising even higher: nearly a quarter of all black children were now born to single mothers. The standard explanation of this, laid out most convincingly by E. Franklin Frazier and now given additional punch by Elkins, was that slavery had loosened the family bonds of African-Americans. More recently, high unemployment among black men, and the welfare system's provision of benefits only to single mothers, were making the male economically irrelevant to the poor black family, and more illegitimacy was the result. In Dark Ghetto, Kenneth Clark had a gloomy chapter on the deteriorating family structure and social fabric in the black slums, called "The Pathology of the Ghetto"; Moynihan picked up on this, too, and had a chapter in his report called "The Tangle of Pathology."
The work on the report was an all-consuming task in Moynihan's office. All through January and February 1965, Barton and Ellen Broderick, another of Moynihan's assistants, were in the office seven days a week, meeting at the end of every day with Moynihan to apprise him of their progress. Toward the end of the job, they came across a statistic that seemed to encapsulate their theory perfectly: the unemployment rate and the number of new welfare cases, which previously had moved up and down in perfect lockstep, had begun to "disaggregate": unemployment was falling, but welfare cases were rising. (Moynihan, a great reviser of his own history, now says it was the discovery of this statistic that prompted the report-- "the numbers went blooey on me," as he puts it.) Finally Moynihan took a detailed outline from his assistants, wrote the report himself, and brought it to Wirtz.
“I remember the almost physical excitement of reading it," Wirtz says. "I said, 'Pat, let's not use this until we can suggest what to do about it.' It was very long on detail about the problem and very short on what to do. He was reluctant-- impatient with my suggestions. He wanted to get it out." Moynihan had ideas about how to solve the problems of the black family-- for example, instituting twice-a-day mail delivery and thereby creating thousands of new jobs for men at the Post Office, that bastion of black working-class employment. He convinced Wirtz, though, that proposing any specific policies in the report would only diffuse its impact.
A hundred numbered copies of the report were printed and distributed on a confidential basis around the upper reaches of the government. Richard Goodwin, a bright young man of the Kennedy administration who had stayed on after the assassination and become a speechwriter for Johnson, read it and included a passage about the black family in Johnson's commencement address at Howard; Martin Luther King, Roy Wilkins, and Whitney Young of the Urban League read the address and conferred their blessings on it before it was delivered. Moynihan insists that the report's general release, after Watts, came completely on the initiative of the White House, which needed to satisfy a press corps that was clamoring for some explanation of the riot. But everyone else involved in the report sees the fine hand of Moynihan in its becoming public. More than most government officials, he had a pride of authorship and of intellectual discovery that would have made it painful for him to
know that he was not getting full credit for an important breakthrough; he speaks today with great feeling about how unjust it was that everyone simply adopted John Dollard's idea that frustration leads to aggression without attributing it to Dollard. Just as Johnson needed to pass legislation to prove his own worth, Moynihan needed to be known as an original thinker. Because he was too impatient for the grind of academic research his oeuvre at that point was quite thin; his chapter on the Irish in Beyond the Melting Pot was by far his best-known work, and the report on the black family was the kind of major statement that could establish his place in the first rank of American intellectuals.
Well before the release of the Moynihan Report, a lengthy, respectful description of it, obviously written with a copy in hand, appeared in The New York Times, the publication most widely circulated in the audience that mattered to Moynihan. Also before Watts, Wirtz's mentor and former law partner Adlai Stevenson died, and while Wirtz was in Illinois for the funeral Moynihan called him to say he was going to run for office in New York. "And it was shortly after that that I began to hear there had been a 'suppressing' of the Moynihan Report, which upset me greatly," says Wirtz. "I didn't release it-- I think he did." The idea of suppression came from a syndicated newspaper column by Rowland Evans and Robert Novak that helped put pressure on the White House to release the report. Goodwin's memory of how the report was released is that "someone came into my office and said there are press requests for the report, and I said, 'I don't care, call Pat, and if he wants it out, let it out."'
The press coverage of the Moynihan Report was, in general, exactly what Moynihan had in mind. He was suddenly famous as a racial seer almost the predictor of the Watts riot. It wasn't until October that it became clear that in black America the report was regarded as a grave insult. The notion of weakness in the black family struck familiar and uncomfortable chords: it brought to mind all the white Southern mythology about unrestrained black sexuality. Because Moynihan had left out the solutions, and because the press had concentrated on the parts of the report that dealt with out-of-wedlock childbearing and ignored the parts about unemployment, it was possible to perceive it as a brief for doing nothing to help the black poor, rather than as a "case for national action” because the straits they were in were of their own devising. That was exactly the perception of William Ryan, a white psychologist and civil rights activist in Boston, who after reading an article in Newsweek wrote a critique of the report that he circulated within the movement.
Ryan hit upon a brilliant slogan to sum up what he saw Moynihan doing: "blaming the victim." His actual argument, later expanded into a book called Blaming the Victim, was something less than finely tuned-- for example, he said that out-of-wedlock childbearing merely looked like a black problem because white illegitimacy was underreported-- but the slogan was tremendously influential. It recast the whole long-emerging issue of the social ills of the ghettos as a question of whose fault it was poor blacks' or white society's. If it was white society's fault, then efforts to acculturate black migrants were beside the point, and offensive; Ryan devoted a chapter of his book to attacking the idea of the culture of poverty for being just another form of blaming the victim. In a matter of weeks after the release of the Moynihan Report, it was impossible to convene a meeting of the leading liberal thinkers on the ghettos that would have the friendly tone of Shriver's meetings at the beginning of 1964. The subtle differences between liberals and left-liberals became, because of the Moynihan Report and the escalation in Vietnam, a bitter split.
It was still some months before the SNCC leaders Willie Ricks and Stokely Carmichael, on a march through the Mississippi Delta, electrified audiences by leading them in the chant, "We want black power!" In black America, especially among civil rights activists and intellectuals, the Moynihan Report helped to set he stage for that resonant moment. Moynihan, following Elkins, seemed to be denying blacks a usable past. Just at the time when the black privileged classes were struggling to rid themselves of their traditional distaste for the black poor (and by extension for their own blackness), Moynihan was encouraging the public to think of poor blacks as a breed apart. Some civil rights leaders, such as King, responded to the Moynihan Report in muted tones, but most were furious-- even such members of the old guard as Bayard Rustin, and James Farmer of CORE.
Young academics, black and white, set to work producing answers to Moynihan. Historians rewrote the history of slavery to emphasize the strengths of the slaves' families, and sociologists described the female headed ghetto family as a logical adaptation to conditions there. Black intellectuals used the Moynihan Report as the take-off point for attacking the values of white society in general and of white social scientists and policymakers in particular. Joyce Ladner, a SNCC veteran who had
joined the faculty at Howard, wrote in tomorrow's tomorrow, "Conceivably, there will be no 'illegitimate’ children and 'promiscuous' women in ten years if there are enough middle-class white women who decide that they are going to disavow the societal canons regarding childbirth and premarital sexual behavior." Andrew Billingsley, also of Howard, wrote, "The family is a creature of the society. And the greatest problems facing black families are problems which emanate from the white racist, militarist, materialistic society which places higher priority on putting white men on the moon than putting black men on their feet on this earth"; and he wrote, "All the major institutions of society should abandon the single standard of excellence based on white European cultural norms."
Today the Moynihan Report stands as probably the most refuted document in American history (though of course its dire predictions about the poor black family all came true). Attacks on it are still being published. The practical effect of the controversy over it was exactly the opposite of what Moynihan intended-- all public discussions in mainstream liberal circles of issues like the state of the black family and the culture of poverty simply ceased. At a planning session for the White House conference on race that Johnson had promised in his Howard speech, the man running the conference, Berl Bernhard, announced, "I want you to know that I have been reliably informed that no such person as Daniel Patrick Moynihan exists." The subject of the black family was stricken from the agenda of the conference itself, and the Moynihan Report was never mentioned during the proceedings.
Race relations inside the movement and in the social sciences-- supposedly
the two main sources of ideas for the new racial initiatives directed at the North--
continued to worsen. In May 1966, at a meeting in Kingston
Springs, Tennessee, Stokely Carmichael ran against John
Lewis for the chairmanship of SNCC and
won by one vote. Later that year, during a SNCC retreat at a resort in upstate New York
owned by a black entertainer named Pegleg Bates,
the leadership of the organization debated the question of asking the whites
who held staff positions to resign. After that, all the white members of SNCC
except Bob Zellner drifted away. Zellner hung on until a meeting in Atlanta in 1967, where
he was planning to propose
a new organizing
campaign. "I was in one
room, and the executive
committee was in another," he says. "They offered me
a compromise: you can do the project, but you
can’t come to meetings. I wouldn't accept that because SNCC never required second class citizenship of anyone. Then they said, Okay, you can come to meetings, but you can't vote. I said no. They finally said, Okay, good luck." James Farmer left CORE, an institution with a quarter-century of interracial history behind it, and his successor, Floyd McKissick, made it a SNCC-like, nationalist, all-black organization. The emergence of an openly anti-white strain in the civil rights movement- and, in particular, of an openly anti-Semitic strain in the black-power movement-- severely curtailed the movement's ability to exert a moral claim on the nation.
At the elite universities that provided a supply of ideas about the domestic operations of the federal government, the acrimony over race was probably even more intense and longer-lasting than it was inside the movement. The extreme example was the experience of Edward Banfield, a tall, thin, bespectacled stork of a man who was a professor of government at Harvard. Banfield had spent most of his early career at the University of Chicago, writing about the Democratic Party machine there and, especially, its reaction to the black migration. In 1968 he wrote a book about black ghettos called The Unheavenly City. Banfield's stance was that of the emotionless, infinitely reasonable, eternally skeptical conservative who calmly picks apart the meliorist liberal pieties of the day. He presented his own views in a dolorous tone that implied that he would have much preferred to come to some more hopeful conclusion but was prevented from doing so by his commitment to remorseless logic. The Unheavenly City actually said all the things that Moynihan had been accused of secretly believing: that the poverty of the black lower class was self-generated, the product of its irredeemable "present-orientedness"; that anti-poverty programs couldn't work; that racism was not the cause of the problems in the ghettos.
At Harvard, Students for a Democratic Society, the leading white student radical group, held regular anti-Banfield demonstrations. He left for a job at the University of Pennsylvania, and the leader of the Harvard protests followed him there and enrolled in graduate school. One day she led a group into his class to present him with a "Racist of the Year" award. When the university didn't kick her out of school, Banfield returned to Harvard. A guest lecture on Adam Smith that he was invited to give at the University of Toronto had to be delivered under police protection, and a seminar scheduled for the following day was canceled for security reasons. Demonstrators prevented him from delivering a lecture at the University of Chicago; it was rescheduled for the next day, but with a by-invitation-only
audience of faculty members and a heavy police guard. A seminar on The Unheavenly City at a British university had to be canceled when it was discovered that all the copies of the book on reserve at the library had been vandalized-- by faculty members, Banfield says. Banfield was hardly the typical academic policy intellectual, but nearly all discussions of the ghettos at universities took place in a charged atmosphere that, as his case demonstrated, could turn ugly. The atmosphere of easy, comfortable interaction on the subject of the ghettos between social scientists and the practical-minded men at the top of the government perceptibly dissipated.
The one government program most directly affected by the new mood was community action-- it was the federal agency that seemed able to address the altered state of race relations. After Watts, Shriver began to make the case for community action as a riot-preventer; "Would they have preferred a Watts?" he said after the scandal at HARYOU broke. The logic of the attacks on the Moynihan Report led unerringly to community action as the one available cure for the ills of the ghettos; community action's rhetoric of empowerment fit perfectly with the idea that ghetto society was not in any way weak or flawed or in need of middle class outsiders to take it by the hand. Unlike other government agencies, community action's local offices were usually physically in the ghettos, the most visible federal presence there. The maximum feasible participation clause offered the black-power movement a possible beachhead for organizational activities in the North, with the community action agencies providing a link between the new nationalist generation of movement leaders and their hoped-for constituency in the slums.
The possibility of blacks in the North achieving political power through the traditional means of winning elective office still seemed extremely remote, and that increased the allure of community action as the only available means for black people to control political institutions that affected their lives. "If you'd told people in 1966 that Africans would have three hundred mayors, they wouldn't have believed you,” Stokely Carmichael, who has since changed his name to Kwame Ture, now says. The strongest advocate of the movement's engaging in elective politics was Bob Moses. "The tool for organizing in the Northern cities is political activity," he says. "Running people for office. But you couldn't get people to think like that. It was hard to get people to think about using the electoral process as an organizing tool. In the movement, the commitment was to leadership more than organizing media leadership. You couldn’t export sit-ins or voter registration to the North. Community
action was a government-funded program, which is different from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which was an independent political effort. The traditional route in the cities is through politics. That was not clearly articulated in the 1960s." Moses was not in a position to communicate his skepticism about community action, though, because he was living in Africa at the time, and feeling that his own efforts to become involved in politics had turned to dust at the 1964 Democratic Convention in Atlantic City.
In most of the North's big cities, the interplay between the black power movement and the community action program was an essential part of the fabric of the war on poverty. Some of the officials of community action, such as Fred Hayes, go so far as to say that if there had been no black-power movement, maximum feasible participation would have turned out to be the insignificant bit of boilerplate Shriver expected it to be. Certainly all of the greatest controversies of the community action program had to do with the unbridgeable gap between the black power movement and the political system. In Oakland, California, after the mayor refused to cooperate with the OEO, the community action grant went to a nationalist organization. The Black Panther Party nationalists with guns and uniforms, who became the most famous black radical group of the period because of their gun battles with the police and their links to privileged white liberals-- was actually founded in an Oakland community action office where the party's chairman, Bobby Seale, a former leader of the Soul Students Advisory Council at Merritt Junior College, had an administrative job with a poverty program. In New York, a HARYOU affiliate gave a grant to the poet and playwright LeRoi Jones to stage street theater; one of his plays had Rochester, the black valet on Jack Benny's popular radio and television shows, rising up and killing his white oppressors. Within a couple of years of its birth, community action had the reputation of being not only a black program - the perception that Shriver had wanted so badly to avoid-- but a black radical program.
In Washington no less than in the field, black power became a source of tension for the OEO. Adam Clayton Powell publicly renounced the use of the words "Negro" and "integration," and called on Shriver to resign. Inside the OEO, supporters and critics of black power were constantly at odds; a substantial group wanted to give grants to nationalist oriented projects and forge close ties with the black power movement, and it struggled constantly against Shriver's desire to keep the OEO
politically respectable, Kwame Ture says he was once offered a $35,000-a-year job with the OEO. The internal memo traffic, especially from the OEO evaluation division, is full of moral fervor about the rightness and efficacy of tilting the community action agencies toward the black-power movement and away from the mayors. The sudden death of the liberal consensus about race relations and social programs made it impossible for Shriver to steer the OEO toward the entrenched status that most government agencies quickly manage to achieve.
As for Moynihan, he lost his race in New York and withdrew to academia. He became understandably bitter over the way he had been treated. He, the high government official with the keenest understanding of the problems of the ghettos, the issuer of the direst warnings of the trouble to come; he, who had grown up in a poor fatherless home himself and knew the pain of it at first hand-- he was now being portrayed as, in effect, the Sheriff Clark of the North. "If my head were sticking on a pike at the South West Gate to the White House grounds the impression would hardly be greater," he wrote in 1966 to Harry McPherson, his closest friend in the upper reaches of the Johnson White House.
Moynihan continued to present himself as the champion of a government policy to keep families together- -he began calling for the establishment of a Western Europe-style “family allowance" under which every American family, regardless of need, would get a government grant-- but he stopped mentioning the racial component of the family issue. As he wrote to McPherson, "obviously one can no longer address oneself to the subject of the Negro family as such." In a combative moment after his report was published, he contracted to write a book on the black family, but he dropped that project. He began to develop a new preoccupation besides social policy: the danger posed to the American polity by the left, as demonstrated by the reaction to his report. In 1967, he wrote an article for Commentary called "The President & the Negro: The Moment Lost," in which he blamed the attacks on the report for dissipating the political consensus for healing the ghettos that had built up by the summer of 1965; "The liberal Left can be as rigid and destructive as any force in American life," he wrote.
Ordinarily, when a government official leaves Washington in a hail of criticism, his inevitable sour musings afterward are interesting but not important. Moynihan's case was different. His bitterness mattered a great deal, because, unlike everyone he served with in the two Democratic administrations of the 1960s, he would be back in power.
LYNDON JOHNSON, according to his aides, never read the Moynihan Report. His attitude toward it was, in the words of Bill Moyers, "I don't know what was in there, but whatever it was, stay away from it,” Fully as much as Moynihan, though, he was wounded by attacks from the left when they came his way, which they soon did.
There can be no doubt but that Johnson's consuming dream was to be a great-- the greatest liberal president. That he hadn't expected to get the job only invested him with the zealous appreciation of the chance he had been given that anyone who is granted an unanticipated reprieve has. Johnson had spent many years pursuing his voracious ambitions. He had a lot to atone for, and nothing left to achieve but redemption.
Johnson may have made the requisite remarks about living up to the standard set by John F. Kennedy, but his real mark was Franklin Roosevelt. Once, while strolling through the White House with Hugh Sidey of Time magazine, Johnson stopped at a bust of FDR and caressed it. "Look at the strength in that face!" he told Sidey. Roosevelt's achievements, and not Kennedy's, were of Johnsonian scale, and Johnson knew exactly what it was that Roosevelt hadn't been able to do: Establish free medical care for the poor. Get federal aid to education through Congress, so that students in poor school districts would have the same chance in life as everybody else. Guarantee blacks in the South the right to vote, and the other appurtenances of full citizenship. Break the hold of the Southern segregationists on the Congress and the Democratic Party. Heal, finally, the wounds left by the Civil War and Reconstruction and bring the country together. Nobody had been able to do that-- not Washington or Jefferson, not Lincoln, not Roosevelt. Johnson thought that given his skills, his historical moment, and his roots in the South, he could.
The only real measures of presidential achievement for Johnson were tangible ones. No charisma, no tone-setting, no moral
philosophizing for him-- he would build a record. Johnson was a totally
political man, a government provincial. He had no hobbies, read no books, and
could barely sit through a movie. One of his Cabinet officers remembers going
to see him on a Sunday at Camp David and finding him on the phone with a
friend in Texas running down the results of local school board elections there-- just
to relax, as it were. He wanted to set world records in politics and government,as a star athlete would in sports. "Get those coonskins up on the wall," he would tell the people around him. He decided he wanted to desegregate four thousand Southern school districts by September 1965, and as the deadline approached he had an aide call the commissioner of education daily: How many more have you brought in? "What's the count?" (Johnson himself would wander into his aide's office periodically to say, "Get 'em! Get 'em! Get the last ones!") On the day before Congress went on its Easter recess in 1965, when Johnson's lobbyists were sweating to finish up the many bills they were working on already, he called one of them to say, "Well, can't you get another one or two yet this afternoon?"
Johnson did not expend his energies during his presidency with a politician's customary caution; he saw himself as something like a political version of Phidippides, the courier in ancient Greece who dropped dead after running all the way from Marathon to Athens (though the reference would have been lost on him), using up everything he had in order to produce a timeless feat. It was a point of pride with him that he was doing things that would hurt him politically. "Every day while I'm in office, I'm going to lose votes," he told one aide; "I will probably lose a million votes a month," he told another in the great days after the 1964 election. After the Civil Rights Act passed, he told aides, accurately, "I think we just gave the South to the Republicans." There was at times a recklessness to the way he spent his mandate. He first submitted the Fair Housing Act, the one piece of liberal legislation that most terrified members of Congress, a few months before the 1966 midterm elections.
In return for his sacrifices, Johnson wanted to be loved-- not by the old Southern crocodiles on Capitol Hill, whom he knew he would alienate, and not by bosses like Mayor Daley, whose implacable air of control made him uncomfortable, but by all the people whose wholehearted admiration he had not been able to win before: the little people; the blacks and the Mexican-Americans; the college students; the liberals; the professors and writers. These were the people for whom Johnson was doing more than any president ever had. When he began to sense, in 1965, that they did not love him-- that, in fact, their hero was Robert Kennedy, newly ensconced in the Senate-- it tore him apart, brought his ever present suspicion and insecurity more and more to the fore, and ensured that he and Kennedy however similar their goals, would always work at cross-purposes.
By the summer of 1965, Johnson's obsession with Kennedy had already progressed so far that Harry McPherson wrote a memo pleading with him to stop worrying whether his Cabinet members were more loyal to the Kennedys or to him and to stop opposing good policies just because Kennedy was for them. McPherson was highly skilled in the art of handling Johnson, and he took pains in the memo to show that he fully understood Johnson's own view of Kennedy:
He is trying to put himself into a position of leadership among liberal Senators, newspapermen, foundation executives, and the like. Most of these people mistrusted him in the past, believing him (rightly) to be a man of narrow sensibilities and totalitarian instincts. . . . as we know the intellectuals are as easy a lay as can be found. I can imagine them believing that, although Bobby is an absolutist with little sense of the subtle shadings of an argument, and little tolerance for those who cross him, they can still use him to get across radical ideas . . . . The Kennedys are handsome and dashing, they support fashionable artists, and they can pay for almost anything. They support a great many good causes. And to some people even their rudeness and ruthlessness is exciting.
It tormented Johnson that Kennedy, who was not even passing bills, who was merely a symbolic figure, was attracting such a following. He told Moyers once, in exasperation over the liberal world's failure to see through Kennedy, "That boy rode around this town in a maroon convertible! You can't win respect in this town doing that." Johnson was well aware that Kennedy and his circle didn't respect him either, and regarded as laughable his picture of himself as a strong, sophisticated man of affairs. For years Johnson had taken great pains with his grooming and clothes. He was a graceful ballroom dancer; he liked to think of himself as elegant. And yet John Kennedy was well known to have considered Johnson vain, ungainly, crude-- almost a comic figure.
After the assassination of his brother, Robert Kennedy's contempt for Johnson turned into an obsessive hatred. He fastened on Johnson as the symbol of the end of Camelot, and refused to recognize his achievements. Well after the assassination, he customarily referred to his brother as "the President" and to Johnson as "Johnson." When the Civil Rights Act was signed, Kennedy sent his assistant John
Doar a pen in a frame with a photograph of the signing ceremony (which shows Kennedy in the center of the front row of the audience, staring desolately into the middle distance); the inscription read, "Pen used to sign President Kennedy's civil rights bill."
The black ghettos were an area where Bobby Kennedy especially felt that his understanding surpassed Johnson's. Kennedy had been visiting ghettos for years, whereas to Johnson they were terra incognita. The Watts riots came as a complete surprise to Johnson, a betrayal by people who should have been grateful for all he had done for them. Kennedy knew about the explosive anger in the ghettos long before Watts, because of his meeting with James Baldwin. Johnson would never have had such a meeting; his own favorite story about the horrors of racism had to do with the time his servants, Helen and Gene Williams, transported his dog from Washington to Texas and were unable to stay in motels or eat in restaurants. He had a hard time treating the civil rights landmarks of his own administration with the dignity they deserved. He summoned Louis Martin to the White House for the announcement of the appointment of Robert Weaver as the first black Cabinet membe- - an appointment he had already delayed making for months on end, humiliating Weave- - by saying, "I was sitting in the toilet here and I got to thinking about you." A month before election day in 1964,Johnson made a speech in Louisiana in which he said about Southern voters, "All they ever hear at election time is nigger, nigger, nigger" - and yet, he never dropped his own lifelong habit of occasionally using the word "nigger" in private. Johnson felt uncomfortable with civil rights leaders to the left of Roy Wilkins and Whitney Young, including Martin Luther King, whom Johnson considered to be vain, preachy, communist-influenced, and, when King began to oppose the Vietnam War, a man who cared more about posturing than helping his own people-- "the crown prince of the Vietniks,"-- as Harry McPherson wrote Johnson. In September 19661 Nicholas Katzenbach suggested to McPherson that the White House "informally and quietly'' try to talk Wilkins, Young, and King into "establishing a militant but peaceful organization of young people which could successfully compete with SNCC." McPherson wrote Johnson that "there is no longer any need to have SNCC and CORE represented" at White House meetings on civil rights.
Kennedy, on the other hand, tried to maintain relations with new generation black
leaders, and made himself a champion of advanced notions for helping the
ghettos, starting with community action.
Johnson's conception of the road to black advancement after the vanquishing of segregation was entirely old-fashioned: "vote power" and better schools. "He didn't believe anything would work but politics," says Louis Martin. "He told me once, 'What the hell, you got an awful lot of warm bodies.' He felt politics was the only way to move blacks. He said Paul Douglas would vote like Jim Eastland [the segregationist senator from Mississippi] if he came from down there, and vice versa." Johnson told Elizabeth Wickenden, "If they give blacks the vote, ol' Strom Thurmond will be kissing every black ass in South Carolina." (After the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education came down in 1954, Johnson had told Wickenden's husband, Arthur Goldschmidt, "It's too bad, they shouldn't have taken up schools, they should have done voting rights first.")
Johnson's relentlessly political approach to the presidency and to racial issues was itself a strike against him in Robert Kennedy's eyes. A few weeks after the assassination, Kennedy told Arthur Schlesinger, "My brother barely had a chance to get started-- and there is so much now to be done-- for the Negroes and the unemployed and the school kids and everyone else who is not getting a decent break in our society. . . . The new fellow doesn't get this. He knows all about politics and nothing about human beings." Everything seemed to be a game to Johnson; nothing was important enough to be immune from his addiction to scheming. On the very day Johnson was to appoint Henry Fowler as Secretary of the Treasury, with Fowler waiting to be introduced to the press, an aide to Kennedy who happened to be in Johnson's office watched in amazement as he called up a senator and floated another man's name for the job, pour le sport.
Johnson was especially galled that the intellectuals, into whose universities he had poured more money than any other president, couldn't appreciate his passion and his achievement in race relations. Robert Wood, his deputy secretary of housing and urban development, once got a telegram from Johnson asking him to count up the number of people in the administration with Ph.D.s from Harvard and MIT and then to see if there were more of them than Kennedy had had. Wood was put in charge of a task force on urban affairs by Johnson, which, because Johnson was fanatically secretive, operated out of unidentified offices at the United States Maritime Commission; then Johnson leaked a list of the task force's members to the press in order to prove that he had eggheads working for him.
In 1966, several of Johnson's aides began taking trips to leading universities to meet with groups of intellectuals and ask for suggestions about domestic policy. Quite often the response was that because of the war in Vietnam, they would not cooperate. "So long as the President persists in these policies, there is no hope at all for expanding the Great Society.. . . So count me out," William Leuchtenberg, then of Columbia University, wrote back. Robert Eisner, of Northwestern University, suggested additional spending on the ghettos of $50 billion a year (roughly half of the federal budget), but added, "I must stress, the war has contributed to a profound alienation from this Administration of intellectuals and social scientists whose efforts would be essential to the domestic revolution required.''
Robert Kennedy, privately contemptuous of Johnson for years, began to position himself publicly as a critic of the administration-- not just of its handling of the war but also of its insufficient response to the crisis in the ghettos. In the fall of 1965, Johnson opened up what was essentially a second front in the war on poverty, by pushing through the legislation that created the Department of Housing and Urban Development and, at the same time, instructing Robert Wood's secret task force to formulate an ambitious new program for the ghettos. The task force developed what became HUD's first great mission, the Model Cities program, which was supposed to spend billions to rehabilitate the ghettos physically and otherwise, atoning for the sins of urban renewal by fixing slums up rather than tearing them down. In the spring of 1966, after the plans for Model Cities had been made public, Kennedy arrived late at a small dinner attended by several administration officials and delivered a tirade against the new program. "He said, 'It's too little, it's nothing, we have to do twenty times as much,''' says Wood, who was there. During this period, a California real estate developer named Victor Palmieri was summoned to the White House to be offered a job with Model Cities. When he said no, he was ushered into the Oval Office. "Then, forty five minutes of ridiculous browbeating," he says. "Johnson said, 'I know you, you're one of those Kennedy-lovers.' "
In 1967, Kennedy made a well-publicized trip through Mississippi to
hold Senate hearings on hunger, helped to orchestrate hearings on the
"urban crisis" (as the problems of the ghettos had become known)
that were critical of the Johnson administration, and proposed bills to
create two million new public service jobs and to channel government and private
investment into rebuilding the housing
stock and the employment base in the ghettos. Johnson had no respect for this kind of position-striking; he considered the real purpose of all Kennedy's activities to be the embarrassment of Lyndon Johnson. (He was also convinced that Kennedy would have attacked him from the right if he hadn't escalated the war.) He opposed Kennedy's jobs bill, his ghetto-development bill, and an expansion of the food stamps program that was proposed after the hunger hearings. When Kennedy, after much planning and private fundraising (and the expenditure of some of his family fortune), opened a model ghetto-development project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a black neighborhood in Brooklyn, Johnson dispatched Robert Wood to the dedication ceremony, where, Wood says, "in my little talk I announced that we'll give them two million dollars, which is one million more than Kennedy's giving."
One theory about why Johnson decided not to run for reelection in 1968 is that he was afraid of losing to Kennedy in the primaries and going down in history as the man who presided over the interregnum between two Kennedy administrations. Certainly he kept a close eye on Kennedy's presidential plans. In January 1968, he asked a group of his advisers for memos assessing Kennedy's intentions in the presidential race; he got back a batch of s ycophantic assurances that Kennedy wouldn't dare run, couldn't win if he did, and would endanger the republic if the impossible somehow happened. "Bobby is an emotional fellow. He is quite capable of jumping off the deep end," wrote James Rowe. "He is an arrogant little schmuck," wrote John Roche. Johnson's decision to retire, and even Kennedy's assassination, in June 1968, didn't take any of the edge off his hatred. Just before leaving office, he personally cut from the federal budget the funds for a memorial to Kennedy at Arlington Cemetery.
Johnson began to look upon the Office of Economic Opportunity as a
nest of his liberal enemies. He would affect to be unable to remember its
name, referring to it only as 'Shriver's group.' Harry McPherson mimicked a typical Johnson
tirade against the OEO in a note to Joseph Califano about a letter from a
small-town Ohio Jaycee complaining about the OEO: "If you and Sarge weren't in this thing and always working and
humping for that program that never mentions anybody's name we wouldn't get
into this kind of problem with these people here. Neither
one of you ever ran for constable and you just can't sit still for
wanting to talk about this program everybody says is just criminal and
Califano tried to solve the problem of the OEO's not mentioning the president's name enough by suggesting that Johnson's signature appear on the diploma of every child who completed the Head Start program, because "If they were to bear your signature, I think you would begin to receive much more credit for the progress that is being made." Johnson agreed. Still, his touchiness on the subject of the OEO was such that Califano once felt compelled to write Johnson a memo asking permission to deliver a five-minute speech about the OEO to a gathering of reporters. "They're not against poverty, they're for Kennedy!" Johnson told Bill Moyers. After reading a newspaper clipping about Kennedy and Shriver, Johnson sent it on to his rough-playing, conservative appointments secretary, Marvin Watson, with a note that said, "Marvin: Start keeping a file on these two." He told Wilbur Cohen that he considered virtually everyone at the OEO to be disloyal and a troublemaker. Several times he refused to let Cohen appoint people who had worked at the OEO to positions at HEW, saying, as Cohen remembered it, "Well, I don't want to appoint that fellow. He's from OEO." In one case Johnson turned down the candidacy for the number-two job at HEW of a lifelong federal bureaucrat who had briefly served at the OEO, and instead put in a Texas crony of his who immediately got into a scandal and had to resign.
In his 1967 economic message, Johnson said about poverty, on which he had declared unconditional war only three years earlier, "There is no wonder drug which can suddenly conquer this ancient scourge of man." In his valedictory State of the Union address, in 1969, he gave an un-characteristically muted assessment of the war on poverty, "The anti-poverty program has had many achievements. It also has some failures”, and asked Congress "to improve the administration of the poverty program by reorganizing portions of it and transferring them to other agencies." (Even during his period of maximal disapproval of the OEO, though, Johnson did find room in his heart to have Job Corps trainees in Texas put to work on beautifying the commemorative park opposite his ranch.)
In the final stages of his presidency the idea of large-scale government programs for the ghettos had become so bound up in Johnson’s mind with liberal opposition to him that he became positively hostile toward it. "I realize that currently your view is to make substantial cuts in Great Society programs," Califano wrote him in December 1967; in September 1968, Johnson ordered up a memo on who had thought up the idea of the Great Society, anyway, and was told that the culprits were
Richard Goodwin and Bill Moyers, both long since departed from the White House staff and deep in Johnson's bad graces. He was immensely suspicious of the Kerner Commission, which he had appointed after the terrible Detroit riot in July 1967 -- 4,700 federal troops flown in from military bases to restore order, 43 deaths -- to determine how future riots could be avoided. Johnson had been stunned by Watts, but after Detroit he was simply angry. Nothing bothered him more than seeing the country he had wanted to knit together spinning out of control instead. He was particularly haunted by the idea of the presidency being undermined by insidious forces; the exception to his aversion to movies was Seven Days in May, a thriller about a president being surprised and toppled by a military coup, which he watched over and over.
There were 164 race riots in the first nine months of 1967; it seemed at least possible that a full-scale national race war might break out. Johnson became convinced that the riots were being centrally orchestrated by someone, possibly the communists- - a view much encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI, who sent Johnson regular confidential reports on "Current Racial Developments" that quoted informers' predictions of mayhem in the ghettos and ended with the assurance that "the situation is being closely watched." "The FBI always knew when and where the next riot was going to take place and it had always taken place when and where they predicted," he told Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post. Shriver regularly had to reassure Johnson that OEO employees were not instigating some of the riots; in the fall of 1967 he reported that only sixteen OEO employees had been arrested for rioting during the previous summer, which could not have done much to lay Johnson's suspicions to rest.
Johnson's old friend David Ginsburg, who was the Kerner
Commission’s executive director, says that when Johnson called him in after
his appointment, "he made it very clear that in his view it was simply
not possible to have so many outbreaks at the same time without someone
orchestrating it." As the commission began its work, Johnson quickly
sensed that its dominant member was going to be John Lindsay, the sleek
liberal Republican mayor of New York, rather than the chairman, Otto Kerner, the governor of Illinois. Johnson disliked
Lindsay to begin with, and suspected him of wanting to turn the commission
into a vehicle for his presidential ambitions. He began to insist that
Charles Schultze, the budget director, cut back its
funding, so Schultze had to slip the commission
money in odd places in the
federal budget that Johnson wouldn't notice. Sure enough, Lindsay preempted the report, which was lengthy and sober, by prevailing on the commission at the last minute to begin it with a dramatic executive summary written by his staff. It is the summary, not the report, that contains the famous warning about America's becoming "two societies, one black, one white-- separate and unequal”; Ginsburg added the only other still-remembered line in the report, which blamed the condition of the ghettos on "white racism," and also arranged without Johnson's knowledge for the report to be published as an instant mass-market paperback a few days after its release. Johnson was furious about the report, not least because it ruled out the possibility of a conspiracy behind the riots. He felt it put him in an impossible position-- he couldn't respond to it in a way that matched the bits of angry language that had gotten the headlines, and he certainly couldn't get through Congress the billions of dollars' worth of new government programs for the ghettos that the report recommended. Despite the entreaties of his staff, he refused to comment publicly on the report, refused to allow the commission to present it to him, refused even to sign the form letters his staff drew up thanking the members for their work. "I just can't sign this group of letters," he told McPherson. "I’d be a hypocrite. And I don't even want it known that they got this far.. . . Otherwise somebody will leak that I wouldn't sign them. Just file them-- or get rid of them."
On April 10, 1968, right after Martin Luther King was assassinated, with riots being quelled in Chicago, Baltimore, Washington, and other cities, Califano sent Johnson a long memo suggesting that he react to the crisis by making an address to a joint session of Congress, adding billions to antipoverty programs, and appointing well-known experts to look into a major reordering of the government’s fiscal priorities. Johnson, who rarely wrote anything down, scrawled angry comments all over the memo. To Califano's reminder that he had promised to address a joint session of Congress, Johnson responded, "I promised nothing. I stated my intention only. Since changed by riots." To the suggestion that he ask the advice of "someone with a completely open mind” like McGeorge Bundy, the former hawkish national security adviser who was then the very visibly liberal head of the Ford Foundation, Johnson's answer was, "Ha! Ha!'' At the end of the memo he wrote, "Forget it."
THE COMMUNITY action program was-- without doubt a political failure, In 1967, the OEO nearly died when Congress, angry about community action, missed the regular deadline to renew its appropriation. It survived only because Congresswoman Edith Green seized on the agency's troubles as an occasion to realize her long-cherished dream of defanging the maximum feasible participation clause, which she did by attaching an amendment to the appropriation bill giving elected officials control over one-third of the seats on the local community action boards. A few months later, Johnson appointed Shriver ambassador to France-- a reward, Horace Busby says, for the "What Bobby Thinks" conversation back in 1963.
Practically, community action was not a success, either, at least in the way it was supposed to be. "I'd guess the performance, by numbers, was worse than the bureaucracy would have done,” says Fred Hayes. There is no clear example of a community action agency in a poor neighborhood accomplishing either the original goal of reducing juvenile delinquency or the subsequent goal of reducing poverty. It was part of the official mythology of the OEO that one or another community action agency had helped "cool" a black ghetto where a riot might otherwise have broken out, but overall, street crime by teenagers became much more severe in the ghettos during the heyday of the war on poverty, for reasons having nothing to do with the OEO. Most of the ghettos became poorer, too, as their better-off residents continued to move out. Hundreds of the community action agencies have survived and even flourished long after the federal government's support for them evaporated, but most of them are in the traditional social service business that the community action program was supposed to be a rejection of.
Among the founding fathers of the war on poverty, the case made for the success of community action is that it trained a new generation of black leaders in the ghettos, many of whom went on to win elective office. "Parren Mitchell was on the street!" says Shriver, referring to the Baltimore community action official who later became a congressman. It is hard to believe, though, that these leaders wouldn't have emerged anyway; given the number of blacks the great migration brought to the cities, it was inevitable that black candidates would begin to "Win elections, whether or not the federal
government provided them with leadership training." Parren Mitchell, to use Shriver's example, was the brother of Clarence Mitchell, who as chief lobbyist for the NAACP was one of the most prominent black men in America. Probably a better argument for a positive legacy of the war on poverty is that it raised its general subject matter to the level of national concern, and so helped pave the way for successful programs like Medicare, Medicaid, and food stamps.
Still, community action did achieve an important victory of a kind: it helped to establish in Washington the idea that the ghettos could be transformed into stable, decent neighborhoods - that this would be the solution to all the troubles that followed in the wake of the great migration. Community action, originally an idea for delivering government social services in poor neighborhoods more efficiently and sympathetically, mutated over the course of the I960s into the concept of community development, in which the government would tum poor neighborhoods into middle-class ones, The father of both ideas was Robert Kennedy.
Kennedy never thought of himself as a liberal politician, In l964 he told an interviewer, “What my father said about businessmen applies to liberals…. They're sons of bitches. The people who are selfish are interested in their own singular course of action and do not take into consideration the needs or requirements of others or what can ultimately be accomplished, They're not very helpful, I think." Until the end of his life, his pantheon included men who were anathema to the left; his aide Peter Edelman remembered, "Kennedy was a great admirer of Herbert Hoover … and he was a great admirer of Douglas MacArthur." In his last campaign, in the l968 California presidential primary, at a time when he was hero to much of the long-haired upper-middle-class youth of America, a bearded man wearing a turtleneck shirt stood up in the audience after a speech and asked Kennedy why he wouldn't publicly repudiate J. Edgar Hoover. “Because people like you are asking me to," Kennedy said.
Ever since his election to the Senate in 1964, though, Kennedy had been instinctively picking up the pace of his search for a political stance different from the hard-nosed pragmatism of his early years, He no longer had to be the fierce protector of his brother's political interests (especially against lost-cause-loving liberals), His right-wing father, to whom he was extremely close, had been incapacitated for several years because of a stroke and was not able to exert influence on him. His constituency was a liberal, sophisticated one long accustomed to being represented in the Senate by
crusaders. His essential aides in the Senate, Peter Edelman and Adam Walinsky, were both impassioned young liberals. Still Kennedy was not a creature of the New York monde. Homosexuals made him, in Edelman's words, "extremely uncomfortable." In 1967 he innocently asked Frank Mankiewicz, who was his press secretary by then, "What's a repertory company?" Politically, there was never a moment in his career as an elective officeholder when he didn't have an eye on the national electorate, which was much more conservative than New York's.
During his first year in the Senate, Kennedy concentrated on federal aid to education- one of Johnson's legislative triumphs in 1965, and a traditional liberal cause- as the key to helping the ghettos. Soon he decided it was insufficient. In January 1966, he signaled the broadening of his horizons by delivering speeches about the ghettos on three successive days in New York. He was still quite a ways from community development. The first speech was mainly integrationist: he condemned segregation in public housing, suggested enrolling ghetto children in suburban schools, and called for "ending the isolation of the ghettos" - pretty much the course of action being taken individually by millions of members of the black middle class. The second speech was about the need for government job-training and job-creation efforts; and the third was an attack on the welfare system for breaking up families. By May of the same year, though, he declared that he had a new "overriding theme and goal - the involvement of the community," and in December he announced his own project to rehabilitate Bedford-Stuyvesant, which was the most-publicized and best-connected community development program and so served as the model for many more around the country.
Many forces had been at work to push Kennedy in this direction. With
any program for America's ghettos
that required the passage of major legislation, he would inevitably
run afoul of Johnson; but a single project in New York City, funded mainly by
donations from corporations and foundations, was something he could get up
and running on his own. All the other ideas he mentioned in his January
speeches had become politically problematic. The welfare rolls had grown
rapidly over the past five years, creating a great deal of anti-welfare
sentiment in the white working class. By now liberals (including Edelman and Walinsky) were united behind the idea of a government-guaranteed minimum
income, but it was politically unpopular and never sat right with the
moralistic Kennedy anyway. (In
Indiana during the presidential campaign of 1968, when the Kennedy entourage was riding in a bus on the way to a speech at Purdue University, Edelman cornered Kennedy: "I said, 'Senator, we've prepared a position paper which would have you coming out for a guaranteed income.' He said, ‘I’m against that.' I said, 'No, you're not. You've said this and this and this in the past.' He said, 'I know, but I'm against it.' Meaning he was not about to go out in a presidential campaign and say the words 'guaranteed income.' ''
Jobs programs, an enduring cause of Kennedy’s and one he never backed away from, had the drawback of unlikelihood. Of the whole array of government antipoverty programs, job training and job creation are by far the most expensive - much more expensive even than giving every poor person enough cash every year to get above the poverty line. A fact oft quoted by opponents of the Job Corps was that it cost more to send a kid to a Job Corps camp than to Harvard for a year. The cost of jobs programs was one reason why they were never more than a minor element of the war on poverty. In January 1965, Kermit Gordon wrote a memo to Johnson outlining a $1.4 billion program to lower the national unemployment rate below 4.5 per cent and create 600,000 unskilled government jobs, "particularly in the big cities" (that is, for black migrants). The memo is heartbreaking to read retrospectively, because, far more than community action, the jobs program would have helped poor people in the ghettos, and it represents the road not taken. Gordon obviously wrote it at Johnson's request rather than on his own initiative, and he filled it with signals meant to allow Johnson to tum the idea down. He emphasized the cost, the "stigma of a 'new WPA,'” and the inevitability of "substantial problems (unions, city civil service, etc.) if this program were used to increase regular city payrolls." Johnson said no. Within a few months, the escalation of the war in Vietnam was constraining the federal budget, and of course the unions and the civil service continued to stand in the way of job-creation efforts unless they were confined to the performance of intangible tasks inside the ghettos.
Actual racial integration was even more politically perilous. Every elected politician who represented cities knew how intense white opposition was to integrated schools and housing. Local activism aimed at preventing the federal government from ordering busing as a way of integrating the public schools had already emerged in the Northern cities by the mid-1960s; there is actually an antibusing rider in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the I966 congressional elections the Democrats lost forty seven seats in the House. Paul Douglas, a staunch opponent of residential segregation, lost his Senate seat
in Illinois. Ronald Reagan, in his first race for political office, took the California governorship away from Pat Brown, a liberal Catholic Democrat, by a substantial margin, in part thanks to his constant hammering on issues like welfare and riots; Brown told The New York Times afterward, "Whether we like it or not, people want separation of the races." Bill Moyers remembers Johnson telling him, after Reagan's election, "You see, these people aren't a flash in the pan. The very thing we're doing in the South, combined with what the blacks are doing to us in the North - it'll move beyond George Wallace and become respectable." After the local elections of 1967, Johnson's aide Ben Wattenberg wrote to rum, "In Gary [Indiana], 90% of the whites, normally Democratic, voted Republican. In Cleveland, 80%. [The victorious Democratic candidates for mayor in Gary and Cleveland were black.] In Boston, about 50%, but Kevin White [the new Democratic mayor] is not a Negro . . . . In Gary, one block away from Croatian Hall, in a white ethnic precinct that was 68% Democratic in 1964, the count was 93 % Republican."
Unelected federal officials felt the pressure too. Johnson passed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which finally put into law the long-deferred liberal goal of giving federal aid to local schools, in 1965. A week after the new money started to flow to school districts, Francis Keppel, the commissioner of education, sent a telegram to the Illinois state superintendent of education threatening to withhold funds from Chicago unless something was done about school segregation there. "Chicago was by far the best case in the North of de facto segregation," Keppel remembered. "And I felt a little gutless to be whacking away at the Southern districts. Let's move North; we had the money now. Well, the shit hit the fan. The state superintendent was a basketball coach. He just disappeared. Daley hit the ceiling."
As usual, Daley called Johnson. Keppel said Johnson later told him, "Frank, you know what Daley said to me? He said he could be difficult." Johnson summoned Wilbur Cohen to the White House and told him to go to Chicago and resolve the situation, saying, as Cohen remembered it, "Mayor Daley thinks there is a conspiracy in the federal government of people in the OEO, the Labor Department, and HEW to embarrass him." When Cohen and Daley met, Cohen said, "The general attitude of Daley was, 'You're taking away the funds from me without ever having consulted me. You never told me about the issue; you never consulted me or asked me what my views are; you never tried to get me to resolve it; all you do is you send a telegram and I read it in the newspaper.' ''
Cohen worked out a toothless but face-saving agreement with the Chicago school board, and Keppel was soon relieved of his duties as commissioner of education and made, as he put it, "assistant secretary of HEW in charge of nothing.” Kepper’s successor as commissioner of education, Harold Howe, was stripped of his civil rights enforcement responsibilities in 1967 after having offended Judge Howard Smith of Virginia, chairman of the House Rules Committee, on the integration
In the spring of 1966, Johnson's Model Cities bill ran into heavy weather in Congress, in large part because John Sparkman of Alabama, chairman of the housing subcommittee in the Senate, felt that, as Robert Weaver wrote Johnson, "There are overt and hidden implications of racial integration in the proposal." One of Johnson’s lobbyists wrote, "I think you will have to overcome . . . the race problem before the enabling legislation for Model Cities could pass Congress. Over the summer the bill's requirement that new housing be integrated was dropped, and in the fall Model Cities passed.
Robert Kennedy moved steadily away from the ardent condemnation of the isolation of the ghettos that he had laid out at the beginning of 1966. To embrace the cause of integrating the North would have cost him dearly with his white constituency, and by I968 the civil rights movement was no longer pushing integration either. In a debate during the 1968 California primary campaign, his opponent, Eugene McCarthy, called for ending big-city residential segregation; Kennedy accused him of wanting "to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange County."
Kennedy's political dream was to put together a coalition that united blue-collar whites in the North with people of color. Specifically, right up to the end he was counting on the support of Mayor Daley. The strategic advantage of community development was that it was a way for Kennedy to demonstrate his genuine and deeply felt concern about the ghettos without raising the issue of integration at all. Community development would be a first step, a way of turning the ghettos into the kind of launching pads for immigrant upward mobility that the Irish neighborhoods of Boston had been for Kennedy's own forebears. It was the kind of bold, streamlined, concentrated assault on a problem that Kennedy liked. It put him ahead of the crowd on a big national issue, which was where he always wanted to be.
The greatest success of his project in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and of most other community development efforts that have worked, was that it shored up the housing stock and thus stabilized Bedford-Stuyvesant as a residential neighborhood - although, like all ghettos, it continued to lose population. The greatest failure was in the attempt to create jobs by inducing businesses to locate in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Kennedy enlisted the support of a blue-chip board of investment bankers, foundation executives, and corporate board chairmen for the job-creation effort, and he put John Doar, the former assistant attorney general for civil rights, in charge of it, but only one corporation put a significant new plant in Bedford-Stuyvesant. That was IBM, which had a Democratic chairman, Thomas Watson, and two members of Kennedy's inner circle, Burke Marshall and Nicholas Katzenbach, in the upper ranks of its management.
Johnson was making a grand gesture in the direction of community development himself with the Model Cities program, which was launched at the same time as Kennedy's project in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Model Cities was conceived of as an improvement on - perhaps eventually a replacement for -the community action program. "I feel that the Community Action Program in urban areas has been superseded by the Model Cities effort," one of Califano's aides wrote to him in 1968. Model Cities would be run by the manageable Department of Housing and Urban Development instead of the unruly OEO, it would engage in at least one tangible activity, building housing, and it had a "citizen participation" requirement that was a much watered down version of community action's, so that there was no question about the mayors' controlling it.
All these differences from community action obscured a basic similarity: both programs were attempts to heal the slums from within - to produce, in the slang of the time, a gilded ghetto. Like community action, Model Cities was originally supposed to be a very limited demonstration program operating in only a few cities until it could be determined what worked and what didn’t In fact its name was "Demonstration Cities" until a Georgia congressman objected because, as Robert Weaver re ported to Johnson, "he feels it suggests the image of racial conflict in the South." As soon as the lobbying for Model Cities began, it was expanded to a hundred and fifty cities so that it would be in more congressional districts; there was never a chance to field-test it. Still, people in the Johnson administration who had given up on community action maintained high hopes for Model Cities, because they believed in the concept of community development. A young intellectual at HUD
wrote a long confidential memo in the fall of I967 laying out various scenarios for the future of the ghettos. One of the more hopeful ones predicted, "Many middle-class Negroes, who could move to the suburbs if they wanted to, are encouraged by the positive results of 'black power' ideology and the growing sense of community generated by the Model Cities program, and decide to stay on in the central city."
It was not then, and for that matter still isn't, clearly understood by policymakers in Washington that the pattern in the ghettos was exactly the opposite: everybody who could get out did. Not only that, community development programs actually encouraged the out migration, because they created white-collar government jobs that put money in the pockets of many ghetto residents and enabled them to leave. Vernon Jordan, who became head of the Urban League after the death of Whitney Young in 197 I, was working in the late 1960s at the Southern Regional Council in Atlanta, which mounted a community development effort in a neighborhood called Vine City. "We were trying to help the indigenes, not the middle-class blacks," he says. "So we hired a woman named Doris Reed, who was poorly dressed and walked with her head down. Then she got her first paycheck. She started to smile a little. Then the next one. After about six months I met her at the elevator balancing boxes. She said, 'Mr. Jordan, today is moving day. I'm moving out of Vine City.' I said, 'What about helping the community?' She said, 'All my life I've wanted to get out.' "
Part of the appeal of community development was that it had no enemies. Everyone from nationalists who wanted black self-determination to conservative Republicans who wanted to avoid large, centrally run government programs liked it. In its rise as an idea, something broader was going on, though. By now, America had abandoned the beau ideal of a consensus society and become more openly pluralistic. The idea of ethnic neighborhoods as quasi-independent entities, so daring only a few years earlier, was now a standard part of mainstream thinking.
The black migration to the North had a great deal to do with this change. The millions of blacks who migrated did so in order to have lives more like those of most other Americans. Their presence in the North made the rest of the country more aware of African-American culture than it had ever been before. The awareness produced a dual reaction. On one hand, the black influence on national life greatly increased. Most of the substantial changes in the folkways of the white middle class during
and after the 1960s had their roots in black life, Rock-and-roll music was an outgrowth of the Mississippi blues; the Rolling Stones named them selves after a song by Muddy Waters. The white protest movements- antiwar, feminist, environmental, gay rights -were modeled on the civil rights movement. The founders of SDS learned their techniques in Mississippi. A seminal event in the feminist movement was a rebellion by the women in SNCC at the Waveland, Mississippi, meeting in the fall of 1964. (The women's rights movement in the United States began in the 1840s as a rebellion within the abolitionist movement, so the women in SNCC were repeating a time-honored pattern.) The general abandonment by white youth of pseudo-aristocracy as its preferred style, in favor of the mores denoted by the ghetto terms "cool" and & hip," represented a black-to-white cultural transmission. The edge of disappointment with which blacks viewed the national enterprise had made its way into white America.
On the other hand, the migration hardly created a harmonious, racially synthesized country. It was disruptive; it engendered hostility. The fabric of city life in the United States changed forever. Some of the bitterness of race relations leached into city politics. The ideal of high-quality universal public education began to disappear. Street crime became an obsessive concern for the first time in decades. The beginning of the modem rise of conservatism coincides exactly with the country's beginning to realize the true magnitude and consequences of the black migration, and the government's response to the migration provided the conservative movement with many of its issues. The idea that government programs don't work, and can't work, comes out of the Great Society, and particularly the war on poverty; all through his political career, one of Ronald Reagan's favorite sayings was, "In the 1960s we fought a war on poverty, and poverty won." So does the idea that most middle-class people are paying too much federal income tax to support harebrained social betterment schemes, which was central to Reagan's (and therefore also George Bush's) rise to the presidency. In intellectual life, the neo-conservative movement, whose influence on Republican policy-making has been enormous, was founded by former liberals who lost faith in large part over the issue of race in the North; in Irving Kristal's famous apothegm, "a neo-conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality," it's not difficult to guess what color the mugger was.
As Lyndon Johnson predicted, the Republican Party seized upon the political opportunity presented by the Democrats' embrace of civil rights, and induced the South to switch from Democratic to
Republican in presidential elections. The great migration then delivered the coup de grace to the Democrats as a presidential party: it hastened the movement of millions of middle-class white voters to the Republican suburbs, and it caused millions more blue-collar voters who didn’t move to stop voting for the Democratic candidate for president. Richard Nixon narrowly lost the presidency in 1960 and narrowly won it in 1968; the biggest states that moved into his column the second time around were all ones where white backlash was a significant force - Illinois, New Jersey, Missouri, and North Carolina. The only way the Democrats could have maintained their presidential majority without the South was by hanging on to the urban whites of the North, and -in that sense the community action pro gram, which heightened the differences between Northern blacks and the white-ethnic political structures instead of muting them, hurt politically. Consensus was the Democrats' ticket and Johnson's dream; but Johnson, by letting his insecurity triumph over his natural instincts during the first weeks of his presidency, had let pluralism into the tent.
For blacks in the North, the main direct effect of the works of Lyndon Johnson was the creation of a great many new jobs for blacks in government- not the kind of ghetto leadership positions that loomed large in the minds of the founders of the war on poverty, but ordinary public payroll jobs. The political scientists Michael K. Brown and Steven P. Erie estimated in I 981 that the Great Society generated two million new government jobs, most of them nominally on state and local payrolls but funded by new federal programs in education, health, housing, and other areas of the welfare state. A disproportionate share of these jobs went to blacks. Brown and Erie said that black employment in public social welfare programs increased by 850,000 from 1960 to 1976 (a period during which the black middle class tripled in size), and many new government jobs were also created for blacks outside the social welfare sphere, for example in local transportation authorities and law enforcement agencies. In 1970 government employed 57 per cent of black male college graduates and 7 2 per cent of black female college graduates.
At the same time, the jobs that had drawn blacks to the North in the first place dried up. From 1960 to 1964, manufacturing employment increased nationally by 1 per cent but fell in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit, and later the drop in urban unskilled manufacturing jobs became more precipitous. The economic base of black America, which had switched from agriculture to unskilled industrial labor in the 1940s, switched again in the sixties, from unskilled labor
to government; the industrial age for African-Americans lasted for not even a full generation. There was some awareness within the Johnson administration that the war on poverty and its successor programs were creating a lot of jobs for blacks- Charles Schultze, the budget director, several times wrote memos urging Johnson to think of the OEO as a jobs program - but on the whole, one of the great ironies of Johnson's response to the problems of the ghettos was that while repeatedly rejecting the idea of a big jobs program for poor and poorly educated urban blacks whose traditional form of employment was evaporating, he in effect created just that for blacks with a decent education, who used their new prosperity to leave the ghettos where they were now employed as social workers.
At the level of national debate, the dependence of blacks on government employment has been continually condemned by everyone from Stokely Carmichael (who in his book Black Power called it "welfare colonialism") to conservative Republicans, but it was the hand black America was dealt. It wasn't altogether a bad one, although it didn't provide much help for the poorest people in the cities, who only became more isolated from the rest of society, black and white. Very soon, though, the expansion of government services, in which blacks now had such a strong vested interest, came under attack, and from an unlikely source: the intellectual champion of employment as the solution to America's racial crisis, Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
wide range of contacts
included many Republicans, and his
writing and thinking after the furor over his report on the black family
became markedly more conservative; when Richard Nixon's presidency began, he
landed a job on the White House staff as chief adviser on urban affairs.
Moynihan retained his membership in the Democratic Party, but he saw his
future in it as bleak. "I have been an active Democrat, and if they
allow me (which alas I doubt) I will be one again," he wrote to H. R. Haldeman, Nixon's chief of staff, in 1969. His service to
Nixon was not, to his mind, a brief bipartisan interlude in his career, but a
crucial opportunity to affect the direction of the government. Never before
had he even approached the influence he came to have in the Nixon
administration, when for a
time he truly had the ear of the president. Even during his current career as a Democratic senator from New York, he has had much less influence on policy-making than he did in 1969 and 1970.
It was on the surface an odd pairing, Moynihan and Nixon. Moynihan was entirely preoccupied with the issue of race in the North - his service in three successive administrations made him the one person most continuously involved in formulating the government's response to the black migration. For Nixon, race was a side issue. The two civil rights leaders he dealt with most were Vernon Jordan of the Urban League and James Farmer, formerly of CORE, who briefly worked in his administration. "He didn't care about the basic issue," says Jordan; "He had no strong feelings on any social issues," says Farmer. “He was capable of doing either good or bad with equal facility. He made decisions based on politics, not right or wrong."
During the 1968 Republican Convention in Miami Beach, a last minute run at Nixon by Ronald Reagan caused Nixon's delegate strength in the South suddenly to begin crumbling. To shore it up, Nixon held a series of meetings with Southern delegates in which he laid out a new go-slow position on racial matters. The nomination held; after the election he brought onto the White House staff a protégé of Strom Thurmond, the old segregationist who was a senator from South Carolina, and began to implement a "Southern strategy" meant to reassure the white South that it would not be subjected to radical racial change. The political calculations of the Nixon administration didn't include blacks, whom Nixon had conceded to the Democrats. As Moynihan reminded Nixon in March 1969, he attained the presidency having won probably the smallest percentage of black votes of any president in American history.
Very occasionally Nixon entertained wistful
hopes about discovering a contingent of blacks who
would vote for him- "30% who are potentially on our side,” he once
scribbled on the margin of a memo - but on the whole he was far too much the
realist to believe that he would ever have a significant black constituency,
and he knew that some of his white support came from people who were voting
on the basis of their resentment of blacks. "There were subliminal
racial messages in a lot of Nixon's campaigning," says John Ehrlichman,
Nixon's chief domestic policy adviser. "It was subtler than code words.
It was, 'I am on your side. I am going to deal with it in a way you'll
approve of.' I know he saw
Johnson's embrace of blacks as an opportunity. He exploited it." Ehrlichman says that on two occasions, Nixon told him that he considered blacks to be less intelligent than whites. "He thought, basically, blacks were genetically inferior," Ehrlichman says. "In his heart he was very skeptical about their ability to excel except in rare cases. He didn't feel this way about other groups. He'd say on civil rights things, 'Well, we'll do this but it isn't going to do any good.' He did use the words 'genetically inferior.' He thought they couldn't achieve on a level with whites."
The real link between Moynihan and Nixon, the obsession they shared, was a deep dislike of the left-liberal political culture that had grown so dramatically in the past three or four years and reached its height of influence during Nixon's first years in office. Both men had been through, and been deeply wounded by, the experience of being reviled by the left. As early as 1966, Moynihan was writing to Harry McPherson, "I have the feeling that you fellows, being Southern populist types do not really understand the Northern Left, and since then his views on the subject had only grown more pronounced. It was easy for Moynihan to conjure up for Nixon a nightmarish picture of the legions of Nixon haters (who were also no doubt Moynihan-haters): Ivy League professors, black-power advocates, social-change-promoting foundation executives, peace-marching Georgetown hostesses, affluent student revolutionaries, and to-the-barricades journalists. While reading a description by Moynihan of Leonard Bernstein's fundraising party for the Black Panthers in 1970, Nixon wrote a note to himself: "The complete decadence of the American upper class intellectual elite." There was a close connection between these people and racial issues: in domestic politics, race was the means they would use to heap abuse on Nixon.
Moynihan, probably more than Nixon, came to see the left as a threat
not just to him personally but to the basic social peace of the country.
Unlike Nixon, Moynihan viewed the United States from the vantage point of a
position within the intellectual subculture, where the left was a far more
significant force than it was in national life generally, and his natural
tendency toward over-dramatization made him quick to perceive crises anyway.
From where he sat, the state of the nation in those days of Kent State and
Cambodia and My Lai seemed extremely dire. In May 1970, he reported to Nixon
that the SDS had threatened to burn down his house in Cambridge and that his
family had gone into hiding. ("Even so, I'm sticking here,” he wrote.
"I am choosing the interests of the administration over the interests of
my children.") Later that year Moynihan told Nixon that ten-year-old John Moynihan was afraid his father would be assassinated. Moynihan believed that the overarching purpose of the Nixon administration had to be the Lincoln-esque one of preserving the union. He wrote to Nixon just before his inauguration: "Your task, then, is clear: to restore the authority of American institutions. Not, certainly, under that name, but with a clear sense that what is at issue is the continued acceptance by the great mass of people of the legitimacy and efficacy of the present arrangements of American society." This would necessarily be a matter of political self-preservation for Nixon, as well as statesmanship . As Moynihan wrote to Nixon the following year, "To be blunt, the people who brought down Johnson want to bring down Nixon " Other people in the administration shared some of Nixon's hurts and resentments, but Moynihan had a special influence. Like Henry Kissinger on the foreign policy side, he had the ability, rare among high government officials and prized by Nixon, to put the activities of the administration in a sweeping historical context. "He's so stimulating,'' Nixon told Ehrlichman once. Moynihan was brimming with ideas for grand initiatives (a constitutional convention in 1976, a Nixon architectural policy, a new federal Department of Higher Education and Research) and with interesting predictions (feminism as a major social force, a series of urban fiscal crises). He could explain to Nixon the similarities between his situation and that of other distinguished figures he knew Nixon admired: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Wilson, Churchill. Nixon could discuss with Moynihan, as he could not with Haldeman or Ehrlichman, his admiration for Disraeli, and for War and Peace. In the early days the relationship was suffused with praise; each man knew well what the other liked to hear. "It is reassuring to have a true intellectual in residence," Nixon wrote Moynihan in 1969, and a few months later he said, perhaps sensing Moynihan's restlessness with university life, "You belong in the exciting things." He reassured Moynihan that he wanted peace in Vietnam, and Moynihan usually expressed his opposition to the war as gently as possible. The memos that Moynihan often sent Nixon were filled with small bouquets: "your great Inaugural Address"; "your brilliant first year in office"; What you have done for racial equality is without equal in American history” ; "New Federalism . . . is generally held [in England, where Moynihan had just been] to be the most important domestic initiative since the New Deal."
Moynihan's flattery (and self-flattery: the presidential ideas he extolled were often the ones that he had thought of) had a higher purpose: he used it, successfully, to help coax Nixon into agreement
with his vision of what the administration should do, Nearly all the great presidential initiatives he wrote to Nixon about were meant, in Moynihan's mind, to send a message - not to average voters or foreign leaders or any of the other standard objects of symbolic presidential actions, but to intellectuals, Actually bringing them around to a position of support for Nixon, which Nixon thought of as part of Moynihan's job, Moynihan realized was, in 1969 and 1970, impossible. But they could be neutralized, he thought, through a kind of one-upmanship: if Nixon built up a record of liberal accomplishment, it would become clear that the intellectuals' attacks on him were based not on any substantive objection to his policies, but on pure destructiveness. In the end they would be discredited, which was a necessary precondition of the moral restoration of the republic.
Nixon instinctively disliked the war on poverty. During the I968 campaign, Patrick Buchanan, who was one of his speechwriters, sent him a memo on welfare on which Nixon wrote an exclamation point in the margin next to the statement that “a concered effort has been made through the Community Action Programs of the War on Poverty to urge people to apply for welfare." He wrote back to Buchanan, "Good for a tough statement later? (Particularly the part about how welfare workers urge people to go on welfare.” One of Nixon's minor campaign promises was that he would eliminate the Job Corps, Two months after taking office, he wrote Ehrlichman, "No increase in any poverty program until more evidence is in"; on another memo, which listed all the presidential appointees at the OEO, he wrote, "I want immediate action on all these characters." Moynihan might have been expected to urge Nixon to follow his inclination to put the OEO out of business; at the time, he was probably the best-known critic of the war on poverty in the country, having published in 1969 a book attacking community action called Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding. He sent Nixon a positive review of the book in January 1969, with a note saying "Wait till the OEO types get to me!" “ Very intriguing -!" Nixon wrote back.
And yet Moynihan's position was exactly the opposite: in the first few months of the administration, he was responsible for convincing Nixon to spare the OEO - for strategic reasons, not because he considered it an effective government agency. Why give the left any ammunition? "Avoid, at whatever immediate costs . . . an enormous controversy over the 'war on poverty,' " he wrote Nixon a month after the inauguration, and in a new introduction to Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding,
written in early 1970, he proudly reported that all suspicions that Nixon harbored ill will toward the poverty program had been shown to be nonsense, For the same reason, he pushed for budget increases for Model Cities, too, and distanced himself from his old Harvard friend Edward Banfield, who was the leading intellectual skeptic about the program; "Pat did not welcome my presence in Washington when I went there," Banfield says, "He did not want to be perceived as a conservative." Moynihan's entire record as an adviser to Nixon is one of always pushing him to make liberal gestures, great (like more government spending on social programs) and small (like restoring the funds that Johnson had cut for Robert Kennedy's memorial at Arlington, and granting a passport to the widow of W. E. B. DuBois), and always making the case for them primarily on the basis of the need to neutralize the intellectual left.
It helped Moynihan that the general tenor of the American establishment during the first Nixon administration was probably more liberal than it had ever been before and than it has been since. Conservatism of the variety that prevailed during Ronald Reagan's presidency was a fringe ideology in the early seventies, and Nixon would have had to wage all out war against the Congress, the press, the universities, the foundations, and even most corporate leaders if he had wanted to reverse completely the rising tide of social welfare programs. His real area of interest was foreign policy, and he was not inclined to expend his political capital on trying to bring about a conservative counter-revolution in domestic affairs. Among his advisers, the people who would qualify as conservative by today's standards consistently lost their battles with the forces of moderate Republicanism. As one of Nixon’s aides, Richard Nathan, puts it, "We just didn't have a new conventional wisdom -we accepted the paradigm of the Great Society." During the transition period between Nixon's election and his inauguration, Nathan ran a task force on welfare policy that recommended eliminating the then-slender work requirements for welfare mothers on the grounds that they were "coercive,”, he said "Model Cities is gaining momentum rapidly," praised community action for "building self-help, capacities and citizen participation," and called for the establishment of a new "Agency for Community Development." In the course of Nixon's first term, HEW pushed forward with many school-desegregation cases in the South, Labor established the use of numerical goals in affirmative action plans. Under pressure from the Democratic Congress, Nixon signed into law a program to create temporary jobs in the ghettos, a subsidized housing. program, revenue sharing and block
grants for cities, increases in welfare payments, a major expansion of the food stamps program, and a new program under Social Security that made payments to disabled people. That period in the past, now so often mentioned in conservative political speeches, when we threw money at our problems, was really the first Nixon administration more than it was either of the Democratic administrations of the 1960s.
Aside from the reason that Moynihan favored all these programs, Nixon knew that government spending had political uses that Republicans tended to be blind to. It was a lesson he had learned the hard way during his unsuccessful first presidential race: "Very bad advice '60 to Ike- should have spent more,” he told a group of aides a few months after taking office. Domestic expenditures could have a calming effect on the country- “He spent to keep the lid on,'' says Leonard Garment, who was Nixon's adviser on civil rights. On racial issues, the desire in the White House, not least on the part of Nixon himself, was to demonstrate a specifically Republican form of moral superiority that the nation had been deprived of during the 1960s. The Democrats were the messy, passionate, ultra-political party, and the exemplary Democrat was Lyndon Johnson, who always overheated the rhetoric, who cloaked calculation in talk of the public good, who had raised expectations too high and worked the country into a frenzied state. On January 20, 19691 Johnson's aides turned over to Nixon's a stack of blank executive orders declaring martial law - all you had to do was fill in the date and the name of the city. The Nixon administration would cool the country off, and it would help blacks even though there was not a single vote to be gained by doing so. Somehow this seemed purer than the racial concern of politicians like Johnson and Robert Kennedy, who expected the reward of black votes in return for their good deeds.
"Disgraceful in past 100 years both parties have demagogued the race issue," read Ehrlichman's notes of what Nixon said to a group of his aides during a meeting in 1971. "Used the issue. Haven't tried to solve it." Speaking on the telephone to Reagan in 1972 about the Democrats and blacks, he said, "They exploited them,” Nixon constantly emphasized to the people around him the importance of keeping a low profile while carrying out civil rights policy. "Don't let the federal government be heroic," Ehrlichman's notes of the I971I meeting continue. "Won’t help blacks or the cause." In I970 Haldeman wrote a memo summarizing Nixon's views on desegregation. It began, "All people concerned are to do
only what the law requires and they are to do it quietly without bragging about it." He continued, "We have to do what's right, but we must separate that from politics and not be under the illusion that this is helping us politically." The memo that Moynihan wrote Nixon in January 1970, saying "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect' "- which caused another hail of criticism to descend on Moynihan when somebody leaked it to the press a couple of months later - was entirely consistent with the overall tone of the administration. Racial progress was supposed to continue, but very quietly.
The one liberal cause that Nixon took care to stay far away from was the integration of schools and neighborhoods in the North, because unlike all the others it could really damage him politically. The first Nixon administration coincided with the peak of the anti-busing movement. Every year the House of Representatives voted on an anti-busing measure; in 1969 and 1970 it failed, but in 1971 and 1972, following a Supreme Court decision upholding the legality of busing orders, it passed. Nixon frequently reminded his aides that he was against busing in the North. Members of the administration who were seen as advocating integration openly, such as Leon Panetta, the director of HEWs Office of Civil Rights and James Allen, the commissioner of education, usually found themselves out of jobs. In 1970 Ehrlichman wrote Nixon about another problem official, George Romney, the former governor of Michigan who was now secretary of HUD: "Suburban Integration. This is a serious Romney problem which we will apparently have as long as he is there. There is no approved program as such, nor has the White House approved such a policy. But he keeps loudly talking about it in spite of our efforts to shut him up . . . . And he is beginning some administrative maneuvers in this direction." Nixon wrote back, "Stop this one.” (During the 1972 campaign, the Republican National Committee worked up faked letters from private citizens to Democratic senators asking them what they thought of Romney's views on integration, evidently hoping to elicit favorable responses that could then be used against the senators in the campaign.) After Nixon's re-electioni when he was reshuffling his Cabinet, he told James Lynn, Romney’s successor at HUD, according to Ehrlichman's notes, “Black Problem. Romney pandered.”
Whenever the thought of simply becoming more openly conservative on racial issues across the board occurred to Nixon, he concluded that he shouldn't, because the course he had set - for the continued
dismantling of legal segregation in the South, against trying to integrate the North - was the most politically prudent one. Patrick Buchanan wrote Nixon a memo in January 1970, suggesting that he was being unfair to the South by desegregating the schools there and not in the North. Nixon wrote in the margin, "Is de facto segregation OK in the North and not in the South?" and "Why should we continue to kick the South and hypocritically ignore the same problem in the North?" By March, though, when Buchanan was fighting with the rest of the White House staff over what position a presidential message on desegregation should take, Ehrlichman's notes have Nixon telling him, "No good politics in PB's extreme view: segregation forever . . . . Right: Believe should carry out desegregation. Integration not wave of future. No massive program. Lean: integration hasn't worked."
MOYNIHAN's vision for the Nixon administration was far too ambitious for him to limit himself to ensuring that the government simply float along on a liberal tide. He had an idea in mind that would dramatically establish a new course for American social policy: a national guaranteed-income program called the Family Assistance Plan.
For years Moynihan had been advocating some kind of new government income support for families, and more recently, the idea of a guaranteed income had moved steadily into the forefront of his opinions, and the idea of full employment and jobs programs into the background. During the Nixon administration, "Moynihan was not pushing strongly for an employment solution," Ehrlichman says. The strategic advantages of a guaranteed-income program, at that moment, were many. For a substantial initiative, it was quite inexpensive. It would replace something that nobody liked, the welfare system. It was easy to sell to Nixon: it was an antipoverty program that did not require venturing into such perilous territory as promoting integration or expanding the federal bureaucracy; as Moynihan presented the idea, it would cost only $2 billion a year and cut back on the size of government by consolidating the vast Democratic hodgepodge of federal income-support programs.
Additional attractions of the Family Assistance Plan lay in areas that could not be publicly discussed. The subject of black out-of-wedlock childbearing was still strictly verboten - "You weren't supposed to talk about that," says Richard Nathan - but the percentage of black children born to single mothers was continuing to rise. If the welfare system was to blame, then the Family Assistance Plan, which
would give money to intact families as well as female-headed ones, would reverse the trend. Another trend it might reverse was the black migration to the North. For several years it had occurred to government officials that the crisis in the ghettos might be solved by finding a way to keep rural Southern blacks from moving to the cities. Toward the end of his presidency, Johnson set up a secret Interagency Task Force on Rural-Urban Migration to look into this question, and in I969 Moynihan set up a White House task force on "Internal Migration." At Moynihan's urging, Nixon said in his 1970 State of the Union address, "We must create a new rural environment which will not only stem the migration to urban centers but reverse it."
These efforts always foundered for the simple reason that upon investigation, it became clear that the great migration was already coming to an end. By the late 1960s, the dislocations caused by the mechanization of cotton cultivation in the South were substantially complete, and the word was out in the black South that the Northern ghettos had become short on unskilled jobs and long on street crime. To people in Washington, though, it appeared that the tremendous disparities in the level of welfare benefits from state to state - Illinois consistently paid from three to four times what Mississippi did - were inducing poor blacks to move North just to get on welfare there. The Family Assistance Plan would establish a national uniform benefit level and so remove that incentive. Although Moynihan now stoutly denies that he believed the Family Assistance Plan would stem the black migration, the original proposal for it said, "No more will poor persons be driven out of one section of the Nation by inadequate or even punitive welfare legislation, and forced into crowded and hostile cities." When Nixon made his first speech about the plan, he said the welfare system "has helped draw millions into the slums of our cities." In The Politics of a Guaranteed Income, Moynihan's book on the Family Assistance Plan, published in 1973, he approvingly quoted an article from The Economist that said, “The major requirement here is to get deserted welfare mothers and their large families out of the city centers instead of ridiculously saying that they can draw higher benefits only if they stay there."
Perhaps the most appealing of all the nonobvious features of the Family Assistance Plan was that it would cut out of the action the kind of social welfare employees who Moynihan and Nixon recognized were the left's main entering wedge into the government. In Moynihan's formulation,
the Family Assistance Plan represented the administration's embracing an ''income strategy'' against poverty to replace Johnson's ''services strategy.” One member of the White House staff remembers that at the first big meeting where Moynihan proposed the plan, when he said that it would eliminate tens of thousands of social workers from the federal payroll, Nixon's eyes lit up, As Moynihan imagined his proposal playing out, the left would be inescapably trumped: it would of course be horrified by the Family Assistance Plan as a matter of self-interest but to work actively for the defeat of the most sweeping liberal social initiative in years would appear hypocritical. This logic appealed to Nixon, too. On Christmas Eve, 1969, an assistant of Moynihan's named John Price had to pay a brief visit to the Oval Office, and he found Nixon in a voluble mood. Price says, "Nixon said, 'We as Republicans have to accept that the Democrats will always try to raise the payments from a guaranteed income and make us look mean. But the important thing is this:' - he pointed his finger at me -' We established the principle!'
The Family Assistance Plan was by no means universally popular within the White House. Arthur Burns, a conservative economist who was then a high-ranking aide to Nixon, mounted a ferocious attack on it that lasted for months, based on the argument that it would cost more than Moynihan was saying and would cause the welfare rolls to grow even faster than they were growing already. Even as Nixon's speech announcing the plan was in the final stages of preparation, Burns tried (unsuccessfully) to insert a passage in which Nixon categorically stated that the Family Assistance Plan was not a guaranteed income, because that was something he could never support. Moynihan never fully refuted Burns's objections, but for him fiscal prudence and shrinking welfare rolls were not the real goals of the Family Assistance Plan anyway. At that point he had Nixon's ear more than Bums did, partly because, as Burns's deputy, Martin Anderson, puts it, “Arthur treated Nixon like a child."
In April I969, Nixon wrote Ehrlichman, "In confidence I have decided to go ahead on this program.”
The plan twice failed to pass in Congress. The opposition that sealed its fate came from conservative Southern Democrats, most importantly Senator Russell Long of Louisiana. To Moynihan's mind, though, the real villains of the piece were the left-wing organizations that, contrary to his expectations, decided to campaign actively against the plan, such as the Welfare Rights Organization. The defeat of the Family Assistance Plan deepened his conviction that the left had become the main
obstacle to the achievement of liberal goals in America.
In 1973, when he was ambassador to India, Moynihan wrote to Melvin Laird, who had taken over his portfolio at the White House, to urge a third try for the Family Assistance Plan; his argument makes it clear how much more focused he was on the plan as an intellectual gambit than as a social program. It would not pass, he wrote, because "A guaranteed income will never be enacted while President Nixon is in office.'' Still, the fight was worth it, because the plan was not "addressed to the poor" but
"addressed to the cultural strata" -that is, it was meant to vitiate the arguments of intellectuals who liked to portray the Nixon administration as heedlessly right-wing, As to the objection of people like Burns and Long that the plan would encourage welfare dependency, Moynihan's attitude was, essentially, that they might be right, but so what? Reducing dependency wasn't the point. A large welfare-dependent class "will come to be accepted as the normal and manageable cost of doing urban business,” he wrote Laird. "It is in ways a political subsidy, as irrational perhaps as those paid to owners of oil wells, wheat fields, or aerospace companies, but whoever said politics was rational? Not Melvin Laird!"
Moynihan was occasionally able to induce Nixon to get into the spirit of bitterness about the liberal opposition to the Family Assistance Plan. In I970 he wrote to him, "Can you believe the Urban League would be against FAP? Talk about class interests . . . ."; this prompted a handwritten response from Nixon to Moynihan, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman, with each man getting a message custom-tailored to the nature of his relationship with the president:
Pat Good job! (However I'm not surprised at the Urban League getting "political" as November approaches.)
E I think this cooks Whitney Young. He is hopelessly partisan.
H -Can't some of our people who help finance the Urban League hit him? See if you can't get someone on this.
On the whole, though, Nixon was losing interest in the plan; as a politician in office, he could not afford to be so utterly consumed as Moynihan was with the thrust and parry of intellectual life. By the late summer of I 970, Ehrlichman's notes have Nixon telling him, "Just get something done. . . . Let it appear we've fought and come half way . . . . Avoid appearance of defeat.'' It was especially unfortunate for the Family Assistance Plan's standing with Nixon that the Democratic presidential
nominee, George McGovern, whom Nixon regarded as a dreamy, ineffectual leftist, proposed a guaranteed income during his campaign in 1972. At one point, while discussing McGovern's plan with Ehrlichman, Nixon called in his faithful manservant, Manolo Sanchez. If McGovern won and implemented his plan, Sanchez said, according to Ehrlichman's notes, "I quit- go on welfare."
MOYNIHAN knew exactly what was going on in black America. He had seen for years that the black poor in the cities were in trouble- that their unemployment rate was rising alarmingly, that their family networks were becoming more unstable, that their likelihood of going on welfare was increasing, that crime in their neighborhoods was growing more and more severe. More recently, he had realized that the growth in government employment was a great boon to the black middle class, and that as more blacks began to do better, the poor people in the ghettos would be cut off. It would seem that somebody who saw all these trends taking place would conclude that the worst possible answer for the problems of black America at that moment was concentrating on higher welfare payments at the expense of programs: that would cut off the growth of the social service jobs that were giving blacks their main avenue of opportunity without giving any additional jobs, education, or training that might help the poorest people to get out of the ghettos. That Moynihan, knowing what he knew, put all his political chips on a guaranteed income is testament to the ability of his preoccupation with the left to distract him from what should have been the real point of his service in the White House.
In March 1969, just when he was beginning to promote the Family Assistance Plan, Moynihan wrote a long memo to Nixon, filled with urgent italicized warnings, on the state of race relations in America -a memo that would have gotten him in much more trouble than the "benign neglect" memo if it had ever been publicized. It demonstrates the line of reasoning that was pulling Moynihan away from the idea of giving blacks more government programs, and toward giving them more welfare instead.
Moynihan began the memo by stressing the need for "the integration into the larger society of what is now a sizable urban lower class which at the moment is experiencing more than its share of the bad habits and bad luck which through history have affected such groups and caused
them to be seen as 'different' or undesirable by their more prudent and fortunate neighbors . . . . The Negro lower class would appear to be unusually self-damaging, that is to say, more so than is normal for such groups.” He went on to show how mixed his feelings were about the new black middle
class, because of its political leanings.
The Negro poor having become more openly violent -especially in the form of the rioting of the mid 1960's -they have given the black middle class an incomparable weapon with which to threaten white America. This has been for many an altogether intoxicating experience. "Do this or the cities will burn." And of course they have been greatly encouraged in this course by white rhetoric of the Kerner Commission variety. But most important of all, the existence of a large marginal, if not dependent, black urban lower class has at last given the black middle class an opportunity to establish a secure and rewarding power base in American society -as the provider of social services to the black lower class…. What building contracts and police graft were to the 19th-centnry urban Irish, the welfare department, Head Start, and Black Studies programs will be to the coming generation of Negroes. They are of course very wise in this respect. These are expanding areas of economic opportunity. By contrast, black business enterprise offers relatively little. In all this there will be the peculiar combination of weakness and strength that characterizes Negro Americans as a group at this time . . . . There is no true Negro intellectual or academic class at this moment. (Thirty years ago there was: somehow it died out.) Negro books are poor stuff for the most part. Black studies are by and large made up of the worst kind of ethnic longings-for-a-glorious-past . . . .
Helping the ghettos would, Moynihan continued, deprive "the militant middle class" of the ability to make an ongoing "threat to the larger society, much as the desperate bank robber threatens to drop the vial of nitroglycerin.” Hence the income strategy: a gesture toward the ghettos that would simultaneously take the play away from the militant middle class.
The relationship between the Family Assistance Plan and the income strategy is like the one between the community action program and the idea of community development: the specific program failed politically, but the general principle succeeded. The Nixon administration in effect
did implement the income strategy by greatly increasing the payment levels of welfare, food stamps, Social Security, and disability pensions, while allowing government social welfare employment to level off. At the same time, the proportion of blacks in poverty, which decreased from 55 per cent in 1959 to 32 per cent in 1969, also leveled off and has stayed relatively level ever since, lacking a decisive nudge from either the manual-labor economy or the federal government. In his own fashion Moynihan had done exactly what he so often accused the left of doing: claiming to be motivated by concern for the poor, he had set a course whose real aim was to embarrass his enemies, one that was not in the best interest of the people he was supposed to be helping.
Another gesture arranged by Moynihan to demonstrate the genuine ness of the Nixon administration's interest in the problem of black poverty was a meeting in the White House, on May 13, 1969, between representatives of the Poor People's Campaign and Nixon and several high-ranking members of the administration, including nearly half the Cabinet. The Poor People's Campaign was a legacy of the assassinations of 1968. The idea for it came from a conversation in the summer of I967 between Robert Kennedy and Marian Wright Edelman, a younger generation civil rights leader and the wife of Kennedy's aide Peter Edelman. As Peter Edelman remembered the conversation, Kennedy said to Marian Edelman, "I think what really has to happen is that you got to get an awful lot of them, you've got to get a whole lot of poor people who just come to Washington and say they're going to stay here until something happens and it gets really unpleasant and there are some arrests and it's just a very nasty business and Congress gets really embarrassed and they have to act." Marian Edelman passed Kennedy's suggestion on to Martin Luther King, who immediately embraced it. During King s final campaign, in Memphis, he visited Marks, Mississippi, the Delta town immediately east of Clarksdale, and, according to legend, burst into tears when he saw a muddy, unpaved, shack-lined road there called Cotton Street. He decided that the Poor People's Campaign should form a mule train in Marks and walk all the way to Washington.
After King was killed, in April 1968, his lieutenants carried out the plan. By 1969, decades after the introduction of the tractor, it was difficult to find mules in the Delta, but some were rounded up; in a twist that would have confirmed Moynihan's suspicions about poverty programs, the Poor People's Campaign used the Head Start center in Marks as its administrative headquarters. After making its long journey, the mule train set up a dispirited, muddy encampment on the Mall in the newly Re-
publican Washington; the group that came to the White House included Marian Edelman, King's former second-in-command Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, and Jesse Jackson. Its meeting with Nixon was a fiasco. The delegation from the Poor People's Campaign arrived late. Abernathy opened the meeting by reading in its entirety a nine-page statement outlining a sweeping, expensive new political program that would have struck everyone in the White House as wildly unrealistic. After Abernathy had finished, Nixon replied in a friendly but guarded and unspecific way, his arms folded in front of him. Then he looked at his watch and said that an urgent matter concerning the Vietnam War had come up and he could not stay for the rest of the meeting, though the group should know that he wanted both to help poor people and to bring peace. Abernathy asked Nixon not to go yet and replied at length. Everything about Abernathy seemed wrong to the people from the administration: his presumptuousness, his verbosity, the way he was dressed (in a gray suit more elegant than what any of them were wearing, and gold cuff links), his way of speaking (he said that to the poor, the American promise was "a cruel hoax," pronouncing it "hoe-axe"). One White House aide described him in a memo as "a pompous, tired charlatan.''
After Nixon finally managed to beat a retreat, Vice President Spiro Agnew - a man who had been a liberal Republican as governor of Maryland until a similar meeting with black leaders in the late 1960s made him so angry that he began to turn to the right- took over, and was upbraided by several poor people Abernathy had brought with him. Then Agnew excused himself, but the meeting continued. After it had gone on for nearly three hours, Moynihan reported to the group that some poor people who had come to the White House with Abernathy and were waiting in another room were now threatening to stage a demonstration. With that the meeting was adjourned. On leaving the White House, Abernathy told television reporters that it had been "the most disappointing and the most fruitless of all the meetings we have had up to this time."
Ali this was far outside the accepted boundaries of White House meetings, and it was a blot on Moynihan's record. It was his meeting, he had failed to control it, and he had also failed to rise to Nixon's defense. Nixon "referred to that meeting for four years as the worst experience of his presidency," Ehrlichman says. “When I'd bring up a meeting with black leaders, he'd say, 'You want me to have another meeting like that Moynihan meeting.' " It was fortunate for Moynihan that he
had already persuaded Nixon of the value of the Family Assistance Plan by then, because his influence in the White House began to decline. At the end of 1970 he returned to Harvard, though Nixon continued to like him personally and kept communicating with him.
Once Nixon was reelected in 1972, he no longer saw the need to outfox his critics by keeping the old poverty programs they had expected him to gut. "Model Cities - flush it," Ehrlichman's notes have Nixon saying a few days after the I972 election. A couple of weeks later, during a series of meetings with Ehrlichman to plan his second administration, he elaborated on the theme. Ehrlichman's notes include several Nixon directives about the war on poverty: "OEO -legal services. Sally Payton [a black lawyer on the White House staff]- tell her to screw it up"; "Take the heat on OEO- it's the right thing to do. Be prepared to take it head on"; and, "Flush Model Cities and Great Society. It's failed. Do it, don't say it." During Nixon's first term, the OEO had been run by a team of neutral, managerial, problem-solving Republicans, including three men who later became secretary of defense: Donald Rumsfeld, Frank Carlucci, and Dick Cheney. In January l971, Nixon put a thirty-two-year-old product 'of the conservative youth movement, Howard Phillips, in charge of the OEO, with instructions to dismantle it, abolish community action, and transfer everything else to other departments. Because Watergate was consuming Nixon's energies, Phillips was never confirmed by Congress, and his plan was not carried out. In the fall of 1974, Gerald Ford put another moderate in charge of the OEO, changed its name to the Community Services Administration, and allowed community action to survive. The agency limped along until 1981, when it became the only government entity Ronald Reagan succeeded in eliminating entirely; the single biggest of Reagan's budget cuts was in the jobs programs run under the auspices of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a 1971 law that consolidated all the work-related antipoverty programs and put them under the control of the Labor Department.
Even more than Nixon realized in the fall of 1972, a moment had passed in American history- or, to use the phrase Moynihan coined to describe the events that followed the publication of his report on the black family, a moment was lost. Race remained, and will remain, one of the obsessive themes of American life, but the period when it was the central domestic concern of the federal government seemed to be over. The presidential electorate had become essentially Republican. Within liberal
circles, race now had to share the domestic liberal agenda with other causes, like environmentalism. The summer riots had tailed off, and therefore so had the idea that the condition of the ghettos threatened the country as a whole. After the OPEC oil embargo of l 973, the national sense that there was enough economic breathing space to allow for the contemplation of expensive social reforms evaporated.
Over time, the tenuous nature of the war on poverty faded from memory; it began to seem that the government had tried everything to help the ghettos, spending untold billions in the process, and that nothing had worked. David Stockman, driving William Greider of the Washington Post through the poor black section in his hometown of Benton Harbor, Michigan, just before taking charge of domestic policy in the Reagan administration, said, "I wouldn't be surprised if $I00 million had been spent here in the last twenty years. Urban renewal, CETA, Model Cities, they've had everything. And the results? No impact whatever."
But we hadn't tried everything, We never tried making Head Start a universal program, or expanding it beyond the preschool years. We never tried the kind of major public-works program that the Labor Department pushed for in the l960s. We never tried putting enough police on foot patrol in the ghettos to make a real dent in the disastrous level of crime there. We never replaced the welfare system with something designed to get poor people into the mainstream of society. Of the billions the federal government spent, by far the lion's share went to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, and the hungry, and in all those areas the problems it ad dressed were substantially solved. The black middle class grew faster during the Great Society period than at any other time in American history. One of the things we did try, community action, which used up most of the war on poverty's political capital, was an idea that couldn't possibly have accomplished what it was supposed to; all the federal efforts in the ghettos took place during a uniquely difficult time for liberal initiatives aimed at racial problems.
Nonetheless, the idea endures that anything the federal government might do for the black poor will surely fail, and it has become a powerful force in its own right; misapprehensions about the past have a way of determining the future.
over blown marble block. Johnson was well aware that it was time for him to settle up his accounts. His heart had become very bad. Even in public he was constantly popping nitroglycerin pills to ease his angina pains. The civil rights symposium was planned in a spirit of comity indicating that Johnson's soul was far more at peace than it had been in his last years as president; movement figures who had been routinely barred from White House ceremonies, like Floyd McKissick of CORE, were now cordially invited. Johnson delivered a passionate speech. He said that of all his work as president, civil rights "holds the most of myself within it and holds for me the most intimate meanings," and that "the black problem remains what it has always been, the simple problem of being black in a white society."
A few weeks later, Walter Heller had a speaking engagement at Johnson's alma mater, Southwest Texas State University, and Johnson invited him to come out to the LBJ Ranch afterward and spend the night. The completely self-controlled Heller was amazed at how unwilling or unable Johnson was to change his habits in deference to his health. Dinner was fried shrimp. The customary telephone was still at Johnson's side at the table, and was still ringing constantly. A week later, Johnson was dead.
The main subject of Johnson's disquisition at dinner was how deeply he cared about civil rights - how strong his record was, how it was his real legacy. Like many of the people who worked for Johnson, Heller, while fond of him, was accustomed to wondering whether he really meant what he said or was just trying, in effect, to win a vote for that one last bill, the Lyndon Johnson Historical Greatness Act of 1973. Johnson was incapable of being anything but exaggerated, florid, calculating, vulgar. At one point in his review of his achievements he explained to Heller why he had appointed the black economist Andrew Brimmer to the Federal Reserve Board. "First I put Bob Weaver in the Cabinet," Heller remembered Johnson saying. "But they said, 'No, he's smooth- faced . We
want somebody with'" - and here Johnson pressed the corners of his mouth together with his two index fingers - " fat lips'' Well, nobody's got fatter lips than Andy."
Heller was repelled by this display, but he left the ranch convinced that Johnson had been speaking from the heart. Even though Johnson simply could not come across in private as the conventional version of a distinguished statesman, and even though everybody who knew him well knew that he was regularly capable of insincerity, nobody- not Heller, not the civil rights leaders he fought
with, not even, in the long run, the Robert Kennedy aides who maneuvered against him - doubted in the end that racial justice became a cause for him. As the years pass, it has become clear that Johnson, in whose own soul was lodged a measure of the fundamental white American ambivalence about blacks, was the only president in this century who was willing to put the American dilemma firmly at the center of his domestic agenda. He told Heller that night, "I've done more for blacks than any other President. That young hero I replaced may have done something. But I did more."