There is an eerie feeling to Washington these days. It is a town without a center of gravity. While everyone would agree that there is an “urban crisis” and the country is in a nasty mood and growing nastier, one has a pit-of-the-stomach feeling that it all flies apart from there. Not that there is nobody working on the problem: the capital is virtually sinking under the weight of task forces and study commissions. There are quiet little “brainstorming” dinners in Georgetown; people are earnestly putting people in touch with people who seem to have an idea; memoranda are passed about; new pressure groups are formed; and a worried Congress marches off in a hundred directions. The White House from time to time emits worthy plans to touch up the problem, amidst more hoopla than they deserve.
But the most important man in this town, the President, has been in one of his odd withdrawals. It is never easy for the government to make important new departures without the catalyst of the presidency, and Lyndon Johnson’s style of governing has made it impossible. Therefore, efforts for significant change are doomed to failure without him, or to success only after they have been taken over by him and shaped to his will.
The home front
It is a very important fact in all of this that the President and his aides honestly do not believe that the White House has withdrawn. They state, with conviction, that he is flighting in Congress for the largest urban program ever, and that even with great effort, and at great political expense, he will have trouble winning it. They flip out a little blue card listing the President’s requests for “city programs” for the next fiscal year, which, by stretching definitions a bit, come to $6.8 billion. They point to letters to congressional leaders, statements at bill signings, and press conference utterances as evidence of the President’s efforts. Their argument is that given the current political context Johnson is doing all, perhaps more than, he can.
The key, then, is how the White House views the current political context, and the room for maneuver within it. This provides the best clue as to what can be expected from even the unpredictable Johnson Administration in the nearand longterm. It sheds light on how other efforts to mobilize new action, or even change the national mood, are affected. It also raises a very fundamental question of what Presidents get paid for.
There is little doubt that the President would like mightily to be the one who set the nation’s most critical domestic problem on the path to recovery; but the realities, for him and his aides, are the war, the economy, and the information they receive from Capitol Hill. Particularly, in this case, the latter. President Johnson’s associates believe that neither he nor John Kennedy was elected President for his liberalism. The President believes that the country has been swinging inexorably to the right since 1964, when Barry Gold water — Barry Goldwater — was supported by almost 40 percent of the electorate. He is astute enough to know that Negroes aren’t very popular these days.
The President is having a very peculiar credibility problem with the Southern moderate and Northern machine Democrats in Congress who used to put his programs across. These men believe not only that the President’s own programs are too identified with helping Negroes, but that he is surreptitiously helping congressional liberals push through even larger ones. This way, they reason, he has put himself in a position to avoid taking the blame, or seize the credit, depending on how things work out. That this is what he is doing would be astonishing news to the liberals. But the Southerners and Northern representatives of largely ethnic, anti-Negro constituencies have persuaded themselves that it is true. The White House, anyway, believes that they believe it, and therefore a set of valuable congressional allies must be listened to.
A penny is a penny
In great part, however, when the White House thinks of Congress, it conjures up the likes of George Mahon. To some, Mahon may be just another uninteresting congressman from the Texas panhandle who clings to the notions that a penny is a penny is a penny and a debt is bad; but he also happens to be the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and in the White House view he looms very large indeed; he is power incarnate, and symbolic of the national mood besides. George Mahon can lop off federal programs with a single stroke. If he thinks that there is too much domestic spending, or the debt has grown too large, he just might. Therefore George Mahon must be listened to.
The White House has received a good deal of free advice lately on how to handle the urban crisis. Among the more frequent suggestions is that if Congress is balking the President’s best efforts to deal with the problem, if, worse still, Congress is truly representing the national mood, then the national mood must be changed, and that is what Presidents are for. To this the White House replies that in effect this is asking the President to grandstand. Congress will not respond, expectations will be aroused, and a disturbed people will have been handed empty rhetoric. Moreover, they argue, any bow by the President in the direction of still more spending for the cities might well destroy the dangerously delicate balance that has been constructed between the priorities of the George Mahons and the Jerry Cavanaghs of this world.
There is another way of viewing the President’s situation. Many observers here, in and out of the Administration, accept the White House rationale as one honestly arrived at, but troubling nonetheless. It is an acceptance of, a series of retreats into, other people’s contexts. It is the essence of “congressional politics" as perfected by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and renamed “consensus politics” after he became President; it too easily becomes de minimis politics.
Not only does this present the uncomfortable spectacle of the President of the United States painting himself into a corner, but it is argued that there is an ample amount of other territory to choose from. All manner of respectable commissions and task forces, for example, have recommended some sort of guaranteed job program; the Republican governors’ policy committee recently called for a large increase in public spending for the cities; a Harris poll taken after the Newark and Detroit riots showed, for what it is worth, 69 percent of both Negroes and whites subscribing to large-scale federal work projects to give jobs to all of the unemployed.
Even more important, say the President’s critics here, it is the responsibility of Presidents to construct new political contexts if necessary. This requires risking the loss of allies, even defeat. It involves open give-and-take, and probably less opportunity to spring brandnew programs on an astounded public. It involves making speeches which might serve no other purposes than to lift the tone of public discussion and to float new ideas into the public consciousness — grandstanding, if you will.
If the President cannot, or will not, effect a new climate, this leaves the question of who else can, or might? And what does this do to those who are trying? Congressional liberals are dispirited and floundering. “He won’t even help those of us who are trying to do his work,”complains one Senate Democrat who is pushing a difficult segment of the President’s program. Others have elected to ignore, even exploit, the boundaries the President has set for himself, but their programs are unlikely to get through Congress without White House support. House liberals who would like to push on are in even more difficult straits; there are proportionately fewer of them; they do not have most senators’ luxury of riding out the public mood next year; they are trapped between colleagues who are reflecting the mean mood of the country and leadership which is too old, too sick, or too loyal to the White House to help them.
Outside of the federal government, just about the only place to look, at this point, is to the fledgling Urban Coalition. The efforts to construct a new coalition actually began late last year when a group of concerned men looked closely at the results of the congressional elections, at the wreckage of what was once an important liberal-labor-Negro-church alliance, and at the hapless position of big-city mayors. Following the current fashion and impeccable logic, they concluded that if large advances were to be made, business had to be aboard.
The rush into the arms of business that has been taking place here with increasing momentum and the Urban Coalition are all of a piece. It raises tantalizing possibilities. Taxcredit plans or “Comsat-type” solutions — which aren’t solutions at all, but vague concepts of business-government partnerships with business well protected and profiting — have now been proposed for just about every problem but abortion. The idea of getting notable businessmen committed to social progress has been tried before. The report from the White House Conference on Civil Rights last year bore the names of several impressive corporate executives; when the President elected to toss the report into the wastebasket, they were not heard to utter a peep.
Nonetheless, if the bureaucracy is unwieldy, the President is unwilling, and federal money is unavailable, logic dictates turning to business. It leads the White House to rejoice that the insurance industry will now make more money available in the slums. It leads Robert Kennedy to try to entice businessmen into his project to redevelop the Negro ghetto of Brooklyn, and to propose a federal tax credit to get businesses to do this across the nation. (While Kennedy’s appears to be a useful proposal, the politics of the urban crisis, and of the Kennedy-Johnson feud, have drawn upon Kennedy’s plan heavy Administration sniper fire.)
Several important businessmen, aware that civic chaos is not in their interest, joined the Urban Coalition. The Detroit riot hardened the coalition’s glue and sped its timetable, for Detroit was home base for the nation’s greatest industry, a progressive union, and a model mayor. Getting George Meany and Walter Reuther, not to mention Bayard Rustin and Henry Ford, around the table hammering out a program for national action was no minor achievement, and the program which emerged is impressive in those terms. It calls for private and public efforts to retrain and provide meaningful jobs for the unemployed, it pledges a re-evaluation of testing procedures and reoriented investment on the part of business, it calls upon the nation “to take bold and immediate action” to provide decent homes and education for all.
Disturbed at the negative reaction to the riots on the part of Congress, and the retreat by the White House, the coalition decided upon an “Emergency Convocation” in Washington in August, to rally public and political opinion. The trouble was that having worked out a program and called a meeting, they hadn’t much to do. The powers-that-be arrayed on the platform did not pledge that they, personally, or their companies, were going to do anything specifically different from what they had been doing all along. There was some very nice rhetoric about “crisis” and “calamity” and “sense of urgency” and “the survival of our cities,” but there were also some lines that fed the skeptics. George Meany told how the AFL-CIO had been there all along; Henry Ford reminded everyone of the sanctity of the profit motive (Meany got so mad at that that the AFL-CIO later refused to pay its share of the coalition budget).
When coalition leaders, including David Rockefeller and Henry Ford, went up to Capitol Hill for lunch with congressional leaders, the Republicans were so dazzled by this display of power that they didn’t bother to show up. The coalition leaders said there had to be an expanded urban program, and the Democratic congressional leaders said they had troubles enough.
Contrary to some published reports, the White House did not try to kill the coalition. If anything, the coalition cautiously avoided a White House embrace. Since then, the coalition’s glue has been thinning a bit. Some of the business members declined to go along with coalition backing of Senator Joseph S. Clark’s (Democrat, Pennsylvania) bill to provide public service employment, on the interesting grounds that they did not intend to lend their names to potential losers.
“A fink operation”
The only other place in town to seek a possible catalyst for change is in the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders. Even to entertain the idea that the commission might change the national climate requires an energetic suspension of disbelief. The first problem is its origins. It was hastily assembled during the week of the Detroit riots by the White House, for lack, it appeared, of anything else to do. The second problem is its members. The chairman, Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois, is a weak, amiable, loyal Democrat. Its Negro members are no closer to the ghetto than Roy Wilkins and Republican Senator Edward Brooke (Massachusetts). The word has gone out among the militant Negroes that the commission is a fink operation, working hand-inglove with the police and the FBI, and is not to be cooperated with. Despite its celebrated tours through the ghettos, the commission and the problem have had little contact. (Lest the extent of the alienation of the militants, and not just the utter nihilists, be underestimated, excellent witnesses report that there is a widespread belief — in terms of the number of communities where it is held — that genocide of the blacks is around the corner. It is held that the random shooting by the police in Newark and Detroit was just a foretaste. It is believed that the internment camps for the Nisei are being refurbished for a roundup of Negro militants. If this seems implausible, it is argued that so did the idea that Japanese-Americans would be herded into concentration camps.)
The third problem with the commission is its mission: to present a report, timed to be issued safely after next year’s legislative program has been drawn up, in the confusion of the presidential campaigns, upon a public that has already been saturation-bombed with earnest reports. More important, there is a very serious question whether blueribbon commission reports, in themselves, ever really change the national climate. Nevertheless, these commissions have a way of taking on a life of their own, and the members of getting religion, and those close to the commission’s work insist that it should not be written off. There is now talk of a series of reports, to spread out the educational effects. In all such efforts, the staff is of major importance. David Ginsburg, the director, is a Washington lawyer of brilliance, compassion, and progressiveness, and he has, with difficulty, gathered an enlightened staff. But David Ginsburg is also the insider’s insider; for years he has been quietly doing highly delicate political chores for the White House. No one here is betting, therefore, that the commission’s product will differ radically from one that the President wants.
That brings us back to Lyndon Johnson. Next year’s budget is already being drawn up, and the word is out in the government agencies that funds for domestic programs will be as scarce, or scarcer, than they are this year. Barring, therefore, an unexpected silence of the guns, there is little reason to think that next year’s public mood, the political context as viewed by Lyndon Johnson, and the coherence with which the urban crisis is met will be very different from what they are now. — Elizabeth Brenner Drew