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December 1988

The Unfinished War

A product of the conflicting ambitions of the men who shaped it, the War on Poverty was ill-fated--but its fate need not be that of all anti-poverty programs

by Nicholas Lemann

"In the sixties we waged a war on poverty, and poverty won," Ronald Reagan said last year, in one of the one-sentence pronouncements he has sometimes made to the press while walking across the White House lawn to his helicopter. Most people would probably agree with him. There is a widespread perception that the federal government's efforts to help the poor during the sixties were almost unlimited; that despite them poverty became more severe, not less; and that the reason poverty increased is that all those government programs backfired and left their intended beneficiaries worse off.

The truth is that the percentage of poor Americans went down substantially in the sixties. The idea that poverty increased comes from what people know about conditions in inner-city black ghettos, where unemployment, crime, illegitimacy, drug abuse, and physical decay did worsen through most of the sixties and afterward, even while the rate of black poverty overall was dropping. There is a strong temptation to see the ghettos as the embodiment of some kind of fundamental rottenness at the core of social-welfare liberalism.

The ghettos today are the country's greatest social problem, and with the Reagan years at their end, both political parties have begun tentatively talking about addressing poverty directly, with government programs. So the question of what really did happen in the sixties--what kind of war we waged on poverty, and why it didn't heal the ghettos--is of more than historical interest right now. It bears directly on our decision about whether, and how, to try again.

The sixties' other war, Vietnam, has been re-examined much more extensively than the War on Poverty. Even the academic literature on the War on Poverty is not extensive. The public is far more familiar with the main events and figures of Vietnam (and other great upheavals of the time, like the civil-rights movement and the rise of the New Left) than with the history of the War on Poverty. This article, which will be continued next month, is the first full journalistic account of the War on Poverty--the first one based primarily on interviews with the living principals. This article also draws on White House papers, some of which have never been quoted before, including newly released material from the Richard Nixon archives that provide for the first time a close look at Nixon's thinking as he began to dismantle the apparatus of the War on Poverty. (The Nixon years will be discussed in the second part of this article, which will appear next month.)

Among the lessons to be drawn from the story of the War on Poverty is that what happened is not preordained to happen again. The War on Poverty was planned in a time of much greater national harmony and prosperity than exists now, with an optimism that today seems reckless, and carried out in a time of much greater tension and violence. The main tactic that the government used to fight poverty was a new and unproved one; almost no effort was made to find out what kinds of anti-poverty programs already worked and then to expand them.

We now think of the sixties as a time of faith in big government, but it wasn't. The War on Poverty looked for solutions to poverty that would be local and diffuse, and would circumvent state and local government and Congress. This earned the enmity of members of Congress, mayors, governors, and Cabinet secretaries, so the War on poverty was in trouble politically from the start. Its planners hoped to build public support for it by achieving quick, visible successes, but in setting up hundreds of separate anti-poverty organizations run largely by inexperienced people, they practically guaranteed that there would be quite a few highly publicized failures. These turned public opinion against the War on Poverty.

Out in the field, especially in the ghettos, the War on Poverty was carried out in disregard of a powerful demographic force. It tried, and later government antipoverty programs tried even more pointedly, to revive the ghettos as communities. But the ghettos were dying all the while, because millions of their residents were moving out, into new and better-off black neighborhoods. The more the government tried to create opportunity in the ghettos, the more opportunity it created for people to leave the ghettos. In fact, opening up jobs and housing that enabled people to move out was one of the great, if originally unintended, successes in the government's anti-poverty efforts. The people who couldn't or wouldn't take advantage of the new opportunities stayed behind to form the core of the underclass. Some government programs that were aimed at helping these people by giving them the education and training they needed to get out did have considerable success, but they were of limited scope.

A final important aspect of the War on Poverty is its place in the political competition between Robert Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson which dominated Washington at the time. It was Johnson who declared war on poverty, but he did so looking over his shoulder at Kennedy, and Kennedy, not Johnson, was the political sponsor of the war's main strategies. Johnson and Kennedy cared more about black poverty than did any other major politicians of the twentieth century, but they disliked and mistrusted each other so much that they were incapable of cooperating on the cause that was closest to both their hearts. Because the two men could not reconcile their ideas, the War on Poverty became an untenable combination of Kennedy's love for the rebellious moral crusade and Johnson's for the grandiose political gesture.


Lyndon Johnson's state of mind in his first few days as President included a generous helping of insecurity. Johnson's self-esteem was not unshakable to begin with, and almost immediately after the assassination it became clear to him that he was going to be compared unfavorably with John F. Kennedy. Johnson did not consider Kennedy to have been a towering figure, but he knew that Kennedy had won over the makers of enlightened opinion, the journalists and intellectuals and speech-making liberal politicians. These people had never liked Johnson. He used to complain to friends that even when he had been a liberal congressman, back in the thirties, he had been unable to win the approval of the liberal establishment, not so much for substantive reasons as because he was a southwesterner with a second-rate education who looked and talked like a hick. On the day after the assassination he told President Kennedy's top assistant, Theodore Sorensen, that he knew he lacked President Kennedy's education, culture, and understanding, but that he would try his best. Johnson gave Sorensen his first assignment by saying, "I want you to draw the threads together on the domestic program, but don't expect me to absorb things as fast as you're used to."

Johnson may have been playing to what he already knew to be Sorensen's opinion of his abilities, but he had never been able to disregard condescension when it was directed at him. Proving that it was misplaced and establishing himself as President were related tasks. Late in the day on Saturday, November 73, 1963, Walter Heller, Kennedy's chief economic adviser, was called into the Oval Office to brief Johnson. "Just as I was about to go out of his office and had opened the door," Heller wrote in notes he made just after the conversation and marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL, "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 days 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....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."

For some months Heller had been urging Kennedy to launch what he called an "attack on poverty." At the time of the assassination it was in the planning stages and had not received any public attention. Johnson was instantly attracted to the idea. According to Heller's notes of the meeting, "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." As Heller remembered it years later, "I told him it was the last thing I'd discussed with Kennedy. He said, That's my kind of program. It's a people program.'"

A week later Johnson invited two old friends, Arthur Goldschmidt and his wife, Elizabeth Wickenden, over for Sunday dinner at his house in Washington, where he and his family were still living while Jacqueline Kennedy prepared to leave the White House. The invitation itself signaled a change in Johnson. The couple were liberals who had long worked in government, friends from his days as a New Deal congressman, and they and the Johnsons had been less close since the late thirties, when Johnson began preparing to run for the Senate. Changing constituencies, from his congressional district to all of Texas, had caused Johnson to modulate his politics. Now that he was President, his constituency had changed again, in the opposite direction, becoming more liberal, and this made him think back to his time in Congress.

"Johnson talked very freely at that Sunday dinner," Wickenden says today. "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 re-elected in a year and a half, so I have to have something of my own.'"

Johnson quickly discovered, though, that finishing the work of the Kennedy Administration was not going to be a matter of passing Kennedy's modest legislative agenda. Almost immediately after the assassination the Kennedy legacy began to grow, especially where liberal issues like the attack on poverty were concerned. The Kennedy camp framed the question facing Johnson as whether he could possibly accomplish all the things that it claimed John Kennedy would have done.

In early December of 1963 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published an article on Kennedy in the Saturday Evening Post. He 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.'" No sooner was Schlesinger's article published than Johnson wrote a letter to the American Public Welfare Association promising, identically, "a national assault on the causes of poverty." The severely grieving Robert Kennedy found a piece of notepaper 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 in his office at the Justice Department. By the time Lyndon Johnson assumed the presidency, fighting poverty had taken on the coloration of having been John F. Kennedy's last wish.

In truth there is no evidence that this was his last wish, and it is not at all clear how far Kennedy would have let Heller go with his poverty program. Certainly all the living principals agree today that one thing Kennedy would not have done is publicly declare war on poverty. In Heller's next-to-last talk with Kennedy on the subject, on October 21, 1963, Kennedy had, it is true, been quite enthusiastic. He 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," according to Heller's notes of the meeting. 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."

Compared with those comments, however, Kennedy's last words to Heller about the poverty problem, at a meeting on November 19, three days before the assassination, represented a pulling-back. In the time between the two talks Kennedy had been briefed on the 1964 election by Richard Scammon, the director of the census. Scammon said that many voters thought that federal programs really didn't help them. Kennedy asked him how a new poverty program might affect the campaign. Scammon said that it wouldn't do him much good, because most voters didn't consider themselves poor, and those who did weren't the ones a Democratic presidential candidate had to win over. On November 19, according to Heller's notes, "I wondered just what his current feeling about it was. 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.'"

In December of 1963 Johnson, in order to avoid seeming to abandon Kennedy's commitment to an attack on poverty, would have to do much more than Kennedy himself had been prepared to do. And there was a further complication to this business of the Kennedy legacy: the Kennedy poverty program, such as it was, was one with which Johnson felt instinctively uncomfortable right from the beginning.


Between the beginning of the Second World War and the end of Johnson's presidency more than four million black Americans moved from the rural South to the urban North. Along with affluence and the Baby Boom, this was one of the great transforming demographic events of American life after the war, one that profoundly affected such diverse matters as urban geography, education, popular music, presidential politics, and government social policy. Unlike affluence and the Baby Boom, though, the great black migration was not widely recognized as important while it was happening. By the fall of 1965 Lyndon Johnson's poverty program would stand as the national government's chief direct response to the problems of the northern ghettos to which the migrants came, but the program was conceived with only the haziest understanding of what the ghettos' problems were.

Today, with the events of the civil-rights movement enshrined in history and racial issues a constant theme in politics, government, the press, entertainment, and intellectual life, it is easy to forget how different the feel of race was inside the American establishment at the time Johnson took office. The Montgomery bus boycott had taken place in 1955 and 1956, but well after that most liberals considered the segregation of public facilities and the denial of the vote to blacks in the South, though wrong, not a pressing moral crisis for the nation. It was still an Eleanor Roosevelt issue rather than a primary concern for tough, pragmatic liberals. The civil-rights movement was tiny: the Congress of Racial Equality had a field staff of two people in 1960, the year before it began to stage the Freedom Rides. The most famous civil-rights event of the 1960 presidential campaign was a phone call that Kennedy made to Coretta Scott King to console her about the imprisonment of her husband in Georgia. Kennedy made the call only because his brother-in-law and chief civil-rights adviser, Sargent Shriver, got him alone in a room, away from his political strategists and his brother Robert, who, Shriver knew, would be opposed to the call. A day later Robert Kennedy called the judge who had put Martin Luther King, Jr., in jail, to ask for King's release, but this, Kennedy revealed later, was at the request of the governor of Georgia, who had asked him to put pressure on the judge. A long jail term, the governor thought, would raise King's visibility in Georgia and thus worsen Kennedy's chances of carrying the state in November.

Blacks in the North were regarded during the 1960 campaign as classic machine politics urban ethnic voters, rather than an oppressed group with a moral claim to justice. As Robert Kennedy said in 1964, "I think those running for office in the Democratic Party looked to just three or four people who would then deliver the Negro vote. And you never had to say you were going to do anything on civil rights." Of the four black members of Congress, the one with the highest national profile, Adam Clayton Powell, of New York City, was regarded inside the political world as an intermittently lovable rogue who, in Robert Kennedy's words, "always exacts a price, a monetary price, for his support"; for whatever reason, Powell had endorsed Dwight Eisenhower for President in 1956. Besides courting the black congressmen, presidential candidates campaigned in northern black communities by buying advertising in black newspapers. An important issue in the Kennedy campaign's efforts among blacks in 1960 was that the black publishers had not yet been paid for advertisements bought in 1956, and they were reluctant to get behind the Democratic ticket until they were. The feeling that money changing hands was necessary for black support led the Kennedy campaign to offer to buy Simeon Booker's column in Jet magazine--meaning that it would continue to appear under Booker's name but would be written by the Kennedy staff until November. (Booker and his publisher refused.)

In 1960 there simply was no widespread sense that the country would soon become intensely preoccupied with race relations. The prevailing view of black life in the North in the early sixties was optimistic: blacks who left the South were bound to better themselves economically as well as to escape legal segregation. Alarmism about ethnic migrations to cities seemed like a relic of the 1880s, long since proved unjustified by the experience of the Irish, the Italians, the Jews, and others. In 1963 James Baldwin published The Fire Next Time. In 1964 the first summer race riot of the decade occurred, in Harlem, but outside New York this harbinger of disaster in the ghettos wasn't seen for what it was. As late as February of 1964 Business Week was optimistic enough about the power of migration to solve the problems of black America to say, "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."

In the ghettos the mood had already begun to turn sour by the time Kennedy was elected President. Virtually everywhere in the urban North there was strict residential segregation, which meant that as the migration continued, overcrowding became an increasingly serious problem in the ghettos. Public schools had to begin running double shifts, and many of the new students were starting at a disadvantage, because they and their parents were products of the inferior black rural school systems in the South. Hard drugs had appeared. Crime began to rise. The economic rationale for the migration was beginning to evaporate: during the prosperous early sixties manufacturing employment dropped in such cities as New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Newark. The welfare rolls were growing. The Black Muslims were catching on, a development viewed within the ghettos as salutary, because of the Muslims' amazing ability to rehabilitate criminals, but nonetheless a sign that there was fertile ground for a bitter anti-white ideology.

Before the Kennedy assassination the white public-policy experts who knew all this constituted a self-conscious advance guard. In the late fifties a psychiatrist at the National Institutes of Mental Health named Leonard Duhl convened a group of social scientists who for a decade discussed ghettos, among other exotic subjects, under the rubric of studying the country's mental health. They called themselves the "space cadets," because on the day Sputnik was launched, one of them said, "If people think the Russians are out in space, they should see us." At around the same time, a program officer at the Ford Foundation named Paul Ylvisaker, who often rode the bus to the airport through the growing Newark ghetto, and who sensed a mood of stored-up anger there, started a Gray Areas program at the foundation- "gray areas" being a euphemism for black areas. And also in the late fifties Richard Cloward and Lloyd Ohlin, two academic experts on juvenile delinquency, were helping to found Mobilization for Youth, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which they hoped would be a new kind of social-service agency to help the ghettos.

There was cross-fertilization among these groups, and by the fall of 1961 all of them had established relations with an obscure new federal agency called the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. The agency had been created at the instigation of John Kennedy's sister, Eunice Shriver, who was the family social worker, having long been interested in mental retardation, physical handicaps, and juvenile delinquency, which she had studied while a staff member of a government commission in the forties. She talked her brother the President into establishing a juvenile-delinquency committee and he put his brother the Attorney General in charge of it. Robert Kennedy, in turn, made David Hackett the director of the committee.

Hackett, Robert Kennedy's best friend from prep school, was surely the unlikeliest possible liaison between the federal government and the leading edge of left-liberal social policy. At Milton Academy, in Milton, Massachusetts, in the 1930s, Robert Kennedy had been, to use Hackett's word, a "misfit"--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, who had grown up near Milton and was descended from a line of Episcopalian naval officers, was the star of the school, a great athlete (he played on two U.S. Olympic hockey teams), who supposedly was the model for the Phineas character in John Knowles's A Separate Peace. He alone in the Milton student body befriended Bobby Kennedy. Thus the psychological grounding of their friendship contained an element of Hackett's reaching out to the oppressed and of Kennedy's feeling oppressed himself. And the two shared a mistrust of what Hackett calls "normal behavior"--pejoratively, since it was normal behavior that had caused Kennedy's prep-school ostracism.

Before the Kennedy presidential campaign Hackett was the editor of an entertainment guide distributed free to hotel guests in Montreal. He joined the campaign as a delegate counter, and after the inauguration was given a small office adjoining Robert Kennedy's in the Justice Department. He was not part of the inner circle there; people didn't know what he did, exactly, and in contrast to the Rhodes scholars and law-review editors with whom Kennedy surrounded himself at Justice, who were laconic, Hackett was simply inarticulate. Having begun a sentence, he often found it impossible to extricate himself, and helplessly waved his hands or said "et cetera" to imply that everyone understood what he was trying to say. He was emotional, ruled by his heart, much more than the other Kennedy men. The rest of them have gone on to jobs running major institutions, while Hackett directs a tiny foundation in Washington.

Juvenile delinquency was a perfect theme for Robert Kennedy, involving as it did two of his central concerns, young people and fighting crime. But among experts in the field, many of whom the completely unintellectual and nonideological Hackett now had to meet, it was the subject of an abstruse debate. The academic study of juvenile delinquency was dominated by a long-standing fight between social workers and sociologists--to be specific, between the School of Social Service Administration and the sociology department at the University of Chicago. Social workers tended at the time to focus on the individual, sociologists on the society; delinquency was said by social workers to be caused by an insufficiently nurturing mother or a too-threatening father, while to sociologists it was part of a larger social process. The Chicago sociology department, under the influence of Professor Robert Park, had a tradition of taking to the city's neighborhoods to learn what life was really like--Park had dispatched his graduate students to the funerals of the victims in the St. Valentine's Day massacre, because they'd get good stuff there. One of Park's proteges, Clifford Shaw, wrote the seminal book in the juvenile-delinquency field, Delinquency Areas (1929), which showed that certain poor neighborhoods in Chicago had always led the city in delinquency, no matter which ethnic groups were living in them. He saw delinquency as merely a stage in the great ongoing natural process of assimilation.

In the fifties the latest twist in delinquency theory was to marry the street-wise Shaw tradition to the concept of anomie, especially as elaborated by Robert K. Merton, of Columbia University, the leading theoretical sociologist of the day. Anomie was said to afflict teenage males when they experience a conflict between what they want and what they can get--when they lack the means to achieve their goals. Delinquency was seen as an expression of anomie. Delinquent Boys, by Albert K. Cohen, published in 1955, explained delinquency as the result of a realization by lower-class kids that they couldn't have middle-class success and so had to set up an alternative status system in which they could succeed.

In 1960 Cloward and Ohlin published Delinquency and Opportunity, which went Cohen one better by arguing that delinquents turned to crime not out of a sense of failure but because society had denied them any other form of opportunity: in effect, their delinquency constituted a critique, and a perceptive one, of society. There were nowhere near enough data available in 1961 to prove or disprove the correctness of this theory; in any case, the debate about whether social deviancy is the individual's fault or society's has been going on in the industrial world for centuries, and it will never be settled. The appeal of Delinquency and Opportunity to government was theoretical, not practical.

Hackett himself is no great help in explaining why, as he made his way through the thicket of explanations for delinquency, the Cloward-Ohlin theory attracted him. "It just made sense to me," he says. He hired Ohlin as a consultant and made a large grant to Mobilization for Youth, which was announced by President Kennedy himself in May of 1962. The idea of insufficient opportunity as the cause of delinquency was the guiding principle of the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency as it made grants to organizations all over the country, several of them working in urban black ghettos.

In the Kennedy family by far the most devoted adherent of the theory was the Attorney General. To the President the theory seems to have been a technical point to be mastered, but it became one of the fundamental principles of his brother's life. Ohlin briefed both Kennedy brothers, at different times. John Kennedy listened impassively to Ohlin for ten minutes just before he was to announce the Mobilization for Youth grant and then walked outside, gave a flawless summary, and went on to the next item on his agenda with his 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 committee, took much longer to get it. 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."

Poverty, as a topic of national concern, was only a little bit less peripheral than ghettos in the years before the War on Poverty was launched. John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, the liberal bible of the late fifties, included a chapter on poverty which so much downplayed it as a problem that Senator Paul Douglas, of Illinois, commissioned a study refuting Galbraith. The reason that poverty was not a major issue even for liberals was that it seemed to be disappearing in the post-Second World War boom. From 1947 to 1957 the percentage of American families with incomes under $2,000 went from 35 to 23, and the percentage of black families went down even more dramatically, from 62 to 36. The rate of exit from poverty had begun to slow in the late fifties, but this was not widely known; prevailing opinion agreed with Galbraith that poverty had become confined mainly to "poverty pockets," like Appalachia. John Kennedy had seen some of these during his primary campaign in West Virginia, and after taking office he set up the Appalachian Regional Commission to try to improve conditions there.

At the level of practical politics there was (and still is) a fundamental hostility in congressional and public opinion to the idea of an American welfare state, especially one that gives money to poor people. The biggest social-welfare program, Social Security, travels under the guise of an insurance policy; Aid to Families With Dependent Children, the main program for making cash grants to the poor, was created along with Social Security in l935 and was billed as a kind of pension plan for widows and orphans rather than a welfare system. Even though it has been widely believed for decades that AFDC encourages the formation of single-parent families, only last September did Congress pass a provision making all two-parent poor out-of-work families in the country eligible for welfare.

Michael Harrington's The Other America, which claimed that one third of the country was poor, was published in 1962, and it was rescued from obscurity by a long review in The New Yorker by Dwight Macdonald, which appeared in January of 1963. (The consensus among President Kennedy's aides is that he read the Macdonald article, not the Harrington book. The article, dry, witty, and elegantly written, would have been much more to Kennedy's taste than the book, which is earnest and impassioned.) But practical-minded Washington liberals didn't for a minute believe that books and articles about poverty would suddenly melt Congress's deep hostility to social-welfare programs. The liberal cause of the time in Washington was increasing government spending, in order to stimulate the economy (the unemployment rate in the Kennedy years was over five percent, which was considered unacceptably high) and to respond to Galbraith's warning that America was becoming a nation of "private affluence and public squalor." Even this proved impracticable, though. Kennedy, possessing neither great legislative skill nor a sweeping electoral mandate, couldn't get spending programs past the southern committee chairmen who ruled Congress.

In March of 1962 Walter Heller began pushing a tax cut as an easier way to stimulate the economy, and in January of 1963 Kennedy finally agreed to the idea. That March, Heller raised the subject of poverty with Kennedy, taking care to couch it in practical terms: since the poor didn't pay taxes, he said, the tax cut would come under attack for being a subsidy to the middle class and the rich unless the Administration did something for poor people at the same time. In June, Robert Lampman, an old student of Heller's who had temporarily joined his staff, worked up a memo on the subject of poverty.

Lampman, who considered himself more the realist than Heller, believed that any program aimed at doing something about poverty was doomed. "Probably a politically acceptable program must avoid completely any use of the term 'inequality' or of the term 'REDISTRIBUTION of income or wealth,'" he wrote Heller. In August, Lampman returned to a professorship at the University of Wisconsin, pessimistic about the future of the poverty initiative. Heller pressed on, without much success. He invited John Kenneth Galbraith to a lunch at the White House mess with several government officials, but, as Heller remembers it, Galbraith, too, was cool to the idea of a concerted effort to help the poor. As Heller told me, "Ken sort of took the position he took in The Affluent Society--'We even build our superhighways over them, on concrete stilts.' His position was, they 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."

Heller began to talk up poverty among the political people around Kennedy who would make the final decisions about the 1964 legislative program. The argument emerged--political people say from Heller, who they sometimes wished would stick to economics--that a poverty program would help in the 1964 campaign, not by bringing in more of the poor-person vote but by pulling good-hearted suburban Republican Protestant churchwomen away from Nelson Rockefeller.

With the departure of Lampman, Heller put another of his assistants, William Capron, in charge of poverty, and Capron began to convene meetings of people from several federal departments and agencies to figure out what the poverty effort would actually consist of. This was a disaster, at least in the views of Heller and Capron. Every government agency has a wish list of programs it has long been unable to get past the White House and Congress; the poverty idea brought out the wish lists, and a number of programs that hadn't made the cut for the New Deal, thirty years earlier, came up. The Secretary of Labor, Willard Wirtz, a ponderous man who had been Adlai Stevenson's law partner in Chicago, wanted jobs programs, run by the Labor Department. The key bureaucrat at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Wilbur Cohen, an old New Dealer and a veteran lobbyist for social-welfare programs, wanted education and welfare programs, run by HEW. Neither man shared Heller's belief that something publicly billed as an attack on poverty could work. In October, after months of meetings, Capron presented Theodore Sorensen with a list of 150 separate programs for fighting poverty, intending to demonstrate what a mess the departments were making of the effort. He got the reaction he had been hoping for: Sorensen firmly told him to come back with something better.


The poverty fighters in the white house were like frontier settlers with their wagons circled and the arrows flying in faster and faster: they needed the cavalry to ride to their rescue. It came in the form of the crime-fighters at the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency. The committee's poverty-fighting (and delinquency fighting) idea was called community action. Over the years there was a great deal of confusion about what community action meant--not surprisingly. It was an intentionally vague idea, difficult to understand and subject to widely varying interpretations.

The theory of community action was that what poor people needed were new neighborhood-based organizations. As it was, there were many government efforts to help the poor--nutrition programs, employment programs, welfare programs--but there was no coordination among them, and no concerted attempt had been made to find out what services the people in the poor neighborhoods most needed. Under community action the government would set up a kind of planning board in the neighborhood, the board would consult with the poor people there, and, eventually, a mission would emerge. In principle, a community-action agency could do ANYTHING--it was not an anti-poverty program so much as a mechanism through which new anti-poverty programs would be invented. Also, rather than take on all the traditional functions of a government agency itself, it would be small and would coordinate the work of existing agencies. The only rule was that the solution to the neighborhood's problems could not be imposed from above (that is, from Washington).

In practice, community action was not quite so Zen-like. The activities of organizations that received grants from the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency varied, but not radically. Probably the two best-known early grant recipients were Mobilization for Youth and the Ford Foundation's Gray Areas program in New Haven, Connecticut. Both offered remedial education, job training, and help in getting poor people through the welfare and health-care bureaucracies. Mobilization for Youth was more confrontational, occasionally organizing rent strikes and demonstrations at government offices, while the New Haven project had a spirit closer to that of an old-fashioned settlement house, whose aim was to teach immigrants (in this case Puerto Ricans and southern blacks) the skills they needed to assimilate in the new land.

To Walter Heller, community action had value as a theory (he was an old friend of E. F. Schumacher, who later wrote Small Is Beautiful), but more to the point, it solved all the bureaucratic problems of pulling together the Kennedy attack on poverty. It had a powerful bureaucratic patron in Robert Kennedy. Involving as it did one-year local grants, it was much cheaper than the big national programs that Labor and HEW were proposing, and President Kennedy didn't want to spend much money. Community action seemed small, flexible, and nonbureaucratic, and this was consistent with the ethos of the Kennedy Administration. In domestic policy as in foreign, there was a strong bias toward doings things through lean, action oriented agencies--the Peace Corps, the Green Berets--rather than through the clumsy, slow-moving traditional bureaucracies and their friends in Congress. Heller had already decided that poverty could be fought effectively only through a new government agency. Finally, community action was easy to sell inside the Administration, because it had the sheen of originality: it was the only proposal for fighting poverty that seemed fresh and new and exciting.

It is by no means universally accepted that crime and poverty are caused by a lack of opportunity. But if you accept the premise, then increasing opportunity ought to cure crime and poverty. In retrospect, there was a glaring logical flaw in community action. Past experience suggested that the best way for the federal government to increase opportunity for the poor was through major national efforts: lowering the unemployment rate, improving schools, undertaking public works, and eliminating discrimination. Sometimes the programs that turned out to be the most effective at reducing poverty--like the Homestead Act, the Erie Canal, universal public education, and the GI Bill--weren't planned for that purpose but nonetheless changed social and economic conditions in some important way. Community action, however, was based on the idea that only through local efforts--in fact, only through efforts inside the poorest neighborhoods--could the government increase opportunity. How, it now seems fair to ask, could there have been so much faith in the ability of a program INSIDE the ghettos to increase the amount of opportunity available to the people living there?

Policy-makers are always strongly impelled to believe what it is convenient for them to believe. For foundation executives, or social activists, or officials of a tiny government committee, or members of the White House staff who knew there was nearly no give in the federal budget, the temptation to find small-scale solutions to the large problem of poverty was very strong. Community action was at least a beginning. Also, the urban ethnic neighborhood was then just starting to be glorified as an alternative to the conformist, gray-flannel tract-house America of the Eisenhower years. In the late fifties Leonard Duhl's group at the National Institutes of Mental Health had funded an influential book by Herbert Gans called The Urban Villagers, about a thriving Italian neighborhood in the West End of Boston that had been destroyed by an urban-renewal program under the misguided banner of slum clearance.

The interstate highway system and urban renewal (or, to use the nickname its critics gave it, "Negro removal") were to liberals' minds two of the great mistakes of the Eisenhower years, promoting downtown business development and suburban sprawl at the expense of vibrant, though poor, inner-city communities.

By the time President Kennedy was killed, Walter Heller and his circle had decided that the attack on poverty should begin with the creation of a handful of community-action demonstration projects. They had not formally presented this idea to Kennedy, however. Selling Lyndon Johnson on fighting poverty had been accomplished with great ease on his first day as President. Now they had to sell him on community action.

This was not an easy task. Johnson shared almost none of the opinions that had steered Heller toward community action. He liked the New Deal. He liked the Labor Department and HEW. He liked the old-line committees in Congress. Johnson was uncomfortable with abstract concepts: he liked government programs that involved things you could see and touch, that produced results. "His conception of the War on Poverty had this sort of CONCRETE idea," Heller told me. Bulldozers. Tractors. People operating heavy machinery."

Over the Christmas holidays of 1963 Heller and Kermit Gordon, the director of the Bureau of the Budget, flew down to the LBJ Ranch, where part of their mission was to talk Johnson into community action. "Kermit told me he and Heller presented it to Johnson, but [Johnson] was scared." says William Cannon, who was Gordon's assistant assigned to the poverty program. "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 is not at all clear how much Johnson understood about what he was agreeing to, or what his reasons were. All through 1964 rumors would emanate from the White House that Johnson had thought community action was going to be like the old National Youth Administration, the New Deal agency where Johnson had worked before running for Congress, and that he hadn't realized that it would give money to local nonprofit organizations. Certainly some of the appeal that community action held for him must have been financial. He told Heller and Gordon that they had to hold the federal budget under $100 billion, because he didn't want to look like an irresponsible spender in an election year.

For $500 million in new funds, which is what he gave Heller and Gordon for poverty-fighting, a much more visible program could be created through community action than through more traditional means.

As he approved community action, Johnson also changed it. The advocates of the idea had intended to start small. Heller's staff wanted ten local community-action agencies, five urban and five rural. Hackett thought that even this was too much, and proposed that the initial funding for the War on Poverty be $1 million a year. But Johnson was by nature not interested in small, slowly developing programs, especially when his first major initiative as President was involved. The President on whom he modeled himself was not, after all, Kennedy but Franklin D. Roosevelt. Once, while strolling through the White House with Hugh Sidey, of Time, Johnson stopped at a bust of FDR and caressed it. "Look at the strength in that face!" he told Sidey. The poverty program was the opening shot in Johnson's New Deal. By the end of January, 1964, the plans were for community action to begin in seventy-five cities.

As Allen Matusow points out in his book The Unraveling of America, there was no proof at that point (and there is still no proof) that any of the local organizations funded by the President's Committee on Juvenile Delinquency had actually reduced delinquency. Hackett himself said a few years later, "There've been a great many critics of the program, that it was not successful; that's probably right." It was just as unclear whether community-action agencies could reduce poverty. Community action was a totally untested idea that Johnson suddenly transformed into a large undertaking.

Some of Johnson's old friends felt that by giving the nod to community action Johnson showed not just his ambition but also the uncertainty of his self-esteem. Here was an idea that his instincts told him to avoid but that all the Kennedy people were for--Heller and Gordon and Ted Sorensen and, not least important, Robert Kennedy. "If THEY thought it up, that was it," says Horace Busby, who had been a Johnson aide since the late forties, and who was the lone dissenter in the discussions of community action at the ranch that Christmas. Elizabeth Wickenden wrote a memo opposing community action and in response got a form letter from a White House aide thanking her for her interest. On the last Sunday night in 1963, after a meeting with Heller, Gordon, and Sorensen, Busby stayed up late in Johnson's office at the ranch, writing Johnson a memo that urged him to go slower. Five years later it was clear that the Democratic Party's greatest problem was (as it still is) an inability to hold middle-class voters; Busby was almost alone in seeing that the anti-poverty effort might come across as a departure from rather than a continuation of the New Deal, and thus alienate part of Johnson's natural constituency. He wrote, "It is the American in the middle...who is the key to our economy, society, and political stability...his consent is vital--his dissent fatal--to our social progress vis-a-vis Negro rights, etc."

In his 1964 State of the Union address, delivered on January 8 and written primarily by Theodore Sorensen, Lyndon Johnson said, "This Administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America." His speech did not mention community action at all; instead, Johnson talked about such old-fashioned ideas as better education, housing, health care, and job training, and he was careful to mention the need to work closely with state and local governments. A research study ordered up afterward by Johnson showed that the speech had been interrupted by applause more times than any other State of the Union speech since 1933.


On February 1 Johnson appointed Sargent Shriver head of the War on Poverty, and essentially dropped out of the planning himself. The appointment of Shriver represented a victory for Walter Heller, because it implied that a new agency would be created--Shriver was too much of a heavyweight to be made an assistant secretary of HEW or Labor. But there was more to it than that.

In the public's mind, Shriver was a Kennedy: Eunice Kennedy's husband, John and Robert Kennedy's brother-in-law. So it appeared that Johnson was so deeply loyal to the dead President's desire to fight poverty that he would entrust it only to a family member. As the director of the Peace Corps, Shriver was already perhaps the most visibly successful head of an agency in the federal government; certainly he had demonstrated an ability to get a new agency off the ground and to win over Congress, the press, and the liberals. He had close ties to the White House through Johnson's adviser Bill Moyers, who was his deputy director at the Peace Corps and who had promoted Shriver for the poverty job, hoping to open up the Peace Corps directorship for himself. (Johnson, however, kept Shriver in both jobs simultaneously.)

What the public didn't know was that Shriver wasn't really quite a Kennedy--the family would never elevate him past a certain level, which he resented--and that his appointment must have needled Robert Kennedy, who was already feuding with Johnson. Kennedy had let it be known in December that HE was interested in running the War on Poverty, so, in picking Shriver, Johnson was turning down Kennedy, though the family tie was strong enough to ensure that Kennedy wouldn't criticize the appointment. In the longer range, both Kennedy and Shriver were interested in being Johnson's running mate in 1964, and by giving Shriver this high-visibility job Johnson seemed to enhance his chances of getting on the ticket.

To the close observer, some strain was visible between Shriver and Kennedy. Shriver was closer to embodying the Kennedy legend, as it came together during 1964, than Robert Kennedy was. Kennedys were aristocratic, handsome, 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), 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, came from the socially concerned wing of the Church; he was, as his father had been, a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. He had been in charge of civil-rights issues during the 1960 campaign, when the Kennedy inner circle had considered such issues secondary and a little sob sisterish. During the staffing of the Kennedy Administration, Robert Kennedy had pointedly refused to appoint Shriver's aide Harris Wofford as his assistant on civil rights in the Justice Department, because, as he said later, Wofford "was very emotionally involved in all of these matters and was rather in some areas a slight madman." Shriver and his wife had been interested in juvenile delinquency since the late forties, Robert Kennedy since the early sixties.

A few days after the Kennedy assassination an aide came upon Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office studying a notecard 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; Johnson had been too quick in clearing President Kennedy's things out of the Oval Office. These were not rational complaints--they were born of grief, and 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? the aide asked him. Sargent Shriver, Johnson said. So Shriver had signaled Johnson that he was not so blindly loyal to his brother-in-law that he couldn't help the new President.

Shriver thought a little like Johnson. Though his background and Johnson's were entirely different, both came from families that had lost their money and both worked their way through college. Like Johnson, 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 war, at least something that belonged in the pantheon of grand successful American efforts. He used to tell the first head of community action to think of himself as running the Chevrolet division of General Motors. Shriver's mind, like Johnson's, automatically focused on what could get through Congress, and he instinctively thought big. Once, somebody was briefing him on what would become the Foster Grandparents program, which was a small part of the War on Poverty. Shriver broke in impatiently, "It's not big enough! Not big enough!"

By the day after his appointment was announced, Shriver was at work with his staff, even though it was Sunday. Heller, Gordon, and Sorensen met him at Gordon's office to brief him on community action, which they envisioned as being all of the War on Poverty. As Johnson, at the ranch, had been, Shriver was immediately wary. In running a war, you had to produce victories, and it was hard to see how community-action agencies could be quickly perceived as successful. The premise that the activities of various government entities could be successfully coordinated by a neighborhood board was questionable. There had to be other ways to fight poverty. At one point Shriver and Adam Yarmolinsky, an assistant to Robert McNamara at the Pentagon, whom Shriver had asked to serve as his deputy, left to go to the men's room. There Shriver turned to Yarmolinsky and said, "It'll never fly."

All through the month of February, 1964, Shriver chaired meetings with government officials, academics, writers, activists, foundation executives, and even financiers, to plan the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, the legislation that would create the War on Poverty. These sessions surely represent a high-water mark for the essential quality, whether it was confidence or hubris, that characterized American society in the late fifties and early sixties. The Vietnam War did not represent nearly as great a departure from the usual activities of a world power as did the attempt to eliminate poverty in a capitalist country without giving poor people either money or jobs--and yet the people at Shriver's meetings had little doubt that they could do it. America could do anything. Even if one lacked faith in community action as the means, poverty, which hung on mostly in isolated pockets, could hardly be an insurmountable challenge. One evening during this period the diplomat George Kennan came to an informal seminar at Robert Kennedy's house and said that he had heard there was talk of eliminating poverty. Didn't everyone know, he said, that it was impossible to eliminate poverty, that no one in history had done it? Kennedy heatedly insisted that of course it could be done.

There was in early 1964 (before the escalation of the Vietnam War) comity in the house of liberalism. Socialists like Michael Harrington and Paul Jacobs participated amicably in some of the planning sessions with Shriver, and were judged by the government insiders to be good-hearted and supportive, though of little help in formulating a program. The feeling that, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan put it later, "a big bet was being made" did not dominate the meetings, because most of the participants felt that as money was spread out across the country the War on Poverty would win friends in Congress, and they would be able to pump more money into the programs that worked best and scale back the failures. The economy was bountiful and would become more so after the tax cut went into effect. "For the proponents of social legislation, this was our Camelot," Yarmolinsky says.

Because there was no sense that this was the last chance to get poverty-fighting right, there weren't great battles over the design of community action. According to one version of events, the community-action man on Kermit Gordon's staff at the Bureau of the Budget feared that Shriver might jettison community action entirely, and so got Hackett to persuade Robert Kennedy to prevail on Shriver to keep it. (Schlesinger accepts this version in Robert Kennedy and His Times.) But even if Kennedy had had that kind of clout with Shriver, community action wouldn't have needed it to survive. Shriver thought that community action was part of his charge from Johnson. "The only thing he gave me was community action," he says now. Also, he had great faith in experts, and all the experts said that community action was a great idea.

Shriver and Yarmolinsky put their energies into broadening the bill. After his first briefing on community action Shriver called Richard Lee, the mayor of New Haven, to ask him about the Gray Areas project there. Lee said it was important not to overfund a brand-new community-action agency, because much of the money would be wasted. This strengthened Shriver's resolve not to spend all the money available to the War on Poverty on community action, as Heller and Gordon wanted to. In the bill he lobbied through Congress there were ten separate new programs. Community action was by far the biggest, but the one most important to Shriver was the Job Corps, which would take poor young men and women to wholesome camps and train them to join the work force.

Shriver's immediate contribution to community action was to expand it, as a way of improving the War on Poverty bill's chance of passing, even while he was limiting its funding. Within a month of Shriver's appointment the plans called for not ten or seventy-five community-action agencies but many more; by 1967 there were more than a thousand. (Future poverty warriors should realize the folly of trying to fund a thousand independent local organizations, most of them new and run by inexperienced people.)

Hackett and Lloyd Ohlin drifted away from the War on Poverty, having decided that community action had become so big as to be irredeemably distorted in conception. This left as the leading advocate of community action within Shriver's planning group Richard Boone, who had been Hackett's chief confederate at the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency.

Boone was the most radical of the Kennedy Administration poverty fighters, but he was a radical in the Kennedy spirit. Compact, tough, with a piercing gaze and a crew cut, he had establishment credentials, such as a degree from the University of Chicago and a tour of duty at the Ford Foundation, but he came across as something more than a cosseted expert; he had been a captain on the Cook County sheriff's police force (granted, as an aide to a professor who had been elected sheriff on a reform ticket). He struck the people who worked with him as half revolutionary, half operator, a man to whom working in government was both a cause and a game.

Unlike Hackett and Ohlin, Boone saw the War on Poverty as an opportunity to be seized, and he became a constant, terrierlike presence at Shriver's meetings, always pushing for language in the law that would ensure that poor people would be represented on the boards of community-action agencies. In one meeting he asked Yarmolinsky how many times he had to insist on what became known as "maximum feasible participation" by the poor before it got into the bill. "Oh, just a few more times," Yarmolinsky said. So Boone asked a few more times, and it was in.

It had always been a part of the community-action creed that the poor should be consulted about their needs, so that they would get the proper government services. This would be a way to avoid what Robert Kennedy called planning programs "for the poor, not with them." Boone believed in this, but there were also other reasons for his idea about putting poor people on community-action boards. First, Boone believed that the cause of poverty was political as well as economic: when a community was poor, the reason was that it lacked power as well as money. Therefore, part of the cure for poverty was empowerment--training the residents of a poor neighborhood to organize themselves and learn to get things from the power structure. Maximum feasible participation was a way of turning the community action boards into a power base for the poor.

Second, Boone saw the course of community action as a struggle between poor people and social workers, whom he regarded with contempt. Unless some preventive action was taken, social workers would appropriate community-action agencies and infuse them with the "social-worker mentality," in which, for example, all juvenile delinquents were regarded as psychologically troubled and in need of professional help in order to become normal members of society. Boone saw maximum feasible participation as a way of hitting social workers where they lived, challenging them for control over the many social work jobs that community action and the rest of the War on Poverty would create.

In the ghettos there was a hunger for good jobs. In most cities blacks had been effectively shut out of the skilled trades and higher-paying municipal-service work, which were the logical next step up the ladder from unskilled manual labor. Maximum feasible participation appealed to neighborhood pride, and it held out the promise of a new employment base--administering the War on Poverty and the other new domestic programs of the Johnson Administration. Over the next decade, as the related ideas of fighting poverty and neighborhood control of government social programs spread through federal, state, and local government, these new jobs became extremely important to the growth of the black middle class, although they didn't help the ghettos much as communities.

In the Washington of 1964 the day when there would be black mayors of big cities seemed impossibly far off; therefore it appeared to be necessary to mitigate the influence of local government in order to bring the benefits of government--both services and jobs--to blacks. Circumventing existing political structures (not just the big federal departments in Washington but also city machines) was already part of the ethic of community action. Also, there was some fear among the planners of the War on Poverty that public officials in the South would make their local community-action agencies all white unless Washington had some specific way to prevent it.

Most of Shriver's group, and certainly Shriver himself, failed to see that these areas of mild rebellion against the way things were usually done in politics would make the community-action program very unpopular with even stalwart Democratic politicians in the North. So much was being planned in February of 1964 that maximum feasible participation seemed like a minor point; for Shriver to have worried about its coming to dominate the War on Poverty would have been like an orchestra conductor's worrying that the piccolos might drown out the brass section. The loyalty to the national Democratic Party of the big-city Democratic mayors and the blue-collar constituencies they represented still seemed rock solid. Of the people who might create trouble for the War on Poverty, mayors and congressmen in the North ranked far behind Republicans, southern Democrats, and professional social workers, in the minds of the members of Shriver's inner circle.

Today it seems obvious that community action was headed for political trouble. Politics then was more organized than it is now, but even now politicians don't like surprises. Spending federal money in the district of a congressman, the state of a senator or governor, or the city of a mayor will not automatically be popular with the official: he or she wants to know ahead of time who is going to get the money (preferably a political supporter) and to announce the grant personally if possible. In return for these favors, the local official should become a loyal defender of the federal program.

Because community action broke all these rules, it eroded political loyalty to the War on Poverty. Much of what the community-action agencies did was popular. Probably the single most common activity of local community-action agencies around the country was running Head Start programs for preschool children, and Head Start was from the moment of its founding, in 1965, the best-liked of all the government's anti-poverty programs. Head Start was technically a part of the community-action program; so were other popular programs, like Foster Grandparents and Upward Bound. But the association did not help community action politically. It was always an uphill battle to draw attention away from the chief mechanism of the War on Poverty--the quasi-autonomous community-action agency--and toward programs like Head Start. Shriver didn't see, and perhaps couldn't have seen, what he was getting into.


It isn't really Shriver, who had never run for office, but Lyndon Johnson whom one would expect to have understood that the War on Poverty faced bad political problems. Johnson was a totally political man who had no hobbies, read no books, could barely sit through a movie: politics was virtually his only interest, and his fascination with it knew no bounds. He personally scrutinized the membership of even honorary presidential commissions. 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.

His ambition as President was a politician's ambition: he wanted in particular to pass a lot of legislation, and in general to unify the country to heal the divisions of geography and race and class that even FDR had failed to close. He wanted to set world records in politics, as a star athlete would in sports. "Get those coonskins up on the wall," he would tell the people around him. He pushed hard for the desegregation of 5,000 southern school districts by September of 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? 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 to say, "Well, can't you get another one or two yet this afternoon?"

And yet Johnson had a streak of rebelliousness. He was not at all an organization man of politics--as, say, the late Mayor Richard Daley, of Chicago, was. He came from a one-party state where there was no tradition of slowly moving up through the ranks. He had done things in the service of his political ambition that he knew were wrong, and he knew that there were national problems that the political system would not ordinarily address. It was a point of pride with him in the first two years of his presidency, as it would not be for most politicians, 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 about a million votes a month," he told another in the great days after the 1964 election. Of all the things Johnson wanted to do, the one he wanted most to do was also the one he knew would be the most unpopular: help blacks. After the 1964 Civil Rights Act passed, he told aides, accurately, "I think we just gave the South to the Republicans." There was at times almost a recklessness to the way he spent his mandate. He submitted the fair housing act, the piece of liberal legislation that most terrified members of Congress, a few months before the 1966 midterm elections.

Johnson's confident talk about losing support was not, however, based on seasoned self-knowledge. He was an extremely thin-skinned man who needed to be loved and was deeply wounded by criticism when it came. Even if he was prepared for attacks, it was for attacks of a certain kind: he would rile the old southern crocodiles on Capitol Hill, and Texans like John Connally, while winning over all the intellectuals and the liberals and the students and the blacks who had mistrusted him. He would pass the legislation they had dreamed of for decades--civil rights, medical care, aid to education--and they would love him for it. He might lose the South, but he would win over the North. Perhaps Johnson was constitutionally unprepared for the possibility that anyone might turn against him, but he was much more vulnerable, psychologically, to reproach from liberals than from conservatives, because leftward was the direction to which he was looking for approval.

The War on Poverty became embattled almost instantly. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 passed in August, creating the Office of Economic Opportunity, headed by Sargent Shriver, which would administer community action, the Job Corps, and most of the other programs that made up the War on Poverty. On January 20, 1965- not yet half a year into the existence of the OEO--President Johnson received a confidential letter from Theodore McKeldin, the mayor of Baltimore, complaining about the community-action program and adding that the mayors of St. Louis, Cleveland, and Philadelphia didn't like the agencies in their cities either. At the end of 1965 several Democratic mayors set up a meeting in Miami just to grouse about community action, and Vice President Hubert Humphrey, whom one would have expected to be an ally of the War on Poverty, had turned against community action, because of his role as Johnson's liaison to the mayors.

The most important enemy, by far, of community action among the mayors was Daley, who at the time was the single most powerful politician not just in Chicago but also on Capitol Hill, where he controlled the largest bloc of votes that would reliably move on one person's orders. He was crucial to Johnson's legislative program, and Johnson took great pains to keep him happy. Daley considered it essential to maintain total control of all politics and government in Chicago. He once personally saw to it that a small HEW grant to Martin Luther King, Jr., for a literacy program in the Chicago ghetto was canceled--after it had been publicly announced--because he considered it wrong for the federal government to put money into Chicago without going through him, especially when the recipient was King. To Daley, community action was the political equivalent of original sin. "You're putting M-O-N-E-Y in the hands of people who are not in my organization," he told Bill Moyers. "They'll use it to bring you down."

"Many mayors assert that the Community Action Program is setting up a COMPETING POLITICAL ORGANIZATION in their own backyards," Charles Schultze, who had succeeded Kermit Gordon as budget director, wrote Johnson in September of 1965. To be more precise, they were worried about competing black political organizations. White backlash in the North, still blurry from the Washington perspective of 1964 and 1965, was perfectly obvious to the big-city mayors. Daley, who drove a car with the license plate 708-222 to commemorate the number of votes he got when he became mayor of Chicago, in 1955, saw his vote drop below 700,000 for the only time in his career in the 1963 mayoral election, and actually lost the white vote that year, because of his visible incorporation of blacks into his machine. Daley needed to hold on to Chicago's black voters, who were among his most dependably loyal constituents; the appearance in the ghettos of an independent black political force would not only threaten his black base but also cause white voters to panic and begin voting for candidates to the right of Daley. Like all the old-politics mayors, Daley thought that it was already enough of a struggle to keep the Democratic city organizations alive without Washington's stepping in to fund the opposition.

Community action had political problems not just with the mayors but also in Congress. Most southern conservatives never liked any part of the War on Poverty. During the initial lobbying for the Economic Opportunity Act, Wilbur Mills, of Arkansas, told one of Shriver's aides that he was not going to be involved in any program to help "a bunch of niggers," and threw the man out of his office. White ethnic congressmen, men like Dan Rostenkowski and Roman Pucinski, of Chicago, and James Delaney and Hugh Carey, of New York, turned against community action, for the same reasons that the mayors did. And these were only the Democratic opponents of community action; Republican conservatives, especially mid-westerners and westerners, of course disliked it too.

As the most visibly liberal government agency, the OEO was a frequent target of both the right and the left. Opposition to the OEO was one of Ronald Reagan's early political themes Adam Clayton Powell, who was the chairman of the House committee that authorized the OEO's funds, never thought that the agency was fully responsive to his concerns, and at one point he banned all OEO employees from his committee's offices. Richard Boone, who worked for the community-action program in the early stages, left in 1965 to start an organization called Citizens Crusade Against Poverty, whose purpose was to make sure that community action wasn't selling out.

In the executive branch the OEO's main enemies were HEW and the Department of Labor. Wilbur Cohen tried repeatedly to get Johnson to abolish the OEO as an independent agency and to put most of its parts in HEW, where they would presumably be better managed and less visible. Willard Wirtz was opposed to the idea of community action from the start, opposed to the OEO as a separate agency, and positively enraged when he discovered that the big jobs program in the War on Poverty, the Job Corps, would be run by the OEO and not the Labor Department. He was given the Neighborhood Youth Corps as a consolation prize, but he still tried constantly to sabotage the Job Corps. Inside the OEO there was always the suspicion that the Labor Department's U.S. Employment Service, whose responsibility it was to screen people for the Job Corps, was sending along people with criminal records in order to make the Job Corps look bad.

All these officials were inevitable enemies of community action, who would create political trouble for the programs no matter how well they did out in the field. But out in the field there were problems too. Shriver hoped that the OEO, and especially the Job Corps, would loose an avalanche of favorable publicity, the way the Peace Corps had. He wanted the Economic Opportunity Act to pass in a blaze of glory, and successful anti-poverty programs to spring up immediately. Shriver agonized but went along when the North Carolina congressional delegation demanded that Shriver get rid of his deputy, Yarmolinsky, as the price of its support, probably because at the Pentagon Yarmolinsky had advocated the integration of public facilities near military bases in North Carolina. Having deprived himself of his key administrator, Shriver tried to produce administrative miracles. He insisted that 10,000 kids be enrolled in Job Corps camps by the end of June of 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--grants to more than 250 nongovernment organizations, most of them new and unproved--Shriver picked out one, the agency in Albemarle, North Carolina, and asked Fred Hayes, one of the people running community action, 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 says today. "'He may well be. You can't control the grant recipients, and some of them are going to screw up.'"

Some of them did, indeed, screw up. In Harlem, Adam Clayton Powell demanded a piece of the action at HARYOU, a project whose guiding spirit was the black psychologist Kenneth B. Clark; HARYOU became HARYOU-ACT, Clark resigned in protest, and almost from the moment it received its first OEO grant, of $1.2 million, in June of 1965, HARYOU-ACT was under investigation for financial irregularities. Even in Chicago, where Mayor Daley had been able, through Johnson's intercession, to keep the poverty program totally under his control, an internal OEO report circulated in May of 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 there were several embarrassing incidents of violence. 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. 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 new Job Corps center in his district.

Shriver was a dedicated man who drove himself and the people around him, but he 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, like Athletes Against Poverty. He tried to hire Al Capp, the creator of Li'l Abner, to produce a comic book advertising the Job Corps. He barraged 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." From Shriver's perspective, the great problem of the War on Poverty was that it wasn't the kind of war he was used to fighting: it lacked public support, funds, and tolerance for error. Wanting and expecting to be a general, he found himself instead the operator of an unpopular social program.


In December of 1965 Johnson's chief aide for domestic affairs, Joseph Califano, prepared a detailed plan for dismantling the OEO, the first of several such plans to cross Johnson's desk. Soon afterward Johnson turned down a request by Shriver for an increase in the OEO budget from $1.75 billion to $4 billion, and Shriver threatened to resign, backing down only when Johnson told him, "If you quit, we'll quit," meaning he would abolish the OEO. In 1967 the OEO nearly died when Congress missed the regular deadline to renew its appropriation. It survived only because of an amendment to the appropriation bill which gave elective public officials appointive power over a third of the seats on the community-action boards. The OEO is the great exception to the political-science maxim that government agencies are immortal. It never had any powerful friends and was at the edge of abolition almost from its founding.

Most of the controversies that arose in the field operations of the OEO had a racial aspect. There were many community-action agencies, urban and rural, that led a relatively quiet existence; most of the best-publicized problems of the community action program involved an agency in a black ghetto. The OEO was intended to be substantially aimed at the ghettos, but it was founded in ignorance of changes in the mood of American race relations which would be obvious within a year of its founding and would affect it deeply.

Martin Luther King's strategy of seeking nonviolent confrontations with the often violent defenders of legal segregation in the South was not just morally right, it was a brilliant political strategy that played perfectly in the press and quickly persuaded white liberals (like the founders of the War on Poverty) that civil rights was an urgent cause. But black America--and the movement itself, for that matter--was never as Gandhi-like as King. Medgar Evers, the head of the Mississippi chapter of the NAACP until he was assassinated, in 1963, owned a gun. (Even King owned a gun during his early days in Montgomery.) John Lewis, the head of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and now a congressman from Atlanta, had to be talked out of giving a speech at the 1963 March on Washington calling for a modern black version of Sherman's march through Georgia. King himself maintained relations with black-nationalist leaders like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad, whom whites imagined to be antithetical to his cause.

Freedom Summer, in 1964, which was portrayed in the national press as a love feast between white college students and the black movement, was actually somewhat tense. There was a feeling among blacks who had risked their lives over the past few years that the whites had swept in, taken over leadership positions, dominated press coverage, and, in the case of some white women, stolen men from the black women in the movement. The summer ended with Johnson's offering to seat only two members of the delegation from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party at the Democratic National Convention, an experience that looked to Washington like a great civil-rights victory and to the civil-rights movement, especially the leaders of SNCC, like a crushing defeat. By the fall of 1964 discussion had already begun within SNCC about its becoming an all-black organization, which it did in 1967.

All this was in the South. In the North church-based protest never had the galvanizing effect on black people that it did in the South, and ghetto poverty did not inspire the sympathies of whites in the way that segregation had. All through the middle sixties there were frustrating discussions within the movement about how to bring the struggle north and address the problems of the ghettos. The March on Washington was officially billed as the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and its chief organizer, Bayard Rustin, was annoyed that King's overpowering "I Have a Dream" speech effectively switched the focus from economic issues in the North to segregation in the South.

The final great event of the movement was the Selma-to-Montgomery march, in 1965. In its wake Johnson said, "We shall overcome" before a joint session of Congress and proposed the Voting Rights Act. In June, Johnson in effect moved his rhetoric north, giving a commencement address at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., in which he called for "not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result."

Then, later in that summer of 1965, over the space of two weeks, Johnson announced the commitment of American ground troops to Vietnam, and the Watts riots began. From that point on the little cracks and fissures in liberalism inexorably widened and deepened. The world Lyndon Johnson wanted to conquer came apart.

Copyright © 1988, Nicholas Lemann.
"The Unfinished War";
The Atlantic Monthly, December, 1988, issue. Volume 262, Number 6 (pages 37-56).

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