From & Friends
Al From makes two assertions in his new memoir. The first is announced in its title. The New Democrats and the Return to Power argues that the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), the group he founded in 1985 to push the Democratic Party to the right, has won: the party has been reformed, and there is no going back to the dark days when, according to From, Democratic presidential candidates suffered humiliation after humiliation at the ballot box for the party’s thralldom to protectionism, isolationism, “constituency groups” and the dread leviathan Jesse Leo Jackson.
The second point is that From and friends deserve all of the credit for the Democratic Party’s transformation. Again and again, our hero narrates his arrival, just in the nick of time, to save the day: “My interjection had stopped the headlong dash into social democracy…. Hillary came over to me and said she and Bill had discussed what I had said and had agreed I was right.” And again: “In a cab crossing the Triborough Bridge in New York, I flipped open my cell phone and called the President of the United States…. [W]hen Clinton and I finished our discussion, I was confident that he would sign the bill.” According to Al From, if you favor NAFTA, tougher laws on crime, welfare reform and, above all, an economic policy focused exclusively on “growth” instead of distributional fairness, you can thank Al From.
Yet this memoirist has an imposing problem on his hands. In each and every case, the triumphs he trumpets have made America a worse place—objectively, empirically and on their own terms. But From is among the small minority of people they haven’t hurt. No one in the crowded field of Washington insiders has ever failed upward with such skill and aplomb.
Alvin From was born in 1943 into a Jewish family in South Bend, Indiana. He studied journalism at Northwestern, where he edited the newspaper. But what truly interested him, he says, was fighting poverty. So when a journalistic mentor told him in 1966, “You can write about poverty or you can do something about it,” he joined Sargent Shriver’s Office of Economic Opportunity and was assigned to the War on Poverty’s Southern front. His job was posting dispatches to Washington that, as he recalls with his customary immodesty, “read more like in-depth articles in the New York Times Magazine or New Yorker than stodgy government reports.”
From writes: “Contrary to the conventional wisdom today, the War on Poverty was not a big welfare program. Just the opposite: it was an empowerment program.” He’s right. Consider the establishment of Head Start. In keeping with the War on Poverty nostrum of “maximum feasible participation of the poor,” Head Start programs were to be locally run. In Sunflower County, Mississippi, fellow travelers of Fannie Lou Hamer and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee worked with an organization called the Child Development Group of Mississippi. One of its founders, a white psychiatrist, insisted that CDGM’s board should be peopled by field hands and maids instead of “respectable” members of the local, complacent black middle class. His beliefs resembled those of Polly Greenberg, author of a 1969 book on the project, The Devil Has Slippery Shoes, who explains that “what happens in the classroom in a brief preschool program, regardless of how good the curriculum and comprehensive services are, has far less impact upon a child’s lifelong trajectory than does what happens in his spirit and sense of possibilities when he watches the enormously disempowered parents with whom he is profoundly identified become competent, confident, and active in bringing him happy days, and in initiating constructive and fundamental change to the community and greater society in which he is growing up.”
In the most racially totalitarian county in the most racially totalitarian state in the Union, this could not be allowed to stand. Governor Paul Johnson Jr. said that he would never sign off on any Head Start programs for “darkies” in the state. (At the time, there were no publicly funded kindergartens in Mississippi, let alone preschools.) After CDGM’s founders used a loophole to defy him, a local thug fired shots from a .45-caliber pistol into the organization’s building. Meanwhile, in Washington, Senators John Stennis and James Eastland—fresh from working to sabotage the federal investigation into the murder of Congress of Racial Equality activists Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner in nearby Philadelphia, Mississippi—launched a Fox News–style national campaign to frame CDGM as a commie-infiltrated fraud, convincing a frazzled and weak-willed Shriver to cut his political losses. From the top down, Shriver set up a replacement program run by local segregationists.
Now here’s From’s account of that episode: “Shriver sent me to Sunflower County to investigate a dispute between two Head Start programs, one run with federal funding by the white powers of the county—the Eastland forces—the other run on a volunteer basis by civil rights activists…. Ostensibly fighting over control of the funded Head Start program, in reality the two groups were fighting for an important prize in the political balance of power in the county.” The political balance of power in the county—sort of like Nelson Mandela and Hendrik Verwoerd were fighting over the political balance of power in South Africa. “As long as Eastland forces administered antipoverty program funds, the civil rights activists, a major threat to the established political leadership of the county, remained in check.” And so, From relates, “I recommended to Shriver that OEO try to bring Hamer’s group into the county program with the responsibility of running a number of Head Start centers. Eventually, the two sides reached an uneasy agreement. As a result, all poor children in the county were able to benefit from the higher quality, federally funded Head Start.”
From makes it sound here as though he was an ally of the civil rights forces, when he was actually maneuvering to sell them out. The one time I interviewed him, From volunteered an even more effulgent (and slippery) account of the dispute in Sunflower County. He praised Eastland’s skill in co-opting the integrationists by planting “his closest political people” to control the Sunflower County Head Start board. The education of the county’s black preschoolers had been placed in the hands of the same racist economic elites who had kept them in poverty in the first place. From’s transformation of this unpromising material into a warm parable of reconciliation and progress is a master class in shameless audacity.
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