Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: ‘Dr. Strangelove’ as ‘a Cold Blade of Scorn Against the Spectator’s Throat’

Dr. Strangelove publicity photo

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb Publicity Photo. (Flickr)

From today’s nearly unanimous approval of Stanley Kubrick’s disturbing satire, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, one could scarcely guess that its release fifty years ago this week prompted a widespread national debate, the vigor of which the conversation in recent months about The Wolf of Wall Street barely even approaches. In a February 2, 1964, review headlined, “Is Nothing Sacred?” the conservative New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the film’s “sportive speculation about a matter of gravest consequence seems more malicious than diverting, more charged with poison than wit…. The whole thing, while cleverly written and most skillfully directed and played, tends to be a bit too contemptuous of our defense establishment for my comfort and taste.”

Robert Hatch, The Nation’s longtime film critic, prized his precious comfort somewhat less than Crowther, and had less squeamish taste, but his February 3, 1964 review of Dr. Strangelove reflected similar qualms, while recognizing that Kubrick—together with screenwriter Terry Southern (a frequent Nation contributor in the early 1960s and late 1980s) and the great Peter Sellers—had created nothing less than a masterpiece. Hatch appreciated that the disruption to the viewer’s comfort was intrinsic to the very point and power of the film. “The spectacle of George Scott salivating over the prospect of destroying every human being east of the Danube at the cost of only a few million American lives is a tour de force in nausea,” he wrote.

Hatch, of course, had no illusions that Dr. Strangelove’s forceful truth-telling would profoundly change the terms of the Cold War.

Mr. Kubrick is a bold man: he has taken a whole complex of America’s basic assumptions by the shoulders and given them a rough shaking. And he has done it in a rough style that pays little heed to camera niceties or the normal luxury of commercial filmmaking, but throws all its emphasis on bravado acting and rapid, uncompromising melodrama. The picture sometimes falters into too obvious gags…but overall it holds a cold blade of scorn against the spectator’s throat.

The danger is that it will be cheered by the people who already agree with it and resented by those still unconverted. Kubrick can argue with good logic that if you are to expose the fallacy of depending on the hydrogen bomb as the last bastion of a free society, you must also expose the ignorance of bigotry that invents and fosters such nonsense. But he and Terry Southern take a pleasure in flaying their contemporaries that may be more effective as sadistic humor than as adult education.

Fifty years removed from its release and with the Cold War twenty-five years behind us, it’s clear that Dr. Strangelove succeeded—and still succeeds—at being both. As friend-of-the-magazine and contributor Eric Schlosser writes in a brilliant blog post for The New Yorker:

Half a century after Kubrick’s mad general, Jack D. Ripper, launched a nuclear strike on the Soviets to defend the purity of “our precious bodily fluids” from Communist subversion, we now know that American officers did indeed have the ability to start a Third World War on their own. And despite the introduction of rigorous safeguards in the years since then, the risk of an accidental or unauthorized nuclear detonation hasn’t been completely eliminated.

The idea of abolishing nuclear weapons from the American arsenal was raised in Jonathan Schell’s groundbreaking report, The Gift of Time, published in a special 1998 issue of The Nation and later as a book. It has been endorsed in recent years by former secretary of defense William Perry, former senator Sam Nunn, and former secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and George Schultz—the so-called “four horsemen of the nuclear apocalypse”—and by President Barack Obama in his Prague speech of 2009. If the 100th anniversary of Dr. Strangelove is to be celebrated in 2064, the abolition of nuclear weapons must assume a central place on the national agenda.

For more on the anniversary, read Greg Mitchell’s blog post “As ‘Dr. Strangelove’ Turns 50: Vast Nuclear Dangers Remain.”

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

‘We Can’t Wait’ for Congress

President Obama, AP Photo

(AP Photo)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

“I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone,” President Obama told his cabinet, announcing that he wouldn’t just be “waiting for legislation” from the obstructionist Congress to push his agenda. The announcement buoyed progressives, who have long urged the president to act boldly on his own authority, and provided new fuel for right-wing fulminations about “dictatorship” and “tyranny.”

To kick off the strategy, Obama traveled last week to North Carolina to launch one of his “manufacturing innovation hubs”, convened university presidents to talk about making college more affordable; announced the first group of “promise zones”, designed to focus federal attention on at risk communities; and scheduled a meeting with CEOs to gain commitments to hiring the long-term unemployed.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Obama’s pledge echoes his “We Can’t Wait” campaign leading into the 2012 elections, in which the president similarly announced a range of executive initiatives. That effort mostly demonstrated how difficult it is for any executive action to gain public attention.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: What We Wrote About Olympic Boycotts in 1936 and 1980

1936 Olympics in Berlin

The Olympic torch is carried into the Berlin stadium, at the start of the 1936 Olympic Games. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)


Next week The Nation will publish a special issue on the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, where homophobic legislation, suppression of dissent and unprecedented corruption threaten to make these perhaps the most politically contentious Olympic games since Berlin in 1936. While we do not believe a boycott of the Olympics is the most effective way to pressure the Russian government to reform—indeed, a far more impactful way would be to follow the example of John Carlos (interviewed by Dave Zirin in the issue), whose photogenic disruption, with Tommie Smith, of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, remains a lasting symbol of athletic civil disobedience—writers in The Nation did support past boycotts in a last-resort attempt to refuse complicity with repression and in the belief that boycotts further the cause of progressive change.

The ultimately unsuccessful movement to boycott the 1936 Olympics was enthusiastically endorsed in a August 1935 Nation editorial under the unequivocal title, “Boycott the Olympics!”. Arguing that such an action “would constitute a reproof which would echo throughout the world and even penetrate the sound-proofed barricade of the Nazi censorship,” the editors wrote:

The simple truth is that, despite official protestations, sport is no more free in Germany than are speech and political activity. Interested groups of Americans should bend every effort to draw our teams out of the games. A boycott of the Olympics would touch the Nazi government in two very tender spots—its prestige and its pocket-book.

The great radical journalist and Nation columnist Heywood Broun agreed that the United States should boycott the Olympic games, but argued in favor of holding local referenda in the US on the subject to ensure democratic support. “Boycotts of one sort or another have certain dangers,” Broun acknowledged, noting, as I have written regarding a boycott of the Sochi Olympics, that they too often hurt precisely those (the athletes) they are intended to help. “But in the case of the Olympic games a decision can be made by the American people themselves. It really is a gesture from the masses of one country to the masses of another.”

Broun went on to urge that another venue—“some place where there was no trace of anti-Semitism whatsoever”—be found to host the games instead of the Third Reich. But, Broun lamented, the United States would have to count itself out:

I wish it were possible that America might assume the role of host and say to the athletes of the world, “Come here for your competition, to America, the land of liberty, the melting pot, the place of refuge for all people. Here the youth of the world can compete in sportsmanship and amity. With us the best mile runner is the best mile runner regardless of any question of race or religion or political point of view.”

“I wish we could say that,” Broun lamented, noting why it would not be true.

Another movement to boycott the Olympics came in 1980, when the United States opted out of participation in the Moscow games to protest the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Aryeh Neier, who was born in Nazi Germany the year after the Berlin Olympics, wrote in “The Wrong Reason” (February 9, 1980) that he supported the boycott but as a protest against Russian human rights abuses, not because of the invasion of Afghanistan. The argument offered by the Carter administration, Neier wrote, was hypocritical:

Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan must be condemned, though Jimmy Carter’s protestations would have come with better grace if he had acknowledged its parallels to American military intervention in small countries like Cambodia. But I would favor going to the Olympics despite my revulsion against what the Soviet Union is doing in Afghanistan. I believe that peaceful contacts between peoples are desirable, and taking part in the Olympics would be no endorsement of the invasion, especially if some of the athletes and spectators going to Moscow could be persuaded to take part in a protest demonstration in Red Square.

“A boycott of the Olympics to protest persecution of human-rights activists in the Soviet Union is a different matter,” Neier continued, citing evidence that Russia was rounding up and expelling from Moscow any dissidents that might threaten the image of order and consent it wished to project. Of the January 1980 arrest and forced displacement of Andrei Sakharov, Neier wrote that

his exile made it close to a clean sweep; the Soviet Union has eliminated nearly all opportunities for visitors to the Olympic Games to talk to dissenters. These dissenters have been forced to suffer arrest, prosecution, imprisonment and exile simply because the Olympic Games are being held in Moscow; therefore, a boycott is clearly appropriate.

Although the boycott is instead going forward for President Carter’s reasons, there might still be a way to convey the message that it is intolerable that the Olympic Games should be used as an occasion to repress human rights. If alternate games are held, they could be called the Sakharov Games and the medals to be distributed could bear the likeness of Andrei Sakharov. Those would be prizes worth winning.

Unlike in 1980, Russia’s reprehensible law banning “propaganda for non-traditional sexual relations” was not passed in anticipation of or preparation for the Olympics—though anticipation of the games was certainly a factor in the December amnesty granting freedom to political prisoners like former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky and two imprisoned members of Pussy Riot. In 2014, participation in the Sochi games—including taking advantage of the unprecedented platform for activism it provides—will be far more effective than a boycott ever could be.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Check out our upcoming issue next week for reporting by Dave Zirin on LGBT and corruption issues; Alec Luhn reporting from Sochi; former Olympian Samantha Retrosi on corporate ownership of athletes; and much more.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Bill de Blasio’s Persuasive Case for Universal Pre-K

de Blasio

(AP Photo/New York Daily News, Enid Alvarez/Pool)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Last week, as New York found itself in the icy grip of the polar vortex, another deep freeze seemed to be settling over the Empire State—this time between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio—and crystallizing two competing visions for the future of the Democratic Party.

First came dueling news conferences last Monday. Cuomo stood before the Albany press corps, announcing his plan to cut taxes by $2 billion, while de Blasio was in a Harlem classroom, joined by a bevy of labor leaders who pledged their support for his signature policy initiative: funding universal pre-K for 4-year-olds (and after-school programs for all middle schoolers) by increasing the income taxes of New Yorkers making over $500,000 a year by about a half-percentage point.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

This plan, central to de Blasio’s mayoral campaign, reflects growing evidence, as I’ve written previously, that high-quality, universal access to pre-K can make a significant difference in the lives of children, especially those from low-income families.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: The Passion of Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka 1972

Amiri Baraka speaks during the Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana on March 12, 1972. (AP Photo/Julian C. Wilson)

The brilliant and controversial poet, playright and activist Amiri Baraka, formerly known as LeRoi Jones, died on Thursday at age 79. In works like the poetry collection Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note (1961), the social history Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1964), Jones celebrated the cultural achievements and the dignity of African-Americans while unblinkingly exposing the grave injustice of this country’s condescending attitude towards and often-brutal treatment of his people. A complicated figure, Baraka has also been criticized for elements of anti-Semitism, misogyny and homophobia in his works. As the poet E. Ethelbert Miller, chairman of the board of the Institute for Policy Studies and a friend of The Nation, wrote in e-mail message:

“One cannot talk about black literature, black politics, black music, black theater or even blackness without mentioning the name Amiri Baraka…. He was controversial at times because he was passionate and the times and our social condition demanded nothing less. Baraka taught us how to examine our beauty as well as our ugliness.

The Nation was one of the first major publications to publish Baraka’s work, beginning with poems like “The Invention of Comics” in 1962, “After the Ball” and “Tight Rope” in 1963, and “Morning Purpose” in 1964, and our critics kept a close watch on his work. In a review of Dutchman in April 1964, longtime Nation drama critic Harold Clurman called Baraka, then LeRoi Jones, “an outstanding dramatist” and “a turbulent talent,” noting, but not regretting, the troubling excesses which would later make his work so controversial. “While turbulence is not always a sign of power or of valuable meaning,” Clurman wrote, “I have a hunch that LeRoi Jones’s fire will burn ever higher and clearer if our theatre can furnish an adequate vessel to harbor his flame. We need it.”

Baraka’s most memorable contribution to The Nation was the essay “In the Ring” (June 29, 1964), about the fight between Cassius Clay and defending world champion Sonny Liston at Miami Beach that February. Later included in the collection Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, edited by Paula Giddings, the piece represents the best of Baraka’s writing.

The mock contest [in 1962 and 1963] between Liston and Patterson was a ‘brushfire’ limited war, Neo-Colonial policy to confuse the issue. Patterson was to represent the fruit of the missionary ethic; he had found God, reversed his underprivileged (uncontrolled) violence, and turned it to work for the democratic liberal imperialist state. The hardy black Horatio Alger offering the glad hand of integration to welcome 20 million into the lunatic asylum of white America.

In this context, Liston the unreformed, Liston the vulgar, Liston the violent, comes on as the straightup Heavy (who still had to make some gesture at the Christian ethic, like the quick trip to the Denver priest before the match, to see if somehow the chief whitie could turn him into a regular fella). “They” painted Liston Black. They painted Patterson White. And that was the simple conflict. Which way would the black man go? This question traveled on all levels through the society, if anyone remembers. Pollsters wanted the colored man in the street’s opinion. “Sir, who do you hope comes out on top in this fight?” A lot of Negroes said Patterson. That old hope come back on you, that somehow this is my country, and ought’n I be allowed to live in it, I mean, to make it. From the bottom to the top? Only the poorest black men have never fallen at least temporarily for the success story. And the poor whites still fall hard.…

The match meant most to the Liberal Missionaries. It was a chance to test their handiwork against this frightening brute. So a thin-willed lower-middle-class American was led to beatings just short of actual slaughter. Twice. And each time Patterson fell, a vision came to me of the whole colonial West crumbling in some sinister silence, like the across-the-tracks House of Usher…

But Liston, Jones wrote, “is the big strong likable immigrant who has always done America’s chores. He’s glad to oblige.”

That leaves us with Cassius X. Back in the days when he was still Clay it was easy to see him as a boy manufactured by the Special Products Division of Madison Avenue. Now I think of him as merely a terribly stretched out young man with problems one hoped would have waited at least for him to reach full manhood. Clay is not a fake, and even his blustering and playground poetry are valid; they demonstrate that a new and more complicated generation has moved onto the scene. And in this last sense Clay is definitely my man. However, his choice of Elijah Muhammad over Malcolm X (if indeed such is the case) means that he is still a ‘homeboy,’ embracing the folksy vector straight out of the hard spiritualism of poor Negro aspiration. Cassius is right now just angry rather than intellectually (socio-politically) motivated.…

So what kind of men are these who practice such deception on themselves? Oh, they are simply Americans, and some years from now, perhaps there will be this short addition: “you remember them, don’t you?”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

In 1999, The Nation reprinted a speech Baraka had given at NYU the previous year at a memorial service for the poet Margaret Walker Alexander, who, Baraka said,

remains part of our deepest and most glorious voice, dimensioned by history and musicked by vision. What she tells us in her books, with that voice of sun and sky, moon and stars, of lightning and thunder, is in that oldest voice of that first ancestor, who always be with us. That is what we people have, inside, to reach where Orpheus goes each night-end to raise the day again. That voice to keep us live and sane and strong and ready to fight and even ready to love.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

2014 Promises Plenty of Positive Change

Creative Commons

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Will 2014 feature more of the same Washington gridlock, austerity, partisan posturing and just plain stupidity that made 2013 so miserable? The dysfunction got so bad that the media celebrated Congress merely for agreeing on a budget , one that will damage the economy but not as much as last year. That Congress could pass something, anything, made it seem like carping to note that legislators cruelly cut off emergency jobless benefits for workers unable to find work and stupidly killed the wind energy production tax credit, essential to that vital industry.

But the widespread predictions that 2014 will witness only more of the same ignore the growing reality that, outside the Beltway, people are beginning to stir and change is in the air.

One celebrated indicator was the stunning election of Bill de Blasio as mayor of New York City. Voters overwhelmingly endorsed the sole candidate with the guts to challenge the city’s Gilded Age inequality and to call for taxing the wealthy to pay for preschool for all children. De Blasio’s victory was special, but it wasn’t unique. Voters in Los AngelesBostonSeattle and Minneapolis also elected progressives promising change.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: How We Helped Start the ‘Melville Revival’ of the 1920s

Creative Commons

“Nature did not make him a poet,” an anonymous reviewer wrote of Herman Melville in the September 6, 1866, issue of The Nation. While praising his “literary reputation” and “experience and cultivation”—somewhat challenging today’s cliché that Melville’s talents went completely unrecognized until after his 1891 death—the writer nonetheless argued that Melville was only one among “the herd of recent versifiers.”

His pages contain at best little more than the rough ore of poetry. Here and there gleams of imaginative power shine out like the grains of gold in a mass of quartz.

Though works like Moby-Dick, “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” and “Benito Cereno”—the subject of an essay by Nation editorial board member Greg Grandin in next week’s issue—had been in circulation for over a decade by 1866, nothing of Melville’s contributions to American prose is mentioned in the review. It was not until the centenary of Melville’s birth, in August 1919, that a treatment of those works and Melville’s legacy as one of the finest writers this country ever produced appeared in our pages.

It was by a young Columbia lecturer named Raymond Weaver, the so-called “father of Melville criticism,” whose 1921 biography, Herman Melville: Man, Mariner and Mystic, and sixteen-volume edition of Melville’s works published in 1924 would largely spark the “Melville revival” of the 1920s, which rescued the long-deceased scribe from historical obscurity and secured him a prominent place in the American canon.

Commissioned by his English Department colleague and The Nation’s literary editor Carl Van Doren (who according to one scholar of Melville criticism had been recommending as early as 1915 that his students read an old and obscure genre-bending novel about whaling), it was the first piece Weaver wrote about Melville, and it was only after its publication that he decided to commit himself to a full-length biography, according to Clare Spark’s Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare & the Melville Revival. The canonization of Melville began with Weaver, and Weaver began with The Nation.

Moby-Dick was “an amazing masterpiece,” Weaver wrote. It “reads like a great opium dream” and “contains some of the most finished comedy in the language.” While seconding the anonymous 1866 reviewer by acknowledging that “as a poet Melville is not distinguished”—a view which has been considerably revised by more recent scholars—Weaver made the case for recognition of Melville as one of the most exemplary American writers yet, while acknowledging that the more disturbing aspects of his vision could render widespread acknowledgment of that claim unattainable, whatever the author’s merits:

It was Melville’s abiding craving to achieve some total and undivined possession of the very heart of reality; his was the quest for the lost Atlantis, the ancient eternal desire of man for the unknown. In the promiscuous exuberance of youth Melville venturesomely sought his El Dorado on the world’s rim….

Essentially, he was a mystic, a treasure-seeker, a mystery-monger, a delver after hidden things spiritual and material. The world to him was a darkly figured hieroglyph; and if he ever deciphered the cabalistic sign, the meaning he found was too terrible, or else too wonderful, to tell….

The versatility and power of his genius was extraordinary. If he does not eventually rank as a writer of overshadowing accomplishment, it will be owing not to any lack of genius, but to the perversity of his rare and lofty gifts.

Interestingly, Weaver’s groundbreaking biography of Melville was greeted with a mixed appraisal in The Nation just three years later. After commenting that Weaver’s work could have benefited from “more time spent in assimilation, a little more ripeness and finish,” as well as less stridency and a greater fidelity to facts—thus anticipating the later consensus about Weaver’s impassioned but unpolished work—the scholar Hoyt Hudson wrote:

In the revival of his fame there are undoubted dangers. One is that he may be overrated; but that, at worst, will be temporary. Another danger is, or was, that he might become the esoteric possession of a few, a group of self-styled “Melvilleans,” who would exchange cryptic passwords from their first editions and resent intrusion of the vulgar. Worst of all, Melville might become just another American author, another photogravure to put up beside [William Cullen] Bryant and Longfellow, every hair of his beard numbered, every fault forgotten, every platitude quoted. Mr. Weaver’s book insures a different future for Herman Melville. Given this biography and Melville’s works, we have the man, vigorous, observant, eloquent, but torn by unending speculations, baffled by sad defeats. To him all those will turn who love the tingle and tang of life yet who do not fear to think. What a storm-beaten tract, yet how fertile and tropical, has been added to the continent of American literature!

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

In a 1928 review of the Shorter Novels of Herman Melville, published with an introduction by his friend Raymond Weaver, Carl Van Doren wrote that “Benito Cereno,” the subject of Grandin’s essay as well as his new book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, “equals the best of Conrad in the weight of its drama and the skill of its unfolding.” Despite being neglected for over half-a-century, including by the most devoted early-revival Melvilleans like Weaver and himself, Melville’s short novels, Van Doren wrote, “belong, whatever may formerly have been said about them, with the most original and distinguished fiction yet produced on this continent.” The resurrection of Melville was complete.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Read Next: Rebecca Solnit on the arch of justice and the long run.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: Fifty Years Later, the War on Poverty Must Be Renewed

A destitute man sleeps on the sidewalk under a holiday window at Blanc de Chine, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013 in New York. (AP Images)

On January 8, 1964, nearly fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared in his first State of the Union address that his new administration “today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.” The Nation was immediately enthusiastic and supportive, writing in its lead editorial, “The Rediscovery of Poverty,” just after the speech:

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the State of the Union address was that Mr. Johnson not only spoke about poverty, but spoke at length, emphatically, and with the apparent intention of actually meaning to alleviate it. The second most important aspect, gearing into the first, was the suggestion that the money was there for such a program, that it could be hacked out of the military program, and that Mr. Johnson proposed to swing the pickax. All this was said with a Rooseveltian resolution, sincerity and directness that exhilarated some listeners as much as it frightened others—those others who feel that poverty should be neither seen nor heard…

What is amazing is that it took fifteen years to get out from under the incubus of the cold war and to show a decent concern for the victims of industrialism. Now—it is as true as it is hackneyed—words must be followed by deeds. That is not up to the President alone, but he has supplied the words, and they are good.

The rhetorical declaration of war was punctuated by the passage in the summer of 1964 of the Economic Opportunity Act, which contained several work and welfare programs explicitly framed, as Johnson put it, as “a total commitment by this President, and this Congress, and this nation, to pursue victory over the most ancient of mankind’s enemies.” Those programs—combined with the vital additions of Medicare, Medicaid, and other Great Society-era initiatives targeted for severe cuts or even elimination in recent years by Republicans—have made the experience of poverty in America less dire than before 1964.

But there is a still a long way to go before achieving President Johnson’s stated objective: “total victory.” The tragic misadventure in Vietnam distracted the administration and the country from the one war President Johnson actually did declare, and more recent decades have seen the war on poverty co-opted by the proponents of austerity and turned into an unrelenting war on the poor.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

There could be no more honorable or productive way for President Obama and his congressional Democratic allies to mark the fiftieth anniversary of President Johnson’s declaration than to rededicate themselves to passing legislation—a minimum wage increase, universal pre-school access, reversal of recent cuts in food stamps (and expansions beyond the previous levels), job training assistance, and extensions of unemployment insurance, to name a few—which would at least signal a renewal of what President Johnson acknowledged fifty years ago would “not be a short or easy struggle…but we shall not rest until that war is won. The richest Nation on earth can afford to win it. We cannot afford to lose it.”

The Nation, which will mark the fiftieth anniversary of the war on poverty with a special issue next month, is one of the only American media outlets which maintains a regular poverty beat (with writers like Sasha Abramsky, author of The American Way of Poverty, and Greg Kaufmann), and we are committed to covering this issue and give voice to those most affected until this, the richest nation on Earth, eradicates what President Johnson called “the most ancient of mankind’s enemies” from our midst.

Read Next: Greg Kaufmann's final "This Week in Poverty" entry.

This Week in ‘Nation’ History: What de Blasio Can Learn From His Model, La Guardia

“Not a conventional person” was how Nation publisher and editor-turned-columnist Oswald Garrison Villard bluntly described the man who had just been named Republican and Fusion candidate for mayor of New York City in the summer of 1933. Villard noted La Guardia’s lack of polished sophistication, his flamboyance and tendency “to go off half-cocked” at times. “But Fiorello La Guardia will never for one moment be out of touch with or fail to understand the humble people of New York City and their needs,” Villard concluded, lamenting the absence of socialist Norman Thomas from the race while enthusiastically endorsing the Little Flower.

Asked in a September interview which predecessor he would draw inspiration from if elected, Bill de Blasio responded: “Unquestionably, I would model myself after La Guardia.”

As a tour through The Nation’s coverage of La Guardia’s career confirms, there is much New York’s new progressive mayor can learn from the man who showed that municipal government can be clean, competent and committed to improving the lives of the city’s most disadvantaged residents. Before his mayoralty and after, The Nation repeatedly held La Guardia up as the model of how powerful and progressive a mayor can actually be.

* * *

In a March 1928 installment of the magazine’s recurring series of profiles called “Americans We Like,” the journalist Duff Gilfond wrote of then-Congressman La Guardia:

In spite of his earnestness and the disappointments which such a liberal program necessarily brings, the merry little Major (his title in Washington since the war) has preserved his sense of humor. He persists in introducing bills that cannot pass—for ten years. “They serve for educational purposes,” he says, puffing at his two-and-a-half-cent Manila cigar. “The function of a progressive is to keep on protesting until things get so bad that a reactionary demands reform.”

Gilfond continued:

He attends all his committee meetings, dictates all his letters, and never gives his colleagues a chance to slip a bill through by absenting himself from the floor. If he is not making a speech or an objection his dark little rotund figure is at least conspicuous in the House. He is a great trial to some of his colleagues—especially the rabidly dry and Nordic—but just as great a comfort. One of the very few men who study every bill on the consent calendar, he can invariably answer the questions of his less prepared cohorts. He is the hated and beloved boy who does the homework. La Guardia has affected more bills in the House than any other member. There is not a branch of the Government, from the Shipping Board to the Department of State, that he has not attempted to reform…

He never attends a caucus; he gives White House invitations to the children; taunted with radicalism on the floor, he aptly retorts: “As long as a person talks about great American standards he is applauded; when he asks to put them into practice he is a radical.”

Just a few weeks later, La Guardia himself published the first of three articles he would write for The Nation. In “The Government Must Act!” La Guardia reported on his recent visit to striking miners of Pennsylvania and insisted it was the role of the federal government to establish better working conditions for the miners and better living conditions for their families, as “it is a matter of national concern that men be enabled to live decently and enjoy the freedom which the Constitution of this country guarantees to them.” He concluded:

The very persons all through the country who are now being exploited by coal barons, monopolistic oil companies, and the power trusts would be the first to succumb to propaganda that the “Government should be kept out of business,” that such a solution is “socialistic,” and that it would be contrary to the Constitution. But these monopolies are becoming more powerful, more brazen, more greedy, and more defiant of constitutional law when it stands in their way. It will not be long before the American people will realize that something is fundamentally wrong and they will then be less impressed by oil favoritism, coal “economics,” and power-trust “constitutionality.”

La Guardia’s next article for The Nation, in the May 23, 1928, issue, argued that a lobbying law then before Congress (blocked in the House, but finally passed as the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act in 1946) would do very little to actually combat the sources of corruption in American representative government. “The honest legislator who votes according to his best judgment and conscience will never fear or be tempted by the most skillful lobbyist that ever infested Washington; the other kind of legislator will not be improved by the passage of the law.”

* * *

La Guardia’s candidacy for the mayoralty in 1933 was enthusiastically supported in The Nation’s pages by the prominent civil liberties lawyer Arthur Garfield Hays even before the Republican nomination was secured. In July of that year, Hays wrote of La Guardia:

His lack of swank is one of his identifying characteristics. The Mayor of New York must avoid the rigidity, the self-righteousness, and the bungling ineptness of the merely good-government reformer. He must have in mind a “Who’s Who” of the grafters, chair-warmers, favorite contractors, and the vast and varied medley that prey on the city treasury. La Guardia has held office for twenty years. He knows New York City politics and its politicians.…

La Guardia as mayor can end the banker domination of City Hall; he can begin with federal funds to raze the dingy rookeries of the poor and erect in their place garden apartments; he can drive out the political parasites that drain the city’s blood; he can make transit unification a fact and not a shibboleth…. La Guardia has the personality, the integrity, the record, the program, and the philosophy. In addition he is more likely to be elected than anyone else in sight.

One month later, in the column cited above, Oswald Garrison Villard wrote:

What happens in the metropolis in the next two years will be enormously important and may even influence deeply the conduct of other municipalities. The city’s financial situation is critical. If times do not improve, the keeping alive of foodless and workless citizens will become a problem transcending every other. Never did New York more greatly need a statesman and a man with tolerance, broad vision, and a kindly heart in the mayor’s chair.…

I am heartily for the Major’s election because I believe that he will bring to the mayoralty what it most needs—a warm heart inspired by the opportunity to serve the common people. I hope he realizes that the city of New York is not going to be redeemed by merely giving it another good reform administration; there must be radical changes.

Just before the election, in the issue dated October 25, 1933, Paul Blanshard—muckraking journalist, former Nation associate editor and co-author, with Norman Thomas, of the 1933 book What’s the Matter with New York, discussed in an upcoming Nation essay by London bureau chief D.D. Guttenplan—commented:

From the long-range point of view the coming election in New York is important not only because the election of LaGuardia might bring new faith in the capacity of a city to use democracy intelligently, but because LaGuardia, with his social progressivism, could make out of New York a gigantic laboratory for civic reconstruction. Certainly his record indicates that his elevation to New York’s City Hall might mean a genuine new deal for a long-suffering metropolis.

Blanshard, it turned out, was appointed by La Guardia to become Commissioner of Investigations and Accounts, quickly achieving national prominence as “a critical outsider who has become a political insider,” in The New York Times’s description, and aggressively pursuing corrupt politicians and government officials leftover from the years of Tammany Hall.

* * *

When La Guardia died in 1947, less than two years after stepping down from office after declining to run for a fourth term, The Nation devoted its lead editorial note to his memory:

The genuine sorrow at LaGuardia’s death reflected more than an appreciation of his color and his achievement, though they were great. The tireless, paternal, irascible, cocky, and often vituperative little man who raced to fires, delighted in surprise visits to city institutions, personally investigated the humblest citizen’s complaint, read the “funnies” over the air during a newspaper strike, and, back in 1937, suggested making Hitler a central figure in the World’s Fair Chamber of Horrors was without doubt, as one reporter describes him, “New York’s most colorful mayor since Peter Stuyvesant.” And his long record of accomplishments includes the breaking of Tammany power, the introduction of scrupulously honest municipal government, the unification of a fantastically scrambled transit system, and the building of enough parks, playgrounds, highways, housing projects, markets, and bridges to alter, to its vast improvement, the face of the world’s largest city. But beyond all this was a warmth, a homey informality, and an identification with the people who had elected him that gave LaGuardia the status of a public protector. His utter scorn for party loyalty and “clubhouse loafers,” on the one hand, and for the cold theorizing of traditional reformers, on the other, established a rapport with the voters that became the envy and awe of the professionals. LaGuardia’s mayoralty proved brilliantly that political machines are no more inevitably a part of the modern city than typhoid epidemics.”

Nor, for that matter is rampant economic inequality, as Mayor de Blasio, with La Guardia as his role model, now has the opportunity to show.

* * *

Subscribers to The Nation can access our fully searchable digital archive, which contains thousands of historic articles, essays and reviews, letters to the editor and editorials dating back to July 6, 1865.

Just Because Congress Cut a Budget Deal Doesn’t Mean It’s a Good One

Paul Ryan and Patty Murray

(AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

As a novelist once put it, President Calvin Coolidge “aspired to become the least president the country had ever had; he attained his desire.” Last week, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) managed to negotiate what may be considered “the least” budget the House has ever passed.

Yet ever since the deal was announced, Washington has been patting itself on the back for the deal, which—at least temporarily—halts a two-year war waged by GOP obstructionists that has paralyzed, and even shut down, the government. President Obama, even while acknowledging the deal’s shortcomings, said that its mere existence was “a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in Congress were able to come together and break the cycle of shortsighted, crisis-driven decision making to get this done.” The Economist put it more plainly: “What is in the deal . . . is perhaps less important than the fact that there is one.”

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

Yet this excessive affection for dealmaking—any deal at all—obscures the truth: Simply doing something doesn’t mean that you’re doing the right thing.

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Syndicate content