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.”