A Poverty Of Leadership

By Leonard Fein

Published October 14, 2005, issue of October 14, 2005.
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Here is a story. It is a story about what the media can accomplish and what intellectual curiosity in high places can produce, and how a crisis that is not an “Act of God” comes to be recognized and to galvanize a nation.

In 1960, during his campaign for the presidency, John Kennedy visited the Appalachians. According to all reports, he was deeply shocked by what he saw there: a level of poverty and hopelessness he had not before imagined.

But presumably the shock wore off as other issues, domestic and foreign, displaced it — until some of his advisers read Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberlands” when it was published in 1963, and many of them read Homar Bigart’s first-page article in the Sunday New York Times of October 11, 1963, just a month before the president was assassinated. The article was about the grim winter that awaited the Kentucky coal miners. And then, of course, there was Michael Harrington’s “The Other America,” which the president himself read. And quite suddenly, the president defined a national crisis.

Then, just four months after Lyndon Johnson came to the Oval Office, the new president declared a war on poverty, telling Congress: “What you are being asked to consider is not a simple or an easy program. But poverty is not a simple or an easy enemy. It cannot be driven from the land by a single attack on a single front. Were this so, we would have conquered poverty long ago. Nor can it be conquered by government alone…. Today, for the first time in our history, we have the power to strike away the barriers to full participation in our society. Having the power, we have the duty.”

And so the Office of Economic Opportunity was established and community action programs were launched and Headstart was born. Notwithstanding the obvious fact that we did not win that war, that we were defeated and not long thereafter abandoned the battle altogether, the effort gave birth to a new generation of activists and leaders all across the land.

There were some writers, a man named Ted Sorenson, a few professors on the Council of Economic Advisers. There was Kennedy, a child of privilege with no compelling record of concern for poverty but with eyes and ears, and a personal history of pain, loss, heroism and eventually heart, as well. And there was Johnson, who’d grown up in a home on the banks of the Pedernales River that lacked electricity and indoor plumbing, in a family so poor that he once said, “Poverty was so common we didn’t know it had a name” — a man much larger than life in both his virtues and his faults, but ever sensitive to the needs of the left out and the locked out.

There was actually a bit more to it than that. The hugely disturbing issue was what was then known as “the Negro problem.” But there wasn’t the glimmer of a prospect that Congress would approve a program intended to combat directly the abysmal social and economic conditions of black America. So part of the motivation for identifying poverty as a national crisis was to find a way to address the Negro problem by hiding it within a far larger context.

Fast-forward to 2001, when Barbara Ehrenreich published her “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America,” essentially a new generation’s take on “the other America.” Ehrenreich’s book is very different from Harrington’s; it has more in common with Upton Sinclair, who stunned the nation in 1905 with his eyewitness description of Chicago’s slaughter yards in his book, “The Jungle.”

Ehrenreich’s is the report of her underground journalism — of what she experienced while living as an “unskilled” worker in Florida, Maine and Minnesota, working as a waitress, nursing home aide, cleaning woman and Wal-Mart “associate.” It is a heartbreaking (and altogether engaging) account of what it is like to try to get by on the low-wage jobs worked by some tens of millions of Americans.

It’s quite likely that no one in the White House read it. It is a safe bet that President Bush did not read it. And it is an obvious certainty that even if he did, he elected not to shape social policy in response. Only in the wake of Katrina did this president finally address, however fleetingly, the ongoing scandal of poverty in America, the unsolved problem of race.

Well, there is a lot on the president’s plate. On October 6 — one day after Vice President Dick Cheney, in describing what he termed our “duty” in Iraq, told us that “it will require decades of patient effort” — the president himself sought to lay out the philosophical rationale for the war. In what was described beforehand as “a major address,” the president noted “the calling that came to us” on September 11, 2001, and promised that “we will never back down, never give in and never accept anything less than complete victory” in Iraq.

Scary words those, but fear not: While patience is required, “our coalition, along with our Iraqi allies, is moving forward with a comprehensive, specific military plan. Area by area, city by city, we’re conducting offensive operations to clear out enemy forces, and leaving behind Iraqi units to prevent the enemy from returning.”

All of which is so very far from the truth we read in our newspapers every day that it occurs to me we ought be thankful that this president has not seen fit to declare war on poverty, as well.

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