Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney have not spent their entire lives fighting foreign wars. They cut their warrior teeth on the domestic front, fighting a war on a war at home: the War on Poverty, which had its start 40 years ago.
“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty but to cure it, and above all to prevent it,” declared President Lyndon B. Johnson in his State of the Union address, Jan. 8, 1964. The Economic Opportunity Act that followed established the Office of Economic Opportunity, which coordinated Head Start, a national job corps, legal services, family planning, community health centers and many of the other poverty-fighting initiatives signed into law by LBJ.
“Community action” was the theory of the day-the radical idea that government should fund local groups that were run for and by poor people. The EOA required the poor to have “maximum feasible participation” in poverty program planning. Under the directorship of Sergeant Shriver, John and Robert Kennedy’s brother-in-law, the OEO established more than a thousand Community Action Agencies at the local level to implement the so-called Great Society programs. If some inside the Johnson administration saw “community action” funding as a way to calm the tempers of local activists at a riot-prone moment in U.S. history, plenty of grassroots anti-poverty activists embraced the program as a mechanism for local empowerment.
“Community action” was the part of the program that progressives liked most, and the part, of course, that the Great Society’s critics liked least of all. By 1969, the fight against the OEO’s community funding program had become one of the era’s great political showdowns. As the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lemann put it, at OEO, Republicans “could win battle stars.” Enter Donald Rumsfeld, a super-ambitious ex-fighter pilot elected to Congress from Illinois.
No one disliked the program more than then-President Richard Nixon, who saw the whole apparatus as a government way to fund the left. Upon his election, Nixon appointed Rumsfeld to direct the OEO. Rumsfeld, in turn, hired Dick Cheney. It was at OEO that they worked together for the first time. They were joined by another future Cabinet secretary: Christine Todd Whitman, whose influential Republican connections won her first government post at OEO.
According to a 2001 New Yorker article, what impressed Rumsfeld most about the young Dick Cheney was the job he’d been doing for a group of congressman, including George H.W. Bush, who were developing legislation to cut off federal funding to troublesome universities. Cheney sat in on campus meetings and gathered information on faculty involvement in anti-war protests and their relationship to groups like Students for a Democratic Society. At OEO, Rumsfeld and Cheney embraced as their mission not to direct the office, but to discredit its programs and ultimately to dismantle the agency. From a federal funding service, they turned OEO into a tool of federal surveillance.
Federally funded community groups found themselves investigated for alleged misuse of public money and accused of subversive activities. By 1972, the OEO was near death (it was disbanded officially under President Ford) and government-funded community action had became one of the red-hot, hot-button undesirables of LBJ’s Great Society. The legacy persists, echoing through every bitter debate over Congressional appropriations for grassroots projects from public broadcasting to the NEA.
Today Sergeant Shriver is most familiar as the supportive father-in-law of California’s Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rummie and Dick have gone on to fight other wars. The continuum, however, is not so hard to make out. “Maximum feasible participation” has been anathema to the Bush crew from the start.
Forty years ago, the War on Poverty and its anti-poverty empowerment programs were the dreaded threat. Publicly endowed “community action” just might have empowered poor and marginalized Americans by giving them the means to organize and advocate for themselves.
The very same men who rolled that program back are now pursuing Washington’s unchallenged dominance of the world. Same folks, different strokes; the 40th anniversary of the War on Poverty is a good time to consider the many ways in which today’s wars for DC supremacy began at home.
Laura Flanders is the host of “Your Call” on public radio, a live, caller-driven conversation about the politics and culture of our time. Heard Monday-Friday, 10-11 am PST or 1-2 pm ET. Listen on line at www.yourcallradio.org