The Will to Compassion
From MURRAY KEMPTON WASHINGTON, DC
PRESIDENT JOHNSON has declared a war on domestic poverty limited in scope, restrained in budget and yet with a surprising claim on the attention of his countrymen.
The President is supposed to have told his
Council of Economic Advisers not long ago that, above all else, he wants to be compassionate. How odd it is to have a President who thinks of compassion as an act of the will; and yet how closely Mr. Johnson shows himself keyed to what time has made the prevailing spirit of Americans. We are a conscientiously generous people; over the past generation we have spent more on the relief of suffering persons not our own citizens than any other government in history. Our results have been spotty; we are tired. More than ever before, we have to want to be compassionate.
And yet we are weary—it may be the reason we
are weary—at a moment when, as never for a very long time, we feel a sense of failure. The deprived and the outcast are almost fashionable : the Negro because be has enforced his claim, the poor man, white or Negro, because, silent and where he has been all along, he has been found and commended to our conscience. There are, Mr. Johnson tells us, thirty-five million Americans in families whose income is less than $3,000 a year and whose lives are a round of what Sargent Shriver, director of his programme, calls 'grinding poverty.' That recognition reminds Americans how wrong we have been all these years in think- ing of ourselves as the first society to abolish classes; we look now at millions of persons whom bad schools, bad diets, mean and low-paid jobs or isolation in depressed areas have reduced to a poverty from which their children's children have no real promise of escaping.
The President's programme is a cluster of small beginnings—S.)1,500 loans to such poor farmers as can be made self-sufficient with equipment and land, inexpensive, special away- from-the-slum schools for from 10,000 to
100.000 of the 750,000 young people now unem-
ployed, and the enlistment of 5,000 volunteers to aid the poor as tutors and leaders in self-help projects. The shrewdest critical definition of the spirit and scope of this vision comes from Christopher Jencks in the New Republic:.
Mr. Johnson's approach is fundamentally conservative. It assumes that the poor are poor not because the economy is mismanaged but because the poor themselves have something wrong with them. . . What has been launched is therefore not just a war on poverty but a war on the poor, aiming to change them be- yond all recognition. .The aim is not just to provide them with a lower-middle-class standard of living but with lower-middle-class virtues, such as they are. Out of $962 million, SW mil- lion is to be spent on education, training and character building.
In spite of its surface tone, there is, one suspects, very little of the invidious in this summary; Jencks had .earlier pointed out that Mr. Johnson had asked for nothing bolder than
he could reasonably expect the Congress to give him. There are few experts on poverty; and a high proportion of these were brought to the problem in part by their impatience with the image of an America supposed to have abolished deprivation.
They began, then, with a critical detachment about the values of capitalism which, by the standards prevailing in the national dialogue, amounted to a relatively subversive animus, and they brought to the administration's earliest dis- cussions of the poverty programme the intense, voluble and cantankerous state of mind to be expected of men to whom no one in authority has ever listened before. They would naturally and correctly find the programme which emerged a compound of palliatives and argue still for a radically expensive attack on the whole problem. They may be correct and still be unrealistic. Jencks, as an instance, points out that the Negro was able to assert demands which, if they were not radical by the standards of ordinary justice, were at least inconvenient to the public ease, only because they went into the streets and created worse inconveniences for the complacent. The poor have shown no such capacity actively to disturb; they have fallen, with decades of depriva- tion, into that condition which afflicts a man once he is resigned to a poor job or has stopped look- ing for any job at all. Such persons then get from the comfortable what the comfortable choose to give them. The comfortable cannot be expected to cast their blessings where they are not deserved; Mr. Johnson's programme offers the least to the middle-aged poor and the most to their children, in the same spirit as Dr. Fidel Castro declares that there can be no new Cuba until all the middle- aged Cubans are gone.
The President's realism showed itself in the tone of his poverty message, which was careful never to utter a sentence of idealism that did not go forth protected by an armed guard of words about fiscal prudence. It was shown further in his choice of Sargent Shriver as commander of the poverty war. Shriver was President Kennedy's
brother-in-law; he has been director of the Peace Corps, which is this administration's major creative success, a strange achievement for a nation whose visions have always had so much sweep because it is, at bottom, an exercise in the palliation of social evils in deprived societies by 10,000 young Americans, a community so small that Shriver thinks he knows all its members by name and face.
Shriver is the only member of the vast dis- placed Kennedy connection with whom Mr. Johnson feels entirely comfortable. He is a figure of potent attraction to the curious at this moment, because there is talk that Mr. Johnson would like to run him for Vice-President next fall. Shriver accepts the President just as unreservedly; the other night, reading his evening paper, he came upon Mr. Johnson's portrait on television extending his hands to the poor in spirit. 'Do you see something of Roosevelt there?' he asked.
Shriver owes his presence in Washington to his tie with the Kennedys; and he is one of Mr. Johnson's most appreciated inheritances. It seems hard to believe that any poverty programme would have been possible without him; he has a distrust of great federal projects which com- mends him to Republicans and faith in the absolute good of the small patrol reconnaissances that are the main tactic of Mr. Johnson's war on poverty. This faith in small ventures will always save him from great dreams whose frustration sends bureaucrats to war with legislators.
Shriver's first words as commander in this war had incense for no altar but the taxpayer's, dollar, incantation for no angel except individual initiative, and exorcism for no devil except the dole and the make-work subsidy. He larded these homilies with a few recollections of the mission- ary vision he uses to inspire his Peace Corps recruits. So Mr. Johnson has found a man who, at one and the same moment, manages to remind the dedicated that they can achieve the American vision only by intense personal sacrifice and to assure the weary and the indifferent that the American vision is theirs on a payment plan so gentle that they will barely feel it. He came then to a Congress whose Republicans were generally disarmed; their chief worry seemed to be that Shriver might not live forever or at least might be elevated to higher spheres and that his, place would be taken by a man less safe and less resigned to a war of containment.
Whenever there is talk of Shriver as Vice- President, his critics wonder if he is sufficiently cosmic in vision and if he is the man to engage the great problems. And yet the great problems elude us; Shriver's emergence, in fact, may indicate something new in American politics, an emphasis on the small and the local which will replace our wearying, seldom fruitful concern with the large and the general. Shriver is a politician in whonl excitement rises to a pitch when he• reads of a few slum school students whose intelligence quotient was raised by tutoring, or of one farmer, salvaged by a small loan, or of an unemployed woman lifted from relief by training in a work skill. He is the only sort of man who can lead Americans to some engagement with the depriva' tion of a fifth of their fellow citizens, because li is at once fervid, capable of refreshment by goal' successes and resigned to the need of doing Ole, thing on the cheap. He represents, then, that personal concern with a few people, so often dis' missed as petty, which is the motor of local government. In a nation which has grown t°, recognise that all which can really be done is sloww, and small and personal, a man of his tempera, ment may come to seem more essential for large,( thins than his critics, with their habit of contemn for the particular. are able to believe