McClaughry Memoir: The Reagan YearsBy John McClaughry for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
The following is the fourth installment of John McClaughry’s memoir, Promoting Civil Society Among the Heathen. See the previous chapter here.
7. Ronald Reagan
Now let’s backtrack to 1966 and follow the rising career of Ronald Reagan.
For years Reagan had given speeches promoting liberty and criticizing Big Government for its stultifying effects on a free society. He summed up his views in a gubernatorial campaign address at USC on April 19, 1966, entitled “The Creative Society”:
And that is the basis of the Creative Society–government no longer substituting for the people, but recognizing that it cannot possibly match the great potential of the people, and thus, must coordinate the creative energies of the people for the good of the whole.
The Creative Society must return authority to the local communities–give them the right to run their own affairs….The Creative Society, in other words, is simply a return to the people of the privilege of self-government, as well as a pledge for more efficient representative government…
Those who talk of complex problems, requiring more government planning and more control, in reality are taking us back in time to the acceptance of rule of the many by the few. [It’s] time to look to the future. We’ve had enough talk–disruptive talk–in America of left and right, dividing us down the center. There is really no such choice facing us. The only choice we have is up or down–up, to the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down, to the deadly dullness of totalitarianism.
In his “afterword” to the 1993 reissue of Reclaiming the American Dream, Dick Cornuelle recollected that “Ronald Reagan called me soon after he won the Republican nomination for Governor of California, and some of the book’s propositions found their way into Reagan’s campaign speeches.” But since Reagan had already offered “The Creative Society” two months before winning the primary, either he developed the idea from his own sources, or from previously reading Reclaiming the American Dream and the Cornuelle-Harris “New Conservative Manifesto” article in the December 1964 Look, , or all three.
Reagan borrowed from the Creative Society talk in his 1967 inaugural address, saying “Government has a legitimate role, a most important role in taking the lead in mobilizing the full an voluntary resources of the people.”
In his eight years as Governor, Reagan gained most renown for restoring fiscal soundness to his state (in large measure by raising taxes!), dramatically reforming the exploding welfare system by reintroducing the out of fashion idea of work, thwarting Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan, and fighting a major battle for a balanced budget and tax limitation constitutional amendment, which he lost.
The programmatic implementation of his Creative Society theme appeared in mid-1968, when his able chief of staff William Clark caused the creation of a Program Development Office to develop innovative programs that would lessen the intervention of the state government in people’s lives and pocketbooks. Although the Office generated a number of good ideas, Clark’s departure to the California Supreme Court in 1969 deprived it of any bureaucratic clout, and it expired.
Reagan’s other interesting civil society initiative was the Local Government Reform Task Force, chaired by Robert B. Hawkins Jr. After exhaustive research, the Task Force concluded that the major problem for local governments was the flood of instructions and regulations imposed on them from Sacramento and Washington. The remedy was obvious: back off and let local citizens solve their own problems their own way. Unfortunately the task force report came late in Reagan’s second term, coincidental with the balanced budget- tax limitation battle. As Chuck Hobbs, one of the finest of the Reagan team, later said, “ the innovation by task force train had run out of steam.”
My connection with Reagan began in 1974, through Chuck Hobbs’ introduction to Peter Hannaford, the Governor’s writer and idea generator. I volunteered (from Vermont) to write pieces of speeches where I had some expertise. The first one was Reagan’s address to a California housing and home ownership conference, emphasizing the importance of expanding ownership.
A year later Reagan was out of office, but contemplating a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination. His staff generated a major address before the Economic Club of Chicago (September 26, 1975). The principal content, drafted for Hannaford by another volunteer, Jeffrey Bell, called for shrinking the Federal government back after a decade of Great Society spending and centralization. Largely unnoticed at the time was Reagan’s emphasis on the importance of strengthening civil society, my contribution to the address.
At the beginning Reagan approvingly quoted Jefferson’s advocacy of “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” Then he asked Jefferson’s rhetorical question, “what has destroyed liberty and the rights of man in every government that has ever existed under the sun? The generalizing and concentrating all cares and powers into one body.”
To indict the “bureaucrats and social planners” who were imposing their will on local people, he used a quotation I supplied from Richard Goodwin, one of the (unlikely) members of the 1968 Cornuelle task force: “the most troubling political fact of our age [is] that the growth in central power has been accompanied by a swift and continual diminution in the significance of the individual citizen, transforming him from a wielder into an object of authority.”
Then, after plunging into the unwise policies of the national government and advocating the $90 billion transfer of spending authority from Washington to the states, he offered his own argument for a new direction (my draft, reworded only slightly by Hannaford):
I am calling for an end to giantism, for a return to the human scale -.the scale that human beings can understand and cope with; the scale of the local fraternal lodge, the church congregation, the block club, the farm bureau. It is the locally owned factory, the small businessman who personally deals with his customers and stands behind his product, the farm and consumer cooperative, the town or neighborhood bank that invests in the community, the union local.
In government, the human scale is the town council, the board of selectmen, and the precinct captain. It is this activity on a human scale that creates the fabric of community, a framework for the creation of abundance and liberty. The human scale nurtures standards of right behavior, a prevailing ethic of what is right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable.
The speech soon became known as the “90 billion dollar speech”, because that was the amount of Federal spending that Reagan advocated passing back to the states. When under media grilling Reagan seemed unable to offer any defensible rationale for the $90 billion turnback, Reagan’s critics had a field day. The civil society-human scale emphasis was left to the historians to remark upon.
So far as I know Reagan didn’t return to that theme in his unsuccessful 1976 challenge to Gerald Ford. I unearthed a May 7, 1976 memo to Hannaford urging a Reagan appearance at the June 13 national congress of neighborhoods conference. I enclosed Geno Baroni’s address to the White House conference on ethnicity and neighborhoods (which I had just attended) and compared it to Reagan’s “human scale” speech (my preferred title). I perhaps rashly promised that “I can produce a speech which he can buy 100%, and which will drive them wild, without at the same time raising ‘ethnic purity’ problems.” I don’t recall now why the Reagan command didn’t seize this opportunity, but they didn’t. (They should have.)
Reagan came close to the nomination, but fell short. With Carter’s election, Reagan returned to private life, but continued to air his views through influential four minute radio commentaries that aired for three years on over 350 stations across the country. The marketing was managed by Hannaford, in the new firm of Deaver & Hannaford.
Over those three years I penned some 46 radio commentary drafts that Reagan actually used, with very few editorial changes. That gave me a chance to push more civil society rhetoric, and showcase local initiatives as admirable examples of citizen action. Here are three examples:
If the dead hand of government can be lifted – or ignored – groups of citizens can and will come together to deal effectively with problems facing them. The key is in devising a system in which power and responsibility are dispersed at the grassroots, instead of being concentrated in a hierarchy of bureaucracies and institutions. The key is what people themselves can do, not what others can do for them.” (“People Power”, 2/21/77)
“Leave people alone with enough wealth after they pay their taxes, and they will invent, develop, trade with each other and do a good job of solving their problems.” (“Alternative Energy and Uncle Sam”, 9/14/78)
“The real issue is how to reverse the flow of power and control to ever more remote institutions, and to restore that power to the individual, the family, and the local community.” (“Left and Right”, 9/27/78).
I like to think that that corpus of commentaries gave perhaps the most authentic portrayal of Reagan’s views, although of course not systematically presented. They were largely unburdened by political considerations, since he was widely viewed as out of the presidential running.
In November 1979 he announced another bid for the Republican nomination. In his relatively brief announcement speech he focused on the failing economy, the energy shortage, and America’s loss of influence in world affairs. He as usual criticized out of control big government, but made no reference to decentralizing power or strengthening civil society.
In July I served as a Reagan delegate from Vermont on the national convention’s platform committee, managed by Michael Baroody. Since it had been decided – hopefully due to my advice – that “Neighborhoods” would be one of the five key themes, I worked to inject some Creative Society thinking into that section.
What emerged was a recitation of problems faced by neighborhood people (and everybody else), obligatory Carter-bashing, and spinning the Reagan economic themes to promise better times for neighborhoods. About all the section offered in a civil society vein, adapted from my submitted draft language, was this:
Government must never elbow aside private institutions – schools, churches, volunteer groups, labor and professional associations – in meeting the social needs in our neighborhoods and communities.
Neighborhoods are places of familiarity, of belonging, of tradition and continuity. They are arenas for civic action and creative self-help. The human scale of the neighborhood encourages citizens to exercise leadership, to invest their talents, energies and resources, and to work together to create a better life for their families.
Though weak on specifics – because frankly we had few specific ideas on how the Federal government could stimulate neighborhood-based civil society – the section at least set forth a useful benchmark for further progress. The 1984 Republican platform paid some homage to these ideas, but stopped short of claiming any successes after four years in office. By the time of the 1988 Platform, few vestiges of support for restoring civil society remained.
I had joined Reagan’s campaign in June 1980, serving as one of three principal speechwriters beginning at the convention. I contributed the economic portion of the convention acceptance speech in July.
Two weeks later Reagan addressed the National Urban League in New York. In his remarks he said this:
We should help urban residents to undertake creative self-help initiatives to improve their neighborhoods under their own direction. Already, throughout the country, thousands of neighborhood organizations have gone to work to improve education, housing, public safety, recreation, health services, transportation, and economic opportunities, and to preserve their cultural heritage.
This massive self-help effort, in the best American tradition builds upon the strengths, the talents, and the dedication of neighborhood residents. The federal government can help by eliminating unnecessary federal intervention which undermines neighborhoods, and by assisting city neighborhood residents in testing creative new arrangements for giving neighborhood residents more control over their public services through, for example, voucher systems, user fees, and private contacting.
With one small exception – remarks at an Italian restaurant in New Haven CT – I do not recall any later occasion where Reagan addressed civil society themes during the campaign. There were two instances when he came close, but both imploded in comic fashion.
In the two months following the convention Reagan systematically addressed the other four themes of the campaign – Family, Work, Peace, and Freedom. His political managers were eager to schedule him into the South Bronx, where he could stand at the same spot that Jimmy Carter had stood four years earlier and look out over the total wasteland that defined Carter’s failure to keep his promise of redevelopment.
As the “urban expert” on the staff, I argued hard against visiting South Bronx. I wanted Reagan to visit a working, up and coming neighborhoods that exemplified his creative society theme of citizens working together for civic improvement. It was finally agreed that Reagan would bash Carter’s failure in South Bronx, then travel to an improving (ethnic) neighborhood, which turned out to be Greenpoint in Brooklyn.
But Greenpoint had its own problems. It required a crosstown bus cavalcade from the South Bronx during heavy traffic hours. There was also no obvious location where Reagan could debark and speak. Then our local advisor found that the date marked the celebration in Greenpoint of the Feast of St. Luigi (or some such). Reagan could appear at the feast site and say his neighborhoods piece to an enthusiastic crowd with a great visual background (and plenty of Catholic symbolism in view).
Further inquiry brought a disturbing fact. Unlike a German Catholic festival, where everybody gathers in the central plaza, the Italian festival involved parishioners putting out biscotti and milk on their porches, and celebrants spreading out at random through the streets gobbling up whatever they could find. This was more a scavenger hunt than a religious celebration. So the Greenpoint appearance was cancelled before being announced, certainly for the better.
The South Bronx appearance, incidentally, was a near disaster. The idea was to associate Carter with a rubble strewn wasteland of vacant buildings, not celebrate neighborhood revitalization. The fact that the site was uninhabited had proven very attractive to all sorts of left wing protesters and associated street people who had arrived in the city to protest at the approaching Democratic National Convention.
The arrival of the Reagan bus cavalcade was a wonderful inspiration to the lefties. They quickly materialized from their shack encampment (think “Occupy South Bronx”) and pressed hard against the police line, shouting nasty questions and insults at Reagan as he tried to speak. The security detail braced for the worst, and Nancy Reagan, visibly terrified, retreated at flank speed into their limo.
Reagan did manage to salvage some value from the confrontation by standing up to the heckling, saying something like “I’m not responsible for this, and I can’t do anything about it unless you elect me President.” That made for a good nightly news clip. I pointed out, during this episode, that it wasn’t likely that Reagan would be able to return there in 1984 to examine the wonders of his handiwork, but our people weren’t thinking that far ahead. In fact, four years later the site was a still a rubbled wasteland, although I understand there has been some positive activity over the following thirty years.
Early in September I began to bug Ed Meese, the policy chief, about adding some beef to the Neighborhood theme.
I had obtained a computerized mailing list of over two thousand neighborhood improvement groups, many of them working in minority and ethnic neighborhoods. I pleaded with Ed to schedule Reagan into some appropriate venue where he could at last develop, even just once, the neighborhoods theme. Then I would mail to the list a piece about “Ronald Reagan Speaks Out for America’s Neighborhoods”.
However the strategists weren’t thinking in terms of “urban neighborhoods”. They broke the voting and polling data down into “unmarried women under 40”, “suburban housewives”, and so on. They had no idea how to profitably use Reagan’s time to attract the amorphous “neighborhoods vote”.
Finally it was decided – by whom I never learned – that Reagan would visit the mixed-ethnic Lincoln Square neighborhood on the north side of Chicago during a city visit on October 17, just two weeks before the election. There wasn’t much time left, but it was an opportunity that might swing a close election.
So I drafted up some Reagan remarks to put his hammerlock on this issue. And here, for the first time ever, they are released to a wondering public. (As will be seen, this never happened.):
I feel strongly about the need to preserve urban neighborhoods. For millions of urban residents, the neighborhood is far more than just the location of their home or apartment.
The neighborhood scale is a human scale – a place where a real spirit of community can develop. This is a place where you can have and cherish your roots. It is a place where families can live near their retired parents, and bridge the gap of generations.
It’s on this scale that the people of our cities have their familiar institutions – the neighborhood merchant and the Chamber of Commerce, the church or synagogue, the deli, the corner pub, the street festival, the Fourth of July celebration.
Here, at the neighborhood level you have an arena for civic action, and for creative self-help. In city after city across this country, I have seen people working together in their neighborhoods to make them better in a hundred ways.
I’ve seen block watch programs, where people report suspicious activities to the police. I’ve seen housing rehab and community gardens and some home-made energy technologies. I’ve seen day care centers and tool libraries and community development corporations, and merchants’ associations. I’ve seen the wonderful work so many of our churches are doing in meeting both the social and the spiritual needs of their congregations.
This is the real strength of urban America – its people working together in the neighborhoods where they live. But that strength is in jeopardy today. For we have, year by year, transferred responsibility and resources away from neighborhood people to government – City Hall, the state capitol, and Washington.
And what happens? Well, first of all a lot of bureaucrats have to be paid with the money taken from your pockets. Then they design programs that are supposed to benefit your community. The programs may be something none of you really want, but the only way you can get your own money back is to accept what the government hands out.
Take the Community Development Block Grant program. Next year it will take $3.8 billion of your tax dollars. Washington gives those dollars, minus a hefty handling charge, back to City, Hall. Then City Hall decides how to spend it. It is usually spent in ways that please City Hall and comply with Federal regulations. Whether it is spent in a way that produces something of value in the neighborhoods of our cities is a good question.
I have long believed that problems should be solved by the people most directly concerned, not by vast, impersonal bureaucracies many miles away. Who knows best about the problems of Lincoln Square? City Hall? HUD? I doubt it. I think you know better right here. And I’d like to see community development proceed under your control.
After all, it’s your money that’s paying for it, and you ought to get what you want, not what somebody else thinks is good for you.
When I’m President, I’m going to try an experiment. I’m going to ask my Secretary of Housing and Urban Development to do something a little unusual with a little bit of that $3.8 billion community development budget.
I’m going to work with some city government to distribute some of those funds not to City Hall, and not to organizations favored by City Hall, but directly to every citizen of a neighborhood. Each citizen would get a voucher. It would say, for example, “Ten dollars of your money plus this voucher will produce $50 for the neighborhood improvement project of your choice.”
The citizen could then choose from among dozens of neighborhood projects – some run by city government, others run by churches or fraternal societies, others by a wide variety of block clubs and other improvement groups.
Now that is really returning power to the people. It’s giving them, not the bureaucrats, the money and letting them, not the bureaucrats and politicians, decide how that money should be spent.
For after all, whose money is it? It’s your money, and I’m convinced
you can do more for your own neighborhood with it than Washington can!
There will be some who will say that giving power back to the people is a wrong idea. They may say that neighborhood people lack the big picture, that they will squander the money on projects of little value. They may say that only through city government or through state government or through the federal government can your tax dollars be wisely spent.
Well, I think they’re wrong. And when you look at the ridiculous things that the bureaucrats have spent your tax dollars on – and when you look at all the times that neighborhoods have been overrun by federally funded urban renewal or freeways or other projects that destroy homes and businesses and places of worship and the rich and varied culture of our communities — you will realize, I think, that the people themselves could hardly have done any worse.
And I’m convinced that you would do a lot better. Because you’ll use the money the way you want it spent – for your benefit, for your family’s benefit, for your neighborhood’s benefit. You’ll make sure it’s used that way because you live here in the neighborhood and you know what works and what doesn’t, and who you can trust to do the job, and who you can’t trust because they owe their allegiance not to you but to the politicians downtown or the bureaucrats in Washington.
That’s the kind of creative new approach I’m going to try when I become your President. I don’t want to be President so I can boss an army of bureaucrats who want to run your life. I want to be President so I can reverse the progress of power to Washington, and unleash the power of progress in Lincoln Square and in every neighborhood and town across this great land of ours.
America can be great again. You can make it great again, and I want to strike down the barriers you face and put your tax dollars back in your pockets and call forth the responsibility and the leadership that abounds here in Lincoln Square and all across this nation.
The reader will see in these remarks the creative society, the human scale speech, and the neighborhood fiscal empowerment idea that I developed while a member of the much-ignored National Commission on Neighborhoods. The remarks had been cleared for release, with campaign press spokesman Lyn Nofziger as the indicated contact. I also prepared a fact sheet on the neighborhood voucher plan.
Now let’s return from this alternative universe and learn just what happened in Lincoln Square.
When it was made public that Reagan would make an appearance in Lincoln Square, the Chicago Democratic machine swung into action. Its foot soldiers saw to it that every business in Lincoln Square within range of a camera sported a large (ugly) Carter –Mondale sign in the window. In Chicago, when the Machine comes around with such a simple request, no business concerned about its future would dare to decline it.
When the Reagan advance team, not very familiar with Chicago, checked out Lincoln Square a day or two before the candidate’s arrival, they were horrified to see that it appeared to have become a boiling hotbed of Carter-Mondale support. They – whoever they were – made a panicked appeal to the campaign management to scrub Reagan’s appearance, or at the very least, keep him from saying anything from the flatbed trailer that had been parked in the square for that purpose.
An hour or so before Reagan’s scheduled appearance, I was standing in Lincoln Square with fifty copies of the news release and the accompanying fact sheet. Some higherup thoughtfully informed me that Reagan would arrive on schedule, but would not set foot on the flatbed with the chairs, bunting and mic already arranged. He would descend from the bus, wave brightly to the crowd, enter a Polish restaurant to be photographed eating a kielbasa with the owner, ascend the bus, and vanish from Lincoln Square forever.
At that point everything I had labored for came crashing down. I will never forget standing disconsolately before a large wire trash barrel, and as the bus departed consigning 49 copies of the two documents therein, to unmerited oblivion. Those inspiring vote-getting remarks…. never happened. Nobody even gave me a kielbasa.
So of course there as nothing to mail to the two thousand neighborhood organizations, nothing to slip to columnists and pundits who would have taken an interest in the subject, nothing to be gained at all.
In truth, I made one more last gasp effort. I was assigned to draft Reagan’s election eve speech to the nation, recapitulating his positions and pitching for votes a day later. I gave it my all, and I still get teary eyed reading it thirty years later.
In addition to revisiting Reagan’s main campaign positions, the draft emphasized the restoration of liberty. It quoted Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Richard Goodwin and the young John F. Kennedy, the Reagan “human scale” speech and the disappeared Lincoln Square promise to “ reverse the progress of power to Washington, and unleash the power of progress in every neighborhood and ever town and every workplace across this great land of ours.” “As the power of large, centralized institutions grows, the power and vitality of locality, of community, of neighborhood, of parish – all shrink away, until the citizen is left face to face with an all-powerful and little-caring State.”
The draft also introduced something new: a promised White House office “to identify the laws and activities of the federal government which have the effect of stripping power away from the people of this country, or stifling independent initiative, or defeating self-help and enterprise at the local level, and of undermining the human scale institutions of our society.”
Campaign manager Bill Casey loved this draft. Three or four times he sent word down to me to send him more copies to circulate. (Later he offered me a high level staff position at the CIA, where he was Reagan’s Director-designate – but I declined due to my inability to lie even to people who didn’t deserve to have the truth.)
But before the speech could be tailored, strategist Dick Wirthlin came in to report that his final tracking polls showed that that Reagan had a solid ten percentage point lead among likely voters. This election was in the bag – so long as no last minute development disturbed the emerging majority.
Casey, Wirthlin, and others decided that the election eve remarks should serve only to remind voters of Reagan’ gifts of leadership, the issues he had campaigned on, and his promise for better days for America. In that they made the right call. There was no point in giving the opposition anything to seize upon to create last minute defections that might reverse the impending result. I don’t believe I ever saw the actual remarks he delivered, and don’t know if any were delivered.
After that moment on election eve 1980, I only wrote one piece for Ronald Reagan ever again. It was a Presidential statement explain why reinstating tariffs and import fees on sugar was awful idea, but regrettably necessary in light of blah blah blah. The truth was that the sugar program resuscitation was made necessary only by James Baker’s buying of votes of six sugar district Democratic Congressmen for the Gramm-Latta spending bill. Thirty years have passed and the people of this country are still stuck with this most disgraceful of all agricultural subsidy programs. At least my language avoided describing it at as “the dawn of a bright new day for America’s hard pressed sugar growers”.
With the election behind us, the Reagan team, augmented by about a thousand wannabees who suddenly showed up to remind us of their valuable contributions to his victory, began to craft the policies, practices, legislation, and appointments needed to assume the presidency just ten weeks away.
Since speechwriters didn’t belong on the illustrious policy task forces, I was assigned to ride shotgun for Drew Lewis. Drew, who was soon to become Reagan’s Secretary of Transportation, had responsibility for lining up “the business sector” behind Reagan’s policies. He also was designated liaison with governors, mayors, and state legislators, which he handed off to me. Why me, a speechwriter and former two-term state legislator from Vermont? Mainly because I was the only sidekick he had, so I got the assignment.
The details of those ten weeks in that role needn’t concern us, but I did spend some time at the beginning producing a transition task force report on Neighborhood Policy. This was the last of dozens of task forces launched before the election. It was chaired by Dr. Robert B. Hawkins Jr., a Californian who had headed Reagan’s task force on local Government in 1974.
At that late stage we couldn’t arrange a meeting of the dozen people we invited to serve, so I wrote the draft report, Bob improved it, and we sent it off to the nine other members for their approval, which was forthcoming.
The main recommendations were for a Neighborhood Impact Assessment of Federal programs; federally funded research into urban governance decentralization; reduction of self-help barriers; trying the neighborhood fiscal empowerment (not announced at Lincoln Square); and a selection of earlier liberating but not costly ideas from the National Commission on Neighborhoods minority report.
The report was submitted to Martin Anderson, the transition task force coordinator. Not having heard a word about it for a year, I actually unearthed a copy of it in a box in a stuffy closet in the Old Executive Office Building, where it quietly reposed (again, next to the Tibetan Book of the Dead).
Meanwhile I was named Senior Policy Adviser and Executive Secretary of the Cabinet Council on Food and Agriculture. This was the fifth of the five Cabinet Councils that along with the National Security Council were created to recommend policy decisions to be taken by the President.
Why me? There had to be a Cabinet Council on Food and Agriculture to show, or at least suggest, that the administration gave high priority to farm interests. I was, I believe, the only person on the expanded Reagan team who actually arrived at the White House from bona fide rural areas (upbringing in corn and hog Illinois, adult life in dairy Vermont). Hence I was a natural choice, despite having very little knowledge of the actual workings of federal farm programs and the interests that revolved around them.
The rise and fall of the Reagan first term Cabinet Councils is a story for another time. Since Anderson had at its first meeting relieved the Council on Food and Agriculture from consideration of the major agriculture issue, the 1981 Farm Bill, I wasn’t overburdened, and thus attracted bits and pieces of various issues that didn’t seem to fit into the Cabinet Council scheme.
I assigned myself the promotion of Reagan’s long-quiescent creative society-human scale theme. After some months of subtle nudging, I was granted an audience with Deputy Chief of Staff Michael Deaver, who had been with Reagan since 1967. I labored on a knockout presentation of Reagan’s strongly held views on the issue, the executive actions we could take to build support for the theme, and the opportunities for gaining political ground without spending a lot of money we didn’t have.
I should note that I didn’t much like Deaver. I believe it’s fair to say that few of us did. Reagan had betrayed him early in the 1980 campaign, by believing a false charge that Deaver’s consulting company had been ripping Reagan off. After surviving a brief dismissal, once-ardent Reaganaut Deaver started looking after Deaver first. He became deputy to James Baker, who culminated five years of explaining to Republicans what a misguided and ineffective chump Ronald Reagan was by becoming his White House Chief of Staff. Deaver’s hold on influence was cemented by his assiduous attention to the concerns of Nancy Reagan.
In any case, I determined to make the best case I could. I worked hard on some graphics, and prepared answers for the most likely questions. The morning of the presentation Deaver’s secretary called me and cancelled. No explanation. No rescheduling. At that point I began to face the fact that I was wasting my time, and the taxpayer’s money, serving as an inconsequential staff paper pusher, my illustrious title notwithstanding.
My White House years came to an end after one and a third, in May 1982. By then it was found propitious to fold the Council on Food and Agriculture into the Council on Natural Resources and Environment, where it remained until the whole cabinet council scheme disappeared a couple of years later.
Reagan’s belief in “private sector initiatives” led to a major presidential initiative on October 5, 1981. The concept was only tenuously connected to civil society concerns, but was redolent of Cornuelle’s enthusiasm for private business as leading societal problem solvers (Chapter 13 of Reclaiming the American Dream). Reagan, in his 1967 inaugural address, had lavished praise on the private sector job training initiative conceived and managed by California businessman H.C. McClellan.
The “PSI speech” announced the creation of a Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives, chaired by Armco Steel CEO C. William Verity Jr. The blue ribbon group ultimately included forty four members. Its purpose, Reagan explained, was “to promote private sector leadership and responsibility for solving public needs, and to recommend ways of fostering greater public-private partnerships.” A new White House office was created, supervised by Michael Deaver and featuring a new “Assistant for Private Sector Initiatives”, James Rosebush. The Office, however, had no budget.
The context of the PSI thrust was the severe spending cutbacks proposed by Reagan and his aggressive OMB Director David Stockman. As a dispassionate analyst (Renee A. Berger, 1986) wrote, “the motivation for private sector initiative was to soften the impact of the budget cuts by demonstrating that the private sector – the business community – could help solve community needs.” Liberal critics, including notably the New York Times, aghast at Reagan’s budget parsimony, were quick to mock the PSI effort: “President Reagan established a Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives today to seek ways to help take up the slack left by the deep cuts he has made in Federal spending.” (December 3, 1981)
“The era of big government solving problems for people and the country is over,” Verity told a Times reporter (January 28, 1982). About that time Reagan told Verity that he didn’t want a report, he wanted action and results.
Berger’s 1986 article examines in detail the trials, struggles and confusions of the Task Force. Its main product seemed to be exhortation of various private sector actors to step up to meet the nation’s need; there were no policy recommendations. When the Task Force’s year of existence terminated in December 1982, Verity was quoted in Newsweek (December 27, 1982) as saying “the last thing in the world we could try and do was fill the gap. The gap remains. We’re up against the wall.”
I watched this with some amusement from the Old Executive Office Building. When Rosebush was named to head the PSI Office in August 1981, I went up to his office, introduced myself, explained a bit about my background, and lent him my treasured copy of Morgan Doughton’s People Power: An Alternative to 1984 (Media America, 1976).
It was a brief encounter. Rosebush was not interested in foolishness about “people power” and civil society. He was a climber on the make, impeccably dressed in a three piece suit, frozen smile ready for any opportunity for self- promotion.
By January 1982 Rosebush had bowed, scraped and flattered his way into becoming Nancy Reagan’s chief of staff. In a 1986 article in Washingtonian, Mona Charen captured the essence of the man. “The [Golden Slipper] club president waxed eloquent in his praise of ‘the greatest First Lady in history’ [Nancy Reagan]. As we were leaving the hotel following the ceremony, I found myself riding down in the elevator with just Mrs. Reagan and Rosebush. ‘I think that’s the most beautiful introduction I’ve ever gotten,’ she mused. ‘Oh, yessss,’ replied Rosebush breathily. ‘He and I worked on that together… I wrote most of it.’”
Needless to say, I never got my (surely unread) copy of PeoplePower back. I later found a replacement in a used book store.
In one of its final actions (few of which were noteworthy), the Task Force recommended the appointment of a President’s Advisory Council on Private Sector Initiatives (PACPSI), which was created by Executive Order of June 28, 1983. It consisted of nine members of the Administration (seven Cabinet officers, the ACTION director, and “the Honorable” Michael Deaver) plus thirty from outside government, including me. The chairman was Bob Galvin, chairman of Motorola. Verity was a member, but I don’t recall ever actually meeting him in person.
The duty of the council was to “advise the President, through the White House Office of Private Sector Initiatives, with respect to the objectives and conduct of private sector initiative policies, including methods of increasing public awareness of the importance of public/private partnerships; removing barriers to development of effective social service organizations; and strengthening the professional resources of the private social service sector.”
At the time of the Council’s creation I drafted a confidential memo (June 22, 1983) on “the politics of self-help” to former Pennsylvania Congressman Jim Coyne, now installed in the White House PSI Office:
Herewith, culled from considerable experience but without excessive exposition, are a few observations about the politics of grassroots self help, mainly from an urban perspective.
1) Especially since the onset of the great Society, which provided funding, grassroots self help has blossomed throughout the country.
2) Most grassroots self help is narrowly problem-oriented, local, and apolitical.
3) The Left, however, has devoted considerable effort to broadening, nationalizing, and politicizing a self help movement. National Peoples Action, the National Association of Neighborhoods, and the Campaign for Economic Democracy are examples. (Cf. Harry Boyte, “The Backyard Revolution” (1981)).
4) There are numerous sources of grassroots resentment at government. Indeed, practically every strong neighborhood organization I know of began in response to some crime committed by government.
5) The government programs, regulations, and officials which cause problems addressed by self help groups are almost invariably the handiwork of Democrats and liberals.
6) Notwithstanding this fact, Republicans and conservatives have only rarely been able to seize and capitalize on the political opportunity. The main reason is a total absence of grassroots, lower income perspective and a total lack of familiarity with those who are suffering from government oppression. In addition, Republicans like the idea of public order and control by responsible people, and dislike spontaneous activity.
7) Thus we have the peculiar result that the Left is using grassroots resentment against oppression generated and perpetuated in most cases by liberals and Democrats, as a technique of mobilizing and politicizing self help groups; while the Right not only has no countermeasures, but not even a clue to what is going on.
8) No President in our lifetime of any party has had as much instinctive appreciation of Lower income grass roots self help than Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, no one else in his Administration appears to have the faintest glimmer of what this is all about. (Hence the total disappearance of the only 1980 Reagan transition task force report authored by grassroots people, the Neighborhoods Task Force.)
9) A strong Presidential effort to identify with grassroots citizens struggling to overcome government-created barriers to successful self help, framed in understandable language and including symbolic acts and visits, could, in my judgment, result in strong support for the President among voters otherwise unlikely to vote for a Republican.
10) In addressing this question, the President will have to address the central question of powerlessness. He has done so on occasion in the past (cf. address to Cleveland black businessmen in 1980) but has been steered away from this kind of radicalism as President.
11) Strongly associated themes are private property ownership, human scale, opportunity, and mutual aid. Ronald Reagan, over the years, has demonstrated his support of these ideals but only rarely as President.
12) A shrewd appeal on these themes can undermine the Left’ s efforts to turn out a massive anti-Reagan vote in 1984. But the hour is late, and there is now a presumption against action resulting from three years of ignorance and inaction.
13) Such an effort would produce resistance from those who are the barriers to self help: mayors, local politicians, organized labor, Democrats in Congress, liberals. etc. – all of whom bleed for the poor, but are mortally afraid of the poor gaining any control over anything. Such people, however, won’t vote for the President anyway.
14) Peddling this theme would take a lot of clever work. PACPSI, if it could understand this issue, could possibly be the vehicle to get the message to the President. The membership of PACPSI does not appear to be a fertile field, however, unless a strong educational effort is made to sensitize them.
A few days later I submitted memos to Coyne and Galvin suggesting what PACPSI could realistically do (in the right hands, at least.) It included being a Board of Visitors for administration PSI activities; adoption agency for worthy projects; network creator for private sector actors; policy advisor especially with regard to removing barriers and impediments to self help; and a “transmission belt” for good news.
I contrived to have myself named to the “Impediments and Incentives” Subcommittee. I penned a detailed five page memo to Galvin (August 8, 1983) outlining what I thought the subcommittee, and thus PSI itself, ought to try to do. It emphasized that “practically every one of those impediments is there for a reason, and there are powerful forces that will oppose their removal….If we are going to do a serious job on the impediments question, we will have to beard a lot of dragons in their lairs…[leading to] panic in the West Wing.” (I later wondered if dragons had beards.)
I offered to chair the subcommittee IF PACPSI was willing to do battle to blow away impediments that blocked people from engaging in works of industry and improvement. If not, I said, I would be glad to work creatively for another chairman.
Galvin, who was sincere and well-motivated, called me a few days later. He wasn’t willing to take the plunge that I had recommended – no surprise there – and thus thought he ought to choose a less incendiary (not his word) subcommittee chairman. That turned out to be San Diego land developer Donald Sammis.
I believe Sammis sincerely believed in his task, but was a neophyte in his role. He had an awful time getting past the starting line on any useful activity. The committee held its first meeting in Washington on October 27, 1983. Alas, my plane was fogged in at Lebanon NH and I couldn’t get to Washington – not that my appearance would have stimulated much forward motion.
After reviewing the minutes of that meeting, I wrote Sammis (November 11, 1983) saying “once we know what the impediments are, by what authority they exist, and how they defeat self help, then we have a lot of ammunition for a dynamite report….(but) I do not for a minute believe that we will be allowed to do all this. We will be allowed only to wallow around in the highly sanitary [PSI Task Force] Conable report [focusing on arcane tax law provisions], have earnest conversations with various public officials, and maybe hold a sanitary hearing or two, all culminating in nothing of value.”
Seven months later (June 18, 1984), with little evidence of forward motion, I tried to goad the committee into hosting a 2-3 day workshop meeting with self-help/civil society practitioners entitled “What If?”: “creating an appealing picture of what America could become, if only government-created impediments to creative private action could be removed, and proper incentives structured.” That didn’t fly.
In a memo to Coyne (November 11, 1984) I observed that “The Impediments and Incentives Committee is for all practical purposes defunct.” Finally, in the PACPSI meeting of March 19, 1985, on the eve of the Council’s disappearance, the minutes tersely reported that “[new PSI Office director] Fred Ryan, on behalf of Don Sammis, brought up Sammis’ desire to conduct a 6 month study on impediments. This was viewed as unnecessary.”
To his credit, Sammis did engage Morgan Doughton to produce such a study through Sammis’s Foundation for the Private Sector. Morgan circulated a 61 page draft in January 1986. The theme was well stated:
“Self help is a vital part of our society. It is also the engine which drives much that we call volunteerism; it also is the engine which drives business and most of the private sector.
Barriers, however, inhibit the free exercise of self-help. Not the barriers posed by conscience, but the barriers posed by the way society often goes too far too regulate, control and even dictate the way we ace as members of society.
The growth and proliferation of barriers little by little constrains – even chokes off – the free exercise of the drives behind self help and voluntarism. Identification of barriers to private sector initiatives is the first step in the process to stimulate more private sector and citizen involvement.”
In a memo responding to the draft (January 30, 1986) I wrote:
The draft ranges quite bit afield from what I hoped would be its focus: the specific barriers and impediments created by government laws, regulations and policies which operate to thwart individual and mutual self help efforts.
I do not have a lot of interest – for purposes of this report – in the barriers that are inside peoples’ heads, or the extent to which the tax code should be used to promote desirable ends, or the stupidity of bureaucracies, etc. I am interested in people taking cooperative and individual action to solve their own problems through their own efforts…I am not interested in the government’s incompetence in carrying out ITS program. I am interested in what the government might have done – through, for example, building codes, to thwart the Amish self help [housing] program…
[After offering numerous examples of government-maintained barriers,] my main point is this: We should have defined barriers very narrowly a laws regulations and policies imposed by government which have the effect of stifling individual and cooperative self help. Then we should have picked the most egregious examples – maybe only a dozen; identified the exact statutory sources of the problems; illustrated them with compelling horror stories; and proposed a specific, hardhitting solution to the barrier, including if necessary an alternative way of addressing any legitimate concerns.”
So far as I know, no final version of this useful draft ever appeared.
The major contribution that I can recall from PACPSI was creating a “C-Flag” to be presented to worthy business efforts by worthy political leaders at suitably impressive and well-publicized ceremonies. (The “C” stood for “We Can, and We Care.”)
Already in March 1985 the Council and PSI Office had decided that the next obvious step was… to create yet another council! The Board of Advisors on Private Sector Initiatives was announced on January 21, 1986. It had 24 private sector members, 12 of whom continued from PACPSI, among them Bob Galvin and William Verity. The President named New York Stock Exchange chairman John Phelan Jr. as Council chairman. Elaine Crispen, press secretary for the First Lady, was among the appointees, along with veterans George Romney and Robert Woodson.
The main product of the Council, apparently, was publication of a very glossy illustrated report in 1988 entitled “Private Sector Initiatives: A Presidential Commitment”. After cataloging Ronald and Nancy Reagan’s year by year performance in advancing private sector initiatives, the report concluded “Will Private Sector Initiatives vanish from the Americans scene when Ronald and Nancy Reagan leave the White House? Not likely. PSI has virtually taken on a life of its own. The movement, so deeply rooted in our national traditions, has captured the imagination and claimed the allegiance of millions of Americans in all walks of life.” I certainly hoped that was true.
The underlying purpose of the three PSI entities was to stimulate business and philanthropists to do good things for society, and they probably did have some positive effect. Certainly there were some very good people involved – Bob Galvin, Bob Mosbacher Jr., George Romney, Tom Evans and Bob Woodson come to mind. As regards to rolling back government policies that impede self help at the grassroots, the net effect was about zero.
So thus ended, with scarcely a whimper, the Private Sector Initiatives era. Dick Cornuelle, whose counsel had apparently never been sought, remarked afterwards that the thread of voluntary action and private sector initiatives “reached a kind of comic apogee with Ronald Reagan’s half-informed exhortation in the first year of his administration that private initiatives pick up some of the slack as the rate of the growth of the welfare state slowed somewhat.”
“When the dust had settled it appeared that when the President had called on the independent sector to help roll back the welfare state, it responded that it could not and would not, and moreover begged him to stop threatening to reduce the rate of increase of the federal grants on which had come to rely.” (Afterword, 1993).
The Reagan record should not close without giving a gold star to the second-term Reagan effort to reform welfare. To do this the White House brought in Charles D. Hobbs, one of the most honorable, visionary and effective public servants of my lifetime.
Chuck Hobbs had served Reagan in Sacramento as Deputy Director of Welfare, under Robert B. Carleson. When he arrived in the Office of Policy Development in 1985, he contrived a plan to rebuild the nation’s sprawling federal-state welfare establishment, not only along customary principles such as welfare-to-work, but also on enlisting the people and associations of low-income communities in designing and managing community support and upward mobility programs.
This would be a radical departure for the welfare bureaucracies. They were largely rule driven, and scornful of anything that unwashed and uncertified citizens out in civil society could do that might help poor people become productive.
Hobbs created a Low Income Opportunity Working Group within the White House, composed of key staffers from the various agencies. Its approach was decentralization of welfare support, to allow states and substate bodies to flexibly support community-based efforts that promised the greatest positive impact experimentation.
Among those instrumental in developing the December 1986 report (Up from Dependency: A New National Public Assistance Strategy) were Peter Germanis, Morgan Doughton, Gary Bauer, Mike Baroody, Andy Card, Paul Gigot, Marty Amorosi, Becky Norton Dunlop, John Cogan, Kimi Gray, and Jack Svahn. Bob Woodson and I, from PACPSI, were credited as consultants, although I can’t clearly remember just what I did to deserve that encomium.
Among the products contained in the six-volume report were a compendium of public assistance programs, detailed accounts of “experiments in reform”, and a “self-help catalog” describing 380 innovative grassroots efforts at the civil society level.
When Congress entered the welfare policy battle, two divergent groups formed. Conservatives were intent on holding down welfare expenditures and increasing work, measured by participation rates in welfare programs. (“Participation” roughly translates to “doing something constructive in return for the check.”) Liberals were intent on expanding benefits, in eligibility, scope, breadth and amount.
Neither group showed much enthusiasm for the Hobbs plan for decentralized civil-society-based self-help programs. By 1987 the Reagan OMB had crafted a new proposal, called Greater Opportunities through Work (GROW), built upon boosting participation rates. The ultimate Family Support Act of 1988 avoided Hobbs’ devolution theme, but significantly stiffened participation. Hobbs’ office managed a first-ever White House Workshop on Self Help Efforts and Welfare Reform in June 1988, bringing in many local groups from low-income communities to exchange information, but the time had passed, and the Reagan years were nearing their end.
Hobbs remarked at the end, “we started from a much different position and we’ve come a long way.” His was a gallant effort, but apparently too much of a departure in traditional public assistance practice to create enough momentum to move forward. Eight years later, with a Republican House, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 solidified the gains from 1988 act. Hobbs, by then in Oregon to promote a successful welfare reform plan built around business offering positions to welfare recipients, had every reason to be proud of his work.
From mid-1998 on I no longer had much to do with any of this at a national level, but I will offer a few observations about subsequent efforts in Washington.