Promoting Civil Society Among the Heathen: a Memoir


John McClaughry is one of the most misunderstood figures in modern American politics. He served several terms in the Vermont House and state senate and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1982 and Governor of Vermont in 1992. (In the latter campaign he was defeated by Democrat Howard Dean.) Although McClaughry has been a Republican loyalist over the years, his political views misfit the trite old categories. In 1990 he described himself this way: “I am a 1700s Virginia republican, an 1800 Tertium Quid, an 1830s Loco Foco, an 1850s Republican, an 1890s Western progressive, a 1930s agrarian distributist, and today a plain old decentralist agrarian Reaganaut.” 

McClaughry’s friend Frank Bryan, the University of Vermont political scientist with whom he coauthored The Vermont Papers (1989), a blueprint for the radical decentralization of government in the Green Mountain State, described what McClaughry has been up against in his political campaigns: “How, with limited funds, to articulate his views to an electorate that does not possess the necessary concepts or language?” 

If McClaughry never quite figured out how to do that, he has, for fifty years, been an energetic and creative proponent of decentralism within the GOP. Working with such figures as Gov. George Romney, Senator Chuck Percy, and Ronald Reagan, McClaughry has tried, always with good humor, to translate his Jeffersonian philosophy into practical policy. 

Now 76 and still living on Kirby Mountain, where he has been moderating the town meeting since 1967, John McClaughry has recollected some of his political battles in a characteristically free-swinging memoir he calls Promoting Civil Society Among the Heathen. Front Porch Republic is pleased to present McClaughry’s memoir in several parts. 


Like the ubiquitous Forrest Gump in the 1994 movie of the same name, for some 25 years I seemed to have turned up at the scene of most if not all efforts by “Republicans” and “conservatives” to promote policies to strengthen the concept and practice of “civil society” in the national policy arena. This paper is a brief memoir of those twenty five years’ experiences, extracted from old files and fading memory for the benefit of a newer generation of champions who hopefully will bring more talent to the contest than I did.

One might wonder how it was that I came to play this unlikely role. Without descending into a long personal exposé, suffice it to say that I arrived on the scene, a loner raised in a small Illinois farm town, with almost no involvement in anything recognizable as civil society or even family, either by immersion in life or by enthusiastically familiarizing myself with the works of thinkers on the subject. As my daughter once observed, “Dad exhibited Asperger’s Syndrome before it became popular.”

So my subsequent career, such as it was, as a recurring tub thumper for public policies to preserve and advance one or another aspect of civil society was, given my background and personality, certainly unlikely and far from assured of success.

The Topic

Defining the contents or characteristics of “civil society” as a programmatic theme is difficult, especially because over the years its leading manifestations in public policy have taken so many different names, not all of which fit within the recognizable boundaries.

As will be seen, at various times the subjects of policy interest have been labeled  as “civic action”, “voluntary action”, “private sector initiatives”, “neighborhood renewal”, “community renewal”, “community self-determination”, “faith-based and community initiatives”, “empowerment”, and “points of light”.

I do not recall “civil society” as a descriptor for any of these efforts. “Civil society” is a descriptive term with many historical antecedents, but it does not carry a connotation of any form of action.

Michael Novak, in his chapter in the 20th anniversary reissue of Berger and Neuhaus’s To Empower People (1997), offered this illuminating description of what we mean by “civil society”:

Non-statist forms of social life – those rooted in human social nature, under the sway of reason – is civil society. That term includes natural associations such as the family, as well as the churches, and private associations of many sorts: fraternal, ethnic, and patriotic societies; voluntary organizations such as the Boy Scouts, the Red Cross, and Save the Whales; and committees for the arts, the sciences, sports, and education….In free and complex societies such as those of Western Europe and the United States, a single individual is likely to belong to many different associations at once. Some are natural (the family), some are voluntary but enduring across generations, and still others are founded for limited purposes and are quite transitory. (@138)

For a working policy-oriented definition I will fall back upon the concise formulation by one of my favorite authors  – me –  in my review (“Mustering the Little Platoons”, in Reason, December 2002) of Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith’s book Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work Through Grassroots Citizenship (Hudson Institute, 2002):

Transforming ordinary people into active citizens means to empower people, enlarge their capacities, strengthen their local civic institutions, lower government-created barriers, increase information flow, create networks for expanding opportunity, demand responsibility and performance, and above all, recreate a sense of efficacy among those who had viewed themselves as alienated and powerless.

Note that this definition, introduced in the context of Mayor Goldsmith’s urban improvement goals, suggests some sort of directed policy steps to achieve the listed goals. It is also murky about just who is to mastermind the empowering, enlarging, strengthening, demanding etc.  My preferred interpretation is that, given wise public policies preserving opportunities, removing obstacles, and tolerating sometimes untidy grassroots ferment, people themselves could and should be encouraged to associate in mutually supportive ways to achieve their civil society objectives, rather than finding a mysterious “civil society” kit gift-wrapped under their Christmas tree.

Although I used “citizens”, correctly so in the context of Goldsmith’s book, the greater connotation is not so much “citizens who vote in Indianapolis” but “active participants in community life, whether political, economic, religious, cultural or social.” Perhaps the most important concept here is efficacy – the realization in peoples’ minds that “what we ourselves can do will make a positive difference for us produce a better life for our community”.

This definition suggests “empowerment”. I first became acquainted with the verb “to empower (people)” in reading Dr. Nathan Wright Jr.’s 1966 book Black Power and Urban Unrest. The word quickly morphed into the noun “empowerment”, which I believe I first introduced to the Washington policy world during the 1967 development of the Percy “New Dawn” housing bill (see below). Some years later Steven Mufson of the New York Times authored an article seeking the origins of the term “empowerment”, but his research petered out long before reaching my early use of the term. Once again, immortality denied.

I began to compose this memoir as a chronological account of various attempts by “Republicans”, “conservatives” and their ilk to promote policies to strengthen some version of “civil society”.  Before long I realized that there were many different threads to this narrative, overlapping throughout the 25 year period of my involvement.  I have thus decided to select a number of such efforts and follow them through their often abbreviated political lifetimes.


1.     Cornuelle , Romney, and Nixon

If I had to identify a seminal work that drew me on my course, it would be Richard Cornuelle’s  Reclaiming the American Dream (1965), publicized enthusiastically by T. George Harris, senior editor of Look magazine. Their purpose was to create an awareness of the breadth and depth of what Dick called “the Independent Sector” – not business, not government, but the vast array of associations and organizations of every type, where people worked together to solve problems and improve the lives of their communities. As Cornuelle later wrote, “the radical message of [the book] was that in the long run political democracy and free markets would not survive unless the independent sector began to compete aggressively with the state for all – or practically all – of its responsibilities.” (Afterword, 1993 edition @185).

Dick’s book elevated the potential of the Independent Sector for solving a wide range of “public” problems, ranging from unemployment to poverty to juvenile crime to “the farm problem”. He was well aware – and critical – of the sector’s unreliability.  He was even more critical of government’s malign habit of subverting and overpowering the independent sector’s capacities and will.  Pollster George Gallup later said that this book sparked “the most dramatic shift in American thinking since the New Deal”,  although this struck me as pretty extravagant.

Perhaps the extract that made the most impression on me was this Tocquevillian observation, in his final chapter:

Federal control does not mean harsh oppression… The threat of federal dependence is not the iron fist but the soft blanket of conformity that will slowly – worse yet, painlessly – smother initiative, human variety, and innovation. (@162)

Armed with these insights – received in the midst of Lyndon Johnson’s historic expansion of government power to achieve “The Great Society” – I naturally gravitated to the pursuit of public policies that would build upon independent sector initiative, without smothering it or throwing taxpayer dollars all over the landscape.

Cornuelle and Harris went shopping for a politician willing to promote their ideas for “reclaiming the American dream”. They found a willing partner in a man I enormously admired, Michigan Gov. George Romney.  In late 1963, well before Reclaiming the American Dream appeared,  I had been recruited by my mentor, one of the great but largely unsung Americans of his day, Eisenhower confidant and operative Bryce Harlow, to assist Gov. Romney in writing his “coming out speech” to a National Press Club audience on January 7, 1964. The speech read fairly well, but was not a hit with the jaded, often inebriated denizens of the Washington press corps. This was in part due to George’s deeply-held insistence that everyone ought to acknowledge God as the author of and the guiding force behind the unique American experiment. The press corps in attendance, I estimated, was not only not smitten with the prinacy of God, but was also not all that interested in hearing Romney’s plans for reforming the increasingly Goldwater-dominated Republican Party. They were looking forward to a prodigious lurch forward into benevolent statism under the new president, legislative powerhouse Lyndon B. Johnson – which of course they got in 1965.

My major contribution to George’s final text was squeezing out all but about three or four affirmations of his belief in the workings of Divine Providence.  Whether he or I formulated the six important principles of our Founding, I don’t remember; but two of them were “Freedom of Association, without which the individual is at the mercy of those in positions of power”, and “Voluntary Cooperation, by which individuals and organizations band together to promote the common welfare.”

Romney consciously worked to advance civil society in Michigan during his governorship (1963-68). Led by Republican State Chair Elly Peterson and the party’s inner city operative John Marttila, Michigan Republicans created a Republican Action Center in Detroit to assist inner city people to overcome a host of barriers – especially following the 1967 Detroit riots.  They effected a a much-hailed partnership with a black inner city Detroit organization called Mother Waddles Mission (which exists to this day offering a used car service for lower income Detroiters).  While the program broke down some barriers between inner city blacks and white Republicans from outside the city, and brought to the poor  such benefits  as summer camp scholarships, job mentoring, ombudsman services, and donated emergency food and clothing , it didn’t so far as I know do much to create a functioning civil society among the beneficiaries. And it didn’t survive long after the Romney era ended in 1968.

As Nixon’s Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in 1969, Romney pressed for the creation of a Cabinet Committee on Voluntary Action, presumably reflecting Nixon’s interest as expressed in his  October 6, 1968 “The Voluntary Way” campaign address.

In that radio talk Nixon described approvingly how at Romney’s invitation he had recently met in Detroit with a group of people who “have been putting the voluntary principle into practice with phenomenal success.”  He promised if elected to promote “a new measure of reliance on voluntary efforts”, and “leadership that will concentrate government efforts on what it can do best, and that will summon the people to do what they can do best.” One of the great questions the election was about, Nixon said, was “whether we turn our ingenuity toward finding new ways to enlist the people in shaping a future that is genuinely their own…Only if we restore the spirit of voluntarism to its historic place can we heal the deeper troubles we suffer from.”

Nixon named Romney to head the CCVA. This effort never won much traction partly because skeptics viewed Nixon’s campaign address as no more than a feel-good effort to win votes that carried no programmatic content (entirely possible); and partly because of the probably correct perception among the Cabinet members that Nixon wished he hadn’t brought Romney – and his outspoken civil rights advocacy – into the administration.

It is safe to assume that the CCVA soon had only a tiny and diminishing share of the White House action. Within a year Romney got Nixon to create by executive order a private sector National Center for Voluntary Action, which was spun off into a long, struggling existence under a series of names.

The initial NCVA chairman was Romney friend and finance chairman Max M. Fisher, a prominent Detroit industrialist. Fisher was soon succeeded by Henry Ford 2nd.

At its organizational meeting, Secretary Romney said “Americans have four basic ways of solving problems that are too big for individuals to handle by themselves. One is through the federal government. A second is through state governments and the local governments that the states create. The third is through the private sector – the economic sector that includes business, agriculture, and labor. The fourth method is the independent sector – the voluntary, cooperative action of free individuals and independent association. Voluntary action is the most powerful of these, because it is uniquely capable of stirring the people themselves and involving their enthusiastic energies, because it is their own – voluntary action is the people’s action.”

One early function of the NCVA was to produce a national clearinghouse of voluntary action activities, on a mainframe computer. I had launched this proposal during the 1968 Nixon campaign, and Nixon endorsed it in his “Voluntary Way” address. I recruited a very bright young business student, Roger Feldman, to figure out how to collect and manage the data. Shortly after Nixon’s election, I recall telling Roger that I was not going to be part of the new administration (explained below), and that he would have to find himself a home for his project. Soon after, he took a position in the Defense Department.  I presume, but don’t know, that his effort became the basis for the post-1970 NCVA’s clearinghouse containing a reported 3,000 case studies (I certainly hope so!)

When Romney exited HUD in 1973, the Cabinet Committee expired and Romney assumed the chairmanship of the NCVA. The organization morphed and merged until 1991, when Romney finally stepped down as chairman. It remains active as the Points of Light Foundation.

I had no connection with all of this after 1969, but I recall my last meeting with Romney sometime in the 1980s. He occupied a very small office in a building on Massachusetts Avenue, with no staff in evidence. I don’t recall exactly what our conversation touched upon – it was mostly retrospective – but I came away with the feeling that George (then about 80) was pretty much used up. He had become a national figure, then an exile from the President’s Cabinet, then finally the leader of a cause that few in official Washington saw as of any real importance. He died in 1995 at age 88.

I would be remiss in failing to affirm that George Romney was an exceptionally fine human being – not a towering intellect, but modest, humane, principled, compassionate, honest, dedicated to the greatness of America and the glory of God. All in all, I don’t think he would have been a great or even a successful president; but he was certainly a model of a fine citizen.

Now let’s retrace our steps and examine the Nixon involvement.

In mid-1968 I completed my year-long fellowship at the JFK School’s Institute of Politics at Harvard. A friend suggested that I throw my hat in the ring for one of two seats in my northeastern Vermont House district. By using lots of shoe leather I won the September primary, and was pretty much assured of election in this safe Republican district.

During that summer Raymond K. Price Jr., Nixon’s resident speechwriter and idea man, discovered that nobody in their circle of acquaintances seemed to have much grasp of “urban problems”, at a time when “disorders” had wracked cities like Boston, Detroit, Newark, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The political world was groping for intelligent policy guidance.  Ray had apparently been impressed with my work for Percy on the National Home Ownership Foundation Act of 1967 (see below), contacted me, and I began sending along ideas and speech material to the New York Nixon-Agnew headquarters. After mid-September, being largely free of campaign responsibilities and also unemployed, I worked until New Year’s out of Nixon’s Park Avenue headquarters four days a week, staying (for $5 a night) in the Harvard Club’s dormitory. My title was “Special Assistant for Community Affairs”, soon changed at Dr. Nathan Wright’s suggestion to “…in Community Affairs” to remove the possible inference that “Nixon hired somebody to direct everybody’s community affairs.”

I don’t specifically recall bringing up Reclaiming the American Dream to the Nixon team, but I almost certainly did, along with a pitch for the candidate to promote voluntarism.

Ouse seats in and around my home of Kirb y, Vermont.House seatsHouseAs noted above, Nixon delivered his national radio address on “The Voluntary Way” on October 6, 1968. On November 22, after Nixon’s victory, I sent a memo to Henry Loomis, Leonard Garment, Bob Finch and Dick Cornuelle proposing a voluntary action transition task force.

The recommended goal was “to identify and program steps that the new President can take in his first 100 days to dramatically advance his campaign theme of “The Voluntary Way”.  The memo listed as possible recommendations a White House Voluntary Action Center (information bank); a Voluntary Action Liaison Office (with ongoing volunteer efforts); Presidential Voluntary Action Awards; and  Presidential Commission on Voluntary Action  “to recommend changes in laws or regulations to encourage voluntary action efforts.”

I also recommended Cornuelle as chairman of the task force, and seventeen possible members. As Cornuelle later remembered it, he was asked by Arthur Burns, who supervised the transition task forces, to take on the chairmanship. Unfortunately the records of the task force are no longer to be found. In 2011, the year of his death, Dick called me to ask if I could produce a copy of the recommendations of the task force he chaired. I thought I could, but no amount of searching could produce it, and the Nixon Presidential Library did not collect Nixon materials that preceded the Presidential inauguration.

In his 1993 Afterword, Cornuelle listed as members Irving Kristol, Max Ways, Richard Goodwin, “and about a dozen others.”  My recollection included Goodwin, who I am pretty sure I asked directly, T. George Harris, Prof. Sebastian DeGrazia of NYU, and Jim Howard, head of a large Cleveland-based public relations agency.

Cornuelle wrote in 1993 that “uniquely among the task forces, all our recommendations were accepted and acted upon.”  He cited the Cabinet Committee on Voluntary Action, the White House Office, and a government-authorized and financed umbrella group [the National Center for Voluntary Action].

He continued, “I was sure we had at last succeeded in building a platform from which a great renaissance of independent action could be launched. But that was a naïve and idle expectation. The elaborate machinery we prematurely put in place has been scrapped. There is an enduring illusion of political interest in the independent sector because politicians instinctively want to associate themselves with voluntary efforts, but have neither the means nor the inclination to expand its scope. I cannot imagine why I thought for a moment that the state could be persuaded to contrive its own undoing.” (Afterword @186).

Meanwhile, Dick stayed active in intellectual and philanthropic circles. He published two additional works, De-Managing America (1976) and Healing America (1983), neither of which had any significant impact. In 1993 he penned the illuminating Afterword to the reissue of Reclaiming the American Dream, now subtitled “The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations”. I was moved that he sent me a copy inscribed “Look out, John! Here it comes again.”

The final semi-comical chapter of the Nixon engagement with “voluntary action” was the National Voluntary Service Action Council. This was created by PL 93-113, the Domestic Voluntary Service Act of 1973, in Nixon’s second term. It was not the “Presidential Commission on Voluntary Action” I had recommended in 1968. It was instead an advisory body for the ACTION agency, a Nixon combination of the Volunteers in Service To America (VISTA) program, inherited from LBJ’s Great Society, and the JFK-era Peace Corps.

The President appointed 25 members of the Council, of which I was one. I recall believing at the time that somewhere there must have been a list of persons who had to be given White House appointments, and that the personnel office had called up the next 24 names on the list, plus me, to make up the Council. None of the 1968 Nixon transition task force members were tapped for these appointments. Before the Council’s second meeting, six of the 25 members had resigned.

Its chairman was Frank Stella, a Michigan auto dealer whose qualifications pretty much began and ended with his chairmanship of Italians for Nixon. Several members were nationally known – but not for voluntary action: Frank Fitzsimmons, president of the Teamsters Union; Charles Bartlett, Chicago Sun Times columnist; and T.M. Alexander, head of the National YMCA.  Also named was the imperious W. Clement Stone, founder of Combined Insurance Companies. Stone was by far the most munificent individual contributor to the two Nixon presidential campaigns. In fairness, Stone was a sincere enthusiast for “success motivation”, focused effort to produce results, and private sector action to solve social problems.

The very narrow focus of the Council, per statute, was the operation of the federal government’s volunteer agencies – VISTA, the Peace Corps, Retired Senior Volunteer Programs, the Foster Grandparents Program and several others combined into the Nixon ACTION agency, directed by Michael Balzano.

This reorganization proved to be hotly controversial. The Peace Corps remained the great surviving legacy of Kennedy’s Camelot, sending well-educated youngsters out to foreign climes to stimulate works of industry and improvement. Its influential partisans loathed the submerging of the Peace Corps into a nondescript umbrella agency – of Nixon’s manufacture, no less. VISTA, despised by conservatives and loved by the Left, sponsored community organizers and activists, a substantial number of whom seemed to be working politically to overturn the unjust social order, both urban and rural.

I took notes at the NVSAC’s organizational meeting on February 8, 1974. Of course the Council needed an “honorary chairperson”, an epitome of caring, selfless service, and probity. With one heart and voice the Council found exactly the right choice: Mrs. Patricia Nixon. Approved by acclamation! Tongue in cheek, I moved that the staff be asked to compile a complete list of Mrs. Nixon’s many contributions to voluntary service. Approved! (So far as I can recall, it was never produced.)

Following a recess, Julie Nixon appeared to great applause. Clement Stone in pencil mustache and sky blue double breasted suit offered a lengthy tribute to President Nixon. Director Balzano appeared, and quoted Aristotle in support of the  principle that  “the price of democracy is participation”.  Encouraged by our applause, he promised to give us all copies of his doctoral dissertation on VISTA – “reads like a novel”.

Afternoon session: Julie Nixon sends in a note: Mrs. Nixon is “on Cloud Nine” for having been named Honorary Chairperson!  How could we have imagined that?

Next morning session: Lengthy discussion on motion to limit members to $1 a year for their service. Motion adopted. Problem: Judge Harper has already promised her pay to a scholarship fund.  McClaughry points out that reimbursement is the Director’s business, not the Council’s.  Motion is expunged.  Adjourn for lunch.

At one point over the course of the two years Stone became incensed over some management decision about to be made by Balzano. He vowed that he would demand to testify at Congressional hearings about the incredible mismanagement at ACTION, which would of course have earned him marquee billing before a Democratic Congress unhappy with the Peace Corps-ACTION marriage.  I passed this tidbit off to a White House contact who apparently set machinery in motion to dissuade Stone from going through with it. That was probably my greatest service in two years of “service”.

The NVSAC’s term expired in 1975. With its disappearance, the era of “The Voluntary Way” came to an end. In 1981 Congress extracted the Peace Corps from ACTION, which was later reorganized as the Corporation for National and Community Service.


2. The Percy New Dawn Home Ownership Proposal

Now let’s return to 1966 and consider another manifestation of the intermittent urge to strengthen civil society: the Percy-Widnall National Home Ownership Foundation Act (S.1592 of 1967).

Early in 1966 I had zeroed in on Charles H. Percy, of my home state of Illinois, as a Republican leader of the future. At the time I was employed by Sen. Winston Prouty (R-Vermont). My main assignment was to build support for a bill, conceived by his son in law Robert Hall, to extend the 7% capital goods investment tax credit to “human capital”. Somewhat to the Senator’s astonishment, I had corralled 112 Republican House members as cosponsors of the companion bill, introduced by Rep. Tom Curtis (R-Missouri).

That was impressive, but in a strongly Democratic Congress this wasn’t going anywhere. What it did was give Republican members something positive to talk about.

In the course of this promotion I involved myself in task forces set up by the Republican National Committee. The effort was led by Bell & Howell CEO Percy, who was widely regarded as Eisenhower’s fair haired boy, despite having narrowly lost a race for Governor in 1964.

Percy had chaired a Republican Committee on Program and Process that produced Decisions for a Better America (1960), a moderate Republican manifesto. (I was, in 1960, a “Draft Adlai Stevenson” neophyte in politics, but I turned down several entreaties to join California Democratic clubs because that party struck me as too enamored of big government and socialism. The Decisions booklet persuaded me to cast my lot with the Republican Party.)

Since I saw myself as somebody’s future Grand Vizier, I chose Percy as the Designated Somebody who was likely to rise, perhaps to the top, with the benefit of my shrewd advice. When it became evident that Percy was planning a 1966 Senate race against veteran Democrat Paul Douglas, I inveigled at least three people known to Percy to promote me as a key staff member.  I was duly invited to be Research Director, although I later learned that my name had come to Percy via David Rockefeller, not any of the three I had enlisted. Since I had never had any dealings with Mr. Rockefeller, I don’t know to this day how that happened; but my good friend George Gilder was his godson, and he may have played a role unknown to me. In any case, I moved to Chicago around June of 1966, and supervised a six person staff through the November election, which Chuck won.

Beginning with the Watts riot in Los Angeles in August 1965, the country was wracked by numerous ghetto uprisings, including one on Chicago’s West Side. As a candidate for the Senate, Percy had to have something credible to say beyond calling for “law and order”. Figuring out what was my job.

Early that summer the campaign switchboard referred to me a call from a Connecticut judge named John Henry Norton. Judge Norton firmly believed that a major cause of the destructive black uprisings was the fact that they owned so little. The central part of his solution was creatively expanding home ownership to inner city neighborhoods. I had listened to black leaders, and Norton’s proposal seemed to make a lot of sense.

The result was Percy’s “New Dawn for Our Cities” speech at the Chicago Kiwanis Club on September 15, 1966. After lamenting the social pathology of the inner city, Percy said “we must create and fortify a new spirit of independence or self-reliance, of self-esteem, of human dignity, of creative initiative in the people who dwell there. Throughout the history of America, one vital concept stands out as a means of forging those values. That cherished concept is home ownership.”

Then Percy recited the blessings of home ownership, scorned the then-fashionable alternative of urban renewal and public housing, called up the Republican Homestead Act signed by Lincoln, condemned slavery, and proposed a new national effort “involving private business, unions, churches, foundations, civic organizations, governments, and the poor people themselves to make this goal a reality.”

He pointed out that home ownership “means the whole process of acquiring a sound basic education, learning needed job skills, gaining employment security, preparing to accept the responsibilities of home ownership, conserving and improving one’s community, and helping to broaden the opportunities for one’s neighbors… and an emergence of personal involvement of the residents themselves.”

He then set forth a scheme built around local nonprofit organizations, including Rev. Leon Sullivan’s Opportunities Industrialization Center in Philadelphia, Cleo Blackburn’s Flanner Homes in Indianapolis, and the Bicentennial Civic Improvement Association in St. Louis. He closed by citing the many benefits, including “encouraging once poor families to participate in community development activities and to help others advance along the same path.”

Three days later Percy’s 21 year old daughter Valerie was murdered in their home in Kenilworth. The campaign stopped. All I could do was circulate copies of the New Dawn speech booklet as best I could – Judge Norton paid for the printing.

Chuck Percy was a very good person – indeed, we called him Charles the Good. But he had a weakness. He gave great credence to advisors who had developed smooth if insincere Dale Carnegie personalities. He was not comfortable with “abrasive” people who scorned the concerted manipulation of the candidate by self-seeking staffers. I was a leading example of that latter category. When I was told by other staffers that I had been identified as “abrasive” by a certain  top Percy advisor, I located a brochure from the National Institute for Abrasive Methods (the carborundum trade association), posted it on the campaign bulletin board, and announced that I was forming a chapter.

After Percy won, I was prepared to find something else to do with my life. In a moment of clarity, it dawned on Chuck that he needed me on his Washington staff because I was the only person who knew how to put the promised legislation together and build support for it. So I became his home ownership legislative draftsman and promoter, not on his Senate staff, but working closely with his AA Allen Marrinson, his legislative assistant Carol Khosrovi, his counsel Martin Hoffman (later Secretary of the Army), and Republican housing expert Warren Butler of Rep. William Widnall’s office. The three men were experts in the workings of the housing market and the finance and tax system. It was Carol Khosrovi (now Marshall) who best grasped the underlying principles.

On April 20, 1967 Percy introduced the National Home Ownership Foundation Act co-sponsored by all 39 Republican Senators (plus one Democrat, Magnuson of Washington). Mark Trice, who had served on Republican Senate staffs for fifty years, told me it was the only time he could ever remember a substantive bill being cosponsored by the entire Republican Senate complement.

Among the purposes of the bill relevant to civil society – obviously Cornuelle-influenced – were “to inspire new self-help efforts by individuals and meaningful involvement by local neighborhoods associations in improving their conditions and environments”; “to encourage a new spirit of community at the neighborhood level”; and “to mobilize America’s private enterprise system and its religious organizations, educational institutions, labor unions, foundations and professional, civic and rural organizations and associations in employing their strengths and resources toward achievement of these ends.”

The act would have chartered a nominally private National Home Ownership Foundation to equip local nonprofit housing associations with the tools needed to manage home ownership housing projects, and to raise $2 billion in government-guaranteed debentures to use in financing projects. It also authorized the Treasury to subsidize up to $30 million of monthly payments on mortgages, and provided for partial recapture of the interest subsidy when the motivated homeowners rose to higher income levels.

Urged by Percy, the Senate Housing and Urban Affairs Subcommittee held three remarkable days of hearings on S.1592 in July 1967. Instead of the usual parade of lobbyists testifying for their industries, these hearings featured a parade of real people involved in rebuilding urban and rural neighborhoods.

Typical of the message was that of Dr. Nathan Wright Jr., of Newark, the author of Black Power and Urban Unrest (1966) and chairman of the 1966 National Conference on Black Power.  Said he, “We have sought almost wholly to bring relief or amelioration to situations. We have not sought to bring the fullest empowerments, re-creation and fulfillment to human life. If we are to have peace, safety, sanity and ordered growth in our cities, their people must be empowered for self-directed growth into self-respect and self sufficiency.”

To Dr. Wright should be given the credit for introducing “empower” and “empowerment” into national political discourse. He was, incidentally, a registered Republican. My later efforts to get him named as chairman of Reagan’s Civil Rights Commission were thwarted at the last minute by several very stupid White House staffers, who will here remain unnamed.

The subcommittee reported an omnibus housing bill in late 1967, containing only the empty shell of Percy’s NHOF.  I was present when the very smooth freshman Democratic Senator Walter Mondale carried out his assignment to eliminate as much of possible of Percy’s fingerprints from the emerging legislation. At one point, as Mondale picked Chuck clean, Mondale looked over to me and winked. He knew that I knew what he was doing, but that I wouldn’t be able to get Chuck to figure it out.  I later said Chuck was lucky to emerge from the session with his shoes, socks and wedding ring.

Before the Senate could act on the 1967 bill, President Johnson announced a major initiative of his own, that jettisoned the pending bill and became the ill-fated Housing Act of 1968.

I have chronicled the events following implementation of that Housing Act in a law review article (“The Troubled Dream: The Life and Times of Sec. 235 of the National Housing Act”, 6 Loyola (Chi). Law Review 1 (1975)).  In a nutshell, President Johnson’s demand for 6 million units of new low- and moderate-income housing production, created on whatever sites were available by unionized building trades labor, completely killed off the Percy neighborhoods initiative and its emphasis on rebuilding civil society through home ownership.

The immediate result of the Housing Act of 1968 was the progressive collapse of FHA-insured Sec. 235 program of subsidized-interest mortgages for lower and middle income families. The section took the mortgage interest subsidy mechanism that I had invented (a monthly payment subsidy instead of a below market interest rate), dropped the rate to one percent, increased the term to forty years, reduced down payments to insignificance, substituted “acceptable risk” for “economically sound”, and turned a horde of commission-motivated mortgage brokers loose to initiate mortgages to be sold to GNMA.

This was the trial run for the national mortgage meltdown of 2008. Four years after passage HUD Secretary George Romney – who would surely have appreciated the rationale for the Percy bill – told Congress he had become the nation’s largest slumlord, awash in defaulted sec. 235 paper.

A decade after this fiasco, while a member of the National Commission on Neighborhoods (see below), I published a retrospective (“Recycling Declining Neighborhoods: Give the People a Chance”, 10 The Urban Lawyer 318 (1978)). In it I compared the “individual opportunity”, “production”, and “neighborhood” strategies, and for the first time zeroed in on “state and local laws – a frequent source of obstruction” and “legal tools for neighborhood self-help.”  By that time my thinking had progressed from the “government pump priming and assistance” model of the NHOF to the more libertarian “get the hell out of the way and let people produce” model.

Among the things I relearned from this effort was this: most members of Congress are focused on appearances.  Chuck Percy was sincere about his home ownership bill, but after vowing to “fight for the people”, in one memorable session in his office, he succumbed to the temptation to be a good fellow and get along well with others, rather than do conscientious battle for the cause he had championed.

I had departed Percy’s employ in August 1967 – my work there was clearly done – to accept a fellowship at the Institute of Politics at Harvard (largely on the strength of my assiduous promotion of the NHOF). A few months later, when the Senate took up LBJ’s Housing Act of 1968, I sent Chuck a memo explaining why this wrongly-conceived bill was going to turn out badly (as it surely did), and recommending that he say a few kind words but vote no. I suppose he met me half way – he said a few kind words and voted yes.

For most of the co-sponsors, becoming a sponsor was the occasion for a high-sounding news release in their states and districts. Few if any expressed any curiosity or interest in the thinking underlying the New Dawn approach. It was enough that they were seen to be determined to “do something” to address “the problems of the cities”, even though as Republicans in the minority, there was precious little they could do.

The 1968 Republican Platform did include “We will vigorously implement the Republican-conceived homeownership program for lower income families and also the Republican –sponsored rent certificate program.” Apparently no one explained to the platform drafters that the “Republican conceived homeownership program for lower income families” had a year since lain dead on Fritz Mondale’s office floor. Nor would it have mattered to them.

When the next Congress convened, Chuck Percy got off the Housing Subcommittee for a career on the Foreign Relations Committee, which he ultimately chaired. His interest in “a new dawn for our cities” was apparently overtaken by events. To the best of my knowledge, he never expressed any interest in the topic again.

A few years later I contacted him in support of an amendment by Sen. Jake Garn to exempt Sec. 312 nonprofit-sponsored inner city housing rehab financing from the onerous strictures of the Davis-Bacon Act – for instance, requiring twelve union carpenters on the job for every would-be homebuyer contributing his sweat equity toward ownership. Percy voted against the amendment. He was defeated for reelection in 1984 and was little heard from during his remaining years. He died in 2011 at 91.

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