When Harry Met Jimmy…

((President Jimmy Carter convenes the opening meeting of the first Presidential Commission on Hunger in 1978. Harry Chapin, who persuaded Carter to create the first—and only—Hunger Commission of it’s kind in US History, is the bushy haired guy pictured in the top right of the photo. Bess Myerson, former NYC Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, who never attended another meeting, is seated in the white jacket, in the center of the photo.)

As former President Jimmy Carter has been quietly been teaching all of us a daily  lesson on the dignity of dying after living a deeply purposeful and humanitarian life, many of us have been reexamining our own lives.

I was never a Carter fan.  I thought he was too conservative; too much of an incrementalist; not the kind of tough, crusading advocate for justice, human rights and the law that many of us Democratic activists craved, following the terrible and corrupt times of Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew and Watergate.   Foreshadowing Elizabeth Warren by some 40 years, we wanted fundamental change. 

Post-presidency, Carter would grow into a towering international human rights leader, and as a Jew uncomfortable with Israel’s lurch into right-wing fundamentalism, I applauded his early and courageous conclusion that the Israeli government’s deprivation of equal rights for Arab-born Israelis and Palestinians, amounted to Apartheid. Other Jews condemned Carter for his candor.

But, back in 1974, Democrats, across the country swept into near veto-proof power in Congress in the mid-term elections, adding 49 new seats in the House, giving them a commanding 291-seat majority; in the Senate, Democrats picked up 4 seats, producing a filibuster-proof majority of 61.  With the rise of progressivism in Congress , we did not want a milquetoast candidate for President in 1976, even if the candidate were a Washington outsider with a winning smile who promised he’d never lie to us.

Many of us in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party wanted a tough champion like Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, or Rep. Mo Udall from Arizona to lead the Democratic National ticket in 1976.   We wanted a presidential candidate who would represent the growing sense of urgency among our rank-and-file to bring about sweeping change.  To us, Jimmy Carter was just far too cautious.

We weren’t alone.  Even singer/songwriter Harry Chapin, who persuaded Jimmy Carter to create the nation’s first and only Hunger Commission and served on that unique Commission from 1978-1980, had his doubts.   Chapin was a delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention for the fiery liberal and environmental advocate Rep. Mo Udall, who advocated breaking up Big Oil and enacting National Health Insurance. Udall finished second to Jimmy Carter in six presidential primaries.

Just this week, I uncovered notes from an interview I did five years ago with a leading social activist of our time Bill Ayers, a former Catholic priest in the great social justice tradition of Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, and the Berrigans.  Ayers, a NYC-area radio DJ and an authentic “radical priest”, co-founded World Hunger Year (WHY) with Harry Chapin in 1975.   It was the team of Bill Ayres, Harry and Sandy Chapin and former Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, which brought the idea of creating the very first US Hunger Commission to newly-elected President Carter.

Harry Chapin’s family—with ancestors like his grandfather Kenneth Burke, the literary giant and semanticist, and his great-aunt Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Workers movement, was far more radical on social issues than many fans of his music, and more of an ardent advocate for change than Jimmy Carter.  He was determined to “do something” with his life, and eager to use his celebrity to alleviate hunger and suffering.

In an April, 2018, interview with Bill Ayres, Harry’s hunger-fighting partner told me that:
            “ What he didn’t like about Carter for one thing, was that he stacked the Pres. Hunger Commission with a whole bunch of people who were not the people who were going to solve hunger.  But, the people that were on from the Congress were people we knew—Leahy, being the primary one, Rick Nolan (from Minnesota), the other Dem; Ben Gilman, the Republican, and Bob Dole.  Dole grew up in Kansas during the Great Depression, when farmers were losing their farms.  We (WHY Hunger) honored him and Senator George McGovern one night.  He told me that “my Republican friends have never forgiven me for allowing food stamps to be free.”

Among the Commission members for whom Chapin had little patience was it’s Chair, former Xerox Corporation Chairman Sol Linowitz who, Harry believed, was watering down this historic Hunger Commission’s final report and only paying “lip service” to the underlying causes of hunger.  Chapin and two other progressive members of the Commission—Senator Leahy and Rep. Nolan—were frequent dissenters on key sections of the Presidential Hunger Commission Report.

In one notable dissent of the report, published 43 years ago next month, Harry and his two colleagues protested:
            “The most glaring issue not addressed is the most important—the interrelationships between our economic and governmental policies and hunger…”
                                    “ The magnitude and entrenched nature of the hunger problem demand that an intensified program of action be undertaken now, not tomorrow, or 5 years from now.  Only through expeditious action emanating from the highest levels of policymaking can we hope to map out an integrated program identifying the near-term, intermediate and long-range components of a comprehensive strategy to alleviate hunger…Poverty, not hunger, constitutes the central strand in the web of underdevelopment.”

Many of the Commission’s corporate members were not willing to push the envelope that far, nor did they share Harry’s single-mindedness of purpose for immediate action.

  Bill Ayres described it this way:
  “Harry never missed a meeting. (Despite a crushing performance schedule).  I went to some of meetings with him.  I listened.  A whole bunch of people that Carter had chosen.  Some good, some not so good.  Bess Myerson never came. Congressional guys were good.”

By the summer of 1980, after the final Hunger Commission report was published and put on a shelf, and Jimmy Carter’s attempt to rescue the hostages in Iran failed, Chapin began to get disillusioned.  He saw Reagan as an uncaring & opportunistic charlatan, and Carter as a decent and well-meaning human being, but an ineffective public official.  Harry was passionate about federal action on poverty as essential to tackling world hunger, and became frustrated by the lack of urgency coming from others.

Bill Ayres summed it up well: 
             “Yes.  And part of that was– let’s go to Washington and shake the tree!  So the presidential hunger commission was a real breakthrough.  Nobody had done that before.   Again, that was Sandy’s idea.  And it was a Presidential Commission on WORLD Hunger, so it was not Domestic Hunger so much.  The Commission’s work went from1978-1980, when they finished their work and put out a document.  The document didn’t go anyplace because Reagan got elected.
“  Harry and I watched the 1980 election results together and we cried, and I said, “Shit.  3 years down the drain.”  But he didn’t see it that way.  He said, “Nope.  We got to get back again and fight the bastards some more!” He wasn’t giving up.”

Harry Chapin never did give up; nor did Bill Ayres, the Chapin family, WHY Hunger, or any of the Harry Chapin Food Banks around the country.  Some 45 years after the creation of the only Presidential Hunger Commission in US history, and nearly five decades after the creation of WHY Hunger, the work of fighting hunger, poverty and powerlessness envisioned by Harry and Sandy Chapin and Bill Ayres continues, assisting thousands of families struggling to survive, and increasing food security for millions more.  

Carter and Chapin came from dramatically different families, cultures and backgrounds, with sharply different personalities and approaches to social and political change.  Yet, their lives’ work and legacies are linked:  through the Chapins’ reducing food insecurity and empowering the hungry, and, through Jimmy Carter’s “Habitat for Humanity,” provided housing security for many of this country’s most vulnerable. 

Harry and Jimmy: a powerful, and unlikely, ticket for long-term, structural change.

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