Arthur S. Flemming, still a tireless campaigner for social causes after toiling for nine presidents, believes his fellow Republicans are sowing the seeds for a "grass-roots revolt" by pressing their plans to slash domestic programs, cut taxes for the wealthy and put an end to affirmative action.
In almost 60 years of public service, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, Flemming says he has never seen anything like the current GOP drive to roll back social programs. And the drastic nature of the impending changes, he says, has produced a public restlessness that could presage the kind of turbulence that shook the nation during the 1960s, including civil disorders and a march on Washington.
In a conversation at the Los Angeles Times Washington bureau on June 12, his 90th birthday, Flemming, who served as President Eisenhower's director of the Office of Defense Mobilization and then as his secretary of health, education and welfare, vividly recalled the former general's warning that a powerful military-industrial complex could adversely affect the nation's democratic processes. The Reagan administration ignored Eisenhower's advice in the 1980s by spending lavishly on defense and cutting domestic programs, he said, and congressional leaders are ignoring it now _ at the nation's peril.
Flemming was 34 when Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. He remained on the commission under President Truman before becoming president of his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University. He served in an official capacity with every administration since the 1930s, except Clinton's _ although he was a delegate and speaker at the recent White House Conference on the Aging.
Appointed by President Nixon to be chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he served until President Reagan fired him about the time, in 1981, that the commission released a report defending affirmative action, Affirmative Action in the 1980s: Dismantling the Process of Discrimination. "That report," says Flemming, "was not received with great enthusiasm at the White House."
Although he is now stoop-shouldered and walks slowly with the aid of a cane, Flemming still flies around the country making speeches promoting social causes.
Question: How do you view the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action?
Answer: It can be summed up best by Justice O'Connor's words, that federal set-aside plans are going to be subject to close scrutiny _ just as the state set-aside plans are now subject to close scrutiny. It's kind of a setback, but the decision certainly does not deprive this nation of the role of affirmative action. She goes out of her way to say that close scrutiny does not mean that you're going to turn down the plan.
Q: As a strong supporter of affirmative action from the very outset, do you think that it has worked well?
A: I think it's working very well. The results speak for themselves. As I look at the composition of the workforce or the composition of any institution today, compared with what it was, there's been a tremendous improvement. An awful lot of work remains to be done, but we're headed in the right direction.
Q: What can you do to defend affirmative action while the Republicans are making a political issue of it and seem determined to discontinue it?
A: This links up with what's happened over a period of 60 years. We've been moving forward as a national community in one area after another. In the 1930s, we began with the New Deal and Social Security and so on; and in '54, we got the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, and then we got the Civil Rights Act in '64. Certainly, in that 10-year period, we began to move forward in a very significant way.
But we're not moving forward on civil rights or on a good many other programs now, and the present attitude on the Hill really disturbs me. For the last 60 years, there's been plenty of argument but it has normally been between people who wanted to move forward 10 miles and others who wanted to move forward five miles _ and then we compromised at seven miles. Now, the leaders of Congress want us to move backward, to retreat in one area after another _ all the programs under Social Security, including Medicare, and the welfare programs.
That's what bothers me. This is a spirit I haven't seen in this nation for 60 years.
Q: Is this the worst you've seen with regard to the government moving backward on addressing social issues?
A: That's right. The effort to move backward wasn't as marked in the Reagan administration. Reagan, obviously, wanted to stop forward movement; he cut back on the amount of money available for domestic programs and, at the same time, made more money available to the military. The '80s represents a period in which we did provide the military with close to a blank check. We cut taxes and cut back on domestic programs.
We're paying the penalty for not following the advice of President Dwight Eisenhower, who warned us against the military-industrial complex. He said that complex will have power which could affect our democratic processes.
Q: You think the Republican Party today is ignoring Eisenhower's advice?
A: Yes, I do. That was advice he was giving from his heart and, I realize, he gave it in his farewell address. But as a member of his Advisory Committee on Governmental Organizations, we used to meet, just three of us, and he'd talk to us about the things that were worrying him. Time and again, he'd come back to this military-industrial complex.
I don't believe anyone has ever lived in this country who was better prepared to warn us against that. And he felt very keenly that this military-industrial complex could jeopardize the democratic processes in this country. We're seeing evidence of that. After all, as a result of the policy that was followed in the '80s, we started out with a deficit a little below $1-trillion, but now it's moved up to close to $5-trillion.
Q: You've worked with a lot of business interests in this country. Haven't many of them been in favor of affirmative action?
A: They certainly have. No doubt about it. As a result of affirmative action, they've instituted new personnel policies in their organizations. They've discovered those new personnel policies are far better than the old ones _ simply because they are treating all groups without following discriminatory practices of one kind or another. When I was chairman of the (U.S.) Civil Rights Commission, and we were working on this back in the '70s, we were able to get a lot of evidence that large companies were taking a positive action toward affirmative action. They regarded it as good personnel practice.
Q: A friend of yours, Arthur Fletcher, a longtime Republican and member of the Civil Rights Commission, recently said the right wing now controls the GOP and is waging total war on affirmative action. Do you share that view?
A: That comes pretty close to being an accurate statement. As I look at the leaders on the Hill, I do not recognize them as part of the Republican Party that I knew and worked with over my lifetime. Because I couldn't imagine in Eisenhower's day, for example, a group of legislative leaders in the Republican Party recommending the kinds of things that are being recommended at the present time. He wouldn't stand for it. He'd break with them if they did it. He was a person who believed in meeting the needs of the people in the national community.
Q: Are there a few moderate Republicans you now deal with?
A: There are a few. But you find it harder _ as somebody put it, they really are an endangered species.
Q: Arthur Fletcher also said the only difference he sees now between what's going on in this country on race relations and what went on in the '60s, when American cities were on fire, is that this time the suburbs, as well as the ghettos, are armed. He said if you put that together with the fact there is so little communication between the white community and the ghettos, it's made to order for a real explosion, for a race war. Do you think that's overstating it?
A: I don't think we're at that point. It's possible it could evolve that way. But no. . . . I've gotten the feeling of a restlessness on the part of the grass roots, which, if it surfaces, can result in a revolt against the kind of proposals uniformly being made in Congress at the present time. What form that would take, I don't know. I think it would be a peaceful revolt. It could result in civil disorders and a march on Washington.
Q: You say these proposals by the GOP would widen the gap between the rich and the poor?
A: They certainly would; most of these cuts would fall on the middle class and the poor. At the same time, they're proposing to reduce the tax burden of the wealthy.
Q: Both you and Arthur Fletcher say there's a restlessness out there. He says it could develop into a race war. You're saying if it continues going the way it is, it could develop into some sort of massive resistance, maybe civil disorders. You're looking at it in terms of the kind of turbulence we saw in the '60s, right?
A: That's right. You see the possibility. You also see the possibility of avoiding that by saying instead of the public sector and the private sector being driven apart, let's bring them together _ as they have been for years. Instead of trying to drive the national community, state and local communities apart, let's bring them together.
Jack Nelson is the Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times, where this commentary first appeared.