SAM BROWN is reclining in the director's office at Action, the federal volunteer agency, with his stocking feet up on the coffee table beside his Stetson hat and his belted leather Bob Dyland coat thrown on the sofa. He is flexing his toes slowly and slightly self-consciously, as if it were the Sixties again and he had just taken over the building and wanted to make it very clear he had no use for proprieties.
"I am building with people internally some sense of shared committeement," says Sam Brown.
It sounds a little like a foreign language one hasn't heard for a long time . . . mobilization of resources, basic human needs, self-help programs, grassroots community building . . . a strange, sonorous, imprecise language that you could listen to for hours, sitting in the bright sunshine outside some place like Sproul Hall, Berkeley, a language that would leave you with a generalized, warm feeling for your fellow man. And no particular place to go.
Sam Brown is smiling a bit ruefully, because he really is the director this time around - administering the Peace Corps, VISTA, and all the other official volunteer programs, working for the President instead of fighting him - and the subject of conversation is the bureucracy. How to reorganize, regroup and revitalize it.
Well, he's still working on that. What is standing in the way, it seems, is a lack of shared commitment.
Which is not too surprising, because after all this is not the Sixties. Baez has not sung "We Shall Overcome" for years, and the "Me Decade" that we're in now is by definition foreign to the idea of shared commitment.
So one tends to look very closely at Sam Brown. Who does he think he is, and what makes him think he can bring it all back?
Sam Brown is the man who once was quoted as saying "Never trust anybody over thirty," (although he denies it now) and so it is somewhat ironic that the people who remember him best these days are all in their thirties and he's thirty-four himself. He was the quintessential campus activist, the kid who was Most Likely to Succeed at radicalizing the middle class. Myself, I remember him in that classic Sixties image: his mouth is open, he is outside, and a crowd is either in front of him or in back. He is exhorting. But he is never inciting, like David Dellinger or Tom Hayden or Mark Rudd or Rennie Davis. Sam Brown always thought that kind of fringe radicalism was a dead end, and subsequent events seem to have proved him right. Look where they are now, and look where he is.
You remember 1968: the year the Tet offensive blew us off the map in Vietnam, psychic guerrillas like Sirhan Sirhan and James Earl Ray stalked our best and brighest, civil war broke out in Chicago and Nixon was elected President. An important year, and Sam Brown was in the thick of it as Chief Kid of the McCarthy Children's Crusade.He breathed as deeply of that atmosphere as anyone, dropped out of Harvard Divinity School and mobilized his National Student Association contacts for peace and Clean Gene.
Everybody was equal in those days, but it was obvious even then that Brown was a little more equal than others. "He always seemed to have a lot of inner harmony, which enabled him to focus on something intensely without being a driven sort of person," a friend remembers. "I knew right away he was extraordinary." Brown was able to communicate with the elliptical, obscure McCarthy on one hand, and with the student volunteers on the other. He could build bridges and generates enthusiasm at the same time. "There's no one anywhere near him except for maybe Jesse Jackson," says another friend. "They can both relate to people directly, can be exceptionally charismatic without that level of aloofness. Sam's got a lot of that black preacher in him."
After Nixon was elected, Brown took to the streets, along with about 500,000 other Americans who shared a commitment to stop the war. He organized a series of moratoriums, scheduled for the fifteenth of each month, and managed to hold at least part of it together, in spite of the fact that the peace movement seemed to have about fifty heads. The marches in Washington on November 15, 1969, and April 15, 1970, were among the largest protest demonstrations in American history.
Of course, Brown failed to stop the war. His money dried up and his support fragmented and it became obvious that the Moratorium was finished. "It was such a fall . . . devastating," says Alison Teal, who has been his "close friend and companion" since McCarthy days. "His ego was out of control in those days. In lots of ways he was impossible. I mean, if somebody had said, 'Hey, come be an astronaut,' he would have said, 'Sure, but let's do it quick. I think we can dispense with the training.' Then . . . wham . . . he discovered there were things he couldn't do." The one thing he couldn't do was stop the fighting.
So ended the greening of Sam Brown, Republican-born son of a shoe manufacturing magnate in Council Bluffs, Iowa. He retreated to the Colorado mountains, where he shattered his leg in a ski accident and underwent a philosophical shift of emphasis. It wasn't just the war he objected to now, but all the rest of it: he'd become one of the "New Progressive," or the "anarchist left," depending on whom you talk to. As he describes it himself: "I'm for small enterprise, low technology, low capital, low energy consumption. I'm not looking to go back to the good old days. I'm not a Luddite. But I say there ought to be a more humane way to live, that doesn't result in massive disparities in riches. The wealth redistribution policies have all failed and fewer people own more today than they did in 1932. A heavy inheritance tax is absolutely necessary in any kind of a democratic society."
His heroes became Gandhi, Norman Thomas, Lillian Hellman, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Coles: "Guys whose lives really reflect their commitments, who stand up when everbody else buckles."
Since it was clear to him that national movements like the Moratorium contained built-in elements of disaster, Brown lowered his sights. "I'd be content with organizing my own block," he began to say. He dabbled in local Colorado issues and then won election as State Treasurer. The big banks hated him because he redistributed state deposits according to a locally oriented investment policy that favored smaller banks.
As a member of the 1976 Democratic Party Platform Committee, he advocated unconditional amnesty and clashed with the Carter people, but at the same time impressed them. Anthony Lake, a State Department official who later became a member of Carter's transition team, remembers: "Sam was very good at pushing his point view with sufficient flexibility so he could make deals and stick with them. He has very deeply held and decent principles, but he is practical enough to move them along. I remember thinking his taking over Action was a great idea." Like many other liberal Democrats, Lake felt that Action needed a sense of direction so badly it didn't even matter what the direction was.
The call from Carter came just as Sam Brown and Alison Teal returned from an all-night stand in Aspen with their friend Hunter Thompson, the Gonzo journalist who once ran for sheriff on the Freak Power ticket. "I couldn't believe it was the President," Alison remembers. "He wanted to know what Sam was wearing. Now I thought that was very curious. Sam said jeans. But he said that when he talks to businessmen, he wears three-piece suits. Why offend with style when you can offend with substance, he says."
Offering Brown the job was practically the first thing Carter did after being inaugurated.
But all Sam's friends, the other New Progressives who are dotted all over Washington these days in places like the New Republic magazine, the ACLU, the Institute for Policy Studies, OSHA, and various liberal Democratic congressional offices, told him he'd be crazy to take it. He had a good political base in Colorado, for one thing. For another, they all mistrusted Carter and felt Sam was being taken on to protect the President's very weak left. Basically, he would be functioning as a liberal parrot in a gilded cage.
Most of them, too, felt that the Peace Corps and VISTA had been dying for so long it would be easier to kill them off completely and start afresh with some new Seventies program that didn't owe its most powerful symbolism to nostalgia. Not to mention the fact, they added, that the Action bureaucracy had for eight yers been used as a wastebasket by the Republicans, who ultimately had planned to mismanage it into oblivion. Real heavy duty radicals like Philip Berrigan said that Brown had finally decided to sell out completely.
Sam Brown now considers the question. "I disagreed with their judgment," he says, and shows his teeth under his moustache in a sassy Slim Pickens grin that goes well with his Iowa accent, his high-pitched, slightly hoarse, controlled bellow.
One has read of Governor Huey Long's crowd-capturing eyes: large, heavy-lidded, slow-blinking, diffuse, but capable of glowing like gray suns in his face. Sam Brown has that kind. Like Long's they can be hooded a lot of the time, but even then they're very quick. When he makes a point they're so hard to argue with that a psychologist who's been studying recent Action staff meetings has told Brown he has an "authoritarian personality," and most of his suggestions are taken as orders.
Right now, his eyes are very wide.
"Why should I sacrifice a chance to make a difference now? When you have the opportunity to grab a little piece of the action and run with it, you should do that. Look, the Vietnam was was built on someone's ambition about what was going to happen some beautiful day in the future . . . working out some grand scheme and not worrying about how. Well, I don't have any grand scheme. I had to make a judgment right then about where I could do the most, and I made it."
Perhaps. But even now, more than a year into his directorship, Sam Brown's friends are still saying he made the wrong move. So far he's only been able to reach a fraction of his goals. And the Washington meatgrinder is rumbling ominously in the background.
It started well enough. There was Sam Brown at the swearing-in ceremony looking hairy and idealistic, and there was Max Cleland, the new head of Veterans Administration, a triple-amputee from Vietnam in his wheelchair. "I don't think we could have two more startling contrasts among young men," Carter smiled, and the implication that the commitment of these two men to opposing sides could now be shared , that the terrible rift was finally healed, was not ignored.
Brown announced there would be "massive changes" in Action, and as he slowly filled his executive positions with people like Marge Tabankin, the new head of VISTA, who was president of the National Student Association and has a background of community organizing and anti-war protest, and John Lewis, Action director of domestic operations, who has been arrested more than forty times in connection with civil rights activities, the atmosphere on the executive floor did change.It got so that walking in the door felt like walking through a time warp into the Sixties: a McCarthy campaign headquarters with a soupcon of protest and campus action. There were lots of boots, Levi's wire-rimmed glasses on unpretentious faces, laughter, fast movement, telephones on floors, Styrofoam coffee cups and very long arguments over certain principles - such as whether or not to contribute to the United Federal Campaign, which many felt did not share the Action commitment to the poor.
Toward the end of August, seven months into his directorship, Brown came out with his long-awaited blue-print for change:
"The mission of Action is to mobilize people for voluntary action at home and abroad to change the conditions that deny fulfillment of human needs by calling on the best and most creative instincts of the human spirit."
Which of course wasn't too different from the original goal of Action, also written in the language of the Sixties and calling for volunteers to help solve local problems "by strengthening and supplementing efforts toward helping the poor to overcome the handicaps of poverty."
The new directions Brown outlined for Action were more precise:
VISTA volunteers were to deemphasize their work with established institutions and governments and get back into "advocacy" and "community organizing" as they did in the Sixties under people like Philip Berrigan.
Decision-making for VISTA programs would move from central headquarters and regions down to the states.
A workplace democracy program within the agency would begin moving it toward "participatory management."
The Peace Corps, instead of providing skilled volunteers to work on big projects, would return to a Kennedyesque concentration on "basic human needs."
To many, the new directions were more than anything like a step back into the Sixties. "Volunteerism doesn't seem to be a big thing in this culture for the simple reason that we've lived it before and it didn't produce that much," says Marty Peretz, who taught Brown at Harvard and is now editor of the New Republic. "What Sam is involved in is really a struggle between the Sixties and the Eighties. The Eighties are likely to be an era of scarcity and parsimony in government, so the struggle is going to require him to go dramatically beyond the program that he's inherited. A new way is needed, and I'm not sure whether Sam has found one."
Which Sam Brown says is hogwash: "I just don't share the cynicism of those who say that people don't care anymore, that commitment, or a sense of vision, or a willingness to give up something for someone else is dead." The vision might be reduced, more sober, more tempered, more realistic, more thoughtful . . . but still alive. The older he gets, Brown says, the stronger his convictions become. The mood of the country isn't so different either, he says. It's just that people don't have the money that gives them the freedom to volunteer.
Indeed. And how Sam Brown is going to change that is not clear.
Unfortunately for Brown, the most invisible of his new directions was the most successful: de-institutionalizing VISTA. He has launched a $3.5 milllion nationwide pilot program, sending 250 trainees to three wel-established grass-roots community organizations. And volunteers around cities like Boston, for example, have begun moving out of city offices to private operations like Fair Share. Brown is also planning a pilot civilian youth corps program in Syracuse - using money from the Labor Department - which if successful could result in a National Youth Service: the moral equivalent of war, as he likes to call it.
The Peace Corps has always had the highest visibility and appeal of the Action programs, even though its enrollment dropped from a high of 15,500 in 1966 to 5958 in 1976 and it was either thrown out of or not invited back to twenty-one countries, largely because of U.S. policy in Vietnam. Sam Brown said he would get its enrollment back up near where it was, get the new generalist volunteers into needy but politically remote countries like India, Bangladesh and even Vietnam, but it took him until September to even find a director for it: Carolyn Payton, a low-profile psychologist from Howard University. He has had to contend with a bill filed by Representative Don Bonker (D-Wash.) that would take the Corps away from him and make it back into a separate entity - which his new director is said to privately support. His new recruiting ads, slated for airing in December, were unsatisfactory and had to be sent back to the drawing boards in New York. Also, some surveys indicate that potential volunteers these days are simply looking for an alternnative to the "slack job market" or some cheap way to travel abroad and learn a foreign language when other options have not panned out.
The Action Old Guard is restive.
"When he came in here there was a tremendous amount of euphoria," says one veteran staffer. "We'd all been through a hard time under the Republicans and Brown seemed very compatible with the kinds of things we wanted. He is an incredible talker you know. He was born to talk, to run for office or something. But he's really a terrible administrator and now things have gotten to the point where morale is lower than before. Expectations were so high there had to be a huge slump when the big changes didn't materialize."
Which brins us to Sam's rueful smile. And his charge into the windmills of the bureaucracy.
The problem with upgrading the state offices - "moving decision-making down to the grass roots" - is that you have to downgrade the regional offices. With the present rigid civil service Reduction In Force rules (RIFs), it's like one of those games where you slide plastic numbers around in a square trying to get them all in order. It can drive you crazy, and Sam Brown has backed off from the whole mess, at least for a while. He had to get an executive order so he could appoint new chiefs even in the regional offices.
The idea of "workplace democracy" - in which the hierarchical structure of management breaks down in favor of individual initiative - seems about as far as you can get from the spirit of the federal bureaucracy. At Action, the only people in favor of it (besides Brown and a few of his appointees) were the bottom rank and file.
Brown admits that there were "very mixed signals" when he first announced the idea back in August. "The union loved it, got all steamed up about it," he says. "But then a lot of managers here began to see the consequences."
He takes a deep breath.
"When you come right down to it, the whole idea is threatening to a lot of people. They see some real risks to themselves, and I just don't know what's going to happen. It's a sensitive business and a hell of a lot of trust is required. Now, whether it's possible to build that kind of trust . . . is not clear."
The sandbags, as he calls them, are starting to drop.
The visit of Sam Brown and other Action heavies to dig out flood victims in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, was reported as "another Sam Brown media hype."
It was reported that the old-time activists in Action were so cliquish as to exclude everybody else from decision-making, that Sam Brown's clique warred with his deputy Mary King's clique, and that reorganization attempts were causing paralysis in the Southeast and Denver.
Brown's leadership of the Peace Corps was said to be "perplexing."
Dick Beans, the contract and grants chief at Action, was said to be highly displeased at the way the agency was handing out grants to organizations closely associated with certain executives.
Members of the Carter Administration were quoted as saying Brown was a "disappointment" and "had done nothing in a year."
Sandbags, dropping from high up in the dim vaults of the Great National Center Stage, in spite of the fact that officially the Carter people have always been very much behind him, have helped him raised his budget twenty per cent in the current fiscal year, are continuing the generosity in the next, and seem to be giving most of his proposals free rein.
He is closer to the Carter people, in fact, than the Washington power figures who give dinner parties they don't go to, who revolve in the various advise-and-consent minuets that they have not bothered to learn. Sam Brown is the same generation as Ham Jordan and Jody Powell and they are all no-nonsense democrats (small d ).It's not difficult at all for him to wander down to the Class Reunion after work, have a drink with Pat Caddell and negotiate for one of his programs to be plugged in the President's State of the Union message. Although they have different accents, they can understand each other.
We have left Brown's office, and are eating lunch at a small center table in Nick and Dottie's Restaurant, up the street from Sans Souci. One or two minor sandbags have dropped during the morning and Brown is frankly depressed.
If this were Denver, he says, he'd be playing squash at the YMCA, where everybody in town goes during lunch. He looks like he'd rather be there than here.
Perhaps, he hopes, in a few weeks he'll be able to get out to Telluride, Colorado, for a spot of skiing. But probably not.
"I've made a lot of mistakes," says Sam Brown.
Maybe the most serious one, he thinks, was overestimating the "working space" in Washington, the grace period allowed you before the sandbags. "My method was not to blitz in and fire everybody I could, but to try to reach some accommodations. The trouble is, if you try to work everything out humanely, you can't move as fast. If I had brought my friends in I could have moved a hell of a lot faster, more sharply. And some people would have been very unhappy."
Sam Brown seems more willing to make people unhappy now. It's becoming clear to him that Washington is not particularly humane.
"Another mistake was talking too much. I'd keep a lower profile now, play it closer to the vest. I don't like that, but it seems in the nature of this town to encourage it. If you open yourself up, people zero in on your weaknesses. Whenever you say anything or do anything around here that indicates any kind of generosity of spirit, people think it's naive. I don't like it."
Across the table, Brown suddenly looks very young. He is sitting unnoticed, holding his bottle of Heineken's beer like a college student and trying to push a section of discarded newpaper farther uner the table so that waitresses wno't trip over it.
"The cynics in this town breed cynicism ," he says. "Before long, you're cynical, he's cynical, everybody's cynical."
Once before, in 1970 after he dissolved the Moratorium and fled to Colorado, there was a bad time in Sam Brown's life. "I spent two years trying to get back in touch with myself. And I began to recognize that when the whole world falls apart, what really matters are friends. I built friendships that year, I did what I wanted, not what was expected of me. I tried to be happy.
"If I start feeling like that again, I'll do that again. It's not worth it to give up your life to become some kind of symbol. When I can't do what I want to do here . . . I ought to go home. I'd rather have my life as a whole . . . see myself as a whole person, even if it means doing something else."
I ask Sam Brown what he is most afraid of.
"Oh," he says, trying, and failing, to laugh at the question. "Looking back five years from now and discovering I sold out a nickel at a time. I worry about that. I worry about being eaten away, nickel-and-dimed to death, until all that are left are fond memories."