It being Thanksgiving week when presumably everyone's thinking about food, I called up John Denver, the singer who's a member of the newly established Presidential Commission on World Hunger, to see what's with this earnest and somewhat odd-looking effort of Jimmy Carter's to harness show biz to a critical area of public policy.
Denver, who campaigned for Carter, got into hunger through California guru Werner Erhard's "Hunger Project" and is widely credited with helping alert the First Family, including Rosalyn and Chip, to the urgency of the problem. He and another entertainer, Harry Chapin, were appointed to the presidential commission even before its chairman, Washington hand Sol Linowitz, was.
"Obviously I'm not an expert," Denver told me in his sunny open way, "but I'm an expert in communications and much of the commission's work is to get facts together and present them to people directed at doing something. In that regard, I get to be a pretty important person on that commission."
He shrugged past my observation that the Hunger Project, a spinoff of Erhard's "human potential" movement "est," has been criticized as a political copout and a financial ripoff. Said est-grad Denver, who is on the board of the Hunger Project, "It provides a framework of support for the people [meaning the experts] at the core."
"I've wanted to improve the quality of life on this planet, and here was a place to start," he said. "See you on the slopes."
Then I reached Harry Chapin, singer/song writer and political activist, as driven as Denver is laid back. Turned on to hunger by "rock priest" Bill Ayres, Chapin finances World Hunger Year and the Washington-based Food Policy Center, hunger-education projects. He was at the point of the lobbying campaign that got Congress to call for a presidential commission last year.
Former Carter adviser Peter Bourne, who worked up the issue, found Carter initially skeptical of creating yet another study group. Instead, the president decided to organize a commission to select out doable things. Chapin, with Denver, went aboard, plus assorted experts and pols.
In our conversation, Chapin was eager to talk about the substance of food policy. Several times he cited author Frances Moore Lappe, a critic of big American and multinational food corporations. What with giving 200-plus concerts a year, half of them hunger benefits"), he has managed to read well into some aspects of the subject.
He, too, focused on public attitudes. "I find a vacuum in the visibility and knowledgeability of the issue. We have no cohesive food policy. Americans are right to question our policy. Every poll shows that people care about hunger, but they think existing programs are ineffective."
He added: "I am not an 'esty' [devotee of Erhard's est]. It is not enough to be conscious of hunger. The first rule of political organization is to give people something specific to push. There is the beginning of a hunger movement in this country. The test of the programs we [of the presidential commission] propose will be which are effective."
Later he phoned back to say that the unique feature of this commission, to have one year to make recommendations and a second year to promote them, stemmed specifically from the congressional resolution that he helped lobby through.
I like it that Chapin and Denver are on the hunger commission. They are not untutored, still less unfeeling. They have constituencies that at once earn them a hearing in Washington and give the commission a chance for a wider hearing in the country.
There is indeed a "hunger movement" in the United States: church and relief groups, farm and agribusiness interests, traditional friends of foreign aid, various parts of the federal bureaucracy. Demonstrably, however, this "movement" has not had the force so far to make American policy respond as it should to real world needs.
There are, of course, different views of which hunger programs are the most feasible and promising. The commission's choices, borrowing from the prevailing expert and political consensus, will center not on food relief but on ways to help developing countries both grow more food themselves and distribute it in a fairer way.
Whether Denver, coming kind of from the right, and Chapin, from the left, can bring important new support to well-designed food programs strikes me as precisely the kind of worthwhile political experiment one would expect from a president tuned to new currents, as Jimmy Carter plainly is.