In the Roosevelt Room of the White House, President Carter sat with assorted experts and entertainers last fall and let them in on a secret.
"When I'm through as president," he said, "if there is anything I want to work on it is the problem of world hunger."
Today, when it is fashionable along Washington's cocktail circuit to speculate about how soon Carter will be through as president, it is at least as worhtwhile to take a look at how Carter's administration is coping with the problem that holds his special interest: world hunger.
Those people were in the Roosevelt Room last fall because Carter had just named them to a presidential Commission on World Hunger. Carter is not one for appointing commissions and committees, as he said during his 1976 campaign, but he was urged to take this step by Congress, and so he said he hoped it would make a difference.
Whether or not the commission makes the sort of differences that puts food in empty bellies remains uncertain. For the commission is just a late starter on a track that already has been traveled by Truman's Cabinet Committee on Food; Eisenhower's Food Program, World Food Bank and World Food Forum (plus National Freedom From Hunger Week); Johnsons's World Food Panel, Food for Freedom and War on Hunger; Nixon's White House Conference on Food, Nutrition and Health, and Ford's World Food and Nutrition study.
Each effort has produced reports and recommendations of voluminous length. But there are more hungry people in the world today than everbefore - at least 400 million people do not get their needed daily caloric diet, experts say.
So there is considerable question as to whether Carter's commission will do more to end hunger than simply to provide experts with one more reader's digest.
"If my father can go from being almost unknown to being president in four years," says Chip Carter, "we can certainly end hunger in 20 years."
It is September 1978, and the president's son is in Tarrytown, N.Y., where he has been sent as his father's personal representatives to a three-day symposium sponsored by The Hunger Project. This outfit, it turns out, is the latest creation of Werner Erhard, master of pop uplift and founder of "est" - Erhard Seminars Training - the crusade that pushes human improvement with evangelistic California zeal, and which has endowed its creator with praise, prayers and paydays.
In the fall, when the president's commission is formed, Denver and Chapin are on it - sitting alongside experts such as Jean Mayer, the president of Tuffs University and chairman of Richard Nixon's conference on hunger ("Jean Mayer really sees why we need a commission," says one member, "because he solved it all 10 years ago"), and this commission's chairman, Sol Linowitz, former board chairman of Xerox, former U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, former U.S. negotiator of the Panama Canal treaties, and now a Washington lawyer with widespread international/financial connections.
The commission, it turns out, is a carefully mixed assortment, an effort to blend celebrities who will generate publicity, experts who will generate acceptability, and politicians (liberal and conservative) who will generate votes in Congress.
This commission is in the rare position of being able to stay around for one year after it issues its report this summer, so it can help lobby for and implement its recommendations.
Linowitz thinks this is the key.
"I've been on too many commissions that just present a report to the president - maybe, if they're lucky, get their picture in The Washington Post or New York Times - and then it's all forgotten," he says, learning forward and choosing his words carefully. " . . .I don't want to be misunderstood. But I'm in the fortunate position where, if necessary; I can get in touch with anyone in this town - CyVance, Mike Blumenthal and so on. When I want it from the horse's mouth, I can get it."
April 24, 1979
MEMORANDUM TO: Ambassador Linowitz
FROM: Dan [Daniel E Shaughnessy, executive director of the commission]
SUBJECT: Major areas of Recommendations
I believe that if the commission is to have a meaningful impact on world hunger, then certain major and often controversial findings will have to be stated in no uncertain terms .
. . .The U.S. Congress is basically hypocritical about world hunger and even domestic hunger. It professes to want to do something about the poor and hungry, but refuses to make the critical decisions that could make a difference. It does not appropriate needed funds and easily succumbs to influential "interest groups" that oppose needed actions . . .Grass-roots support for legislative changes will make the task easier for congressmen to swallow .
Daniel Shaughnessy, the commission's executive director, and many on the commission, will be pressing to try to get the administration and Congress to raise the amounts of money that are spent on sending food abroad. The problem is that, while solving world hunger is popular, spending more for foreign aid is not - and food aid generally is lumped under the umbrella of foreign aid, thus making it politically unpopular.
While the commission line is likely to be unpopular with Congress, the commission's final recommendation on the government's organization will likely be unpopular with the White House and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. For the commission will likely be critical of Carter's recent reorganization of U.S.foreign aid programs.
"I don't think it does enough," says Linowitz. "I mean, there are 26 separate agencies in the federal government that now have a piece of this world hunger problem."
Shaughnessy says it stronger, in a memo to the commission staff:
"The president's recent proposal to reorganize U.S. foreign assistance activities is weak as a result of bureaucratic distrust and 'turf protection' and requires stengthening if U.S. efforts to combat hunger and proverty are to be taken seriously."
In the reorganization fight over turf within the administration, he says, Treasury won control of financial aid institutions, State won control of all other aid institutions, and international food aid efforts were left hanging.
April 18, 1979
MEMORANDUM TO: Commission Staff
. . .The major role of the U.S.domestic and international food industry must include some form of social consciousness regarding its impact on hunger .
The executive director is talking about action that will deal with cases such as the controversy over the Nestles corporation: their advertisements for baby formula in poor countries have come under heavy attack from people who charge that the ads are aimed at convincing poor people to by formulas they cannot afford, instead of using mother's milk.
Shaughnessy has suggested that the corporations be called upon to draft their own self-regulated code of conduct, defining "social and moral responsibilities."
But Linowitz, who comes from the world of international business, takes a softer view. "Some favor that," he says, "but some feel the other way. I think the commission has got to strike a balance, and applaud what business has done to contribute to solving world hunger . . ."
May 4, 1979
MEMORANDUM TO: Dan Shaughnessy
FROM: Sol M.Linowitz
. . .The president has indicated to Prime Minister Ohira of Japan that he regards food as one of the key items for discussions at the Summit in Tokyo . . . He, therefore, would like to have five or six major recommendations affecting developing countries . . .
It is a rare opportunity for us and gives us a chance to have extreme impact .
When the president wants a memo, it is a rare opportunity for extraordinary impact - in the bureaucratic sense. But the actual impact in Tokyo of the U.S. proposals on hunger may be far less than extraordinary, even with the best efforts of the commission and its staff, and the best intentions and commitment of the president.
For there may not be much that can be done about hunger in Tokyo, where the only people meeting will be the western powers - Britain, West Germany. France, Japan and the United States - and where energy and the economy ware expected to dominate discussions.
According to Linowitz and Shaughnessy, the comissions's main recommendation for the Tokyo summit is likely to be remedial - an effort to get the president to persuade his summit colleagues to get the big country/small country negotiations for a commercial world grain reserve started once again.
Negotiations between developed nations and the developing countries collapsed not long ago in a haystack of familiar complaints: in general developing countries complaining that the developed countries did not treat them as full and equal partners; in specific, the developing countries complained that the release price of grain for the reserves was too high and developed counties, including agriculture interests in the United States, were complaining that it was not high enough.
So Carter's hunger commission, its staff and its chariman will suggest that the the big powers show good faith to the smaller countries by agreeing to set a figure for a consistent target level of stockpiles for emergency aid. (This target level agreement, known as the Food Aid Convention, had been in the works, but was suspended by the big powers, in pique, when the more inclusive talks on the grain reserve collapsed.)
Says Linowitz: "The U.S. has got to take the lead."
The president's hunger commission has had to face the reality that, in the end, there may not be much that it can do to end world hunger. For the central problem of hunger, according to the last group that studied it in the Ford years, is poverty.
Production of more grain alone is no the answer to feeding the hungry, according to the study, done under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences. Developing countries must make broad changes in their social and economic structures, the study said. It cited the fact that U.S. storage depots were holding 30 million tons of unsold wheat in 1977 from the 1976 harvest - yet 450 million people in the world were suffering from malnutrition.
The problem is that just as oil is money and copper is money, so too, grain is money. Poor countries have not had the money to buy needed grain, in part; and they have not had sufficient systems for storage and transportation for grain. Farmers in developed countries need to be paid for the grain they grow - which is one reason why America's Food for Peace programs have always been so popular with Midwest congressmen and senators - liberals like Hubert Hurphrey and conservatives like Bob Dole.
Since September, the 14-member staff of hunger commission has been working in one of Washington's most picturesque settings - one of those trim Layayette Park, just across Pennyslavia Avenue from the White House.
EPILOGUE: Part of the job of getting the country serious about hunger apparently involves getting on television.
April 19, 1979
MEMORANDUM TO: Ambassador linowitz
SUBJECT: Meeting with Phil Donahue, April 17
. . . I had the opportunity to meet with Phil Donahue in Chicago to discuss . . . his interest in having you and other comissioners on his show . . . While Mr. Donahue was . . . very generous with his time (he spent nearly an hour and a half with me), his style is not a polite, informative or sophisticated Agronsky or McNeil-Lehrer type format. He wants to ask tough, controversial, and, perhaps, out of context questions about the problems of hunger . . .
It appears obvious that if we are to generate media attention to . . . bring about the public education required of our recommedations, then we are going to have to be viewed as somewhat radical, nonestablishment, and prepared to make some major recommendations dealing with significant political or policy changes. Short of that, interest in what we are doing will be little or none . . .