Stirring, symphonic music blares from the movie soundtrack. Cameras pan classrooms and the faces of absorbed, teen-age boys; carpentry shops filled with eager apprentices; barracks exploding with singing, clapping, and guitar-playing; the snow-covered earth of Maryland's Catoctin Mountain.
"This is about a war our country has made up its mind to fight. A war on poverty," the narrator intones. ". . . A war that's going to be fought on many fronts [pause], against an enemy that is cruel and big and illusive, and has been around for a long, long time. One place we're going after it is here, in a Job Corps camp."
This is the Job Corps as its planners envisioned it and presented it to the American people in its early days -- forceful, hopeful, worthy of trumpet voluntaries and drumrolls -- the most revolutionary social program spawned by the War on Poverty.
The 15-minute movie, produced by the federal government, starred America's pilot Job Corps center -- Camp Catoctin -- and the first 30 boys who entered it on Jan. 15, 1965. The film was used throughout the year to promote and explain the Johnson administration's young antipoverty crusade to the nation; it was one of several ways in which the Catoctin center came to embody the early days of the War on Poverty.
There was one problem with the euphoria that echoed through the film: It wasn't justified. The movie, "The First Thirty," was making the rounds of America's public schools and civic organizations long after many of its 30 stars had left or been kicked out of the pilot center.
The tone of the movie reflected the heady atmosphere of the Office of Economic Opportunity, where idealistic social scientists and bureaucrats plotted the War on Poverty. Top officials did not scale down their rhetoric, even after a rash of dropouts at Catoctin (40 percent turnover in the first five months) raised fundamental questions about the program. The reason was simple: OEO was getting into cosmetics. The War on Poverty was losing its innocence.
"We built up expectations and then we got the money, and then it didn't live up to the expectations. So then you had to explain it to Congress," recalls sociologist David Gottlieb, who, as director of planning and programming for the Job Corps, was in charge of reporting the program's results to Congress. "Before you knew it, the issue was responding to newspaper stories, not running a program. You really stop telling the truth about what's happening.
"I can find some good reasons for it. There were things I said and covered up -- racial fights, discipline problems [in Job Corps centers] -- because I felt the program hadn't been given a chance yet. I thought: If this comes out now, it will kill the program. It will kill it for the kids who need it. I made that decision and I lived with it. And I don't know of a government program that doesn't do that."
In those reports, OEO exaggerated the Job Corps' success rate well beyond what center staffs saw from the front lines. Dropouts who said they were leaving to go back to school or to join the military were listed in the reports as "graduates." Dropouts who left in the first four weeks were put in a separate category; tie first four weeks were now a "trial period."
The distortion of data was an extreme but logical outgrowth of OEO's all-out effort to beat back conservative opposition and sustain the momentum provided by the passage of the 1964 antipoverty legislation. Only a year earlier, presidential candidate Garry Goldwater had said in a widely publicized West Virginia speech that there was no serious poverty in America. And his star campaigner, a former actor named Ronald Reagan, singled out the Job Corps for attack in his standard speech. Citing its price tag of $4,700 per youth, Reagan said tartly: "We can send them to Harvard for $2,700."
The image consciousness and concern over momentum emanated from the top -- from OEO director Sargent Shriver. His style of irrepressible idealism set the tone of the office and all its programs; his seven-day weeks set the pace. An experienced politician and the brother-in-law of the late President Kennedy, he understood that momentum and results -- next to appropriations -- were the lifeblood of a young program.
"I know this town and I know that if you're starting something in Washington, D.C., it better be right the first time, especially if it's something for poor people," he said recently in his Watergate law office.
"I also know that you can't win if you start out saying that victory is impossible. One of the problems with me is that I'm very, very optimistic. But I'm also quite realistic in seeing that very high hopes aren't going to be fulfilled. One thing I learned from my father-in-law, Joseph Kennedy, is that if you're right 54 percent of the time, you're doing pretty well. So I charge up everyone to go for 100 percent, but I know 54 is more realistic."
Chester Maggard, one of Catoctin's pilot participants from Letcher County, Ky., got an inside look at OEO through a program that placed the most promising Job Corps recruits in temporary jobs in the Washington office. Now a $730-a-week truck driver, based in Reading, Pa., he says he was not impressed with what he saw.
"OEO was a clique-type place. To me, it was like a bunch of intellectuals who thought they knew what made the world tick," Maggard says. "They'd make a big deal out of everything. They got a big idea to make rural centers. Then they got the big idea to make urban centers.Then Shriver asked us out to a horse farm and they wanted us to wear these little blue jackets with Job Corps on them."
Catoctin played a major role in the push to keep up the momentum. Because of its proximity to Washington, it was used as a showcase for politicians and dignitaries who wished to look in on the War on Poverty. In March 1965, alone, the center hosted 3,000 visitors, including President Lyndon Johnson, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Defense Secretary Robert Mcnamara. Catoctin became America's picture window on the Great Society. Media Built the Image
The press played a cooperative role in this effort by sending out dispatches about Catoctin that mirrored the hopes and dreams of the antipoverty planners. Columnist Joseph Alsop, squired through Catoctin by a Job Corps official, wrote on March 8, 165: "Of all possible experiences, indeed, the most moving is to see the rebirth of hope; and hope's rebirth is Camp Catoctin's aim and specialty."
No interviews with Job Corps boys betrayed the unhappiness that lead to large-scale dropouts in the next weeks.
One of the most widely circulated photos takenat Catoctin was shot on the day of Johnson's visit. While strolling the Catoctin grounds, the president sidled up to Wayne Holbrook of Wise, Va. Cameras popped, catching the towering Johnson as he hooked his hand inside the arm of the amazed young Holbrook, fixing a proud, presidential gaze on this happy trooper in what was then his favorite war.
If the early reports were overly positive, the fault lay partly with the pilot participants themselves. One of them, Baltimore's Gregory Ratliffe, recalls that he and others were more interested in getting their names in the paper than in telling theirproblems to reporters. By talking about dreams rather than complaints, he says, they were more likely to get quoted.
"When one of us said something they [reporters] wrote down, the others would start saying the same thing," recalls Ratliffe, now a factory foreman in Baltimore. "One group of 'em [reporters] set me up in a picture with a nurse and the line under it said, Corpsman going in to get medical attention,' and there wasn't anything wrong with me. Those reporters would eat what we'd feed 'em."
Ratliffe was one of four boys seated with Johnson for a coffee break during the president's March 10, 1965, visit to the center.
"We really hammed it up," Ratliffe recalls. "We knew it was his program and we told him what he wanted to hear. He was grinning harder than we were. He was just as thrilled as we were sitting with him.
"Then when he left, we realized it really was a good place in a way . . . . E realized that what was nice about it was we had contributed to it -- those of us who lasted that long. I remeber thinking, 'Boy, I must be getting up in this world meeting the president.'"
Because Catoctin was portrayed from the start as a showcase, it reflected on the whole Job Corps program.
"A lot depends on how you fellows make out," Johnson told the boys during his visit. "If you make a good job of it, the Congress will go along and make a lot of training available to other fellows." Thus, it was only logical that the Catoctin's 40 percent turnover rate, when discovered in mid-June, became front-page news in papers across the country.
The news hit as OEO's momentum was moving the Job Corps into a new frontier -- "Operation 10,000." This was a high-speed campaign to expand the enrollment of the young program to 10,000 boys and girls by the end of June 1965, six months and two weeks after the pilot center had opened.
The 10,000 campaign was ordered by Johnson himself, recalls Lewis Eigen, then associate director of Job Corps, who was placed in charge of the campaign. "Johnson wanted to show the nation that the War on Proverty meant business, that it was being fought for all the cities and rural areas across the country," Eigen says. This could best be demonstrated through Job Corps, Johnson decided, by taking youths out of cities across the country and placing them in centers, before the beginning of what was anticipated as a tense, hot summer.
Like everything else at OEO, the 10,000 campaign was waged like a war -- with round-the-clock vigor and determination. OEO officials nicknamed their planning office "the war room." They hung a United States map on the wall, showing all the Job Corps centers, with color-coded markers indicating how many recruits were enrolled in the centers and how many were on the way.
When they met the goal -- 10,000 by midnight June 30 -- the victorious generals opened champagne and smoked cigars in the war room. Recruits Bring Trouble
At the same moment, the new recruits were pouring into the centers, bringing unanticipated strains to the program. Recruiters had signed up hundreds of boys and girls with criminal records, along with others who had flunked or dropped out of school because of learning disabilities.
The center staffs were unprepared to deal with such a volatile mix of human needs. Judges had "sentenced" juvenile delinquents to the program with an ultimatum that became well-known at the time: "Go to jail or go to the Job Corps."
"I remember there were great moral debates among the liberals in the office over the problems of pushing kids into centers before the centers were ready, versus leaving them in the cities for the whole summer," Eigen recalls ". . . I learned something fundamental about government from that. It's rare when you're doing anything in the public sector that there is one monolithic ethic or goal. There are always tradeoffs."
Racial tensions exploded as rural whites and urban blacks, having lived their first 16 to 20 years in segregated, mutually hostile worlds, came together on a large scale. There were sexual assaults, gang fights and other forms of violence at both urban and rural centers. Much of the unrest was heavily publicized, but wherever possible, Gottlieb and center officials recall, it was minimized.
"We played that down," Gottlieb says. "All we wanted to do was get this program going and see what happened. But there's so much we should have said.
"We should have said, 'Yes, there are real problems when you mix blacks and whites and you know why? Because we've never done it before in this country and because there's racial hatred in this country, instead of saying that the reports of a race riot in this or that center were untrue, that it was really just a fight over a baseball game.
". . . We were so caught up in this thing and in what it could be. So we got carried away. Then you begin to learn. We did learn. The problem was we did not share enough of what we learned. We did not open up to the American people."
Even as the reality of the Job Corps was stumbling over the expectations that preceded it, unrelated forces outside OEO were undermining the antipoverty crusade. The unrest that shook the Job Corps centers in the wake of Operation 10,000 became fodder for conservative political opponents, and for citizen groups opposed to having the centers located in their towns.
The earlier era of prosperity and its attendant public generosity evaporated into one of domestic strife and racial unrest. On the all-important front of appropriations, the competition came from another war -- the one in Vietnam -- which swiftly stole the Johnson administration's attention from the war on poverty.
"We had expected a budget of $15-$16 billion in that second year. We ended up with $2 billion," Shriver recalls. "I went to the [Johnson] ranch in Texas and I took the $16 billion proposal with me [for the 1966 budget]. I knew we were never going to win. In [Johnson's] eyes, there was one overriding explanation: You couldn't go to Congress with that big a proposal for an election year. Politically it wasn't practical.He said to me: 'Congress doesn't act that way except in war.' Of course, at that point, this [the antipoverty crusade] was a war.
"He said Bob NcNamara had assured him they would spend $20 billion in Vietnam and the war would be done by Dcember 1966. The idea was that we had to fight this war this year. Next year, we'd get to the war on poverty. I think I knew then that 'next year' wasn't going to come."
From the beginning, the rumblings of Vietnam were audible at Catoctin, perhaps more so in retrospect. For example, on the day that Johnson visited the center, he had Rusk and McNamara with him. After an hour with the Job Corps recruits, they repaired to nearby Camp David for a secret conference on Vietnam. There they decided, it was later reported, to send 6,000 marines to Okinawa as replacements for 3,500 others recently dispatched to South Vietnam.
Political reporters later wrote of that day -- March 10, 1965 -- as symbolic of the warring compulsions of the Johnson administration.
Although the Vietnam War and the War on Poverty represented diametrically opposite forces during the Johnson presidency, hindsight shows some curious parallels: Both wars were plotted by men who were held out to the nation as "experts," yet who knew little about the enemy they hoped to conquer.When their designs proved inadequate, they did not admit their shortcomings. And when the casualties became untenable, they doctored the body counts -- or disguised the dropout rates -- in hopes of keeping their appropriations intact.
Catoctin and the Job Corps continued throughout the Johnson years, and then became chief targets of Richard Nixon's 1968 presidential campaign. Now it was Nixon's turn to doctor figures. The Job Corps cost $8,312 per youth in 1968-69, according to published studies. But in Nixon's campaign speeches, which portrayed the program as a wasteful extravaganza, the cost became $10,000. On election eve, he upped it to $12,000.
"For the past five years we have been deluged by government programs for the unemployed, programs for cities, programs for the poor, and we have reaped from these programs an ugly harvest of frustration, violence and failure across the land," Nixon declared.
Once elected, Nixon ordered the dismantling of OEO and the closing of more than half of the 106 Job Corps centers he had attacked so vehemently on the campaign trail. A group of Maryland officials, headed by then-governor Marvin Mandel, mounted a publicity blitz to try to save Catoctin from the Nixon ax.
"This action is clearly regressive," Mandel said at a press conference in April 1969. "It means more than 100 youngsters who would otherwise be given training for productive jobs in each training session will be denied that fair chance. We talk about moving people from the welfare rolls to payrolls, but then deny them the chance to get and keep decent paying jobs." t
The rescue mission went nowhere; the first wave of closings went forward on July 1, 1969. Catoctin, first center to open in the Great Society, was shut down on that first day of the Nixon cuts.