Daniel L. Feldman

A talk at the Kennedy Institute of Politics, and Its Consequences: Allard K. Lowenstein

In National Politics on April 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm

I did not go into law school with my eyes open. Somehow I had gotten the idea that I was supposed to go to law school if I wanted to go into politics. Besides, I loved the wonderful Professor Henry Abraham’s constitutional law class in college (he visited Columbia from Penn that year, prior to his permanent appointment at Virginia). But especially after the Urban Fellowship Program year, I found it painful to focus on first year classes at law school – contracts, property, civil procedure; torts and criminal law weren’t quite as bad – so I rarely did. Instead, I played squash, practiced Tae Kwan Do, joined Lincoln’s Inn (a dining-and-social club affiliated with the Law School), taught a course at the Cambridge Adult Education Center on New York City politics and economics, and served as pre-law adviser to one of the Harvard College undergraduate “houses,” Dudley House. I also hung out, when I could, at the Kennedy Institute of Politics.

My mother, ordinarily a very tough critic, had on some occasion given a rave review to a talk she had heard on the radio by a fellow named Allard K. Lowenstein. As I later learned, Al had played a central role in the civil rights movement, as Hendrik Hertzberg noted, “the only white board member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference,” and led much of the student movement against the Vietnam War, tried to draft RFK and did draft Eugene McCarthy as the anti-war candidate for president against Lyndon Johnson (RFK subsequently entered the race).

I went to hear him speak at the Institute of Politics with no special expectations. President Kennedy’s death seemed to have given me some kind of immunization. Much as I liked John Lindsay, virtually nothing said by subsequent politicians ever really moved me. Naturally I shared none of the response to that so-called “great communicator,” Ronald Reagan; but Bill Clinton’s famous charm, even in a one-on-one setting, also completely failed to impress me, although a thought he was a good president. There has only been one exception. Lowenstein spoke for almost an hour, non-stop. When he finished, I walked from the very back of the room up to the podium and said to him “I will be working for you this summer.”

If he had been unable or unwilling to pay me, I would have survived by eating grass off people’s lawns. Come hell or high water, I was going to work for that man.

In fact, Al was perfectly happy to hire me at some tiny salary, for which I was very grateful. He had raised the funds for Registration Summer 1971, which would pay me and other student leaders to organize registration drives for the nation’s 18, 19 and 20-year olds. They had newly won the right to vote under the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, which was then well under way to its ratification on July 1, 1971. We all thought these new young voters would help an anti-war candidate to defeat Nixon in 1972.   Come June, I helped organize a giant anti-war rally for Al in Mineola, Long Island, where I met an impressive young Smith College activist named Cecilia Gardner. Al’s friends from the civil rights movement had come on board for his anti-war efforts as well. When I found myself among thousands of people singing “We Shall Overcome,” as I had as an eleven or twelve year-old at the (northern) civil rights marches my parents had taken us to, I knew I was in the right place. Shortly thereafter, Al gave me my major assignment: I was now the statewide Registration Summer coordinator for Indiana. I was on a plane to Indianapolis two days later.

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