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Hands Across America's Nonpolitical Status Challenged by Partisan Anti-Hunger Activists

Last in a series assessing the continuing influence of mega - events like Hands Across America on social issues.

June 19, 1986|DENNIS McDOUGAL and VICTOR VALLE | Times Staff Writers

It was supposed to have been nonpartisan, non-denominational and, above all, nonpolitical.

Liberal celebrities like Yoko Ono, Jane Fonda and Harry Belafonte held hands in the same line as President Reagan, New York's Cardinal John O'Connor and Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley.

The one thing Hands Across America participants were asked to leave at home on the afternoon of May 25 was their personal politics.

"A lot of people are trying to make us into a lobby, but personally, I'd rather play some role that is above politics," said Ken Kragen, the man who created Hands Across America.

But both his fiercest critics and closest allies are now saying it is impossible to remain apolitical. Hunger and homelessness in America are questions that must be answered in Congress, at the White House and, ultimately, at the ballot box--not in well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual mega-events like Hands Across America.

It is the one major point, for example, where pop humanitarian Kragen differs with his Irish counterpart, rock singer Bob Geldof, a founder of Live Aid and Sport Aid.

"It's like Ken not to be political," Geldof told The Times. "I know he doesn't like to get involved. But that's what it is: political. One hundred percent."

It is becoming increasingly clear that few in the business of providing for the hungry and homeless ever believed Hands Across America was anything but a political statement. Anti-poverty advocates wasted little time turning Hands into a partisan tool in Washington.

The congressional authors of two major appropriations bills, which would be worth more than $5 billion in relief for America's underclass, have timed the introduction of their legislation to coincide with Hands Across America. Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.) plans to introduce his Homeless Person's Survival Act next week and Rep. Leon E. Panetta (D-Carmel Valley) introduced his Hunger Relief Act of 1986 the same week as Hands Across America.

Panetta is openly soliciting Kragen's USA for Africa Foundation for an endorsement of his bill.

But officials of USA for Africa, which sponsored Hands Across America, are reluctant to endorse any political action for fear that it could jeopardize the tax-exempt status of their foundation. Under federal law, tax-exempt organizations are severely limited in their ability to lobby Congress.

Ironically, the problems that USA for Africa officials want to solve can only be solved by successfully lobbying Congress, say critics.

"In the long run, the hands that are going to have the most impact are the hands that write to members of Congress," said Arthur Simon, executive director of Bread for the World.

Unlike the USA for Africa Foundation, Simon's 50,000- member organization is not tax-exempt and has regularly lobbied for anti-hunger legislation for the last 12 years. Bread for the World's lobbying is nonpartisan, Simon said. Though anti-hunger legislation tends to originate from the political left more often than the right, Bread for the World woos both Republicans and Democrats with its $2.5-million annual budget.

But Hands Across America has carried the issue beyond Capitol Hill and set it squarely on the front porch of the White House.

Elected officials such as Panetta and Leland, as well as other advocates of the homeless and hungry, view Hands Across America as a decisive opportunity for criticizing Reagan Administration policies that they claim have worsened the plight of the poorest in America. Many see the event's 5.6 million participants as potential voters in their camp and an army of lobbyists to improve conditions for the homeless and hungry.

More conservative voices want Hands Across America to stick to Kragen's original apolitical vision.

As a direct result of this tug of war, Kragen's USA for Africa Foundation is facing an identity crisis.

Kragen predicted that a meeting of the USA for Africa board of directors scheduled for Tuesday is going to be a long one: "I think we're going to have to decide whether to remain a charitable foundation or be a lobbying force.

"We're trying to stay bipartisan, and from one standpoint it's even more important to do so now than ever before."

Some of the pressure upon USA for Africa to take a more political stance is coming from churches and synagogues. Priests, ministers and rabbis armed with strongly worded political pamphlets were there in New York's Battery Park on Hands Across America Sunday, but they weren't holding hands.

"Standing in line is not the solution," said a priest, reading from a pamphlet he handed out to hand holders and spectators alike. "Public officials must be held responsible for changes in public policies and funding for programs affecting the ability of poor people to feed themselves and their children."

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