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BOOK REVIEW / BIOGRAPHY : Following the Pied Piper of Progressive Political Change : NEVER STOP RUNNING: Allard Lowenstein and the Struggle to Save American Liberalism by William H. Chafe ; Basic Books / HarperCollins, $28, 592 pages

January 12, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Allard Lowenstein was something of a cult figure in the '60s and '70s--he served only a single term in Congress and died at 51--yet biographer William H. Chafe is moved to call him "one of the pivotal figures who shaped American political culture during the post-World War II era."

How and why Lowenstein became a Pied Piper of progressive politics is the theme of Chafe's absorbing new biography, "Never Stop Running." Although Lowenstein is best remembered as the architect of the "Dump Johnson" movement that prompted Lyndon Johnson to withdraw from the 1968 presidential campaign, Chafe's book allows us to see Lowenstein as a person whose lifelong identity crisis is emblematic of an era and a generation.

"At the heart of Lowenstein's liberalism was a tension," writes Chafe, a history professor at Duke University. "He lived on the edge of conventional liberalism, torn between complacent New Deal-type homilies and a radical challenge to all comfortable and entrenched institutions."

As we discover in "Never Stop Running," the tension in Lowenstein's political identity can best be understood as the expression of much deeper disturbances, all of which Chafe explores with both candor and insight.

Lowenstein was troubled by his Jewishness, his sexuality, his family relationships, and--above all--his "sense of marginality," an agonizing self-doubt that expressed itself in everything from an obsession with the length of his nose to a curious ambivalence about electioneering on his own behalf.

"One can imagine the turbulence and anxiety of a young man like Allard Lowenstein as he sought to struggle with these issues," Chafe writes. "Was he Jewish or not Jewish? A 'normal' man, with 'normal' sexual instincts, or 'peculiar'. . . ? How could he live, carve out a community, define a lifestyle, become a person at home with himself, publicly and privately, in the face of such tensions?"

"Never Stop Running" is not quite a work of psychohistory, but Chafe is interested in the emotional crucible in which Lowenstein's political credo was cooked up, and he is not shy about suggesting direct linkages between, for example, Lowenstein's troubled relationship with his father and his later willingness to challenge an incumbent Democratic President.

Chafe discloses that Lowenstein was a teen-ager before he discovered that his mother had died when he was still an infant--the very fact of his mother's existence was withheld from him by his father, who never revealed that his wife was Lowenstein's stepmother.

"The most significant aspect of Lowenstein's discovery," Chafe offers, "was his realization that the central figure of power and authority in his life was both the author of the conspiracy of silence and the one person he could never talk to about it."

Chafe describes Lowenstein's early and enduring activism in the anti-war and civil rights movements in sharp and penetrating detail, and he is perfectly willing to consider the darker side of Lowenstein's record.

For example, Chafe observes that Lowenstein brought a "demonic intensity" to his work in the National Student Assn.--and he chose to overlook or actively conceal the fact that the NSA was financed by the CIA.

The enigmatic relationship between Lowenstein and the CIA, writes Chafe, "could easily become a surgical probe into all the implications of working as a liberal activist inside, rather than outside, the prevailing structure of power and values."

Indeed, Chafe is always quick to speculate on the private meanings of a public stance, and he argues that Lowenstein used politics as a drug to ease his emotional pain.

"He craved intimacy with men but ran away from confronting all the inner conflicts and secret desires that lasting intimacy of that kind might involve," Chafe writes. "Instead, he became someone devoted to causes and to movements . . . as though sheer activity provided the best means of escaping his problems and enhancing his self-image."

Throughout his life, Lowenstein played the role of confessor, as Chafe puts it, and he attracted a great number of groupies, proteges and disciples, including such future presidential aspirants as Tom Harkin, Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley. And his habit of collecting people helps to explain why he was so beloved in his own lifetime and so well remembered after his death within certain political circles.

But it also explains how Lowenstein, long in decline and haunted by visions of his death, fell victim to one of his followers, a troubled young man who shot Lowenstein to death in 1980. Lowenstein's reckless magic--his taste for "relationships so crammed with volatile emotion that each contained the potential to explode"--finally killed him.

Chafe likens Lowenstein's life and death to a Greek tragedy. But the fact is that "Never Stop Running" is a distinctly American tragedy, and Chafe has achieved a degree of grandeur and drama in a work of biography that one might expect to encounter only in the Great American Novel.

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