WASHINGTON — Arthur S. Flemming, still a tireless campaigner for social causes after toiling for nine Presidents, believes his fellow Republicans are sowing the seeds for a "grass-roots revolt" by pressing their plans to slash domestic programs, cut taxes for the wealthy and put an end to affirmative action.
In almost 60 years of public service, going back to Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, Flemming says, he has never seen anything like the present GOP drive to roll back social programs. And the drastic nature of the impending changes, he says, has produced a public restlessness that could presage the kind of turbulence that shook the nation during the 1960s, including civil disorders and a march on Washington.
In a conversation at The Times Washington bureau on June 12, his 90th birthday, Flemming, who served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's director of the Office of Defense Mobilization and then as his secretary of health, education and welfare, vividly recalled the former general's warning that a powerful military-industrial complex could adversely affect the nation's democratic processes. The Reagan Administration ignored Eisenhower's advice in the 1980s by spending lavishly on defense and cutting domestic programs, he said, and congressional leaders are ignoring it now--at the nation's peril.
Flemming was 34 when Roosevelt appointed him to the U.S. Civil Service Commission. He remained on the commission under President Harry S. Truman, before becoming president of his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University. He served in an official capacity with every Administration since the 1930s, except Bill Clinton's, though he was a delegate and speaker at the recent White House Conference on the Aging.
Appointed by President Richard M. Nixon to be chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, he served until President Ronald Reagan fired him about the time, in 1981, that the commission released a report defending affirmative action, "Affirmative Action in the 1980s: Dismantling the Process of Discrimination." "That report," says Flemming, laughing, "was not received with great enthusiasm at the White House."
Although he's stoop-shouldered now and walks slowly with the aid of a wooden cane, Flemming still flies around the country making speeches promoting social causes. He speaks forcefully and energetically and gesticulates with both hands, especially when expressing outrage at the GOP agenda.
His wife of 60 years, Bernice, says it's been "a roller-coaster life," balancing an official schedule that "boggles the mind" with time for a family that encompasses five children, 12 grandchildren and 13 great grandchildren. Flemming's formula for a long, full life? "Stay involved. Reminiscing is great, provided it's linked to the future. Someone once said, 'An older person needs a dream as well as a memory.' "
Question: \o7 How do you view the Supreme Court's decision on affirmative action?
\f7 Answer: It can be summed up best by Justice O'Connor's words, that federal set-aside plans are going to be subject to close scrutiny--just as the state set-aside plans are now subject to close scrutiny. It's kind of a setback, but the decision certainly does not deprive this nation of the role of affirmative action. She goes out of her way to say that close scrutiny does not mean that you're going to turn down the plan.
Q: \o7 As a strong supporter of affirmative action from the very outset, do you think that it has worked well?\f7
A: I think it's working very well. The results speak for themselves. As I look at the composition of the work force or the composition of any institution today, compared with what it was, there's been a tremendous improvement. An awful lot of work remains to be done, but we're headed in the right direction.
Q: \o7 What can you do to defend affirmative action while the Republicans are making a political issue of it and seem determined to discontinue it?\f7
A: This links up with what's happened over a period of 60 years. We've been moving forward as a national community in one area after another. In the 1930s, we began with the New Deal and Social Security and so on; and in '54, we got the Brown vs. Board of Education desegregation decision, and then we got the Civil Rights Act in '64. Certainly, in that 10-year period, we began to move forward in a very significant way.
But we're not moving forward on civil rights or on a good many other programs now, and the present attitude on the Hill really disturbs me. For the last 60 years, there's been plenty of argument but it has normally been between people who wanted to move forward 10 miles and others who wanted to move forward five miles--and then we compromised at seven miles. Now, the leaders of Congress want us to move backward, to retreat in one area after another--all the programs under Social Security, including Medicare, and the welfare programs.
That's what bothers me. This is a spirit I haven't seen in this nation for 60 years.