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The Second Assassination of Al Lowenstein

Documentation Concerning Serious Factual Errors In Forthcoming Book by Richard Cummings Purportedly About Allard K. Lowenstein

compiled by Gary Bellow, by Jeffrey S. Robbins, by Ronald J. Tabak
privately circulated, 390 pp.

People who get written about in newspapers know that a correction never catches up with a mistake. The correction, if it is made at all, straggles in days or weeks later, and is printed in an obscure part of the paper, under an unexciting heading like “Editor’s Note.” It is an imperfect procedure at best.

The victims of mistakes made in books are less lucky. Publishers occasionally promise a corrected second edition but they usually don’t regard themselves as responsible for the accuracy of what they publish; accuracy is something for authors to worry about. Nor do careless publishing houses pay much of a price in reputation. Most of us know what newspaper Janet Cooke wrote for. But how many people outside the book industry know who Clifford Irving’s publisher was? Apart from a lawsuit, there is little a person about whom an inaccurate book has been written can do; and if that person is no longer living, even the courts are closed.

Still, there are times when one must try to set the record straight; and seldom has the effort been made with such cause as in the present case. More is involved here than mere error. For Richard Cummings has committed, with the collaboration of his publisher, Grove Press, what is more than a series of mistakes, something closer to the attempted murder of a dead man’s honor.

Allard K. Lowenstein, born in Newark, New Jersey, on January 16, 1929, and assassinated in New York City on March 14, 1980, was a remarkable politician. He was the son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His father, who gave up a professorship of biochemistry at Columbia to join the family restaurant business, was an active socialist and a prominent supporter of Jewish educational charities. Allard Lowenstein went to the Ethical Culture School and to Horace Mann; to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose liberal president, Frank Graham, became his mentor, and where he got involved in civil rights and student politics; and to the Yale Law School. In 1950, at the age of twenty-one, Lowenstein became president of the National Student Association. For the next thirty years he was a restless samurai of American liberalism, moving from cause to job to campaign.

He agitated against fascism in Spain and racism in South Africa; wrote a fine book, Brutal Mandate, about a trip he took to South-West Africa; worked in reform Democratic politics in Manhattan. He was at one time or another a foreign-policy assistant to Senator Hubert Humphrey; a teacher at Stanford and at North Carolina State College; the national chairman of Americans for Democratic Action; a campaign organizer for many liberal politicians, including Adlai Stevenson, Eugene McCarthy, Jerry Brown, and Edward Kennedy; a lawyer in New York and Mississippi; a member of Congress; the only white board member of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference; and an ambassador to the Human Rights Commission of the UN under Andrew Young.

Lowenstein played a singular role in the civil rights and antiwar movements, the upheavals that shaped so much of the politics of the 1960s. He was as responsible as anyone else for two efforts that hastened the end of black disfranchisement in the Deep South: the Mississippi Freedom Vote of 1963, which led to the formation of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the destruction of Jim Crow in the national party; and the Freedom Summer of 1964, which brought one thousand student volunteers (including Andrew Goodman and Mickey Schwerner) to Mississippi, and helped guarantee the passage of the Voting Rights Act. In 1965 Lowenstein began organizing students against the Vietnam War. He deliberately recruited young people whose participation would get sympathetic public attention: student-body presidents against the war, Peace Corps returnees against the war, seminarians against the war, Rhodes scholars against the war.

He is perhaps best known for leading, with Curtis Gans, the movement that brought Eugene McCarthy and then Robert Kennedy into the 1968 Democratic presidential race and forced Lyndon Johnson to withdraw as a candidate for reelection. Lowenstein pleaded repeatedly with Kennedy to run, and after Kennedy gave his final refusal Lowenstein told him, “You understand, of course, that there are those of us who think the honor and direction of the country are at stake…. We’re going to do it without you, and that’s too bad because you could have been president of the United States.” By the time Kennedy got around to announcing his candidacy, Lowenstein was firmly committed to McCarthy. Kennedy never stopped trying to persuade Lowenstein to join with him. Before Kennedy made his victory speech the night of the California primary he asked an aide to get Lowenstein on the telephone; Lowenstein was in his bedroom on Long Island, holding the line, when Kennedy was shot.

Lowenstein ran for office himself—twice for the Senate and ten times for Congress, from six different districts in and around New York. He won only once—in 1968, in a Long Island congressional district to which he had gone partly to escape the conflict he felt between his public commitment to McCarthy and his private preference for and friendship with Kennedy. The Republicans in the state legislature (with the acquiescence of the machine Democrats) promptly gerrymandered him. In 1970 he ran more strongly than before in the parts of his old district left to him, but he lost that election and never won another.

This summary suggests the extent of Lowenstein’s activities. It also suggests the fragmented quality some people saw in him. Actually, Lowenstein’s many passions were all of a piece; the wildly varied things he did were all in the service of a coherent political vision. He was always being told that he was too old to be running around stirring up students, that he had better settle on some sort of conventional career or he would lose his “credibility.” Yet if he had not been something of a vagabond, he probably could never have performed the special political role he devised for himself—the role of an intermediary. He tried to link Mississippi blacks with Notre Dame fraternity boys, Spanish exiles with West Side reformers, Afrikaners with third world revolutionaries, “the kids” with “the system.” He was that rarity, a political figure at home in both electoral and protest politics. The mixture opened him to the risk of being thought a dreamer by practical politicians and a manipulator by radical idealists. But at his best he was able to fuse the two, bringing the energy and moral witness of protest into electoral politics and introducing protesting groups to the disciplines and practical possibilities of elections.

Lowenstein was always late, he lived on junk food and milkshakes, and his clothes were a mess. But he had immense energy, and he was able to concentrate it on the person or the task at hand with exceptional clarity of mind. He was a powerful extemporaneous speaker. Sam Brown, the antiwar organizer who became a Colorado politician, once called him the “white Martin Luther King”; and with an audience of students or liberals he could establish an emotional rapport as strong as King’s with black churchgoers. Lowenstein spoke constantly—David Halberstam calculated that in the eighteen months leading up to the 1968 Democratic national convention he made 2,367 speeches in 1,392 cities1—and he could be as persuasive with one person as with an audience of a thousand.

He was himself a protégé—of Frank Graham, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Norman Thomas, the three people he most admired—and in his campus travels he in his turn acquired protégés, by the dozen. I never became one of them, but I was part of a larger network of thousands who were drawn to him. I met him in 1963, when he came to Harvard to give a talk about South Africa and Mississippi. Afterward a half-dozen of us went with him to the Hong Kong restaurant, on Massachusetts Avenue, and ate terrible Chinese food and talked until the place closed for the night.

Lowenstein had a thick, weight-lifter’s neck and torso which made his head seem a little too small for his body, and he had thinning hair, Coke-bottle glasses, a big nose, and a delicate mouth. Yet he had “presence,” which came, I suppose, from his limitless self-confidence and from the infectious urgency of his mind and voice. At the Hong Kong we all talked mostly about the excitement of changing the world (as well as about old Humphrey Bogart movies, and we gossiped about famous liberals). Lowenstein dominated the table, as we wanted him to, but he let the talk take its own course, and somehow he made each of us feel almost as brilliant, as funny, and, potentially, as dedicated to light and truth as he so obviously was himself.

There were other such evenings over the years. I was active in the National Student Association, and Lowenstein, NSA’s most illustrious old boy, could be relied on to turn up each August at the association’s annual congress. (Lowenstein is said to have inspired George S. Kaufmann’s remark, “The student leader of today is the student leader of tomorrow.”) At the 1967 NSA congress, at the University of Maryland, I saw Lowenstein launch the “Dump Johnson” campaign with an exhilarating extemporaneous speech. (I’ve never heard a better one, before or since.) During the 1970s Lowenstein maintained a semipermanent lunchtime symposium at the Hyde Park Delicatessen on Madison Avenue, one of several Manhattan restaurants owned by his family, and I occasionally joined it. I wrote two “Talk of the Town” stories about him for The New Yorker.

I also worked as a volunteer in two or three of his congressional campaigns. Whenever I did, I made sure I had some specific task to do—usually it was editing a campaign tabloid—and then left as soon as the task was done, a few days later. Lowenstein could be immensely demanding. He consumed other people’s energy, physical and emotional, almost as extravagantly as he expended his own. I knew people who had broken with him over this—people he had “burned out”—and I didn’t want to join them. As it was, at the end of a sixteen-hour day of campaigning Al would come to the print shop where I was working on a campaign flyer and argue with me about the wording of headlines until three in the morning. He liked to do everything himself, which was both a strength and a weakness.

The last time I saw Al Lowenstein was toward the end of 1979, when I was living in Washington. He called one afternoon to ask if I could put him up for the night. His custom all his life was to cadge a bed from friends when he traveled. It held down expenses and helped him to maintain his vast circle. He was good company, and people were usually happy to oblige. This time he arrived at around midnight, and we stayed up talking until one-thirty or so. He was gone very early the next morning, the guest bed neatly made. A few months later he was murdered, shot in his law office by a former protégé, a civil rights worker whom he had brought into the movement. The man had gone insane, and Al was trying to help him. I went to the memorial service for Lowenstein at the Central Synagogue, on East Fifty-fifth Street, an emotional event attended by 2,500 people whose political, racial, and national heterogeneity was a reflection of the dead man’s skill at building unlikely coalitions.

  1. 1

    Halberstam’s article may be found in Lowenstein: Acts of Courage and Belief, edited by Gregory Stone and Douglas Lowenstein (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983). The book also contains transcripts of about a dozen of Lowenstein’s speeches.

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