For instance, John F. Kennedy’s interest in poverty, which laid the groundwork for the War on Poverty, came because he read Dwight MacDonald’s long essay on Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. And thus a national crusade was born. If he’d missed that issue of The New Yorker, the path of American social policy might have proven quite different.Now that got my attention. I’d never heard of this. Is it really true? Did JFK really move to reduce poverty because of MacDonald’s New Yorker article? MacDonald’s review, titled “The Invisible Poor,” appeared in the January 19, 1963, issue. The full article can be read on the New Yorker website (Digital Edition link here).
If you search on “harrington macdonald kennedy” on Google, it quickly becomes evident that the story is an accepted piece of Kennedy administration lore. I’m guessing that this was a fairly celebrated incident at the time.Here’s Jon Meacham in the Washington Monthly in 1993:
President Kennedy read this in the January 19, 1963, New Yorker, in a long review by the critic Dwight Macdonald of Michael Harrington’s book The Other America. The book and the review together forced a sea change in American attitudes toward the poor. Just five years earlier, in 1958, John Kenneth Galbraith had declared poverty no longer “a massive affliction [but] more nearly an afterthought,” and nobody thought to contradict him until Harrington, a socialist journalist, came along.Astonishing. I honestly didn’t know that the War on Poverty started with JFK. I thought it was all Johnson, using the memory of JFK as means to his own ends rather than completing his predecessor’s project. I mean, I’d heard that sort of language used to describe it, but I had dismissed it as sentimentality, I guess. But Kennedy really did start it.
The Harrington/Macdonald case convinced Kennedy, who had first witnessed large scale poverty in Appalachia during his 1960 West Virginia primary campaign. An antipoverty program was being drafted when the president was murdered, and Lyndon Johnson quickly picked up the standard.
They [the authors of another book under review] claim that 77,000,000 Americans, or almost half the population, live in poverty or deprivation. One recalls the furor Roosevelt aroused with his “one-third of a nation—ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” But the political climate was different then.Different, eh? Kennedy apparently decided that maybe he could prove MacDonald wrong.
Hello! I’m Emily Gordon, an editor, critic, copywriter, and internet lover since 1992. Emdashes, born in 2004, spent many years as a New Yorker fan blog. The project garnered some nice compliments and press.
The blog’s now treading the territories of punctuation, publications, movies, design, and other things that stir me.
Over the years, I’ve worked with a brilliant brigade of culture writers, editors, and artists. You can read all about the people who've helped build Emdashes here at “Who We?” (That’s a New Yorker joke. Old habits die hard.)
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