Fred Harris: A Populist With a Prayer - Rolling Stone
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Fred Harris: A Populist With a Prayer

The Senator responsible for “a new populism”

Fred HarrisFred Harris

Fred Harris on October 24th, 1976.

Ernie Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty

When Fred Harris was running for president in 1970, he used the phrase “a new populism” to define his campaign platform. Populism was not exactly an overriding issue for most liberal leaders back then, with Nixon in the White House and the war in Indochina, so little was made of it, especially when Harris could not find the financial support for his presidential bid.

Last summer I met Harris at a gathering of California reformers. He and his wife, LaDonna Harris, were once again campaigning for the presidency and this time he was talking about the redistribution of power—a phrase not exactly overused by American politicians. But this time, I think, something might be made of it. There is little, however, about Fred Harris that resembles the American politician we’ve come to associate with the race for the presidency.

In fact, Harris looks and sounds like he’d be more comfortable at a farmers’ market in Oklahoma, where he was born 44 years ago, than at a Georgetown reception. His family was poor, his father a small farmer. “The last year of his life, which was 1974,” Harris said, “was the first year of his life he’d ever been out of debt. If he’d lived another year he’d have been broke because the cattle business went to hell after that.”

Harris attributes his natural populism to his father—an attitude of antigovernment, anti-richness and anti-big corporations.

LaDonna Harris, who now directs an educational and reform-oriented foundation, Americans for Indian Opportunity, has known her husband since their high school days in Walters, Oklahoma, and it was through her that he learned the language and culture of her people, the Comanches.

In the process he experienced the racism directed against Indians: “LaDonna is an asset to have as an Indian, and as a campaigner—because she thinks she’s an asset. In the 200 years of race relations in this country, the only improvements there have been are when racial minorities change the way they think of themselves.”

Harris started out his political career in the late Fifties in the state senate where he was regarded as a rising star in Oklahoma’s rather conservative Democratic party. When Robert Ken died in 1963, Harris was elected to replace the multimillionaire oilman in the U.S. Senate and was reelected to a full term in 1966.

As a senator, Harris tended to be a safe liberal, late in turning against the war (1968) and a Humphrey ally against the McCarthy insurgents. But his populist ideas were rekindled by continued run-ins with political honchos: The giant oil firms opposed his Senate campaign when he supported the interests of smaller independents; he angered Lyndon Johnson while on the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders when he concluded that civil disorders were caused more by white racists than by outside agitators.

But Harris stayed on in the Democratic higher circles after the 1968 election for about a year. As the national party chairman he appointed the commissions which would eventually reform the party’s rules.

By now, though, as he recalls it, he had started changing “more nearly back to what I’d been when I grew up in a populist home.” With the war hopefully ending, Nixon long gone and economic stagnation here to stay, the political compass is starting to change direction as well.

Domestic contradictions are nearly everyone’s preoccupation, with the possible exception of Henry Kissinger and those he serves. That forbidden word—class—is once again being heard in political debates. And that means Fred Harris bears watching because he alone is posing issues and answers which interest disgruntled Americans.

The Louis Harris poll shows that 72 percent of the population think their taxes are unfair and that 85 percent think politicians are not telling the truth about recession and inflation. But the only other presidential candidate remotely addressing these same concerns is George Wallace, the reactionary populist.

In their frantic search for a serious candidate among the multitude of Democratic contenders, the national media and the established politicos have assiduously ignored Harris. It’s not quite clear what makes a candidate “serious.”

Does it involve a factor so crude as cash? Recognition in polls two years before an election? Or is it an appeal to those patricians of the press who make themselves the keepers of our national political tastes? Can Harris win? Without media attention, of course, he’ll go nowhere. But let’s say he’s working on it just the same.

After 1968, you said you started back toward a more populist attitude. Within the party, you carried out the mandate for structural reform, you left the party and returned to the Senate where you began debating whether to run for president. And then?
Then I was faced with the question of whether to run for reelection—my Senate term would expire in 1972—or to run for president. I wavered back and forth a good while, wondering if I could put together the money and the campaign. I finally decided it was not worth a year or more of my life to try to get reelected to the Senate because if I won I’d still just be in the Senate. And I’d already been in the Senate and was of the opinion that things were eight years worse. Also, since the Kerner Commission [the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders], I’d become increasingly frustrated about being able to do anything without some presidential leadership.

So I decided to run for president, thinking that it was a long shot but thinking, as I said when I announced, that even a good campaign could help move the country. McGovern, for example, in his campaign said some things, in the primaries in particular, that might not have been said if not for the pressure of my campaign.

Was the McGovern campaign’s shortcoming, in your opinion, losing the white working class?
It was not an economic class movement from the first. The campaign was most impressive and seemed most sincere when it spoke of the moral issues of the war. It seemed less convincing when it spoke about economic class issues, and I believe that if McGovern and Shriver had been able to make the economic class issues as central as the war, at least we would have done a great deal better. The McGovern organization fought me on tax reform at the convention and beat a minority plank because we couldn’t get a roll-call vote.

A lot of people had moved into the campaign who thought you had to be more “political” in order to win, not realizing that what had got them that far was seeming sincere and honest and not “political.” Most people even at that time were aware that taxes were unfair, that superrich and giant corporations didn’t pay their share, and that corporations had too much control over the economy and country. But we were not able to make those the issues.

But now you think they can be?
Yeah, what’s changed since the ’72 election is two things. One, these issues are much more in people’s minds. The issue is privilege, whether or not the government’s going to begin to look after the average family or continue to protect the interests of the superrich and the giant corporations. With Watergate and recession, most people know that now. The second thing that’s changed is the new campaign financing law, which is the most massive political change in my lifetime. It cuts down to $1,000 what anyone can contribute. And it restricts what the candidate can spend, and that cuts the rich and the friends of the rich down to size.

Public financing is even a bigger change. Used to be you would wake up the morning after you got the nomination, having gone through a debilitating primary, begged every dime you could beg off your friends, you don’t know how in the world you can go back to any of them, and you think where in the world can I find $25 million. And there was only one place to find it, and that was Wall Street, and you certainly weren’t going to get it unless you indicated publicly or privately that you would compromise on some of the issues that got you the nomination. Now, you’re going to wake up with a call from the Federal Elections Commission asking where should they deliver the $20 million!

The law provides full federal financing in the general election campaign, $20 million each for the major parties. It provides federal matching funds for serious candidates in the primaries—and if you’re to be considered a serious candidate you have to raise $5000 at least in each of 20 states. Now that’s a revolution in presidential politics. That’s what makes it possible for a person like me to run for president now.

How do you deal with the anti-politician mood?
People aren’t apathetic. If you say people are apathetic you’re describing not them but their leaders and the lack of choices. I’ve found overflow crowds everywhere I go.

What does it have to do with your style as a politician?
Part of it is style. Strategy with me is intertwined totally with issues. I learned after I left the Senate that you can carry your own bags. I don’t travel with any staff, I don’t stay in any hotels, I stay in the homes of friends…

For 16 years I was called “Senator,” eight years in the state senate and eight years in the U.S. Senate and…

It’s a little like, “The doctor will see you now”—The senator will see you now. You get used to it. Just as men always used to treat women, expected that women always do the cooking, you just came to expect that. There still is a very rigid caste system in the Senate. There are senators and then there’s everybody else.

What’s the function of that system?
Well, you get to feeling that God ordained you should be in this position. If you’re not careful people around you do not speak bluntly to you. And it’s even worse for a president. I’ve watched presidents up close and there are times when what you ought to say to the president is “bullshit.” But what you do say sitting there in the Oval Office is, “I don’t agree with you, Mr. President.” He doesn’t hear it as bluntly as he ought to hear it. It’s really important, and I am a much better candidate for having quit the Senate and been outside for a while, because it’s very difficult even if you work at it to keep from being isolated. If you’re going to be a citizen president, which I’ve proposed, then I think you ought to start out being a citizen candidate.

How do you cope with the fact that you are regarded as an insignificant candidate and that the national press has completely neglected your campaign? How do you deal with people who say that you’re a nice guy but that they are waiting for someone more respectable to come along?
Every time I ever won that’s what people said. Experts are always wrong, and early polls do nothing but register name recognition. You’re not really interested at this point in getting voters. You’re interested in getting supporters. We’re a long way off from the first primaries, about a year from the first one. I don’t care what the polls show, or the experts think, or the press says, we’re organizing. And it doesn’t take a lot of people to do that. Eventually what we’ll do, of course, with those supporters, is to get financing for the media campaign, particularly television—at the end of the primary campaigns when people are interested enough to start making up their minds. I intend to run in all the primaries unless there’s some particular reason not to.

In the process, you get known in the other states. Morris Dees has written that by January 1st, 1972—which would be our January 1976—McGovern had 50,000 contributor/supporters and that those 50,000 by themselves therefore financed the preconvention campaign. They sent him a little money, and if he did well they’d send a little more. Well, a thousand people a week are joining up as committed supporters now, and with no increase in the rate by January 1976, we will have 50,000 contributor/supporters and potentially double that because every dollar now is matchable under the new law.

Let’s talk about strategy in relation to other candidates. Your view of Henry Jackson?
Jackson is probably one of the greatest living symbols, together with Nelson Rockefeller, of increased and unnecessary military expenditures and of intervening in the affairs of other countries.

His chances?
I do not think that Jackson can carry a state other than Washington.

Lloyd Bentsen?
Bentsen is waiting around hoping to pick up when the Jackson campaign falters. He’s a smoother Jackson; I’m not quite sure of some of his stands, but my guess is he probably agrees pretty much with Jackson on foreign policy and security policy.

Edmund Muskie?
Muskie’s one of the very best members of the Senate. I don’t believe he’ll be a candidate for president.

Edward Kennedy?
Kennedy has been on the leading edge of the right issues and is a very good member of the Senate. I believe he’s very relieved not to be a candidate for president in ’76 and I believe he’s saying what he believes when he says he won’t accept it.

What about the theory that if you and everybody else fail, there will be a brokered convention which will give it to Kennedy?
That’s not going to happen because in the process of moving across the country in these primaries…

Somebody will surface…
Yeah, we will. That’s what’s happening now…

McGovern’s a very decent man. He promised the people of South Dakota rather emphatically that he would not be a candidate for president and I don’t believe he will.

Rockefeller is the greatest living symbol of what’s wrong with this country: concentrated wealth and power, intervention in other countries’ affairs and a wasteful military budget.

Do you think he’ll be a presidential candidate?

It’ll be Ford or someone to the right of Ford?
I think so.

And you think you can beat Ford?
Yep, if I can’t I better throw in the towel early. I think as disastrous as his policies are, and as out of touch with real people’s lives as he is, that he’ll be rejected and ought to be.

What about Wallace?
Wallace is not the kind of person I would want to be associated with unless he were to say in public that he was very sorry that he stood up against the Supreme Court ruling on desegregation and stood in that schoolhouse door and prevented those kids from going to school. He’s never said that.

Do you find that a lot of people you’re talking to are supporters of Wallace?
Yes, or they have been in the past, but they’re not Wallace people, they’re our kind of people. You can’t make a mass movement without the masses, and that means you can’t get a majority without a lot of those people who in the past might have supported Wallace or have been drawn to him.

What is their motivation?
Well, they’ve been left out. There’s a lot of elitism in liberalism. It has said to blacks and old people and poor people, vote for us because it’s in your self-interest. As we should, that’s why people ought to be involved in politics. But then it’s turned around and said to working-class white people, vote for us because your conscience demands it. And they want to hear about their self-interest too. Because a big part of them are paying far more than their share of taxes and they’re not getting very much in return. So what I find is that what I say has as much appeal to people who were attracted to George Wallace and to people who supported George McGovern. And of course that’s what ought to happen, that’s the way it ought to be if we’re going to put the country back together again around these types of issues, particularly economic class issues. Those in the coalition don’t have to love each other.

As Jesse Jackson says, we can have temporary allies, we don’t have to have permanent friends. All we have to do is look at our agendas and find we’ve got a lot of common items on there. If we let them separate us as Nixon did in 1968 and ’72, then neither of us are a majority. But if we get together around common interests we can take the government over and make it a people’s government. I find that works.

All right, let’s talk now about issues and programs. What appeals to people? Just the idea of a people’s government, or the specifics of the economic program, or what?
First, you have to formulate the issue: What we’ve got to have is a fairer distribution of wealth and income and power. That ought to be the expressed goal of government. Then the debate ought to be about what is fair, and per haps that would change from year to year, and how do we achieve it? And I find that people know that is the basic issue. Often I find people for whom that’s the first thing that’s ever made any sense to them. They were against the way things were, but they hadn’t heard anybody say what the trouble was or what to do about it. And that’s why there’s such a strong response. People know that now we have a grossly unfair distribution.

About the program: Part of the old populism was based on the reality of small farms, 19th-century style. Then along came the corporation and you had antitrust laws written in an effort to stop monopoly, but the corporation grew further, the New Deal then arrived with more controls, the corporation grew into multinationals. In other words, we are now a long way from the original objective basis of populism, so how would it be possible now to break up the corporations? Are you saying let’s try the 19th-century remedies again?
No, but we are talking about smallness is best. The Department of Agriculture itself, under Butz, says that the most efficient farm unit is the one- or two-family farm. It still is, and yet what you’ve got is the Tennecos and the J. G. Boswells and that crowd taking it over. And they’re taking it over not because they’re more efficient at farming but because they’re more efficient at farming the government. I want to give them a strong dose of free enterprise.

But let’s take a corporation like IBM or one of the modern multinational corporations, what would it look like to give a company with that global scale a “strong dose of free enterprise”?
Why don’t we take oil and gas, they are closer to people’s minds. The Federal Trade Commission has said you ought to break up these companies so they can’t be in production, refining and marketing, not all three, that’s called vertical integration. The FTC says that’s against the law, they’ve even gone into court to make them break up, which mechanically is very easily done. But unfortunately the government, the White House, won’t back up the FTC. I would. I would control their prices in the meantime, all these monopolies like oil and gas. On domestic crude oil I’d roll back the price, which the president has the power to do now. And of course you’ve got to have some mandatory conservation measures too—to get the problem down to size.

As, for example, saying to utility companies, you can’t charge a promotional rate, you can’t give a commercial or industrial user a lower rate based on using more electricity. You must say to Detroit, you cannot produce a car anymore that gets less than 20 miles to the gallon. Then, while holding down your prices, you go after them on antitrust laws, which takes awhile, and we ought to set up a public oil and gas and energy corporation, nationally, just like we did, say, with NASA. Or back when we didn’t have any yardstick on generation of electricity, like TVA.

We ought to develop oil and gas on our own lands and also it could go into the international market and for the first time furnish those OPEC countries a selling market other than this international cartel of multinational oil companies. Those are the kinds of things we’ve got to be willing to do, and some of them are old and some new.

So you’re saying that the trend of the last 50 or 75 years, of failure to harness this trend of corporate growth, is not proof that it’s impossible but that it’s a failure of the executive to act?
It’s two or three things. One, Huey Long once said—and you know Huey Long would have been a genius if only the cogs had all fit together—he said he supported Roosevelt in 1932 because Roosevelt said in his acceptance speech that we had to have a better distribution of wealth. Long charged, rightly, that was the last time we ever heard those words. Instead we began to bring in the Bernard Baruchs and folks like that and got more into regulation and programming that distribution.

That’s true. Of course the New Deal was a wonderful thing compared to what we might have got into, but we haven’t since then really talked about distribution. And because the subject of the distribution of wealth and power is not an open discussion or goal, then nobody’s held accountable for it. So we wind up with the upper one-fifth having 41 percent of the income and the lower one-fifth having about 5 percent which is a slightly worse spread than just before the New Deal started. And of course the distribution of wealth is far more concentrated than that.

Now we’ve got to talk about those sorts of things under the rubric of economic democracy. We ought to have real debate about how to bring about real economic democracy. A man like Jefferson said you can’t have political democracy without economic democracy. That goes back to the founding of the country. We ought to have that, we haven’t seen it in 40 years. That’s what I propose to force.

Would you include a program of public planning?
Oh sure, you’ve got to have it. I don’t think of it in terms of planning, just in terms of common sense. Lyndon Johnson was the first president who ever said straight out, and this seems surprising to me, that we were trying to eliminate business cycles. Up to that time it had been virtually accepted that business cycles were almost God ordained. But Johnson said we’re going to intervene in that. Now we’d been doing it but we hadn’t said right out that we were.

I believe that Richard Nixon was the first president to say that we were managing the economy. We almost wish he hadn’t because he began managing it in the wrong direction. Now everybody accepts that the government has to intervene. That’s a dead issue. The question is how are you going to intervene and on whose side?

Are people afraid of government control?
No, right now they’d like to have something that would put people back to work and keep these prices down. So what we’ve got to do, everybody knows now, especially since Nixon, that never again can a government step aside from inflation and unemployment, it’s going to have to act, and hopefully on the right side. But you’re going to have to do even more than some people have realized. For example, there ought to be a way for everybody in America to have a job as a personal, enforceable right, just like you have unemployment compensation now. And it doesn’t matter if three million of you get it or 50,000, everybody gets it, and that’s the way it ought to be with a job.

Another thing we ought to do is bring the Federal Reserve Bank within the federal economic management system. When the president files his economic message, the bank ought to file its message at the same time. And Congress ought to hold hearings on it. Right now we ought to be expanding the money supply by eight to 10 percent a year.

And, if necessary, selectively; if not all interest rates, then some. The housing interest rates ought to be four to six percent. Everything Dr. Arthur Burns and the Federal Reserve Bank have done has been wrong. They ought to have to tell us right now what they plan to do this year in money supply and interest rates. Then, if Congress doesn’t like it, Congress ought to legislate it. We did that in the Korean war. It’s a scandal that there’s not any housing built. People haven’t got housing and we’ve got all these untold thousands of people who are not working, not working because there’s no building. We’ve got to bring that Federal Reserve Bank into the federal economic system. We’re the only industrial country in the world that has a central bank that’s privately owned.

Do you reject socialism? Are you attacked for being socialist?
No, I use their own words against them. I spoke to a Rotary Club yesterday and said, let’s cut out this $94 billion in subsidies that we give to Penn Central, Lockheed, the timber interests and the oil and gas people directly or indirectly. Let’s abolish the ICC, which won’t allow any competition in the transportation industry. These people say they believe in free enterprise—let’s give them a very strong dose of it. And then I say, let’s implement the work ethic in America, let’s start taxing money earned from money heavier than money earned from work, and let’s assure that everybody willing and able to work has a job. And I said, it’s strange that a lot of these people who say they believe in free enterprise take a very Marxist line when they say that in a capitalist system you can’t have full employment. I say I don’t agree with that, I believe we can, and I believe we must, if you believe in this system you’ve got to put people to work in this country. That’s the kind of thing they understand.

Now, socialism, I don’t know what it means anymore.

Do you know what capitalism means anymore?
No, I really don’t, because the kind of capitalism we’ve got is corporate socialism. It’s very much like the zaibatsu system that existed in Japan just before World War II where the interests of government and industry were virtually synonymous. That’s what we’ve got. The last Socialist International, I think, had some problems defining socialism and so do I, but what I’m talking about is a fair distribution of wealth and income and power, and I’ve got some rather detailed ways to go about that, which do involve some forms of public ownership from time to time.

Public ownership where an industry has completely failed?
Well, coerced monopolies, like utilities. I’d like to make it much easier for people to own them, or mass transit. I don’t see why we should prop up an outfit like Penn Central. If we can’t operate a modern railway system in America without public subsidy, then we ought to own it.

What about heavy industry and key resources like energy?
Energy resources, for that I’d set up a parallel public corporation. And I notice where Congressman [Henry S.] Reuss, the new chairman of the House Banking and Finance Committee, has called for that in banking. I think that’s got some appeal except I’m a little bit worried about buying only the failing things. I don’t want to just take over the bad ones.

Isn’t that the problem with that version of public ownership, that you wait until an industry has collapsed and then turn it over to the government?
It is somewhat. But it’s realistic. I believe the market is a better planning mechanism, and I don’t have very much — I’ve got that ‘old natural skepticism about government — therefore to the degree that something can operate and be regulated by the market, so much the better. I don’t have much faith in regulation and so forth, but where the market won’t work or in order to hold it within humane bounds we obviously have to intervene.

What about foreign policy? If these companies are funding covert activity, as in Chile, what does the government of the United States do? 
We ought to really come down on them hard, send a few of them to jail if we can.

You’re saying it’s enforcement, but enforcement of what? Is there new legislation needed or is it there?
I believe there’s existing legislation but to the degree there isn’t we ought to have some. But our main problem is that they’ve had our government’s connivance. See, what we’ve had is an elitist foreign policy dominated by an economic class, like the Rockefellers. I don’t mean it’s a conspiracy—they really believe that what’s good in Latin America for the Rockefellers and Exxon and Chase Manhattan is good for the country; they believe that. In some ways that makes them more dangerous than if they didn’t believe it but were conspiring to bring it about.

Now then, what they’ve done over the years is socialize with a lot of the people from academia. They pick up the Henry Kissingers and they bring them into the Council of Foreign Relations until finally they all have the same views. Again, Dr. Kissinger doesn’t believe the way he does because he wants Rockefeller’s money; he really does believe it. He’s socialized with those people so long that they all believe the same thing. And it turns out that the American foreign policy they believe in is also in the best interests of the multinational companies.

Now it’s insult enough that our foreign policy primarily serves the interests of the multinational companies, but it’s a double insult that they won’t even pay for it. They won’t even pay their taxes. It’s their foreign policy, but we pay for it. And the people ought not to stand for that. What that requires is opening .up foreign policy. You can’t have consent of the governed unless the governed know what they are consenting to. So you have to open that thing up, level with people, let them in on things. And when you do, you can no longer justify most of what’s going on.

You can’t show people it’s in their interest to pay for a 45-day truckers’ strike down in Chile, or to cozy up to those generals in Brazil or Greece, or to governments like Lon Nol’s or Thieu’s. You cannot show them that it’s in their interest to do it. If you ever let them in on things, you’re going to have to change your foreign policy. And I guarantee you when I’m president of the United States, we’re not going to take that same elitist crowd that’s always run foreign policy and put them in charge of it again. That’ll be the end of it for them.

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