Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering Ernest W. Lefever

My habit of waiting until the late hours of the evening to read the early morning newspaper sometimes serves me poorly.

One such occasion was last night (about 3:00 a.m., actually), when I turned to the obituary pages of Thursday's Washington Post to discover that my mentor and first professional employer, Ernest W. Lefever, had passed away.

According to the Post's Adam Bernstein:

Ernest W. Lefever, 89, who founded a conservative public policy organization in Washington and was an embattled nominee for a State Department human rights job under President Ronald Reagan, died July 29 at a Church of the Brethren nursing home in New Oxford, Pa. He had Lewy Body dementia, a progressive brain disorder.

Dr. Lefever, a Chevy Chase resident, was an international affairs specialist with the National Council of Churches, a staff consultant on foreign affairs to then-Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) and a senior researcher at the Brookings Institution before starting the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1976. The center studies the link between Judeo-Christian morality and national and foreign policy.
Bernstein's review of the life of Ernest Lefever focuses, as one might have expected, on one of those episodes that could be categorized as either a high or a low in one's life, depending on your perspective.

That would be Dr. Lefever's nomination by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. Dr. Lefever eventually asked the President to withdraw his nomination after it had been entwined in controversy (much of it, in my opinion, manufactured) and political opposition. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Charles Percy (R-Ill.) was unhelpful in pressing the confirmation forward, to say the least.

Although Dr. Lefever's views on foreign policy (and particularly how human rights issues should be treated) were virtually identical to those of Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had been easily confirmed as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, he met a roadblock thrown up by those who differed with those views.

To summarize those views, at the risk of oversimplifying: The United States should treat authoritarian and totalitarian states differently, because authoritarian states -- such as, in those days, Chile and Argentina -- are more likely to be reformed from within and become liberal democracies than totalitarian states (such as the Soviet Union).

Indeed, in the years that followed, Chile and Argentina, as well as South Korea and Taiwan, did reform themselves and became model democracies. Greece, Spain, and Portugal are also examples of reform from within, which were fresh in the minds of Lefever and Kirkpatrick as they were making their arguments in the late 1970s.

It was much more difficult to dislodge totalitarian dictatorships because they controlled civil society (or an ersatz civil society) as well as politics and the economy. In authoritarian states, there were usually autonomous sources of moral and civil authority -- such as the Catholic Church -- that were lacking in totalitarian countries.

In any case, Lefever's views were shaped by decades of experience, not of the ivory tower, but of on-the-ground research around the world.

As the Washington Post article notes, Lefever served in Europe after World War II repatriating prisoners of war and other refugees, working under the auspices of the YMCA. It does not note that he worked in the concentration camps set up by the Roosevelt administration for Japanese-Americans during the war, helping to comfort them in their time of distress.

Lefever often told the story of how his pacifist views changed to more realist views when, somewhere in what later became East Germany, he saw a graffito that showed a swastika and a hammer-and-sickle with an equals sign between them. He realized through his work in Europe that Nazism and Communism were equally oppressive.

Beyond his humanitarian work in war-torn Europe, Dr. Lefever was widely traveled throughout his life. I would guess that he visited nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa, the major countries of South and Southeast Asia (including Vietnam), and much of East Asia, as well. The results of his travels and research can be seen in the 20+ books and countless articles he wrote for policy journals and academic publications.

The Post notes Lefever's association with Hubert Humphrey. It doesn't specify that Lefever was the principal drafter of the Democratic Party's platform plank on Vietnam during the 1968 Chicago Convention.

During the 1970s, Lefever became associated with a group of disaffected liberal Democrats -- he was one of them -- who became known as "neo-conservatives." Sometimes known as "Scoop Jackson Democrats," many of them came out of a New York-based social democratic tradition that insisted on opposing Stalinism and, later, Soviet expansionism and adventurism. They generally maintained, at least for a while, that the welfare state was generally a good thing, and they supported the Lyndon Johnson's Great Society.

Among the prominent neo-conservatives of those days -- a time, as George F. Will recently put it, "when that designation was more relevant to domestic than foreign policy" -- were Irving Kristol (father of Bill), Midge Decter (mother of John Podhoretz), Jeane Kirkpatrick, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Max Kampelman, and others who ended up either serving in the Reagan administration or supporting its policies in the pages of Commentary, The Public Interest, and similar publications. Ernest W. Lefever was one of these intellectuals.

As an outgrowth of his policy activism, Lefever in 1976 founded the Ethics and Public Policy Center, initially as a part of Georgetown University and later an independent think tank.

It was shortly after the EPPC's founding that I met Dr. Lefever and joined the Center's staff. I was a junior at Georgetown, needing a work-study job and late in finding one.

On a bulletin board in the financial aid office was an index card advertising a part-time position for a research assistant at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was completely unknown to me. Needing the job and with few other alternatives listed on that bulletin board, I called the number and set up an appointment. (In those days, "bulletin boards" were made of cork and hung on walls.)

Dr. Lefever interviewed me. I was unshaped politically at that time, as likely to follow Richard McSorley and the Berrigan brothers as anyone else. He asked me for writing samples; all I had to offer were press releases I had drafted for my community theatre earlier that summer (1979; the year of Fiddler on the Roof).

He took a chance with me, put me under his wing, and taught me more than I can estimate.

Through his example, he showed me how to write clearly and effectively. He would say, of course, that such teaching would have no impact on someone who did not already think clearly and write plainly, but I must demur. Whether he knew it or not, he drilled me on composition, from word choice to sentence shape to paragraph size. (His influence affected me quickly. Within a few months of my beginning my part-time tenure at EPPC, one of my professors gave me a lower grade on a paper than he otherwise would have, telling me "You write too clearly" -- like a journalist rather than like an academic. I took his criticism as a badge of honor, and shared a chuckle with Dr. Lefever over it.) The Lefever standard for good writing on public policy? "If an interested and motivated person who reads at an eighth-grade level can understand it, you've done your job well."

Two years after I was hired, when my first op-ed was published in the Washington Star, Dr. Lefever congratulated me and said that he could tell from the way I formulated my arguments that I had been a high school debater. Then he chided me -- as he should have -- for identifying myself with the Center when I submitted the article, without clearing it with him first.

Over the seven or eight years that I was employed by EPPC (I took one year off to pursue my master's degree), Dr. Lefever and I worked closely together. My desk was immediately outside his office. He had a secretary, too, but I was his "special assistant to the president for research." I watched closely as he drafted articles; I often typed them for him through numerous iterations.

When, in 1984, a manuscript on investment in South Africa had gone through three different authors and at least four different versions (all rejected), he turned to me and asked me to write a publishable book. I did, and it became my first -- The Politics of Sentiment: Churches and Foreign Investment in South Africa. Much of the shape of the book is actually his. It would have been fair for him to list me as co-author with him, but he generously gave me sole author credit.

Two years later, after we had hosted a conference about the Strategic Defense Initiative, he asked our colleague, Pete Wehner, and me to compile the papers and other articles into an anthology. He suggested that we seek out Zbigniew Brzezinski as a co-editor, so we could have "name" on the cover.

I bet him $5 that Brzezinski would turn down the invitation. I lost. My second book, Promise or Peril: The Strategic Defense Initiative, has four co-editors: myself, Wehner, Brzezinski, and Marin Strmecki (at that time Zbig's research assistant).

After I left the Ethics and Public Policy Center in 1988, I temporarily lost touch with Dr. Lefever. He called me about 10 years ago or so, however, and asked me to help him learn how to use a computer for writing. He had a Macintosh and I spent several hours with him, showing him how to create document files, how to edit them, how to save them. (Throughout his highly productive life, Dr. Lefever typed rapidly with just two fingers, and until the 1990s he used a manual typewriter -- not even an electric one -- for drafting his articles and book manuscripts.)

EWL also liked working with his hands. He was an accomplished cabinet maker. (He learned that trade as a teenager.) I remember spending weekends at the office with him, reinforcing the massive table in our conference room. It was hard work, especially for someone like me who is generally all-thumbs when it comes to carpentry or home maintenance.

Dr. Lefever was not afraid of technology or technological progress. His first published piece of writing, at the age of 13, was a story about a boy who makes a trip to the moon. (This was in about 1931, of course.) He was an early media critic in the sense of finding ways to analyze the way the broadcast networks reported the news so that their bias (if it was there) could be measured. As late as five days before his death, Dr. Lefever's 1974 book about CBS News was cited in an article by Cliff Kincaid.

Forgotten in the Post's coverage is the singular achievement in which Dr. Lefever brought together Edward Teller, the father of the (American) hydrogen bomb and Andrei Sakharov, the father of the (Soviet) hydrogen bomb. The two scientists had never met (largely because Sakharov was forced into internal exile in the Soviet Union as a consequence of his human-rights activism) but, at Dr. Lefever's invitation, Sakharov was an honored guest at the dinner at which Teller received the Shelby Cullom Davis Award for Integrity and Courage in Public Life. (I have to admit that, as one of only three or four people in the room when Teller and Sakharov first shook hands privately, this is an occasion that I shall never forget.)

The Post's obituary also leaves out Dr. Lefever's impish side. His last book, published in 2006, was called Liberating the Limerick: 230 Irresistible Classics. For most of his life, EWL was an inveterate collector -- and composer -- of limericks and other light verse. Here's an example, from the book:
Without being oratorical,
Consider Kant's categorical
Should one treat one's friends
As means or as ends?
Or is the query rhetorical?
Maybe that's not the best. Here's a second, about another noteworthy who recently passed away:
The CBS newsman Cronkite
Claimed ten million viewers each night.
He slanted the news
To fit his own views.
He knew in "his heart he was right."
I last saw Dr. Lefever about two and a half years ago. He asked me to visit him at his Chevy Chase home so that we could discuss possible collaboration on a book that he had in mind. He took me to lunch at a local Chinese restaurant and we had a pleasant conversation. The project never developed, but I was flattered that he would think of me as a collaborator and impressed that, at 87 years of age, that he was still so active and ready to stay in the arena. (Had the book been written, it would have been hotly controversial.)

Since then, we exchanged a few emails, but my last one to him (sent in May) received no reply. Now I know why.

I have quite a few photographs of Ernest W. Lefever from over the years. Here are some of the memorable ones.

Here are the two of us, after one of the Ethics and Public Policy Center's formal dinners.

Ernest W. Lefever, Jack Kemp, and Shelby Cullom Davis

New York Mayor Edward I. Koch and Ernest W. Lefever

EWL leads Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to the podium
(This photo was taken at the same event featured in the video, below.)

EWL opens the luncheon that launched my first book, The Politics of Sentiment

The staff of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in the summer of 1981:
Back row, left to right: Steve (now Stephanie) Mayerhofer, Marion Frayman, Raymond English, Ernest W. Lefever, (unidentified), Rick Sincere, (unidentified), Mary Ellen Pohl (now Bork), Carol Griffith
Front row, left to right: Betty Marshall, Tom Tunney

EWL striking a goofy pose at an office picnic

EWL being playful during an EPPC staff meeting

EWL hosting the annual EPPC staff Christmas party at the Lefever home, early 1980s

Ambassador Margaret Heckler (former HHS Secretary) with Dr. Lefever at a June 2006 book signing for Liberating the Limerick

Margaret and Ernest Lefever in Arlington, Virginia, June 2006

One of the last photographs I took of Dr. Lefever, in June 2006, at a book party for Liberating the Limerick

Finally, you can see Ernest W. Lefever in action, in this promotional video for the Ethics and Public Policy Center that was released in 1985. (Apologies for the fuzzy and staticky conditions in parts of it; it was a copy of a copy before I digitized it.)

In addition to Dr. Lefever, speakers in this video include Jeane Kirkpatrick, Yonas Deressa, Senator Orrin Hatch, Linda Chavez, William Bennett, Ronald Reagan, Chester Finn, Robert Royal, Caspar Weinberger, and myself.

Ernest W. Lefever, rest in peace.

Besides the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times has published an obituary. The current president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Edward Whelan, has a remembrance on NRO's The Corner. EPPC has posted an official obituary here, accompanied by the most familiar formal portrait of EWL. (I have not yet seen a notice about a funeral or memorial service.)

Updates, August 5: The New York Times has an obituary, by Douglas Martin, in yesterday's editions. The EPPC web site announces there will be a memorial service for Dr. Lefever on August 22 in Washington. It also features a remembrance by George Weigel, who was the second president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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James Young said...

Sadly, the old war horses are leaving us. I am pleased, however, to report that Reed Larson is regularly in our offices.

John said...

Yonas Deressa brought me to DC. What a great guy. It's great to see him again. I know that things didn't go as he would have liked, in Ethiopia. I believe he's still in NoVA. If you hear of his whereabouts, I'd really appreciate hearing back.

With the Cold War over, and as a Ron Paul Republican, seeing all these neocon names reminds me that it's important to know not just what a person opposes, but also what they endorse.

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