Forty-two years ago today —on 21 April 1969— President Nixon announced his choice of a thirty-six year old Chicago congressman —Donald H. Rumsfeld— to head the troubled and troubling Office of Economic Opportunity. RN turned out to be both a prophet and a master of understatement when he introduced the young congressman to reporters, saying “you will be seeing him quite often in the years ahead.”
OEO had started as a collection of experimental programs in President Kennedy’s White House. Lyndon Johnson expanded it and made it, among many other things, the centerpiece of his Great Society’s War on Poverty. But its excesses (both literal in terms of dollars and figurative in terms of overreach) had created such a managerially chaotic and politically rancorous situation that Time magazine described running the crisis-plagued agency as “a thankless job and an administrative horror.” And, in fact, President Johnson had simply finessed the situation by leaving OEO leaderless after its first Director, Sargent Shriver, escaped by being appointed Ambassador to France in 1968.
In his new best-selling memoir Known and Unknown, Don Rumsfeld writes about the the situation he was about to inherit:
When Nixon took office, it was clear that Johnson’s lofty goal of eradicating poverty was failing. Hundreds of millions of dollars were being spent, and it proved difficult to identify and track progress. There was also an air of radicalism in some of the OEO programs. When I first walked through the OEO offices I saw posters of the Marxist Che Guevara proudly displayed on the walls. In some parts of the country taxpayer dollars were going to radical and violent “Black Power” groups. An additional controversy was that OEO provided funds to community groups, intentionally bypassing the locally elected governors and mayors. This led to resentment of OEO by state and local officials in both political parties.
Congressman Rumsfeld had voted against the 1964 legislation establishing OEO —because he felt its vast and growing portfolio should be housed in separate cabinet departments and agencies rather than in the Executive Office of the President— and his appointment was widely misunderstood as indicating the new President’s intention of dismantling the agency. As with many of the Nixon administration’s domestic plans and policies, the preconceptions of politicians and pundits prejudiced opinion. In fact, Nixon intended that OEO, under Rumsfeld’s leadership, would close down the unsuccessful programs, spin off its successful ones into their relevant departments and agencies, and become an experimental laboratory focused on finding new ways to solve old problems.
The President announced Rumsfeld’s appointment in the Roosevelt Room in the West Wing:
I will summarize it briefly in this way: He will have as his primary responsibility that of running the Office of Economic Opportunity as Director of the Office of Economic Opportunity. He will have, also, the rank of Assistant to the President and he will have Cabinet rank.
He will be a member of the Urban Affairs Council, of which Mr. [Daniel P.] Moynihan is the Director.
All of these responsibilities, I think, fit into the decision that Mr. Rumsfeld has made.
I was saying to him in our meeting in the office just before coming in here, that I remember when I was his age, 36 years of age, in 1949, I made the hardest political decision of my life. That decision was to give up a safe seat in the Congress–I had won both nominations in the election immediately preceding–and to run for the Senate.
Don Rumsfeld, today, is “crossing the Rubicon” to an extent. He is making what, for him, may have been his hardest and most important political decision. He is giving up one of the safest seats in the Congress of the United States to take on one of the most important agencies, one of the most controversial agencies in the entire Government.
This, to me, displays unusual courage, and it is an indication of his great dedication to this problem, the problem of finding the answers to poverty in America.
Don Rumsfeld in the Congress specialized in this problem and now he will have the opportunity to operate–operate at the very highest level in helping to solve the problem.
The fact–and I think the singular fact–that he was willing to give up a seat in the Congress to assume this responsibility gives great promise to what he will be able to do.
In my view, despite his relatively young years, he has the experience, he has the judgment, but as he has demonstrated by this decision, he has the courage to handle this immensely important assignment.
I am very happy to present him to the members of the press. You will be seeing him quite often in the years ahead.
He will speak briefly to you now and answer questions before going down for his Senate confirmation later in the week.
At the end of 1970 RN named Rumsfeld’s deputy Frank Carlucci as the new Director of OEO and brought Rumsfeld onto the White House staff as Counsellor to the President, Rumsfeld sums up his time at OEO in Known and Unknown:
During my tenure as director of OEO, we were successful in saving and strengthening some worthwhile programs by reallocating funds to them from less successful projects. We spun off functioning progrmams to other federal departments. We didn’t perform miracles there, though I believe we did some good for the poor and for the country.
Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir, Known and Unknown, deals in detail with RN and the Nixon administration, including OEO. It can be found in bookstores everywhere, and online in many places including here. For those who enjoy listening to books during drive time, the audio version (in both abridged and unabridged forms) is read by the author. An ebook version is also available for Kindles and iPads.
Secretary Rumsfeld talked about his book and his career during his visit to the Nixon Library last year, when he was awarded the Nixon Foundation’s Victory of Freedom Award. He returned in March for an in depth conversation with nationally-syndicated radio talk show host —and first Executive Director of the Nixon Library— Hugh Hewitt.
Top photo: President Nixon with Donald Rumsfeld in the Oval Office; 42 years ago today, on 21 April 1969, RN appointed DRDirector of the Office of Economic Opportunity.