A Long-Distance Runner

If the name Joseph L. Rauh Jr. doesn't ring any bells for you, don't feel too guilty. In the nearly six decades he toiled as a liberal political activist and lawyer in Washington, D.C., Rauh (rhymes with "brow") never wrote a book or carved out much of a public persona. But the longevity and ubiquity of his presence and the sheer breadth of his accomplishments make him a nearly singular figure in modern American political history. Encompassing New Deal regulatory battles, crusades on behalf of civil rights and civil liberties, an encyclopedic array of advocacy organizations, and ceaseless struggles in union halls, congressional chambers, and party convention floors over the years, Joe Rauh's biography is the story of 20th-century liberalism. Thankfully, Michael E. Parrish has now produced a book worthy of its subject. Anyone holding this magazine would likely profit from reading his account of one of liberalism's unsung MVPs.

Rauh's career almost defies summary, but here's a try: Raised in a prosperous Jewish family in Cincinnati, Rauh set off for Harvard in 1928. Soon enough, he joined law professor Felix Frankfurter's network of D.C.-bound proteges -- part of that "plague of young lawyers," in the words of one early New Dealer, who would swarm the executive branch under Franklin D. Roosevelt to man the new administrative state. In the later 1930s and 1940s, Rauh provided key legal and organizational spadework for the National Power Policy Committee and the Federal Communications Commission, set guidelines for enforcing the Fair Labor Standards Act, and drafted the executive order establishing the Fair Employment Practices Committee. He was, in Parrish's words, "one of the New Deals' emergency firemen, someone who changed offices and assignments as often as he changed clothes," and he alternated that work with stints clerking in the Supreme Court for Benjamin Cardozo and Frankfurter, who by that time was serving as an associate justice.

Then Rauh left government work behind, building an extraordinary postwar career as one of the great liberal agitators in Washington -- an outsider's insider. A co-founder and longtime leader of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), he served as Washington counsel for Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers, a charmed arrangement by which the great union provided the steady income to Rauh's law firm that subsidized its extensive pro bono work.

That work's initial focus was opposing McCarthyism. Parrish, whose background is in legal history, dramatizes with particular skill these high-stakes battles over Harry S. Truman's loyalty board and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Rauh defended luminaries such as Lillian Hellman and Arthur Miller (Marilyn Monroe also makes a charming, surreal cameo in the narrative) as well as countless ordinary citizens caught in the vortex of the Red Scare.

Rauh's civil-libertarian efforts were matched only by his work as a linchpin activist and counsel for such key civil-rights organizations as the NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. After years of advocacy and wrangling, Rauh took a direct role, at the highest levels of government, in helping to draft and shepherd to passage the major civil-rights legislation of the 1960s. That Rauh's unlikely partner in this was an old ADA bete noire from the previous decade, Lyndon Johnson, only vindicated his efforts: It was Johnson who had moved toward Rauh's position on civil rights, and not the reverse.

Rauh also sustained a mischievous side career as the postwar Democratic Party's most persistent and troublemaking conventioneer. He helped engineer the stunning adoption in 1948 of a liberal minority plank on civil rights (a platform fight that launched Hubert Humphrey's national career), took a lead role in the 1960 drafting of the most liberal major-party platform in American history up to that point, and proposed the establishment of a "peace caucus" to push for an anti-Vietnam War plank at the 1968 Chicago convention.

Rauh understood better than most the significance of such efforts, easily dismissible as sideshows given that party platforms were nonbinding and usually boilerplate. His insight was that convention platform fights could serve as a stage for productive conflict, a way to dramatize factional and ideological struggles within the party, and that the outcome of those struggles could indeed have important real-world political consequences.

Rauh's most momentous act of Democratic Convention agitation came in 1964, when he served as counsel for the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, an alternative slate of party delegates challenging the credentials of the state's racist (and Goldwater-supporting) regulars. After days of high-wire struggle, the Johnson administration forces pushed through a tepid compromise proposal that the MFDP rank and file fatefully interpreted as a betrayal by establishment whites. Rauh, by contrast, saw it as an important if partial victory that brought the party one step closer to righteousness on civil rights, and he lost no time in jumping back into the fray to push still further.

It's that indomitable pluck that is most striking about Rauh. During a half-century of intra-liberal and intra-Democratic struggle, he seems to have never succumbed to either complacency or despair. Every success was provisional, but so was every failure, and no conflict with an ally could amount to a final, irrevocable rupture. That may explain how, when the crack-ups of the 1960s and adverse political currents helped usher in a new, tougher era for liberalism, Rauh found it easier than many compatriots to carry on the unfashionable work of principled progressive advocacy.

A proud McGovernite in 1972 and Ted Kennedy delegate eight years later, Rauh divided much of his time in the 1970s and 1980s between Supreme Court confirmation fights and pathbreaking legal work for laborers involved in union democracy campaigns. (In a work that is generally not analytically driven, Parrish does include an intriguingly revisionist argument about the origins and legacy of the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, a seemingly anti-labor piece of legislation that Rauh helped to modify prior to passage and, decades later, utilized on behalf of union dissidents.) He died of a heart attack in September of 1992 -- just missing the opportunity to fight for (and with) another Democratic president.

Citizen Rauh is not a perfect book. Distractingly typo-riddled, it shows signs of hasty editing, and overall it lacks both the psychological acuity and intellectual depth found in standouts of its genre, like William Chafe's biography of Allard Lowenstein, Never Stop Running. Moreover, though Parrish writes with verve and lucidity, his account suffers at times from a laundry-list, episodic quality -- perhaps an unavoidable consequence of covering the full array of Rauh's activities.

Still, even when the big picture gets obscured, Parrish excels at distilling the ins and outs of each small battle, and he vividly conveys the sheer joy Rauh took in entering the trenches, year after year. It's inspiring to see that a life lived fully in the service of justice and progress can also be enjoyed to the hilt. Rauh once described to an interviewer the moment, during the Democratic Convention credentials fight in 1964, when he felt the full consolidated force of those arrayed against the MFDP: "You had the whole Democratic political machine, the President, the whole White House, and the whole labor movement, all trying to stop a few little Mississippi negroes and me from making a little stink at the Democratic Convention." Those opponents, of course, included many of Rauh's closest allies and colleagues (and in the case of Walter Reuther, a key patron). Before those allies' familiar refrain of caution and strategic restraint, Rauh might have acquiesced, or he might have grown bitter. Rauh did neither. "Everyone says this took a lot of courage and principle," Rauh recalled, "but I don't think anybody realized how much fun this was, to really get into a real battle like this, to have troops and to have a real fight with all the power."

That was Joe Rauh. Once more into the breach.

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