Editors’ Note: In the below post, HistPhil co-founder Stanley N. Katz brings the site’s ongoing discussion on philanthropy & inequality in dialogue with Kai Bird’s The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms (Simon and Schuster, 1998).
We have had a number of posts responding to Darren Walker’s recent articulation of an ambitious agenda for Ford Foundation funding. I do not want to revisit the particular arguments that have surfaced in this blog, but I do want to remind us that this is not the first time a Ford Foundation president has articulated broad and ambitious social goals. Darren Walker is in some ways very much in the spirit of his predecessor, McGeorge Bundy, who was president of the foundation from 1966 to 1979.
I was reminded of Bundy’s tenure at Ford this week while reading Kai Bird’s dual biography of Mac and Bill Bundy: The Color of Truth: McGeorge Bundy and William Bundy: Brothers in Arms (Simon and Schuster, 1998). I bought the book when it appeared in 1998, and carefully put it on my “to be read” shelf. And it has remained there until I brought it along to read on our summer vacation this month. I was originally drawn to the book partly because I knew both brothers slightly and also because of my continuing interest in the prosecution of the Viet Nam war. The book is well worth reading, since both Mac and Bill Bundy were extremely interesting figures, and since enough information concerning their wartime activities has now become public to make a reconsideration of their roles worthwhile.
But for the purposes of this blog what caught my attention was Bird’s penultimate chapter on Bundy’s tenure at the Ford Foundation. Bird is of course interested in the foundation only to the extent that it reveals things of interest about Mac Bundy, and he makes no serious attempt to understand the overall performance of the organization. He wants to show how Mac Bundy had become a Robert Kennedy sort of liberal during his Washington years, and how his rapidly broadening social conception of liberalism informed his presidency at Ford. The highlights of Bird’s account will not surprise any reader of this blog – public television, public interest law, community development and race are the leading themes, with race taking primacy. His assessment of Bundy’s funding priorities is absolutely right.
Bird never analyzes the role of the president of the Ford Foundation, but assumes that Bundy had absolute power to determine what the organization did on his watch. It is an entirely one-man foundation. Almost no other Ford Foundation officer is mentioned by name. Bird begins his account by asserting that board chair John McCloy (who in this account single-handedly offers the presidency to Bundy) could be “his own boss.” And that meant “giving away” $200 million a year (until a recession devastated the foundation’s budget). He contrasts the Bundy-era at Ford with the foundation of the 1950s and 1960s, when “its instincts had been exceedingly cautious,” carefully investing in university research, international development, and major cultural institutions. Focusing so heavily on Bundy, Bird quickly ignores the nature of Ford involvement in overseas development and Mac Lowry’s innovative and daring cultural programming. He quotes the former president of Ford writing these initiatives off as “conventional wisdom.”
A lot has been and could be written about these programs, but Bird wants to emphasize Bundy’s personal agency in moving the Ford Foundation into fairly radical and highly political initiatives aimed at empowering the poor and powerless – “putting Ford money into the pockets of people who described themselves as social activists, progressives and agents of radical change.” Bird argues that Bundy “acknowledged the class nature of such funding.” And he briefly discusses Bundy’s controversial role in the 1969 Tax Reform Act. But in that year he quotes Bundy as telling a journalist that “Philanthropy is a very tough business. . . . It’s easy to give away pretty buildings to a nice place. But our social system needs a lot of change, a lot of renewal, which is our problem too, and that’s much harder.” And in his farewell remarks to a black audience, Bundy admitted to the limits of philanthropy: “We were believers in an early solution. . . . That, if you will, was a false high, a short-term reaction. The question is, do we give up? No, we believe there is still a place to attack . . .” This is a thoughtful assessment of Bundy’s take, but it probably represents an overestimation of what had been accomplished by the Ford Foundation and a fairly naïve appraisal of what the organization might do in the future. A depressing thought is that the “place to attack” language is troublingly reminiscent of Bundy the national security advisor.
I think a contrast of Darren Walker’s plans with Bundy’s accomplishments would be a very useful historical exercise. Bundy was of course working in an America in which Black Power was openly discussed, and the civil rights movement was (briefly) triumphant; Walker is working in an America in which Black Lives Matter is struggling to develop a workable political strategy. We need further assessments of the sort that Karen Ferguson has recently supplied, and more explicit comparisons of big foundation social policy in order to develop a truly historical understanding of how big foundations can impact social change.
-Stanley N. Katz
A co-founder of HistPhil, Stanley N. Katz is Lecturer with rank of Professor in Public and International Affairs and Director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University. He is President Emeritus of the American Council of Learned Societies, the national humanities organization in the United States.