A Voice for the Left-Behind

If America is truly better for having won a war, a large part of the gain may turn out to be a new candor in public discourse. Early in his presidency, George Bush proclaimed this a nation with more will than wallet. Bush had it backwards, and now there’s no pretending that he didn’t.

On June 22, 1989, the president, appearing on videotape, briefly addressed a dinner to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Wall Street Journal. It was a moment made for fatuities, and Bush did not disappoint.

“Many at the Journal have gone beyond their professional obligations and set examples of another old-fashoned tradition that is very much on my mind today–the tradition of public service,” the president said. This was Bush in his thousand-points-of-light mode. He cited one instance of the Journal doing the right thing, and went on, “A similar public response occurred in 1987, after the publication of ‘Urban Trauma,’ Alex Kotlowitz’s moving account of three months in the life of Lafeyette Walton, a 12-year-old boy struggling to stay alive in a dangerous Chicago project.

“Alex stayed in touch with Lafeyette, and last summer they passed the hat at the Journal and gave this kid and his brother a season of peace in the woods of a Wisconsin boys’ camp.

“Personal gestures. Profound actions,” said the president, “sometimes life-changing in their effect. These are the works of men and women who know that prosperity without purpose means nothing.”

“Give me a break,” says Alex Kotlowitz. Himself a point of light, Kotlowitz has written a book about Lafeyette Walton that is luminous. But Kotlowitz knows baloney when he hears it, and he did not spend three months with Lafeyette in the Henry Horner Homes in hopes that his paper’s Washington bureau would be so moved they’d pass the hat. (Kotlowitz had nothing to do with the hat-passing.)

He tells us, “It infuriated me that he so missed the point. He just didn’t get it.”

The president knows noblesse oblige when he sees it. What he didn’t see was his own duty. Lafeyette Walton–victim of circumstances that a president of the United States might actually be able to do something about–lived in terror of his life, in housing so misbegotten that when it was brand-new in the 50s, a visiting Russian housing official stared in astonishment at the cinder-block walls and said, “We would be thrown off our jobs in Moscow if we left unfinished walls like this.”

A summer at camp did not change that cinder block to plaster. It did not rid the basement of Lafeyette’s high rise of the animal carcasses whose putrid stench billowed up through the toilets. It did not replace the swings that had long ago vanished from the concrete playground outside, or run off the gangs whose gunfire terrorized tots playing there.

Having taken Lafeyette and his younger brother Pharoah fishing in northern Michigan the past three summers, Kotlowitz knows the limits to such good deeds. “As we got closer to Chicago, you could hear Pharoah’s stutter come back,” he told us, recalling the first of those trips. “They had dreams the night before they came back about being in a shoot-out.”

“If I was God,” said Lafeyette in the Wall Street Journal, “there wouldn’t be no word ‘killing.'” But like kids in Belfast or in Beirut, or those kids in Kuwait City to whose rescue our nation came, he’s lived with killing every day. Lafeyette has four younger brothers and sisters, and his mother owns burial-insurance policies on every one of them.

“If I take any encouragement from anything that happened in the Persian Gulf,” said Kotlowitz, “it’s a new sense of confidence. And hopefully that can be directed to domestic problems and not again just be projected overseas.”

Kotlowitz remains close to Lafeyette’s family. And now Doubleday has published There Are No Children Here, his extraordinary account of two years in the lives of Lafeyette and Pharoah. (Kotlowitz has changed their family name to Rivers for the book.) Kotlowitz told us, “A policeman said, whatever you do, you’ll have to understate the life these kids live, because no one will believe it otherwise.” The cop was right. “There are things I left out because otherwise it’s so relentless . . . and the stories and the tragedies just replay themselves.”

When a literary agent urged Kotlowitz to write a book about Lafeyette’s family, he hesitated. “I couldn’t imagine getting more of a response than I got to that [Wall Street Journal] story. We got a lot of media response–editorial pieces in places like the New York Times, San Francisco Examiner, Washington Post. Bill Bradley came out and met quietly with six or so mothers from the Henry Horner Homes.”

Yet all the attention came to nothing. “Politically,” Kotlowitz said of his article, “it fell on deaf ears. Things certainly haven’t gotten better since 1987. . . . You look at this incredible ability to mobilize in the Persian Gulf and the inspired leadership that President Bush gives the country to free Kuwait–you can’t even argue that it’s a democracy. But when it comes to domestic programs about the poor in our central cities–absolutely nothing.”

A president can’t lead, we said, if the people won’t follow.

“There’s no question that it’s going to be hard to rally the people behind such programs,” said Kotlowitz. “It’s going to take some moral fortitude. Which is why I wrote this book, and why I wrote it about children. Whatever you can say about adults, the children are totally innocent of what is. We’re writing off a generation of children.”

Just one? we thought. So many years have gone by since we first heard that warning. Surely by now we’re wasting a second generation of children. Perhaps a third.

“One of the things I found most frightening,” said Kotlowitz, “is looking back 25 or 30 years and seeing how little is changed. We’ve simply left these communities behind. It’s been easy to leave them behind. They’re very isolated, and we have little or no reason to go through them.”

Every generation Kotlowitz describes at the Henry Horner Homes is worse off than the preceding. Lafeyette’s grandparents were working people from the south who moved in when the project was spanking new, and they thanked God for sturdy walls and reliable heat. Lafeyette’s mother LaJoe is beaten down, but she still has hopes of moving her family out (an ambition Kotlowitz wants to make possible with revenues from There Are No Children Here). But Lafeyette does not even count on growing up.

We asked Kotlowitz about the reaction to his book at Henry Horner.

“LaJoe read it as soon as I got the hard cover–she stayed up all night, and she liked it a lot. In fact, she cried during parts of it. . . . And the Journal ran an excerpt about Craig Davis, and that story’s gotten around.” (Davis was a popular local youth–idolized by Lafeyette–who organized musical concerts outside Lafeyette’s building. Under the mistaken impression that Davis was trafficking in illegal firearms, a federal treasury agent chased him down one night and shot him to death.)

“People have come up and thanked me,” said Kotlowitz. “They’ve thanked LaJoe. In fact, LaJoe walked into a corner market, and people came up and hugged her. There’s a sense in places like Henry Horner that nobody’s listening. And in fact, nobody is.”

War Is Heck

The war we see in pictures is never the war that’s fought. “It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh,” Eisenhower wrote about a World War II battleground. Surely allied troops saw similar sights when they overran the Iraqi lines.

The folks back home are traditionally spared such spectacles. And it’s been the rare photograph from the Persian Gulf that shows even a single corpse–an unreality we owe to military censorship as well as to the media’s concern for our stomachs. “We got calls from newspapers all during the war asking us where the war photographs were,” said an Associated Press photo editor. His people weren’t sending him any.

Life magazine published special weekly editions during the war. The last of these, dated March 18, contained one photograph that the editors thought was something special. It was snapped inside a helicopter evacuating a young sergeant named Kozakiewicz from the battlefield. His arm is in a sling and he seems to be sobbing or screaming. Next to the sergeant there’s a sealed body bag. The sergeant has just learned that the bag contains his friend.

It’s moving. But a caption dares to assert: “If one photograph could contain war’s horror, it was this one.”

What naif wrote that line? It has been a very strange war when a nation emerges more innocent than it entered.

Comrades vs. Com Ed

A month ago David Moberg published an article in the Reader that was critical of Commonwealth Edison. Moberg argued that Com Ed, having overbuilt in the 70s, now pursues policies that encourage consumption rather than conservation. Present franchise negotiations give Chicago a chance to make Com Ed reform, said Moberg, and he added: “Of course if the city owned the utility, it would be even easier to make progress.”

Com Ed reacted in an employee newsletter. Rather than answer the specifics of what it called Moberg’s “particularly misleading attack,” the newsletter offered “a bit of background about the writer.” It revealed Moberg is a senior editor at In These Times, a “self-described socialist publication” with an editorial platform that objects to “corporate profit and greed.” Said the newsletter, “Not surprisingly, the Reader article endorsed a city of Chicago takeover of Commonwealth Edison.”

What Com Ed had to say about Moberg and In These Times was true. But you don’t rebut an argument by pointing out that a socialist made it. That’s genteel red-baiting. Besides, if only Chicago’s socialists objected to Com Ed’s 40-year-long monopoly, the utility could blissfully anticipate another 40 years.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.