JOSEPH RAUH was the only 'professional liberal' that John Kennedy had any use for. A labour leader in the 1950s called him a 'battler' and to the journalist Milton Viorst he was 'one of the few secular saints of our time'.
In a larger sense, Rauh's career embodied the achievements and shortcomings of authentic postwar US liberalism. He might have become an establishment Democrat and quintessential Washington fixer. Instead, he picketed segregated theatres and restaurants in Washington as early as 1947 when the nation's capital was a totally segregated city. Or he might have parlayed his Harvard law degree and clerkship under the Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter in the New Deal era into a comfortable law practice. Instead, the 1950s saw him defending victims of the post-war Red Scare, including the playwrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman.
Rauh was general legal counsel to Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers (UAW) in the 1950s and 1960s and a close friend of Hubert Humphrey when the latter was liberalism's best hope in the US Senate. Rauh helped found the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) in 1947, spearheaded the fight for Home Rule in Washington DC - still the US's 'last colony', its finances controlled by Congress rather than the city council - and was legal adviser and strategist for numerous civil- rights organisations. In Viorst's words, he was a 'one- man interlocking directorate of liberal organisations' in the 25 years after the Second World War.
The 1964 Democratic Convention saw Rauh's first real appearance in the national spotlight. As adviser to the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP), he appeared on national television to urge that the MFDP delegation be seated in the convention instead of the regular, all-white, segregationist delegation from Mississippi. But President Johnson wanted a convention without controversy and detailed Humphrey, the would-be Vice-President, to settle the dispute.
In the ensuing politicking, Rauh was pulled in every direction. Most MFDP delegates wanted to reject the Johnson-Humphrey compromise. Reuther threatened Rauh's position as counsel to the UAW if Rauh supported the MFDP against the President. Rauh argued the MFDP's case valiantly, but eventually urged the largely black Mississippi delegation to accept compromise. Caught in a no-win situation, he was accused of selling out: from hero he had become white liberal villain. In a sense, Rauh was the first white liberal victim of the burgeoning black-power and black-consciousness movement.
Though Rauh was never to regain the national stature he attained - and lost - in 1964, he refused to sulk in his tent. He lobbied for civil-rights legislation throughout the mid-1960s and was an early opponent of the Vietnam war, supporting Eugene McCarthy's challenge to President Johnson for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968 and consulting closely with Robert Kennedy who eventually joined the fray. In the early 1970s he was legal adviser to a group of coal-miners who took control of their corrupt national union.
Joe Rauh was both a dedicated reformer and consummately political. At times overbearing and manipulative, he was an aggressive liberal, ready to fight but just as ready to compromise when he thought that confrontation had accomplished all it could. Though he dropped from public view in his later years, his figure, sporting a bow tie and fighting the good fight, has already assumed an honoured place in the pantheon of contemporary US liberalism.Reuse content