The Constitution of a Man
by Edward Mickol
-Advocate - Attorney - Activist
& “Impolite Civil Servant”
Stuart F. Feldman’s Hard-won Victories
For The Constitution & Our Country-
It began with an Idea: who will defend the defenders?
Who will stand for that first line in our nation’s survival- those who still pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor?
The question arose from a growing disgust with the unjust conditions that welcomed home veterans from a hot war to a cold nation .
At the nadir of the conflict in Viet Nam, in an office at the incongruous Department of Transportation, a young attorney and advocate, Stuart F. Feldman, brought together the random dissatisfactions that laced the conversations of friends and colleagues about the treatment of the returning vets, and the incoherence of the war, and focused their amorphous discontent into a practical government proposal.
As author Gerald Nicosia noted in his book “HOME TO WAR”:
“Of those inside the system, the most successful attention-getter, partly because of his bulldog determination and partly because he was a genius at working the media, was a slight, unassuming lawyer in his late thirties named Stuart Feldman… while most people had their eyes focused on the histrionic protesters, Feldman was looking at the vets. [O]ne great quest occupied almost his every waking hour: to make the U.S. government act justly toward its… veterans…. All he had to do, he figured, ’was a raid on the federal treasury for scholarships…’ just as the World War II G.I. Bill had done.”
The after-work, informal group that Feldman brainstormed with over the most pragmatic ways to aid-the-veterans included a UPI reporter, the organizer John Pierson, newly-minted lawyer Ruben Robertson- just out of Yale-, two seasoned attorneys, Harry Huge and Gerald Stern, from one of Washington’s most prestigious firms, along with passing participation and encouragement from a variety of Foreign Service officers, journalists and Congressional aides.
And at the heart of every session the most vital issue burned: the War and what they were going to do about it.
None of the people involved were in power, but all had unique angles of access to it. Feldman, impressed by a quote on the strength of Black soldiers by the civil rights activist and author, Whitney Young*, introduced a double-edged idea to the group: ~couldn’t some unquestionable good be salvaged from of this brutal War -if it helped lift Black veterans - and their disadvantaged brothers of other colors- into the middle class?
His concept was to see that the enormous advantages of the G.I. Bill, which had done so much good for the veterans and for the nation after World War II, were brought up-to-date to assist another generation, forged by fresher combat. And to help improve the blighted racial situation within the country by showing its citizens that there would be a strong and serious investment in Education and in the advancement of all those who served the country.
Honor instead of indifference and a career instead of chaos made simple sense, and now the government needed to fulfill its half of that bargain which an oath to defend the nation, sworn by its citizens, incurs. Feldman was intent on pressing the issue.
If the uplifting of a generation of African-American veterans could be wrought by upgrading G.I. benefits it would be a sublime way to build a living monument of decency upon years of carnage.
* Young, who also headed the National Urban League, wrote earlier about the need for a Manhattan Project to move Blacks ahead in America in his book “To Be Equal”.
Feldman concentrated his strongest ideas for a restored G.I. Bill into a policy memo which he showed to his boss John Sweeney at the Department of Transportation, who thought it was an important enough idea to be translated into a political memorandum- which he did- and then passed on it to the White House for their consideration and input.
The original proposal (on Dept. Of Trans. stationary) was
addressed as a “Memorandum to the Honorable Daniel P. Moynihan” on the “Subject: GI Education for returning…veterans”,
(since the new Nixon Administration had retained the popular Democrat Moynihan, who had been a colleague of Feldman’s under the previous president) and it laid out the problems with the extant scaled-back GI Bill, and measured the successes of the WW II era version, which had provided educational opportunities to 49% of that war’s veterans, compared to only 25%, or half that number, of Vietnam vets who used their weakened, watered-down benefits.
Feldman’s remedies for the problem were precise, pragmatic, and profound. The aim of the document was to organize a scholastic and training program that would dedicate the nation to helping better the lives of their returning service people, starting with those most clearly disadvantaged, and whose future was most at risk, while understanding that these same benefits that could give hope to African-Americans, would also help all their brothers-in-arms, whether they were a poor vet from Appalachia, or East L.A.
Feldman realized that you had to play to the needs of the moment with an eye on the general good, and, if the government of a nation was being torn by racial discord, it might see the wisdom in a way to calm things by a political show of concern. Which this GI Bill- aimed at educationally integrating and raising up Black vets specifically, but all vets effectually- could provide.
But the proposal’s course through intervening bureaucracies and succeeding presidencies would illuminate the nature of the ingrained forces, -the Iron Triangle* of competing concerns- that test the determination of any advocate for a new idea in D.C.
* The Iron Triangle is: the permanent bureaucracy, the changing Congressional Committees, and the constant special interests that surround every endeavor.
Any fresh concept is a threat to all entrenched ideas.
And the protectors of such already-secured turf shift into defense mode whenever any alteration in power threatens to arise. The possibility of Congress allocating new billions for the Education of veterans would attract the interest of every remotely-related Department and organization seeking funding, from the Veteran’s Administration- which would have its own ideas about how to spend such a windfall- to local politicians looking out for any grant benefits for their own state colleges and trade schools.
Feldman remarked on the effects of these competing blocs:
“Heroic veterans returned to find their government doing little on
their behalf. Some hospitals had rats running through the amputee wards, and their GI Bill had half the buying power that the WW II veterans got. VA housing bought you a trailer instead of a house in Levittown.”
His concept, even with a favorable review by the White House, quickly ran into the systemic barriers that tangle up and prevent any practical solutions from getting off the ground in D.C.
Sensing that America’s Constitution had reached a critical moment for its re-appreciation By The People, Feldman was central to the founding of The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
As an article in Philadelphia Magazine by Dan Rottenberg put it:
“…[The National Constitution Center] idea first occurred to mild-mannered Washington lobbyist Stuart Feldman during the …winter of 1984… In a city no longer receptive to his primary stock in trade: grandiose schemes.”
After coming up with the concept, he joined with like-minded
citizens, like Bob Brasler (who was the first person to hold the title of President and CEO of the Center while it was being planned and promoted), and they pushed the notion in the media and in the halls of Congress to the point of the passage of The Constitution Heritage Act of 1988.
Knowing that The Constitution can easily be atomized and abstracted, and the sublime soul of the nation’s Idea swallowed up in scrabbling details, he wanted to establish a site to focus on our founding documents. A National Constitution Center would be a fine venue for restoring attention to the meaning of the country, and not just upon its stirring symbols. Its location near the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall was intentional as a way to link these icons of revolution to their inspirational source. And enrich the public with a vital understanding of the concepts that gave birth to America, framed its future, and form its sinews.
After nearly two decades of efforts, the Center aptly opened on the Fourth of July, 2003 to national acclaim and received the best wishes of Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who officiated at the ceremony and said this of the new undertaking:
“The Constitution Center…will contribute each and every day to the reinforcement of the basic principles that bind us together as a nation and a people.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported earlier, during the
groundbreaking on the 213th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution, in 2000: “It is a great and vindicating moment for a project…[that] remake[s] this vital civic space at the heart of Philadelphia. …[and for] th[ose] who helped this project to today’s
watershed [like] Stuart Feldman, in whose creative brain first flowered the idea of a [site] … honoring our nation’s …charter.”
Not all sacrifice is in war, and sometimes Constitutional principles are embodied in a citizen so strongly that their life becomes emblematic of the nation, and its struggle for Liberty.
Martin Luther King, Jr. incarnated the best of the American character by bringing the country face-to-face with its failure to live up to its core ideals as demonstrated by the government’s indifference, for a century, in enforcing the Bill of Rights equally.
The example of MLK’s devotion to the non-violent redress of grievances, in perfect fidelity to the Constitution, had been a bright beacon of sanity in a time of bloodshed and turmoil.
To give the nation a way to assess the proper weight of King’s endeavors in a national setting, Feldman had a third grand idea. Beginning with an op-ed piece in the Washington Post in 1989, he began to rally the country for the construction of a national memorial in Washington, D.C. as a cenotaph for the spirit of this slain leader. And as a shrine to the struggles of all Americans for justice and peace.
Originally, the plan was to have King’s “I Have A Dream” speech carved in stone near the Lincoln Memorial as a way to appreciate two of the most pivotal declarations in U.S. history side-by-side, since the words of the battlefield address at Gettysburg and King’s speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln memorial are a pair strong steps on the same path toward full realization of the nation‘s great promise for humanity.
But, as the concept was discussed and debated, something structured along the lines of the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials arose as more fitting for the magnitude of King’s contribution to the country, although it took two more decades of wrangling over its shape and site before the final location was approved and the majority of the funding raised. (A virtual tour online of the proposed setting shows the conceptualization of the monument soon to begin construction.)
We come down to the fact that the constitution of a man is
shown by his efforts.
Aristotle said that All men by nature desire to know.
Some, however, also want to act.
Stuart F. Feldman took up a triumvirate of ideas and took on an Iron Triangle of challenges- and triumphed.
Showing America that her spirit continues, vital and indomitable.
Enshrined in these endeavors, ~and in the lives strengthened, ~in the meaning of our Republic renewed,
and in a national honor secured for a great citizen of peace.
The constitution of a man is shown by his efforts, ~indeed.