A Man Whose Ideas Helped Change the World

BEN WATTENBERG

April 22, 1992|By BEN WATTENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- Because ideas have ancestors, and because ideas have consequences, let me tell you about my friend Tom Kahn. He died recently, too soon, at age 53. But he lived an important life.

I met Tom in 1971 when he came to Washington to be a speechwriter on the presidential campaign of Sen. Henry ''Scoop'' Jackson. At the scribbler's trade, he was the best. He had the two qualities great speechwriters need: He could write in American, and he had thought-out ideas.

I used to kid Tom that he and his activist friends were a cabal, ingeniously trying to bury the Soviet Union in a blizzard of letterheads. It seemed that each of Tom's colleagues -- Penn Kemble, Carl Gershman, Josh Muravchik and many more -- ran a little organization, each with the same interlocking directorate listed on the stationery. Funny thing: The Letterhead Lieutenants did indeed churn up a blizzard, and the Soviet Union is no more.

I never did quite get all the organizational acronyms straight -- YPSL, LID, SP, SDA, ISL -- but the key words were ''democratic,'' dTC ''labor,'' ''young'' and, until events redefined it away from their understanding, ''socialist.'' Ultimately, the umbrella group became ''Social Democrats, U.S.A.'' and Tom Kahn was a principal ''theoretician.''

They talked and wrote endlessly, mostly about communism and democracy, despising the former, adoring the latter. It is easy today to say ''anti-communist'' and ''pro-democracy'' in the same breath. But that is because American foreign policy eventually became just such a mixture, thanks in part to those ''Yipsels'' (Young People's Socialist League), with Tom Kahn as provocateur-at-large.

On the conservative side, foreign policy used to be ''anti-communist,'' but not very ''pro-democracy.'' And foreign policy liberal-style might be piously ''pro-democracy,'' but nervous about being ''anti-communist.'' Tom theorized that to be either, you had to be both.

It was tough for labor-liberal intellectuals to be ''anti-communist'' in the 1970s. It meant being taunted as ''Cold Warriors'' who saw ''Commies under every bed'' and being labeled as -- the unkindest cut -- ''right-wingers.''

The parentage of ideas is complex; they often emerge from many places simultaneously. In Washington, Tom's idea-mongers found an hospitable environment in both the labor movement and the ''Scoop Jackson wing'' of the Democratic Party.

In George Meany and Lane Kirkland of the AFL-CIO the Yipsels found heroes. In national union offices some of them found jobs, as Tom did at the AFL-CIO. By the early 1980s, when the Solidarity labor union challenged Polish communism, Yipsels were already in place here as labor's foreign-policy shock troops.

Tom Kahn saw the future early. He wrote in 1981 that the events in Poland should be seen as part of a process that could ''dismantle'' communism. Later, he became director of the AFL-CIO International Affairs department.

The AFL-CIO did the most to keep Solidarity alive, with help from the Pope and Ronald Reagan. Ultimately, Solidarity broke the legs of communism and the great ugly beast fell, just as Tom said it would.

Tom was in character as one of Scoop's Troops in the fight for human rights and the promotion of democracy. He had cut his teeth in the civil rights movement and, in 1963, as Bayard Rustin's assistant, he drew up the conceptual plan for the March on Washington.

The Labor/Jackson combine started ''the democracy movement.'' It was boosted by Jimmy Carter's human rights push and sent into orbit by a profound irony: Many conservative Republicans made common cause with some union Democrats,

who were their arch-adversaries on domestic matters. That marriage was made in part by ''neo-conservatism,'' which had some roots in Yipsel-think, and came to influence Mr. Reagan's foreign policy, which, not-so-strangely, often sounded Kahnish: anti-communist, pro-democracy, hard-line.

Tom died too young, of AIDS. In the modern war of ideas he was a player, a founder -- and a winner. That is some solace for his many admirers in the democracy movement who will continue the work in a quite new era that his consequential ideas helped create.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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