50 Years Ago in Washington

Robert Novak

5/14/2007 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On Monday morning May 13, 1957, I entered the Washington bureau of the Associated Press in the old Evening Star building on Pennsylvania Avenue, a 26-year-old reporter transferred from Indianapolis where I had reported on the Indiana legislature for the AP. I was immediately sent to Capitol Hill, and soon was helping cover the Kennedy brothers' investigation of Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, defended by Edward Bennett Williams. What a start for 50 years in Washington that continue today.

My $125 weekly paycheck was hardly enough to get by, but drinks were cheap in the Members Bar of the National Press Club (restricted to males, as was the club itself), and the small steak there sold for $1.25. I resorted to group living, in a large Georgetown house owned by a Foreign Service officer who was in Costa Rica as ambassador. I paid $100 rent a month. My housemates included two United Press reporters and two CIA employees (one overt and one covert).

It is highly unlikely to find journalists and intelligence operatives cohabiting today, reflecting the kinder, gentler nation's capital a half century ago. Then, as now, a Congress controlled by Democrats with a one-vote margin in the Senate confronted a Republican president. But they opposed each other courteously in 1957. I had arrived in Washington in a pause preceding party polarization, the civil rights revolution, racial riots, student unrest, assassinations, two impeachment proceedings, Vietnam, Watergate and Iraq.

Washington then was still the town of Southern efficiency and Northern charm, shabby and not resembling today's sleek metropolis. The government was much smaller and far less intrusive. The $76.7 billion federal budget ($585 billion in current dollars) compares with the 2007 figures of $2.7 trillion. But even those relatively modest figures spawned an assault on President Dwight D. Eisenhower's budget by Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson.

The biggest news of my first week was LBJ leading the Senate on Wednesday to cut $102 million in foreign propaganda funds from the Eisenhower budget. Senate Minority Leader William Knowland and others in the Republican leadership supported the president in principle but voted for Appropriations Committee cuts in the interest of Senate solidarity.

On Tuesday night, Eisenhower over national television had called the cuts a "needless gamble" with national security. But in his weekly press conference on Wednesday, the president rejected going over Knowland's head to 14 liberal Republican senators who supported Eisenhower, asserting he would work only through the GOP's "elected leadership." After the press conference, it was announced that Ike went golfing at the all-male Burning Tree Club with his son John and press secretary James C. Hagerty.

While the government outlays were limited, the top marginal income tax rate in 1957 remained at the Korean War level of 91 percent (compared with today's 35 percent). That helped produce a 1957 budget surplus, one of three yearly surpluses in the Eisenhower years. They were matched by three Eisenhower recessions. Nobody talked then about needed tax rate reduction until John F. Kennedy became president in 1961, and nobody in 1957 anticipated the massive 1958 recession that produced big Democratic congressional majorities for a generation.

Nor did anybody foresee that Lyndon Johnson would in 1957 engineer passage of the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. In his May 15 press conference, Eisenhower said he would go "no faster and no further" than the Supreme Court's 1954 school desegregation decision. That promised doing nothing about voting rights, open occupancy or fair employment.

But Time magazine's cover story that week on Atty. Gen. Herbert Brownell reported him pressing for desegregation in interstate transportation, abolishing segregation in Washington restaurants and, especially, pressing for voting rights. Time depicted Brownell, Eisenhower's campaign manager, running the Justice Department on a non-partisan basis. A U.S. attorney was quoted: "I think the Attorney General should get a Medal of Honor. He got us all feeling a certain pride in what we do."

That was the tone of Washington when I arrived. Today the city is slicker, the nation is richer and minorities are protected. But I personally cannot help feeling nostalgia for the civility and even innocence I encountered 50 years ago.