A Public Life
The Day is Short: An Autobiography.
by Morris B. Abram.
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 280 pp. $14.95.
Morris Abram is a former president of Brandeis University, of the American Jewish Committee, and of the Field Foundation; a former candidate for the Senate from New York; and a man who has held many official appointments, from the United Nations to committees investigating nursing homes in New York. Still only in his sixties and vigorous, he has been impelled to set down his autobiography at this relatively early date because of his long battle with an extremely virulent life-threatening form of cancer. It is this experience that has brought a man who is preeminently a public figure to write so surprisingly personal an account of his life.
Yet everything in this book, whether public or private, seems to show the same man—the vivid and harrowing account of the complex treatment for his leukemia, with its terrible effects on the body; the twenty-year fight with the county-unit rule in Georgia, which first brought Abram to national attention; his strong stand against racial preferences in the 70’s. And the man shown is active and forceful, not one to let events take their own course without involving himself in shaping them.
Morris Abram was born in a small Georgia town, the son of an unsuccessful East European Jewish shopkeeper, an immigrant from Rumania, and a German Jewish mother, the daughter of a doctor, who could not conceal her disappointment in her husband. The thin Jewish thread keeps emerging in Abram’s life, turning him into something rather different from the man he would have been had his father been, for example, a Baptist shopkeeper.
Thus in this tiny Georgia town, with too few Jews to support a synagogue or a rabbi, there happened to be a Dutch-born Jewish socialist, the editor of a newspaper, who in his many conversations with young Morris Abram argued that the Jews inevitably play a progressive role in history, and who proposed that his bright disciple write a book, to be titled Stepping Stones of Civilization, that would detail the contributions of the Jews from monotheism to Marx, Freud, and Einstein. One is reminded of the town in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, except that here the apostle of progress was a Jew—as would not be surprising in a small Southern town.
Another early experience: as a bright young debater in the local high school, Morris Abram was asked by the pastor of the church to present the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. He may not have been very qualified, but then who in Fitzgerald, Georgia, was? At least he scoured the town for every relevant book on the subject. Again: at the University of Georgia, his modest Jewish tie led him to discover
the loud, seemingly street-wise New York Jews who had come to the inexpensive campus in Athens because their grades did not qualify them for free tuition in the city college system. I loathed them for being so ostentatiously Jewish and for their public scorn of Georgia. . . . It was this boisterous bunch that had set up picket lines in front of the Palace Theater protesting the exorbitant thirty-five cent admission charge. . . . But I was also drawn to them. Their world was big, foreign, full of new ideas.
Abram was selected as a Rhodes Scholar, but the war prevented his class from going to Oxford. He had a year at the University of Chicago as a consolation, and after the war was finally able to get to Oxford. Returning to Atlanta, he did not win the offer to a major local law firm his accomplishments might have warranted—he leaves no doubt that this was because he was a Jew—but joined a small firm and, in a move that was consonant with his youthful experiences but different from the pattern of successful Atlanta lawyers, embarked on an effort to break into and affect public life, as a liberal.
The great barrier to him, and to other liberals, was Georgia’s county-unit rule, which radically reduced the weight of the Atlanta metropolitan counties in the crucial Democratic primaries. Abram fought against this in the courts for twenty years. The long battle, with its briefs and appeals in district courts, circuit courts, and finally the Supreme Court brought him to the attention of what can only be called the Northern liberal establishment. In 1959 he was asked to join the board of the Twentieth Century Fund in New York, and he does not conceal his awe at meeting Adolf Berle, Benjamin Cohen, David Lilienthal, James Rowe, Robert Lynd, Francis Biddle, Charles Taft, J. Robert Oppenheimer:
[H]ere, around this table, was a collective experience and expertise that surpassed the sum total of everything and everyone that I had yet known. Why was I elected to this group of notables? I had not published, held high office, or lectured from a distinguished university chair. Had these men picked me as a Southern liberal, to bring to their round table an informed viewpoint of the changing South?
Of course, that was precisely why Abram was there. And about the same time, he was being invited to speak to the board of the Field Foundation—Adlai Stevenson, Lloyd Garrison, Ralph Bunche, and so on. These new connections led him to leave Georgia and go to New York, to take a partnership in Lloyd Garrison’s law firm, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton, and Garrison.
Of all the positions held by Abram, it would appear that the one he wanted the most, and felt most suited for in prospect, was the one that brought him the greatest disappointment. This was the presidency of Brandeis, which he assumed in the late 60’s. Abram approached Brandeis in the same spirit of awe he had felt for the giants of the New Deal gathered at the Twentieth Century Fund. His respect for the life of the mind and higher education had been unsullied by any close contact with universities. It was his misfortune to become president when Brandeis’s founder, Abram Sachar, had only formally resigned, and was keeping a close check on his successor. It was also a time of black student takeovers, which, despite the fact that Brandeis was then devoting many of its slim resources to programs for ghetto youth, were serious and damaging.
If higher education was not what Abram had expected—“I must confess that if there was ever an experience in my life that toughened me for the crucial battle with illness, it was my tenure as president of Brandeis”—there were greater satisfactions in being president of the American Jewish Committee, at a time (in the early 60’s) when the agency was attempting to persuade the Roman Catholic Church to withdraw the charge of deicide against Jews. That issue was settled to the Committee’s satisfaction. Others he dealt with in the 1960’s are still with us, and if anything in graver form. In 1967, the Six-Day War erupted, and American Jewish organizations found, for the first time, that they could not expect liberal Protestants to give Israel their unstinting support. At the same time, a split was developing between Jews and blacks, both on issues of domestic civil rights and on support for Israel.
The “Jewish connection” played a role in making Morris Abram a Southern liberal. His chosen ground was the Georgia county-unit rule, which he stuck with through decades, and on which he finally achieved success. That fight, as we have seen, brought Abram to national prominence and led him to move to New York. Until then, Jewish interests and activities had been peripheral to him. But once in New York he seems to have discovered that the larger stage was in part a Jewish stage, or in any case that the Jewish world offered the most interesting opportunities. But then this strengthened experience with the Jewish community led Abram into positions on some key issues that divorced him from the same liberal allies who had first brought him to New York.
The two issues I have already named were crucial: one had to do with the question of whether the protection of civil rights should mean public policies giving preference to certain specified ethnic and racial minorities, and the second had to do with attitudes toward Israel, which in practice also meant attitudes toward the United Nations, the Third World, human rights, and indeed to the role of the United States in world affairs. On these, Abram broke his lifelong commitment to the Democratic party in 1980 and came out openly for Reagan. And, as he reports sadly, it was on these issues too that he came into conflict with the Field Foundation, and resigned after a two-decade connection.
His path paralleled that of many other liberals, who found in the course of the 70’s that they did not agree with their former allies on many issues. Jewish interests, Jewish connections, had played a signal role in bringing many to liberalism. They played an equally substantial role in moving many away from what liberalism began to mean in the course of the 1970’s. Morris Abram looks back fondly, as many do, to the liberalism of the Democratic coalition from Roosevelt to Humphrey. He can say, as many do, that he did not change, liberalism did.
Undoubtedly there are those who might see in this development the narrow victory of a concern with a partial interest, that of the Jews, over that of a larger interest, perhaps “humanity.” But as Abram’s life shows, the Jewish connection cuts both ways: it brings individuals to a concern with larger interests, but it also reminds them that even the largest of interests must be judged by their immediate and concrete impact. There are no answers given from on high, to Jews or to others, on how to reconcile the universal and the particular, but Morris Abram’s life is a good and respectable example of how one man, who is still serving the larger and the smaller communities of which he is a part, has tried to effect such a reconciliation.