As I noted in my previous post, the opening scene of the “Mad Men” season premiere appeared to show advertising employees dropping water balloons on a group protesting for greater spending on anti-poverty programs. It turns out the scene is based on a real-life event uncovered by the show’s researchers. In the New York Times’ account of May 28, 1966, the Young and Rubicam (Y & R) employees harassed a group picketing outside the Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) office on Madison Avenue. The scene reflects some of the fissures surrounding President Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty,” also referred to as the “Great Society.”
Passed in 1964, the OEO was the lead agency in LBJ’s ambitious effort to reduce poverty. Run by JFK”s brother-in-law Sargent Shriver, it was designed to administer antipoverty funds through local Community Action Agencies (CAAs) in major urban areas. Based on the idea that poor people needed to be politically empowered to overcome poverty, legislation required the CAAs to achieve “maximum feasible participation” among the poor. While conservatives often criticize Great Society programs for creating large centralized bureaucracies, elements of the New Left of the 1960s shared the right’s suspicion of the federal government, wanting more “participatory democracy” that would put power in the hands of local communities. The CAAs seemed to be influenced by this ideology, even though Johnson was certainly not sympathetic to the New Left.
Big city mayors such as Chicago’s Richard J. Daley disliked the CAAs because they thought they were receiving funds that should go to their own political organizations. Furthermore, the CAAs developed their own power base and opposed the policies of local administrations, as much of the CAA’s efforts went to political activities that did not help people get out of poverty.
According to the NYT”s account from 1966, this dynamic may explain the once forgotten but now famous protest. Chanting “O-E-O, we’ve got the poverty where is the dough,” outside the Northeast regional headquarters of the OEO, the picketers expressed frustration that more antipoverty money was not coming to New York City. The regional director responded that there weren’t more funds available, adding, “New York is getting more than its fair share of money.” It’s possible that less funding was available because the war in Vietnam was crowding out appropriations for the War on Poverty, as LBJ increasingly realized he could not have both “guns” and “butter” at the same time.
The signs hung on the Y & R building in 1966 during the protest provide an early sign of the backlash against American liberalism that gained strength during the second half of the decade. One read, “If you want money, get yourself a job,” a refrain that would become more common as many working-class Americans began to believe the Great Society was wasting their tax dollars. Another said, “Support your local police—no review board,” a reference to the demands from liberals for a civilian review board to monitor police brutality. Such an oversight agency was deeply unpopular in the outer boroughs of the city as crime grew throughout the decade, which was reflected in the season four “Mad Men” episode where Joan and Roger are mugged. Rising crime across the country made “law and order” a popular cry for conservative politicians and would contribute to the GOP’s victory in the 1966 midterm elections as well as Richard Nixon’s presidential win in 1968.
Although the 1966 protest represents popular perceptions of the 1960s as a decade of liberal political and cultural change, the signs at Y & R are also an important representation of the spirit of the times. While social movements like the civil rights and feminist movements achieved legal success and more money was spent fighting poverty, many blue-collar Americans resisted these changes, leading to a conservative backlash that was just as enduring as the social changes of the period. After 1968, Republicans controlled the White House for 20 of the next 24 years, their reign only interrupted by Jimmy Carter’s narrow post-Watergate win in 1976. Political conservatism, just as much as cultural liberalism, is a central legacy of the turbulent 1960s.