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Short Stories - Harry Chapin Web Site
Dave Marsh Article:
April 1978

Harry Chapin goes to Washington and wows them in the lobby.
Author: Dave Marsh
Publication: Rolling Stone
Date: April 6th 1978

The morning of February 3rd, singer/ songwriter Harry Chapin flew to Washington D.C. from Ontario. He'd just done a concert and, having slept on the plane, arrived with barely enough time to change into what he calls his "lobbying suit," a three-piece number that's a lot calmer than he usually acts while wearing it. He left his street clothes, and his wallet, in Senator Pat Leahy's office and got into Senator Dick Clark's car to drive to their meeting with Jimmy Carter. When they got to the White House gates, Clark and Leahy were asked for their identification. Harry realized that he had none and the congressmen started to make excuses, but the guards just waved the car on. "Oh, that's Chapin," they said. "We know him."

A few minutes later, Harry Chapin found himself in the vice-president's seat in the Cabinet Room of the White House, directly across from Jimmy Carter. An ideological melange of heavy-weight congressmen flanked them, from liberal Democrats like Senator George McGovern and Leahy, to conservative Republicans like Senator Robert Dole and Representative Ben Gilman. All of them were present to hear Carter's verdict on a joint congressional resolution calling for the establishment of a Presidential Commission on Domestic and International Hunger and Malnutrition.

Harry Chapin has known more glamorous and highly publicized moments since his first hit, "Taxi," in 1972. But this was probably the apex of his offstage career. The hunger commission was his project. Chapin had spent four months badgering it through Congress where it passed both houses by overwhelming margins: unanimous in the Senate, 368-34 in the House. Chapin's lobbying campaign had been a populist dream; everyone from Carter's adviser on the hunger issue, Dr. Peter Bourne, to consumer activist Ralph Nader called it the most impressive lobbying effort by an outsider they had ever seen.

As the meeting began, Representative Rick Nolan spoke briefly of the genesis of the measure, then turned the floor over to Chapin. Always voluble, the singer was hardly intimidated by the company. A natural performer, he is at his best when speechifying; his hoarse voice rises to unseemly levels, the words come fast and abruptly, in a flow so thick there's little chance of an interruption. His catch phrase this morning was Carter's campaign slogan, "A government as good as its people," of which Chapin thought the hunger program was a natural extension. He spoke for about five minutes.

"If this is the kind of energy that was brought to this resolution," Carter said when Chapin was finished, "I can understand why it's reached my desk." Remembering the gatehouse scene, Leahy added, "Yes, he's even infiltrated the White House."

"It's gotten so bad," Carter concluded, "that even Amy is asking me what I'm going to do about world hunger." And then, in a voice so low his audience couldn't be sure they'd heard him right, "I think it's a good idea."

Chapin had pulled it off.

Hunger has been Harry Chapin's prime extramusical concern since 1973. Chapin and a friend, Father Bill Ayres, a Catholic priest from Long Island who does a national rock and religion show for the ABC network, saw the hunger issue as a natural political and charitable outlet for Chapin. At the time, a major drought in the Sarahan (Sahelian) region of North Africa was causing mass starvation. "You should do another Bangladesh to benefit Sahelian relief," Ayres had told Chapin. "I'm not exactly George Harrison," Chapin replied.

Eventually, Chapin was convinced, and he and Ayres approached the United Nations with the benefit idea. John Scali, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., agreed to cooperate if Ayres and Chapin would accept Michael Viner, who'd organized the entertainment for Nixon's second inaugural, as overseer. Even with a promise of support from Bill Graham the benefit never attracted sufficient talent to come off.

After the benefit fell through, Ayres and Chapin reassessed their view of the hunger issue as a matter for charity. Their new analysis was that the root of the world hunger problem had been misidentified. Overpopulation and scarcity of food and land weren't the causes of hunger: the solution wasn't to be found in increased charity from rich nations or more exports from poor ones. Nor was the answer greater technology on ever larger farms. The only long-range answer was self-reliance and redistribution of resources: in short, land reform, wealth reform, or economic revolution, which threaten dictatorships, oligarchies, and multinational corporations-- all concentrations of wealth-- equally.

Chapin can now explain why this analysis is correct at great length-- for hours if necessary. Statistics pour out of him like some windup computers.

There are 500 million malnourished people in the world, 20 million in the U.S. alone.

Malnutrition is a significant factor in up to fifty percent of the world's mentally retarded.

A large amount of American pet food is sold to senior citizens.

Of the money allocated through the U.S. Food for Peace program in the last year of the Nixon administration, ten percent subsidized tobacco. Fifty percent went to Cambodia and South Vietnam, where no one is certain what became of it; in the Sahelian situation, as relief food was entering from African docks, most of the region's agricultural crops were being exported.

The problem is so vast, Chapin finishes with a flourish, that if he were able to raise $750 million for benefits that would be enough to give every starving person $1.50 per year.

Chapin now says that the Sahelian benefit idea was an example of "event psychosis," the idea that a major event will mystically solve problems through good will. He is, he insists, "committed to the process. I'm in the for long run." There can be little doubt of that. Chapin, has consistently been a socially conscious songwriter: his hits, "Cat's in the Cradle," "Taxi," and the rest are fables, miniature sermons ("And I'll tell you why Baby's crying/ 'Cause she's dying, aren't we all?" he says in "Taxi"). Always didactic, always rigorously and righteously moral.

Through the winter of 1973-74 Ayres and Chapin studied the hunger problem and how to combat it effectively. Their conclusion was that they needed an organization; a series of meetings begun in March 1974 resulted in the formation, one year later, of World Hunger Year (WHY) (The answer to the obvious question is: every year.) WHY is a nonprofit educational group. It is funded mostly by the sixty-odd benefits Chapin does every year, which raise about $500,000. WHY uses those funds for smaller, less dramatic events than Bangladesh, but they're more effective: teach-ins at high schools and universities, small benefits (500 seats) where Chapin can rap with the audience before, during, and after the shows.

On Thanksgiving Day 1975, Chapin and Ayres took over New York's WNEW-FM for a twenty-four hour, commercial-free special devoted to the hunger issue. The Hungerthon offered celebrities, politicians, and experts ranging from Ralph Nader and Ramsey Clark to Joan Baez, Patti Smith, and Roger McGuinn. It was sufficiently successful to earn another Thanksgiving 1976, and other Hungerthons at rock stations in Detroit, Washington, Los Angeles, Dallas, and San Francisco.

But the giant step for Chapin's hunger campaign came after a meeting last spring when his wife Sandy looked at him and said, "What you guys need is a presidential commission." At first, Chapin was skeptical. Most presidential commissions have been study groups which file a report and are then forgotten. "But it finally looked like our best alternative," he said, and so he convinced Representative Tom Downey, a Long Island Democrat for whom Chapin had campaigned, to introduce him to members of the House and Senate agriculture committees.

Initially, that meant Rick Nolan and Pat Leahy, both young, liberal Democrats with a history of skepticism about the way U.S. food aid programs have been run. Both men call Chapin the prime mover in organizing the congressional drive for a resolution calling for the establishment of such a commission by the president. Leahy's involvement was especially surprising, since he is the author of a well-known study attacking the efficiency of such commissions.

Everyone agreed that a simple study group would be ineffective, so the hunger commission's first year would be spent assessing all available information on what is being done, what could be done, and the nature and extent of the problem. The second year, however, would be devoted to public education and assistance in implementing measures the commission recommends. It was an excellent strategy, if it could get through Congress.

Nolan and Leahy gave Chapin lists of key congressmen. He began spending several days a week in Washington, often flying in from other parts of the country after doing concerts, sleeping on the plane, and rushing off to the Capitol, where he dragged congressmen out of men's rooms and committee meetings, chewing their ears off with his passion. "I wouldn't say he took Congress by storm," Nolan laughs, "but he did move Congress at a pace similar to the pace and fury of a storm."

By rule, only twenty-five congressmen may cosponsor a bill in the House. "So we introduced bill after bill after bill," Chapin says. "No one had ever seen so many bills." In the end, there were fifty-six sponsors of the resolution in the Senate, 268 in the House; that is to say, a majority of both. It was an impressive display of politicking, particularly for an amateur.

"I've never seen an example of an entertainer who dedicated so many hours or so much imagination to a civic cause," says Ralph Nader, summing up the feeling of many Washington insiders. "A lot of them go to soirees, a lot of them give lip service, but the duration of Harry's commitment is unprecedented. Congress has seen a lot of guys come here for certain causes, but after a few hours they're gone. Harry's committed to this issue on a permanent basis."

Nader also points out that Chapin's effectiveness, at a time when his career is also growing (in concert revenues, if not record sales) contradicts "the usual belief that if a singer gets too involved in causes his career will suffer." Nevertheless, Chapin is convinced that the music industry-- not to mention the music press with whom his relationship has always been less than pleasant-- dislikes him. Because he tends to sermonize, this is at least partly true. But Chapin does only about fifty or sixty benefits a year, less than a third of his concert schedule. And he lives well, though not as ostentatiously as most rock stars.

Last year Harry Chapin finally got his version of Bangladesh, with a benefit concert in Detroit that featured James Taylor, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot. Taylor and Lightfoot had needed much persuasion. Denver had two links: he and Chapin are both managed by Jerry Weintraub's Management Three organization, and Denver is a follower of est's Werner Erhard, who proposes to solve the hunger problem with his quasi-religious cult. (Mostly, it seems, through a mixture of good vibes and charity, precisely the solutions that have been tried and failed for centuries.)

The money from that concert, however, went not to WHY but to the Center for Action on Hunger and Food Policy, a lobbying group with a small but full-time Washington staff. Previously, Chapin's role in Washington had been hit or miss; working with the center he feels he might be even more effective.

One of the first issues that confronts the center is the composition of the commission, which will be appointed by Carter. According to a variety of sources, three names on the administration's first list of potential nominees were John D. David and Nelson Rockefeller. Their presence-- one possibly as chairman-- would make a travesty of Chapin's effort, since the Rockefellers already have a considerable stake in the nation's Food for Peace, AID and Green Revolution policies, all of which have been ineffective in terms of WHY's analysis.

"If that happened," Nolan told me later, "I would probably introduce a bill calling for the commission to be disbanded. Those names have simply come to symbolize excessive multinational power to too many people. It would tarnish the commission's credibility." Carter's chief hunger adviser, Dr. Peter Bourne, later told me that all lists so far had been assembled, "off the tops of people's heads," although he didn't deny that the Rockefellers were prominent among them.

No matter who becomes chairman of the commission, however, one of its members is almost certain to be Harry Chapin. In which case, it is going to be awfully difficult to sweep things under the rug.

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