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Gara LaMarche Headshot

Why I Don't Join - or, Why the ACLU Doesn't Need Any Saving

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Some weeks ago I posted a brief comment in response to Wendy Kaminer's July 12 post, "How the ACLU Lost its Bearings." I vowed to return to the subject of what is going on in the organization, since I have a vantage point of almost thirty-five years on it - beginning in college, including stints on the staffs of the national office and the New York and Texas affiliates, and ending with eight years as an elected member of the national Board and Executive Committee. I now work for a foundation which is a significant funder of the ACLU's work, so I know it well. I know and have respected all of the parties involved, no matter how estranged some of them have become from one another.

I regret that a series of articles about the ACLU, mostly in the New York Times and covering a series of internal actions and policy disputes, have spilled over to this widely-read blog, and have now resulted in a campaign to "Save The ACLU," featuring former Executive Director, Ira Glasser, and involving a few dozen other signers, including some former ACLU board members. Many people who support and value this critical organization have wondered, and often asked me: what on earth is going on?

Although I've followed the internal controversies as closely as I can from the outside, of course I am not in the middle of events on the board, and don't pretend to know everything. I do know, very well, the public record of the organization under Anthony Romero's tenure, and - as was the case under Ira Glasser, who led the organization well for almost 25 years, a tenure I had a ringside seat for - it is superb. The ACLU is leading every important civil liberties fight of this benighted period - particularly those involving rights casualties of the war on terrorism, but also including gay marriage, abortion rights, separation of church and state, and a host of other free speech, privacy and equality issues - and doing it with principle, vigor and the increased resources that Anthony Romero's energetic advocacy and fundraising have marshaled. I have not come across a single person who thinks otherwise, and even the harshest critics of the ACLU management have nothing to point to in the public record when they worry that the ACLU has "lost its bearings."

Let's stay on that point for a moment. I happen to know something about the ACLU's history, having been a keen student of it, often at close range. There are two things that characterize that history, both of which are worth reflecting on in the current controversy.

First, the ACLU is a cranky, contentious organization, and always has been. From practically the beginning, factions of the board have accused Executive Directors of policy lapses or insufficient consultation, or fought with one another, often in public. This happened under Roger Baldwin, the founding director; under Patrick Murphy Malin, his successor; and under Romero's two predecessors, Aryeh Neier and Ira Glasser. (It probably happened under the middle director, Jack Pemberton, too!) Elections for board positions have at times been hotly contested on ideological and personal grounds. Those who have lost claimed irregularities or organized purging. Nothing new there. What is different this time is that the small faction in the organization that is unhappy with the management has had access to the New York Times, so everyone knows about it. In my many years of work with cause organizations, on the board and staff level and as a funder of hundreds, I can tell you that few would look good in the harsh spotlight that has been cast on the ACLU the last few years.

The second thing to remember is that the ACLU's public record for much of its history has been disappointing at best at the most critical moments. It often flinched, at least at the national level, in the two great national civil liberties crises it faced between its founding and the Romero era: the internment of Japanese-American citizens and the collection of abuses of freedom of speech and association and due process that have come to be known as the McCarthy era. In today's crisis - an administration that claims virtually unlimited Presidential power in a limitless was, sanctioning even torture - its voice and its staunch advocacy have not once wavered.

As to the present conflict, that there are some board members troubled by actions of the ACLU management - that is, the Executive Director and the President and Executive Committee - there is no doubt, and the failure of one of the two most vocal critics to be re-elected by his peers (in and of itself a sign of the majority's view of the disputes) and the decision by the other not to stand again for election does not end this. But Board members, as Ira Glasser used to say in my day, are famously pre-occupied with a relatively small wedge of the pie which is the Executive Director's performance - the relational aspects, how they and other board members are treated. If some New York Times accounts are accurate, Anthony Romero could stand to improve his interactions with board members, whatever provocations he may feel. But this has to be kept in perspective. How board members are treated is one aspect of performance, and very far from the most important one. It's very important to note, and I have talked with many of the key people involved over the months, that Anthony Romero enjoys wide and enthusiastic support from among his own staff and the staffs of the organization's state and local affiliates around the country. They're dependent on him for jobs and/or money, and therefore not independent, you say? Then you have no idea of the culture of the ACLU. Biting the hand that feeds you has been more the norm than the exception for many years.

Let me stay on this point for a moment, too. Facts are facts, the ACLU's critics say, though there are different perspectives and more benign interpretations of almost everything laid out in the brief they posted today on their website - a matter I'll address in another post and in other forums. (Lest I leave myself open to the charge of addressing everything but the merits of their complaints, and I do intend to return to this soon, let me say briefly: 1. after initial missteps, the ACLU has been firmly on the right side, at great cost, of the fights over the Ford and Combined Federal Charities Campaign restrictions; 2. the so-called "data mining" privacy issue is completely bogus; and 3. so is the so-called "gag rule" on board members, which I address briefly below.) But when you are not immersed in the ground warfare of a conflict like the one that has been taking place in the ACLU board (not the staff, not the affiliates, not the places where the actual work of the organization takes place) , you tend to look to surrogates - people you know and trust - to see what they think.

Here's what I've learned from that exercise. The entire ACLU executive committee, which includes, among many others I regard, two people I served with for seven years and for whose integrity I have the deepest respect, Susan Herman and Rob Remar, has expressed its confidence in the management of the organization. Susan and Rob have consistently been the staunchest defenders of the leadership. Every senior staff member, including those hired by Ira Glasser and who were - until he took the turn he has in recent months - close friends and admirers, every one of them, and I have talked to them personally and at length, is utterly committed to the leadership and integrity of Anthony Romero. Last week a letter of support for Anthony Romero, board chair Nadine Strossen and the executive committee was published in the New York Times signed by former director Aryeh Neier, former Board chair Norman Dorsen, the last three directors of the ACLU Washington Office (all of whom worked under Glasser) and the longtime legal director Burt Neuborne. Add to that the fact that virtually all of the national board and virtually all of the affiliate leaders - despite years of efforts to persuade them otherwise, and a constant drumbeat of internal criticism amplified in the press - stand in support of the leadership. Have all these folks drunk the Kool-Aid, a la Jonestown? I don't think so. I cast my lot with them. I count Ira Glasser, Michael Meyers and Wendy Kaminer as friends, and each has contributed much to civil liberties. But I think they are wrong, the way they have gone about this is troubling, and I one among many, many in the civil liberties community who have reached that sad conclusion.

Which brings me to some final points, one anthropological and one organizational. In the first category, you would not be surprised to know that the ACLU is full of chronic complainers and City Hall-fighters. The organization's mission, indeed its deeply-engrained self-definition, is to be unyielding on matters of principle. In the ACLU's organizational culture, people outdo one another to be pure, and if you disagree with someone, the surest way to strike a devastating blow is to accuse them of compromising principle. Dissent is tolerated to an unusual degree, because the ACLU wants to practice what it preaches. That the ACLU board even considered a policy discouraging board members from airing their criticisms of management in the press - which any normal organization would consider a core and uncontroversial aspect of board stewardship - is remarkable, and only goes to show just how nettled they were by having their internal disputes waged in the press - in the nation's leading newspaper, no less. It got shelved, as well it should have been.

In the second, it is important for readers and observers to understand that the ACLU is (to an extreme degree, I think, but that's a subject for another day) a highly democratic organization, and there are remedies in the ACLU's management and political processes when the bodies charged with governance feel that performance is inadequate or trust betrayed. The President is elected annually by the board members -- all highly opinionated, unshy, independent actors -- who have seen fit, through several cycles of challenge, to re-elect her. The director serves at the pleasure of the board, and reports to the President and Executive Committee. Whatever mistakes they feel Anthony Romero may have made in his initial handling of one or more matters, they feel, as the vast majority of affiliate leaders and staff do, that he is a gifted, visionary, and effective leader. The problem is not that the matters raised by the critics and aired in the New York Times have been swept under the rug -- indeed, they have received an exhaustive airing, to the point of detracting from the organization's ability to do its important job in the world at an extremely critical time for civil liberties. The problem is that the critics -- now joined, if not led, by Anthony's predecessor, are unhappy with the outcome of the ACLU's management and governance processes. They must not be allowed to deprive the ACLU of the energetic and passionate leadership it is fortunate to have at this dark moment in American life.