Thursday, June 15, 2006

Breakfast in Bed and the Metro

A few posts back, I indicated that I was planning to read Zach Schrag's The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. I have two personal connections to this book, beyond having ridden the Metro. First, Zach and I went to high school together. Second, my father was general counsel and secretary to the National Capital Planning Commission from 1959 to 1984, during the period in which Metrorail was planned, built, and first opened. Well, I have now read the book and can report that I found it fascinating.

One of Zach's major arguments--clearly indicated by the title--is that Metro has to be seen against the broader backdrop of the Kennedy and Johnson administrations' domestic policy. One point that he emphasizes is that there was a decisive change in regional planning from the Eisenhower to the Kennedy administrations. NCPC, in the late 50s, prepared a regional plan generally called the "Year 2000 plan" It was released in 1960, the last year of the Eisenhower administration. (Remember how the year 2000 was once "The Future"?) The hallmark of this plan was the idea of corridors and wedges--corridors of development leading from the central city into the suburbs with wedges of open space in between. (Somewhat naive for the post-WW2 era, I think, but that's another story.) The plan called for rapid transit in the corridors but also endorsed controversial Robert Moses-style freeway plans for DC itself.

When the Kennedy administration took over, a number of things changed: the Kennedy administration hired a point man for DC affairs in the White House and appointed a new chair of NCPC who in turn, installed a new director. That new chair was Libby Rowe. Under her, NCPC reversed course on freeways in DC and put its weight fully behind rail rapid transit. (It's important to remember that in those pre-home rule days NCPC was not only the federal agency with veto power over local projects, it was also the local planning office within the District.)

Zach tells this story well and I urge you to read the book if you are interested in DC history, or urban history more generally.

Now the personal part: Although my father had been part of the old regime at NCPC (remember he was hired in 1959), as a civil servant (and not really a policy-maker) he had stayed on with the change of administration. My father always spoke of Libby Rowe with great personal fondness and professional admiration. Now, Libby Rowe was appointed by Kennedy but she and her husband were close friends of Lyndon Johnson. Here's one story from my father that illustrates both the importance of precision in language and how NCPC (literally) had the ear of the presidency during the Great Society years: every week during her tenure as chair of the commission, Rowe would meet with the director and my father to go over the commission's upcoming agenda. One week, she announced at the beginning of the meeting that the previous weekend, she had had "breakfast with the President in bed." "Breakfast in bed with the president?" replied the others in astonishment. "No," she responded, "that's not what I said." And she explained that she and her husband had been guests at LBJ's ranch the previous weekend and on her way down to breakfast one morning, a maid had intercepted her and said that the President would like to see her to discuss something. She was led to the President's bedroom where he was sitting up in bed, eating his breakfast off a tray. She was led to a chair next to the bed and invited to sit down, whereupon she was handed a breakfast tray. For the next half hour or so, they discussed whatever issue it was. And thus, she repeated again, she had had "breakfast with the President in bed."

1 comment:

Z said...

I am so there. Thanks for the recommendation. I grew up inside the Beltway and LOVE the Metro...LOVE it. DC is my favorite US town. Sounds like a great read.