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Biography of '60s activist leaves real questions unanswered

The Pied Piper: Allard K. Lowenstein and the Liberal Dream, by Richard Cummings. New York: Grove Press. 569 pp. $19.95. Best remembered for his key role in the ``Dump Johnson'' movement of the '60s, Allard K. Lowenstein was not only a political activist, but a veritable whirlwind of activity: a dynamic speaker, a gifted writer, a tireless campaigner, and a skilled organizer who always seemed to be doing a dozen things at once.

Habitually late for appointments, he made up the difference by the engaging warmth of his personality and the depth of his genuine concern. He had friends everywhere, from college students and Peace Corps volunteers to such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt, Norman Thomas, North Carolina Sen. Frank Graham, and his loyal ally and debating partner William F. Buckley, who loved to match him point for point in liberal vs. conservative discussions.

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But he also had enemies. He was called a communist and rabble-rouser by the cruder elements of the political right, a ``fink'' and ``CIA spook'' by self-styled revolutionaries of the New Left. His name appeared on Richard Nixon's famous ``enemies'' list. On March 14, 1980, at the age of 51, Lowenstein was murdered by a mentally unbalanced former prot'eg'e, Dennis Sweeney, one of the many students Lowenstein had recruited to help the Mississippi voter-registration drive in the early '60s.

Lowenstein's latest biographer, Richard Cummings, described as a lawyer and Democratic Party activist, seems unable to forgive Lowenstein his lifelong opposition to communism. His book presents Lowenstein as a ``pied piper'' who inspired students to commit themselves to liberal causes but tried to make sure their energy and indignation were channeled within the system. It is the latter effort that Mr. Cummings finds suspect.

The crux of Cummings's thesis is that Lowenstein worked as an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency, albeit for the so-called ``good wing'' of the agency, which believed in supporting liberal causes to diminish the threat of communist revolutions. The evidence supporting this thesis is hazy, ranging from the unsubstantiated to the purely tangential. The arguments employed to build a case from the evidence are not unlike those once used by Sen. Joseph McCarthy to ferret out suspected ``reds.'' There is guilt-by-association (because Lowenstein -- like many liberals of the period -- was involved with persons or groups later revealed to have received CIA funds, therefore he was a CIA agent); question-begging (even though he opposed the war in Vietnam, this doesn't prove his independence, but merely demonstrates his allegiance to ``good wing'' ideology); and the general sleight-of-hand that enables Cummings first to argue that Lowenstein may have been unwittingly or occasionally (or both) involved with the CIA, then to proceed to call him a CIA agent, as if he had just proven his case.

Responding to charges made in the book, lawyers for Lowenstein's family and friends have assembled a collection of affidavits and other documents signed by many of the people Cummings cites to bolster his theory.

For all his attempts to camouflage what is essentially an attack on Lowenstein's integrity in the guise of identifying with the man, Cummings's account of Lowenstein's career reads less like a biography than a vaguely incriminatory dossier. Cummings provides little sense of Lowenstein as a political thinker, let alone as a human being. In his obsessive search for a secret ``key'' to Lowenstein, Cummings pursues his conspiracy theory only to leave the real questions about the man unanswered.

Why should this man, with such a gift for locating the ideological ``center'' in American politics, so skilled at building consensus on controversial issues, have been unable to build a more solid political base for himself? That Lowenstein failed to achieve the eminence he merited continues to be as much our loss as it was his. For, as he once warned the more intransigent elements of the New Left, if America believed its only choice was between Abbie Hoffman and Spiro Agnew, it would choose Agnew. It did, and still does.

Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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