RFK’s Childhood Pal Carries On – Alone

Print More

A lot of people in Washington are skittish about discussing the friendships that bring them to the inner circles of power. Not David Hackett.

The first thing one always hears about Hackett is that he landed at the vanguard of national youth policy because of his famous and powerful friend.

Hackett readily tells the story himself.

Back at prep school near Boston in the 1940s, Hackett became best buddies with Robert F. Kennedy – a closeness that lasted the rest of Kennedy’s life. So in 1961 Kennedy, serving as attorney general in his brother John’s administration, called upon Hackett to head an innovation called the President’s Committee on Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Crime.

Hackett had no experience in youth work and knew little about delinquency or its causes. His previous interests were publishing and playing ice hockey. Yet from Hackett’s mix of inexperience and good intentions came a landmark program that historians would later study.

The president’s committee ventured into an uncharted world of delinquency prevention and changed the way the federal government looked at the problem. Some of the experts Hackett recruited to Washington had enduring impact on the way the government dealt with the poor, most immediately during President Johnson’s War on Poverty. And the committee’s work set off a chain of events that shaped much of today’s youth service field.

The committee was founded by executive order May 11, 1961, and lasted only three years. But Hackett labored on for decades on variations of the ideas that came together with the committee, founding the Youth Policy Institute, best known for its magazines on youth issues, in 1979.

Today one can find Hackett, 75, still working in the institute’s 10-room suite of offices in Silver Spring, Md. There he clips stories from newspapers and magazines, as he has for years.

The walls of the office are lined with shelves of loose-leaf binders in red, blue and other colors. On the floors are neat piles of papers, many with clippings affixed. Hackett works alone, focusing on an information-gathering concept he calls “planning trees,” which he is eager to discuss.

Surrounded by shelves and stacks of paper, Hackett seems smaller or slighter than one might expect. He was once a prominent athlete who twice qualified for U.S. Olympic ice hockey teams.

But Hackett’s voice is robust, almost Kennedy-like in timbre. He says he’s now focusing on planning, which he believes is where the president’s committee, the War on Poverty and other programs fell short.

“We thought we were going to change everything,” he says of the Kennedy-Johnson years. “But we didn’t change anything.”
Didn’t they?

And So On

The son of a banker, Hackett was raised in the Boston suburb of Dedham. He was already a star athlete at nearby Milton Academy when Bobby Kennedy enrolled in 1942. Hackett was a year behind Kennedy in school but a leading figure on campus.

To know what Hackett was like then, one need only read “A Separate Peace.” During a summer session at Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943, Hackett met John Knowles, who wrote the classic novel years later and identified Hackett as the model for the character Phineas. Knowles invests Phineas with daring and charisma, and by all accounts, Hackett’s athletic aura and confidence seemed almost magical to others at Milton. But Knowles also says that Phineas had a “scatterbrained eloquence” that seemed to win people over, even if it didn’t quite make literal sense.

At moments, Hackett is still hard to follow. But Knowles also describes Phineas as unflappable and writes, “He always said what he happened to be thinking, and if this stunned people he was surprised.”

Among the stunned were writers who studied the president’s committee. “The Kennedy circle cultivated a laconic style, but Hackett was simply inarticulate,” journalist Nicolas Lemann wrote in the 1991 book “The Promised Land.” “He would begin a sentence, get lost and extricate himself by saying ‘et cetera,’ with a helpless wave of the hand.”

That seems almost mean-spirited, but that’s Hackett’s conversational style. Talk with him for any length of time, and one will hear, “et cetera.”

Most writers have been more kind. Historian Allen J. Matusow describes Hackett as “an easy man to underrate” and “a can-do man in the Kennedy mold,” a view supported by former committee colleagues.

Hackett briefly ventured into business before becoming director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in 1974, succeeding Richard Boone.

But as a young man, Hackett seemed most likely to make his mark through physical prowess. After a brief stint as an Army paratrooper (he saw no action), Hackett attended McGill University in Montreal, where he starred at hockey, once scoring three goals in 48 seconds. He later played for the Baltimore Clippers of the Eastern Amateur Hockey League, and made the U.S. Olympic hockey team. Some say a sidelining injury before the 1952 Olympics cost the U.S. a gold medal.

In Baltimore he met his future wife, Judith, a British-born ballet dancer touring with the London Festival Ballet. According to family lore, a determined Hackett pursued his bride-to-be to England and persuaded her to move to the United States, where she appeared in the original Broadway cast of “My Fair Lady.”

Hackett briefly returned to Montreal to found a magazine, The Montrealer, modeled on The New Yorker. Then John F. Kennedy ran for president, and Bobby called Hackett with a political job. He was asked to work “boiler room,” tracking delegate commitments and other key information to help Kennedy win the Democratic nomination.

The Committee

The impetus for addressing delinquency in the new administration may have come from Kennedy sister Eunice, who had been executive secretary to the National Conference on Juvenile Delinquency.

“Hackett knew nothing about juvenile delinquency,” writes historian and Kennedy friend Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in “Robert Kennedy and His Times.” “But … ignorance may have been an advantage in a field beset by competing diagnoses.”

In the 1950s, delinquency was viewed largely as a psychological malady that required psychological treatment. Hence, the problem was thought to be exclusively in the kids’ heads rather than their environments.

Hackett asked experts for lists of the innovative thinkers in the delinquency field and sought them out. “He had an uncanny ability to bring together thoughtful people,” says Aaron Schmais, a New York City gang worker who joined Robert Kennedy and Hackett on a walk through Harlem before joining the president’s committee.

The group set out on a warm day, with no reporters or handlers, to meet members of the Viceroys and other gangs. The attorney general asked gang members how available drugs were. “Give me some money,” one gang member replied, “and I’ll be back in five minutes.”

“A lot of us,” Hackett says, “never knew Harlem existed.”

‘Steal the Money’

Hackett noted early on that there was on a surprising lack of coordination among the federal agencies doing delinquency prevention. One Hackett memo noted that “agencies appeared to be working at independent if not at cross purposes.”
Other Hackett memos were filled with what later became buzzwords in youth planning. The committee wanted to create “partnerships,” promote “coordination” and tackle delinquency “comprehensively.”

Hackett’s search for “the best thinking” led to Lloyd Ohlin, research director at the Columbia School of Social Work. Ohlin was a proponent of the “opportunity theory” of delinquency: a view that youths turned to crime and rebellion when poor communities didn’t offer legitimate opportunities to pursue the middle-class aspirations that society promoted.

Ohlin was creating a program based on that theory, called Mobilization for Youth. Based on New York’s Lower East Side, the program included ideas that seem tame today: creating public service jobs, opening neighborhood centers for welfare services and forming resident groups to address neighborhood problems.

With a three-year, $30 million appropriation from Congress, the president’s committee set out in September 1961 to create demonstration programs aimed at moving youths toward jobs and educational opportunities.

The committee also pursued another strategy to get more money, one common in funding social programs today: Committee allies looked for programs from which funding could be diverted to the delinquency effort. “There were still guys in green eye shades running programs” that had virtually been forgotten, explains Leonard Duhl, then a National Institutes of Mental Health psychologist who was focusing on urban issues. “Bobby [Kennedy] said, ‘Let’s ‘steal’ the money.’”

Duhl called the committee members “Kennedy’s guerrillas,” although Schlesinger and others later called it “Hackett’s guerrillas.”
“We would get together after 5 p.m. and talk about how to come up with money – usually in Dave’s office,” says Sandy Kravitz, who joined the committee after finishing Ph.D. courses in social policy at Brandeis University. “It was an exhilarating time. There was something special in the air. We believed we could change the world.”

Richard Boone, who came to Washington in 1962 to help plan for a national service corps, calls Hackett “a great facilitator.”
“He was a great motivator in his way,” says committee associate Stan Salett, who was a youth employment specialist with the U.S. Department of Labor. “His style is not domineering. But he always asked very good questions, and his questions seem to have the effect of motivating people.”

Hackett’s closeness to his friend the attorney general gave him extra clout in the Kennedy administration. “We’d say we needed something,” says Duhl, “and he’d use Bobby’s name to get it done.”

Community Action

Another innovative – and subsequently controversial – concept pursued by the committee was “community action”: involving people in planning and running programs designed to address their communities’ needs. Community action has echoes today in any program that has a citizens advisory group helping to plan better services.

Advocates of community action foresaw the poor demanding more control over their lives and changes in schools, government agencies and other institutions. But it could also put them at odds with local politicians and local agencies.

“That was the conundrum we were in,” says Schmais. “You had to work through the system, but you had to recognize that the system was part of the problem.”

In 1962 the president’s committee awarded planning grants to agencies in 16 cities, including Mobilization for Youth, which by 1963 was backing community protests against schools, police and the welfare department. Also in 1963, White House officials were considering a broader campaign against poverty and asked the committee for help.

Hackett suggested a cautious plan modeled on his committee. His recommendation came days before President Kennedy was assassinated.

War on Poverty

On becoming president, Lyndon Johnson wanted to do something bigger and splashier about poverty than even President Kennedy had considered. Hackett, believing that the anti-poverty strategies were still unproven, advised a go-slow approach, based on planning grants. But LBJ wanted a declaration of war.

Hackett’s concerns were largely ignored. “Hackett watched in dismay as philistines mutilated [the] cautious design” he had built through the committee, Matusow writes. Robert Kennedy pushed more successfully for Hackett-backed community-action elements in new anti-poverty programs.

Others from the committee joined the War on Poverty, and by the end of 1964, the federal Office of Juvenile Delinquency and Youth Development, in what is now the Department of Health and Human Services, had taken over most committee functions. Hackett joined Kennedy’s successful 1964 Senate campaign in New York. Four years later, he was working on RFK’s 1968 presidential bid when it ended in assassination.

Hackett was a pallbearer at Kennedy’s funeral.

New Ventures
Hackett briefly ventured into business before becoming director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial in 1974, succeeding Richard Boone. Today, the memorial sponsors human rights and journalism awards and a fellows program involving AmeriCorps volunteers who work with youth in poor communities.

Hackett furthered the RFK Memorial’s campaign against censorship in student journalism, providing funding for independent youth newspapers like Chicago’s New Expression.

In 1979, as part of the memorial, Hackett founded the Youth Policy Institute (YPI), which published Youth Policy magazine and ran Student Press Service, designed to enhance student newspapers’ coverage of teen-related issues like youth employment and birth control.

YPI’s role within the RFK Memorial grew rapidly.

Ray Saltini, who began a 12-month internship in the spring of 1981, remembers 15 or more young YPI staffers working out of the memorial’s Georgetown office. “We filled up that building something awful,” he recalls. “But I’m sure he believed he was pursuing the same set of objectives as Bobby Kennedy would have wanted.”

Saltini now runs CGS Consulting, a Long Island, N.Y., organizational consulting firm with many youth-serving clients.
Working for Hackett’s YPI projects was the first Washington job for many staffers, including controversial journalist David Brock. In his new book, “Blinded by the Right,” Brock describes working under Hackett in 1980.

“In Washington, I worked out of a charming old town house with polished pinewood floors for a man named David Hackett. … A man in his late [50s], with a lean, athletic build and the endearing air of an absent-minded professor, Hackett possessed both the brimming idealism of the Kennedy clan and the Kennedy swagger. He zoomed into work each day in a plum-colored Fiat Spider.”

Brock, who later allied himself with the far right, also says he was “working comfortably with a group of fellow aspiring journalists and liberal public policy advocates. ... We were working the phones and tapping out copy, we were following a liberal political line.”

Others insist that Hackett assiduously avoided political leanings in YPI publications. “David was always insistent that [his publications] not have a liberal or conservative slant,” says Keith Hefner, publisher of Youth Communication in New York City, another project that received early funding from the RFK Memorial during Hackett’s tenure.

“David was bipartisan. He wasn’t about politics,” says Heather Ford, a YPI editor in the mid-1980s.

But YPI took on a life of its own, sometimes almost seeming to monopolize the RFK Memorial’s energies, some staffers say. Hackett left the memorial in 1983 and independently incorporated YPI, which also published Youth Record and American Family magazines. They were never flashy but were crammed with information – and never looked like an easy read.

Planning Trees

Some old-time colleagues from the juvenile committee say YPI seemed a quixotic effort, but Hackett was determined. “It was almost like he wanted to go back and finish the work of the president’s committee but without the resources,” notes Boone.
Often operating on a shoestring, YPI was fueled by foundation grants and Hackett’s own determination, perhaps aided by the mythology of his ties to Camelot. His workers now were also from a generation that had read “A Separate Peace.”

David Fleming, a YPI editor who is now an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recalls: “One of the first things people would say was, ‘You know who he is – that’s Phineas.’ Everyone in my generation read the book in junior high.”

Now director of the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition, former YPI editor Ford remembers Hackett combing the Federal Record for information. “He read it every single day, circled things and passed them on.”

The magazines were full of articles about youth policy options and information about grants, meetings and legislation affecting youth. But the content in the late 1980s became increasingly influenced by Hackett’s interest in a concept he called “planning trees,” in which branches represent options an organization or community can take at critical junctures.
It would seem he was trying to address an old issue from the president’s committee – the need for a better planning before jumping into programming.
Planning trees operate like an upside-down version of a standard organizational flow chart.

The planning tree on an issue would offer three options at each fork in the tree – that is, at each juncture involving a critical decision. Hackett believes that decision-making of any sort can be made easier by planning trees: One weighs the options, which are provided by efforts like YPI, picks the preferred choice and moves on to the next decision point.

Ask Hackett about any other aspect of his career, and within a sentence or two he’s back on planning trees. Yet in a way, the idea is akin to what publications like USA Today have tried to do – make information about issues more easily accessible through simple use of boxes and other devices.

Tragic Figure

In the 1980s some staffers quietly doubted that many people were reading the publications or making use of the information. “We all knew he wasn’t really getting where he wanted, yet he worked so hard,” says Fleming, a staunch admirer. “There was almost a tragic quality about it.”

Fleming once suggested to Hackett that his greatest contribution might be what dozens of young staffers learned at YPI. “I said, ‘Dave, the best thing about this place is the education it provided the people who worked here.’

“He said, ‘No, it’s about having an effect. It’s about political reform.’”

Some former colleagues call Hackett “the last of the true believers.”

“He’s still infused with the idea of collective community action,” says Kravitz. “It’s like he’s been in a time warp for 30 years.”

But Hackett believes he is progressing. “Back in the ’60s, we knew nothing about planning,” he says. “Planning was not something anybody knew about. We didn’t understand the difference between the planning process and programs.”
In 1995, YPI landed a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development contract for social service planning for the redevelopment of a public housing project on Capitol Hill in Washington. To Hackett, the effort was a “demonstration project” that proved community residents can plan their own future.

In this case, residents decided after 89 meetings (including committee meetings) that the existing social service network on Capitol Hill was adequate. They wanted to keep on meeting, Hackett says, but the money for planning ran out.

More recently, Dixon Slingerland, who operates a YPI office in Los Angeles, wrote successful grant applications for computer learning centers at 10 low-income sites across the country. The centers are operated by the National Homes Trust.

Today, the Hackett family helps maintain the Washington office. Judith Hackett is a successful real estate agent.

Hackett’s publications have not appeared in several years, though Hackett still gathers and files clippings and says he’s optimistic about his visions for planning trees – like an international agency to gather the best thinking for use by community-action projects around the globe.

The idea so intrigues him that all roads in his conversations lead to planning trees. “If Robert Kennedy had lived,” Hackett says, “we would be setting up demonstration projects.”


David Hackett
Youth Policy Institute
1320 Fenwick La.
Silver Spring, MD 20910
(301) 585-0580