The Democrat who Created Catholic Republicans

Bobby Kennedy was dying. Emergency workers rushed him into the back of a waiting ambulance, accompanied by just two people. One was his wife, Ethel; the other, his de facto campaign chairman, Fred Dutton. No one else — neither friend nor family — rode along. But Dutton’s presence at that moment was no anomaly; few were closer to RFK that year than he.
It’s not hard to guess why Kennedy liked and admired Dutton. The two shared many similarities: Both in their mid-40s, they had each served in World War II and worked in the John Kennedy administration. Though Dutton didn’t share Kennedy’s good looks — he was balding and wore thick, black, wayfarer-style glasses — their similarities outweighed the superficial differences.
The only thing they disagreed on — and the one thing they never talked about — was the future of Catholics in the Democratic Party. Kennedy wanted to ensure their pride of place in the Democratic coalition; Dutton did not.
Of course, Dutton’s reasons had nothing to do with the 1968 campaign. He knew that Catholics loved Bob. In November 1969, Dutton said that the “fundamental explanation [for Kennedy’s loss in the Oregon primary was] that there was not a big black population, not a big Catholic population, not problems, things like that.” In his 1971 book Changing Sources of Power: American Politics in the 1970s, Dutton wrote that “the Catholic vote” had consistently supported Democratic presidential candidates since the 1930s.
Nor, incidentally, was Dutton anti-Catholic: His father was baptized into the Faith. And he had worked not only for the Kennedys but also Pat Brown, the Catholic governor of California.
Rather, his reasons for wanting to leave Catholics out of the Democratic coalition were moral and political. He believed Catholics were too culturally conservative and had voted too heavily for Richard Nixon in key swing states. (In fact, Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey won almost three-fifths of the Catholic vote.)
In 1968, Dutton gained a reputation as the chief theoretician of the New Politics — the idea that the Democrats should be based on a coalition of “campus, ghetto, and suburb.”Based on Changing Sources of Power, as well as interviews that Dutton granted with me and others, it’s fair to conclude that Dutton deserves another reputation: He was the first major Democratic official who sought to loosen Catholics’ historic ties with the Democratic Party — and as a consequence, turned them into Reagan Democrats.
The Wednesday session of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago was bedlam. In the afternoon, Democratic hawks and doves debated the party’s policy on the Vietnam War for four hours. In the evening, the Chicago Police and National Guard attacked thousands of antiwar protesters in the city’s streets and parks with tear gas, clubs, and rifle butts. In between, Dutton was nearly arrested by the Chicago police.
Reporter Jack Newfield of the Village Voice recounted the scene:
At the side entrance of the Hilton Hotel four cops were chasing one frightened kid of about seventeen. Suddenly, Fred Dutton . . . moved out from under his marquee and interposed his body between the kid and the police.
“He’s my guest in this hotel,” Dutton told the cops.
The police started to club the kid.
Dutton screamed for the first cop’s name and badge number. The cop grabbed Dutton and began to arrest him, until a Washington Post reporter identified Dutton as a former RFK aide.
As an old man in 2003, Dutton recounted this scene often, which crystallized his view of politics and of his place in the political world: The main dividing line in American politics was no longer between poor and rich, or even black and white; it was between young and old. And in this battle, Dutton stood on the side of the kids.
Born in 1923, Frederick Gary Dutton was the son of a doctor. During the Depression, the Dutton family had moved to California, and Fred graduated from Cal-Berkeley and Stanford Law School. Having grown up affluent and educated, Dutton was never a Democrat of the blue-collar variety. Formerly the co-editor of the Stanford Law Review, Dutton belonged to the intellectual wing; his idol had been Adlai Stevenson, whose 1956 presidential campaign in southern California he had run.
Dismayed by the presidential wing of the party, Dutton blamed the party bosses for creating the military-industrial complex. His own experience in wartime had been decidedly un-romantic: As a 22-year-old infantryman, Dutton fought for two months in the snow at the Battle of the Bulge, was captured by German forces on January 5, 1945, and spent the next 16 weeks in a German prisoner-of-war camp. Half a decade later, Dutton became a judge advocate general in the Korean War and spent time “fighting a desk” in Japan.
When Dutton began work for the federal government as an aide in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, he jumped at the chance to limit the military’s reach. Aside from his work on the nuclear test ban treaty, whose passage he considered his greatest accomplishment, he had helped write the few peacenik speeches that Johnson delivered in the 1964 campaign. {mospagebreak}
Dutton sympathized increasingly with the New Politics: He had three teenage children from his first marriage, two of whom were college students, and he had befriended Paul Schrade, the co-founder of the New Democratic Coalition, who had been wounded by Sirhan’s bullets in Los Angeles. Dutton’s outlook was also secular: Though his parents had been raised Christian, they had not raised their children in the faith. An agnostic as an adult, Dutton believed in striving toward the goal of human autonomy. In Changing Sources of Power, Dutton expressed support for the secular aims of activist students:
Most of them also dispute the special emphasis on Christianity, the right of parents, teachers, and public officials to make decisions for others, and the essential decency of the present society.
What radicalized Dutton was his service on an unlikely training ground for leaders of the New Politics — the Board of Regents of the University of California, on which he had sat since 1962. “So many [of the older Kennedy aides] really would have clung to the old politics as it was,” Dutton recalled in a 1969 interview. “The idea of participation and involvement, the critiques of the New Left, they weren’t very aware of them. I probably wouldn’t have been except through my exposure out in Berkeley in intensive doses.”
As one of 22 members on the Board of Regents, Dutton championed the interests of students — not the sons and daughters of the working classes, but rather those of the professional and managerial classes. When the student protest movements on the UC campuses began, Dutton did not dismiss the students as spoiled children of privilege, as most Californians did, but as victims of an oppressive political establishment.
The kids in 1964 wanted free speech — and were forced to leave Sproul Plaza. They wanted to protest the war in the mid-1960s by occupying student buildings — and were hit with billy clubs. The youth of 1969 wanted a park of their own — and the National Guard attacked them with pepper spray and tear gas. “I see the kids coming to us on the board and they can’t get through to us,” he said in a June 1969 interview. “They get silence, so I’ve been getting an education myself — the popular word is radicalization — because I see the older society beating up kids for no reason.”
Not one for moral posturing, Dutton backed the students. He had supported them during the Free Speech Movement in 1964 and the various sit-ins in the late 1960s. He defended them principally against Ronald Reagan, who in his 1966 gubernatorial bid had campaigned against “the mess at Berkeley.”
More than just giving them moral support, however, Dutton viewed baby boomers as the political wave of the future. “I believed, at least in ’66 — and I get it, I think, from being on the Board of Regents at the University of California — that tremendous change has gone on in the kids, and so forth like that,” he said in the November 18, 1969, interview. “I think it’s a healthy thing, a desirable thing. Even if it isn’t, politicians better learn to channel it and direct it and exploit and prosper from it and so forth like that.”
Dutton’s political assessment was exaggerated, but it sprang from a coherent worldview. He subscribed to the modernization thesis: that affluence, education, and the media were bringing America into a new post-industrial age. Naturally, he concluded, the nature of politics had changed. Cultural and social issues now trumped economic ones.
Dutton believed the nature of political expression had changed, as well: The old politics had been replaced by the new. As he said on a radio program that marked the first anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination:
The newer political faces are all men who feel that it’s better to stand up and say what they believe. We now have the politics of principle, I think, more than of pragmatism. We have the politics of confrontation rather than compromise and copping out . . . . [The younger men] feel that they must plunge into the hard questions, they must take on the Vietnam War if necessary; they must take on poverty.
In addition to his qualms about the regular party’s morality, Dutton questioned its political future. He believed that the pocketbook issue, the one that had carried the Democrats into the majority, had faded. It had not helped Pat Brown in his race against Reagan, nor had it helped Humphrey in his campaign against Nixon.
Citing figures from the 1966 and 1968 elections, Dutton contended that in bellwether states, too many Catholics had voted for Nixon. Although those Catholic defectors had leftover opposition to liberal racial policies, Dutton believed that Catholic voters would also leave the party out of opposition to the youth movement. “The net effect of these groups in relation to the dynamic of social change has become vastly different from thirty or sixty years ago,” he wrote, referring to white ethnics who opposed racially integrated neighborhoods and the permissive youth culture. “Then they were a wellspring of cultural diversity and political change; now they constitute an important bastion of opposition. They have tended, in fact, to become a major redoubt of traditional Americanism and of the anti-Negro, anti-youth vote.”
Dutton set his sights on a grand prize: He wanted to change the Democratic Party’s coalition. He no longer supported the New Deal coalition, which had united the party around a working-class agenda. He preferred what he called a Social Change coalition, which would focus on the social, economic, and foreign policy concerns of young baby boomers. “I’m a great believer,” Dutton recalled, “in accelerating institutions, to the right or left.”
Dutton was not one of these intellectuals who believed that the New Deal coalition had died already. In Changing Sources of Power, he noted the “wobbling persistence of the Democratic coalition.” He believed that, in order to survive, the Democratic Party had to embrace young people and students. As he told author Penn Kimball in 1967, “the coming of age of the World War II baby boomers” would “bring about in the years from 1968 to 1972 the biggest single revolution in U.S. voting.”
And Dutton sought to do so with an idea very different from those of Al Smith, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Jack and Bobby Kennedy. They believed that Catholics should be a key constituency in the Democratic coalition. Fred Dutton believed that their spot should be taken by college-educated young people.
Of course, in leaving Catholics out of the coalition, Dutton turned millions of them into Reagan Democrats.


  • Mark Stricherz

    Mark Stricherz is the author of Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party.

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