A Tribute to John Sweeney, ARC's First Federal Co-Chairman
by Joe W. "Pat" Fleming II
Many people have contributed to the work and accomplishments of ARC since its creation in 1965, but only one, John Sweeney, was the sine qua non ("without which not") of this special effort to bring better lives to the people of the Appalachian Region. The Appalachian Regional Development Act was designed by him, sold to Congress by him (albeit with the aid of Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory of 1964) and brought to administrative life under his direction. It was my great pleasure to work for him and succeed him at ARC. More than 30 years later, I still marvel at his unique blend of good judgment, Irish wit, disarming candor, and unabashed political agility.
John learned politics in Michigan, working for Governor G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams, before migrating to Washington to serve on the staff of the Senate Labor Committee chaired by Senator Pat McNamara of Michigan. During his time with the labor committee, he went to George Washington University Law School. In 1963 he left the Hill to staff an ad hoc federal-state commission appointed by President Kennedy, the President's Appalachian Regional Commission, which was chaired by Undersecretary of Commerce Franklin D. Roosevelt Jr. In that position John melded together diverse theories about development, the political agendas of the Region's governors, and the competing interests and claims of various federal agencies and officials. The result was a proposal for the Appalachian Regional Development Act, which surfaced in 1964 and was passed in March 1965, after President Johnson's victory produced a large Democratic majority in Congress.
While the federal-state partnership of ARC reflected a strong push from the central Appalachian states for a federal program targeted to the Region, the unique form it took was a product of John's keen sense of political balance. When he was appointed as the federal co-chairman of the newly authorized Commission, he breathed life into the instrument of his own design.
John and I were friends from the Senate, and he asked me to join his staff shortly after his appointment. It was a time of great expectations and groundbreaking innovation. Each day was a lab course in public administration and political science, with John as lecturer and exemplar. There is a rare breed of politician or administrator who can enlist and harness conflicting and competing political interests to produce sound public policy decisions, and keep most people happy in the process. John did so. The ARC structure he designed left the Appalachian states with the primary initiative in producing projects. But much of the money for the projects was to come from congressional appropriations. Finding the right balance and defusing potential conflict was just the sort of challenge that John enjoyed and at which he excelled.
John was as dedicated and loyal a Democrat as ever walked the earth. Nonetheless, he built bridges to Republican governors and members of Congress, and ARC gained a reputation for being an open, bipartisan, and well-administered program. This in an era when other Great Society programs were under fire and the political turmoil associated with Vietnam was building. The key to his success in turning a concept into a living institution was trust. People trusted John. And, this trust was based on performance.
As federal co-chairman, John had veto power over policy and projects. He never used it. But its availability prompted the withdrawal of many not-so-hot projects and the investment strategy of the statute was challenged as operating policies were hammered out and adopted. Francis Moravitz, as early staff member and later executive director of the Commission, reminded me recently of one episode when a given issue between John and the states appeared to be beyond resolution. To avoid casting a federal "No" against the states, John recast the issue so that he voted in the affirmative and the states in the negative. Such skill was admired by all.
While the art of compromise was one of John's most prominent skills, he was first and foremost a leader. He was committed to the strategies that were incorporated in the Appalachian Regional Development Act—improving access and competitiveness with the Appalachian highway system, providing educational opportunities and health care, dealing with environmental problems, developing governmental capacity to support development efforts, and concentrating investments for maximum impact. He articulated these strategies in a clear and consistent manner to diverse audiences, with positive effects for the program.
In 1967 John left ARC to become first assistant secretary for public affairs in the newly created Department of Transportation. In this role he was again part of bringing a new government institution to life. He became a principal architect of federal railroad policy and moved on to a distinguished career in the railroad industry.
This recitation of his skills and accomplishments does not capture the very special character of the man. He was Irish to the core, with a peculiar blend of toughness, sentimentality, generosity, loyalty, and humor. Those who had the privilege of working with John were much the better for it.
Joe W. "Pat" Fleming II served on Sweeney's staff and succeeded him as federal co-chairman.