Several weeks ago I was contacted by J. Larry Brown who had written a Peace Corps memoir and wanted to attend the Library of Congress Luncheon for Peace Corps writers. The book is published by Lucita Press and available through Amazon, as a paperback and eBook. It is entitled, Peasants Come Last: A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty. The author was an early PCV (India) and an assistant director of the agency under Carter during the ACTION years, and later a Country Director in Uganda during Ron Tschetter years as Peace Corps Director.
I checked Amazon and read this description of his book written by Earl Shorris, who is a contributing editor at Harper’s Magazine: “In the tradition of popular activist scholars like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould, J. Larry Brown has spent decades linking the findings of science to the realities of human existence. He gives us a candid look at what it means to try to do good things in a harsh world. We are taken to the make-shift huts of refugees driven from their homes by the insane barbarism of the Lord’s Resistance Army. We stand with Brown where Livingstone once stood, at Murchison Falls overlooking the powerful Nile filled with hippos and crocodiles. We see the grinding lives of people who eat the same meal every day. But of all the obstacles faced by Brown and his colleagues, none is as nonsensical as the tone-deaf dealings of Washington. We see how the needs of peasants come last when the realities of their lives are no match for the machinations of Washington’s rigid routines.”
Of the author, Amazon said: “Serving many years on the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health, Dr. J. Larry Brown riveted national attention to the existence of hunger in America in the 1980s, when he led a team of prominent doctors on field investigations into twenty-five states. The founding director of the Center on Hunger and Poverty, Brown also founded the Feinstein Famine Center and the Institute on Assets and Social Policy. Dr. Brown chaired the board of Oxfam America, and also chaired the medical task force of USA for Africa and Hands Across America. He is the author of numerous articles in both lay and scientific journals, such as Scientific American and Encyclopedia Britannica, and several books including Living Hungry in America. He has appeared often on national television including CNN, Good Morning America, Today Show, and network news programs, and testifies frequently before Congress. A young Peace Corps Volunteer in rural India in the late 1960s, Brown later served under President Carter as Assistant Director of the Peace Corps. He recently served a stint as Country Director for the Peace Corps in Uganda, and now resides with his wife, Judi Garfinkel, in Oman, where they head programs for World Learning/SIT.”
As an author of a Peace Corps Experience book Brown and his wife were invited to the Library of Congress luncheon and while we never met, I had been hearing about him from other friends at the agency. Some tales were being told that the Peace Corps had ‘freaked out” about his book as it was “seemingly” critical of the Peace Corps Administration, and because Brown had emailed copies of it to Peace Corps Country Directors around the world. I was told that the agency was sending out messages to the field telling CDs not to have anything to do with him.
A week or so after the weekend in D.C. I got this email from Larry who had returned to Oman for the 50th Anniversary with his wife, Judi. He told me of an incident he said took place at the Library of Congress on that Thursday afternoon of the Peace Corps Writers official luncheon.
“John — here is an interesting story: My wife, Judi, was placing promotional brochures for Peasants Come Last on the author’s book tables at the Library of Congress event (I was on the Hill meeting with a number of Foreign Relations staffers). A Capitol Hill policeman walked up to a friend, Judy Weitz, and asked if she was my wife, and then approached my wife, Judi.
The officer told both Judy Weitz and my wife, Jodi, words to this effect: ‘We don’t want any trouble from Dr. Brown… he should not say anything controversial today.’
“When I arrived and learned what had happened, I went over to introduce myself to the policeman who then repeated these points. I asked if he was saying these things to all the authors attending the event. He replied, ‘No, only you. You’re the one that the Peace Corps called us about.’ I then noted that at the age of seventy I probably was not any security threat, to which he retorted: ‘You never know, the guy who killed two people at the Holocaust Museum was eighty-two.’”
I checked with a few sources at the Peace Corps HQ and got this answer from one of my ”usually well informed sources’:
“I cannot imagine that anyone from Peace Corps would have said anything about Larry Brown to a policeman at the Library of Congress. The Browns and their friends were allowed to distribute their literature unfettered in front of the Peace Corps building, with no comments at all from our own security staff. I am not saying the incident with the policeman didn’t happen, but I am quite certain that nobody from Peace Corps is behind it.”
I checked with my contacts in Congresseman John Garamendi’s office–the Congressman had made the arrangements for this luncheon–and they had no contact with the LOC police, or even really knew who Larry Brown was. Therefore, it appears ’someone’ at the Peace Corps was ‘tracking’ Brown as he is in no way a public figure, and had only been back in the U.S. for a few days.
I was also told by another source in the Peace Corps Building that Williams specifically decided upon a hands off policy regarding Brown, that Larry could promote his book without interference.
That is, of course, is not to say that another Peace Corps staff person — i.e., someone in the African region, or one of the lawyers– may have been acting on their own to bad-mouth Brown at the Library of Congress. But the official position at Peace Corps HQ was (and is) to not obstruct. No one on the senior staff, I’m told, wrote any official email to the field regarding him. Williams, in fact, had prohibited that kind of response. Again, someone might have acted independently, according to friends inside the building.
The plot thickens.
Brown also emailed me recently from Oman about another incident that had happened in Washington, D.C. over the 50th Anniversary Weekend.
“I was being interviewed by a camera crew on the sidewalk outside the Bill Moyers event that the NPCA was holding,” Brown wrote. “A woman named Erica Burman (NPCA’s Communications Director) approached my wife demanding to know who she and I were. She fired four or five questions at Judi, not even awaiting a response. Ms. Burman became so loud that the camera crew stopped the interview at one point because of the background noise. I later wrote a note to Kevin Quigley, President and CEO of the NPCA (whom I don’t know), to report what happened. Mr. Quigley wrote back to defend Ms. Burman, saying she was enforcing a policy not to let outsiders take over NPCA events. What’s funny is that my interview– requested by the TV crew when someone apparently mentioned I was the author of a new book– took place on a public sidewalk about fifty feet away from the entrance to the event.”
Now it gets better. I decided I should at least look at Brown’s book and from it I learned that he was fired as CD in Uganda by Jody Olsen two days before she left the Peace Corps as Acting Director and Aaron Williams took over.
Brown’s fight, it appears, was with someone named Lynn Foden in the African Region. Lynn is still at the Peace Corps, having been kept on by Williams. She is now the CHOPS (number two) in the African Region.
Also, Brown told me that when Jody Olsen telephoned Ron Tschetter, who had hired Brown, to tell Ron that she had fired Brown, Tschetter was stunned and upset, perhaps because Olsen was two days or so from walking out the Peace Corps doors as Acting Director, and perhaps because Brown was Tschetter’s friend. Olsen quickly explained that it was done because of issues of ‘Volunteer security.”
What is puzzling to me is why was Lynn Foden being blamed. She is not a ‘political’ type. A former Volunteer, she is more involved with issues then politics. I can’t image Foden getting rid of Brown. Olsen, however, is a political person, and she was the Peace Corps Director at the time.
While Brown doesn’t not touch on other issues of his tour in his book, the Peace Corps maintains that there were complains from PCVs, the Embassy, and others about his tour as Director. My guess is that Olsen decided (in her final days) to clear up what she might have considered a ‘mess’ so Aaron Williams would not have to deal with a CD problem in Uganda.
Brown’s position is that the Acting Ambassador in Uganda was “very upset” when Foden called to say Brown was being dismissed, especialy since the agency wouldn’t say why. As for the PCVs in-country, Brown remembering them arriving at his home with “tears in their eyes.” Today, he is still in touch with many of his Volunteers.
Brown also wasn’t the only Country Directer pushed out during Judy Olsen’s final days. Three other African CDs were removed in might might be called a Peace Corps version of a Friday Night Massacre.
Brown in his book writes he believes he was fired because he was working with other African CDs in writing a memo to give Aaron Williams on what needed to be done in the African Region.
Clearly, Brown was a considered a ‘rogue director’ by this Republican Peace Corps administration in Washington. Of course, the history of the agency is full of wonderful stories of Rogue Directors. Whether Brown was that, or his own worst enemy, I don’t know.
Brown was a good friend of the late Senator Kennedy, according to his book, and Kennedy had sent word that ‘he would handle’ the incident’ of Brown being fired. Unfortunately all of this happened in the final months of Ted Kennedy’s life.
Meanwhile, other friends, including his daughter, suggested that Brown take legal action against the agency but Brown, now in his early 70s, decided to move on with his life and leave the Peace Corps experience behind him.
But he did write a book!
Now we’ll never know what happened unless there is a Congressional Investigation, and I’m sure there won’t be one. This is a minor event in the world of Washington, even though it was major one in Brown’s life.
We’ll be reviewing Peasants Come Last: A Memoir of the Peace Corps at Fifty on our site in the near future. Look for the review. It is being done by a seasoned Washingtonian who was a PCV, Country Director, and former Peace Corps Chief of Staff.
This is not the end of the Larry Brown story!