A NOT-SO-HIDDEN AGENDA The American Civil Liberties Union is doing a lot more than impartially upholding the Bill of Rights.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The American Civil Liberties Union has a lot going for it these days. Its national membership is around 250,000, an all-time high. It has several hundred local chapters, and its views and legal resources affect perhaps 6,000 court cases a year. Some 4,000 lawyers work as volunteers in its causes. It ! has drawn strength from the perception, widespread among liberals, that the Reagan Administration presents some kind of special threat to traditional American freedoms. To be sure, most liberals and possibly even most ACLU members might not go as far as executive director Ira Glasser, who charged in 1983 that violating the Bill of Rights was ''a primary goal'' of the Administration. One thing the ACLU does not have going for it is The Politics of the American Civil Liberties Union (Transaction Books, $29.95), by William A. Donohue. The Union will presumably survive this book; however, it is guaranteed to henceforth have a mountain of trouble sustaining certain ideas that have been crucial to its prestige and influence. The idea that's most badly battered when Donohue is finished is also the idea that matters the most: that the ACLU is at bottom nonpolitical. The Union has insistently claimed over the years that its paramount concern is defending the Bill of Rights and that it is unconcerned with the political fallout from its activities. The official line is that the organization is committed to certain processes critical to free institutions but that it ''makes no distinction as to whose liberties it defends.'' In support of this line it can point to cases in which Nazis, Klansmen, Trotskyites, and other extremely illiberal folks have received ACLU support. Donohue, a sociologist based at La Roche College in Pittsburgh, is obviously a tenacious researcher. He has been studying the ACLU since 1976, has had access to its archives, and has interviewed three of its leaders, including the late Roger Baldwin. He has little difficulty demolishing the official line, which begins to look ludicrous about midway through the first chapter. The ACLU had plenty of critics before Donohue came along, of course. One familiar criticism was that sometime around the late Sixties the organization abandoned its pristine approach to the Bill of Rights and began pushing its own left-liberal agenda. But Donohue leaves readers with the impression that this formulation is quite inadequate. The fact is that the ACLU had its own agenda from the day Roger Baldwin founded the organization in 1920. Its politics have always been in the zone between liberal and radical, and its endless changes of position have not so much reflected new insights into the Bill of Rights as new preoccupations among the shapers of progressive opinion. In the end, Donohue leaves you wondering whether it is even possible to be ! politically neutral with respect to the Bill of Rights. All of the rights identified in the ten amendments are in some circumstances competitive with other rights: the criminal's right to a fair trial competes, for example, with the right of a free press to print hateful details about the accused. In the extreme, furthermore, all of the rights compete with common sense. Almost everyone can think of situations in which freedom of speech is undesirable, and even the ACLU, which often positions itself as uncompromising on the First Amendment -- as in its present support for the right to print child pornography -- has managed to think of a fair number over the years. For a while in the Thirties, it upheld restrictions on employers' rights to denounce unions, and it would still proscribe attacks that are ''part of a campaign of intimidation.'' And it supports ''anti-blockbusting'' laws, which are designed to thwart real estate operators who try to drive down asking prices by warning of some minority invasion of the neighborhood. In short, anyone trying to interpret the Bill of Rights needs a theory of justice, which means a political agenda. In its earliest years the Union was fairly frank about its agenda, which was to support workers' rights from a radical perspective. Baldwin and just about all other leaders of the ACLU during the Twenties were committed partisans of the Soviet Union and were so thoroughly wrapped up in radical politics that they never identified Prohibition as a possible civil liberties issue. (By contrast, the ACLU today is on record as opposing laws that prohibit the use of heroin.) The Union initially attacked the New Deal from the left, and its board of directors, strenuously encouraged by a sizable Communist faction, deplored the National Labor Relations Act. After the act was passed, however, Baldwin did a large volte-face and essentially embraced the New Deal. In the following decade the ACLU was generally sympathetic to Roosevelt's policies. In the course of supporting them during World War II, the Union even managed to find kind words for what was arguably the worst civil liberties violation since its founding -- the internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans early in the war. Although it offered some criticisms of the operation, the Union's official policy statement held that ''the government in our judgment has the constitutional right in the present war to establish military zones and to remove persons, either citizens or aliens, from such zones when their presence may endanger national security, even in the absence of a declaration of martial law.'' LIKE A LOT of other fellow-traveling liberals, Roger Baldwin was stunned by the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939, and he finally accepted the logic of a proposition that several other ACLU members had been mentioning for some time: that there was something very peculiar about a civil liberties organization whose board of directors included passionate defenders of Stalin's rule. In 1940 the board expelled Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an avowed Communist, and ruled that Communists, fascists, and other supporters of totalitarian principles could not serve on the governing committees of the organization or on its staff. Throughout the Forties and Fifties, the board was generally dominated by liberal anti-Communists, several of whom had a cordial personal relationship with J. Edgar Hoover. The Fifties were not, of course, an assertive period for liberals in general, and this fact was reflected in the relative passivity of the ACLU during the decade. What might be thought of as the ACLU's modern period began in the mid- Sixties. The period has been marked by an enormous increase in the number of issues with which the organization is concerned -- and also by its ''re- radicalization.'' The ACLU rediscovered pacifism during the Vietnam war, and it decided that the draft was a violation of civil liberties and constitutional guarantees. It argued (unsuccessfully) that draft-card burning was protected free expression. The Union also discovered that inequality was a civil liberties problem. It cast itself as part of the civil rights movement and rapidly gravitated toward support of racial quotas, which it had previously attacked on many occasions. It discovered feminism and endorsed the Equal Rights Amendment, which it had opposed in the Forties and Fifties (arguing that the ERA would undo various special protections accorded women in the workplace). It discovered the rights of prison convicts. (Donohue observes acidly: ''The ACLU has no policy on the victims of crimes but has eight policies addressing the rights of prisoners.'') It dramatically stepped up its multiple campaigns for the rights of accused criminals. Reversing its position of many years, it decided in 1965 that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Along the way, the Union decided it had been wrong to bar totalitarians from leading roles. George Slaff, who was president of the organization's affiliate in Southern California, began a campaign in the Sixties to exonerate Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. ''The Catholic Church reversed the trial of Joan of Arc and canonized her,'' Slaff told the board of directors. After close to a decade of argument and without necessarily committing itself on this analogy, the board voted by 32 to 18 to reverse the Flynn decision. A prominent figure in the ACLU today is William Kunstler, who has been quoted as opposing ''public attacks on socialist countries where violations of human rights may occur.'' Donohue is interesting but not entirely satisfying in his efforts to characterize ''the mind-set of the ACLU.'' The organization's defining belief, he argues, is its optimism about the goodness of humanity. He quotes Ramsey Clark, chairman of the ACLU's National Advisory Council, as arguing that ''freedom is right because people are inherently good.'' If people are good, then they can be trusted to do what's right, and the state has no reason to tell them how to behave. And because they are inherently good, we can view even their present discernible failings as correctible if only government acts intelligently. In Donohue's view, the median ACLU executive believes in permissiveness in moral questions combined with government intervention in the social and economic realms. ''The ACLU,'' Donohue argues, ''is actually a cross between Gay Talese and John Kenneth Galbraith.'' IT'S A GOOD LINE, but in other contexts the author gives you plenty of reason to believe that the ACLU isn't really so sure about people's goodness. If its faith in human goodness were real and not just pious rhetoric, the Union would be more consistent in its policy prescriptions; it wouldn't be forever stacking the deck in favor of liberal causes. Anyone tracking its endless arguments in support of pornographers might indeed conclude that it celebrates permissiveness, much as Talese did in Thy Neighbor's Wife. But it certainly isn't permissive, and doesn't look sure about goodness, when it comes to gun control laws (which it favors). What about the evidence, repeatedly cited by the Union, of its support for Nazis and others not suspected of liberalism? Don't these cases show a certain principled commitment to the processes of civil liberties? They probably don't; at least, you could fairly respond that such cases are rare enough so that you can view them as public relations gestures -- or tokenism. In any case, they're not popular with the membership. The Union lost 75,000 members when it elected, in 1977, to support the right of U.S. National Socialists to march in Skokie, Illinois. Whether the original decision to support the march derived from principle or P.R., you can safely bet that it won't happen again.