Getting FDR's Help In Finding A Home
IN THE CAMPAIGN of 1932, Governor Roosevelt did not strongly stress the subject of social security. Incidentally, he called it economic security. His great emphasis was on the other part of that two-ply program--recovery-- rather than reform. In the early days of his administration, his two main programs were the National Recovery Act and the Agricultural Adjustment Act.
Both Raymond Moley and Rex Tugwell, Assistant Secretaries of State and Agriculture, respectively, had thought in terms of social security as a national program to be advocated immediately after the beginning of the second term. The situation is somewhat comparable today in that there is controversy relative to the priority for curbing inflation on the one hand and meeting the unemployment needs on the other.
But there were others throughout the land who believed social security should not wait. Dr. Francis Townsend, a physician from Long Beach, Calif., began pushing his "Townsend Plan" to cure the depression. His idea was to give everyone over 60 years of age a Federal pension of $200 a month provided he spent it. The idea went over big in California, where many elderly and retired lived, and soon spread countrywide. There were other such schemes being proposed, including one by Senator Huey "Kingfish" Long of Louisiana, who wanted to present every American family with a $5,000 house, $2,000 annual income, and other benefits.
These men really had the administration worried. So, the plan was changed, and it was decided to expedite social security. On August 14, 1935, the Social Security Act was signed.
And the Old-Age Benefits Program (we were careful not to use the word insurance lest the Supreme Court--"the nine old men''--find it unconstitutional) was to start operating January 1, 1937.
The Social Security Board (I was Executive Director at the time) had to register 26 million people--all the industrial workers in the country. Using post offices, we registered the workers during the fall and winter of 1936-37.
With the registration, our troubles began. For then, as now, the major problem in Washington was where to put a desk. We knew that in the spring of 1937 we would have 26 million pieces of paper arriving to be tabulated. We had to have a building able to withstand the weight and vibration of the machinery we would be using, so we began searching Washington for proper space.
No building seemed to be available. Time was passing rapidly and I feared that if the paperwork was not handled as it came in, the whole process might collapse. You can imagine what the press (we did not know the word "media" then) would say to that.
In desperation I went over to the White House to see Marvin McIntyre, one of the secretaries to the President and a man from Kentucky whom I had known for a number of years. He suggested I "go up to see the old man at Hyde Park," and an appointment was made.
When I arrived, the President was in his little office just off the entrance to the Roosevelt home. After listening for a few minutes, he said he had the answer. The new Interior Department building had just been completed, and "Harold [Secretary of the Interior Ickes] would be moving into it." He believed the old Interior building would provide just the type of space needed for Social Security.
The President picked up the phone and called Harold. To my surprise, Ickes did not seem to argue. When he got off the line, FDR said, "There's your solution. What else is bothering you?" I had no other problem. I was so relieved with that solution I felt I had earned my day's pay.
Back to Washington I went, on a Thursday or Friday, I believe, and told the Social Security Board staff of our good luck. We all relaxed.
There was no particular hurry about looking at our new space. and as there were other matters that needed my immediate attention, I didn't go over to look at it until Monday.
When I arrived, I found that it was already occupied by an agency under the supervision of Interior Secretary Ickes. Colonel Waite, the Director of the Public Works Administration, and his staff had moved in over the weekend!
What to do? I couldn't very well go back to see the President because I knew he didn't like what he called "whining people." There was nothing to do except scour Washington again for a building. We found nothing suitable. Eventually, I heard that there was a building with adequate space in Baltimore on the harbor front--the Candler Building.
A few days later I went over to Baltimore to see the Candler Building, and as we walked through that old warehouse-type structure, my heart sank. There seemed to be no other choice, however, so late in 1936 the Bureau of Old-Age Benefits moved to Baltimore. We did have one consolation. The move was to be a temporary one. How I cherished that word, for we were already in the process of getting legislation through for the construction of the Social Security Board building at 4th and Independence Avenues, S.W., in Washington. The building would be ready by 1939.
The move to Baltimore, however, was not to be as temporary as we had hoped and believed and as was widely advertised, especially among the Bureau employees. Just as our new building was completed, the war in Europe had become critical and Washington was gearing up the defense program. Mr. Roosevelt retired "Mr. New Deal" and gave the priority spot to "Mr. Win the War." Defense agencies got preference everywhere.
It so happened that I joined the defense agencies in 1939 and was moved into the Social Security Board building. I got the same office that we had originally designed for the Executive Director of the Board. As soon as I got settled, I picked up the phone and called Arthur Altmeyer, then Chairman of the Social Security Board, and invited him to come over to see our building and my new office. His indignant response was, "I won't put my foot in that damned building until I move with the rest of the Board folks into our own space." Even after the defense agencies finally vacated the Board's building, the Bureau didn't move back to Washington for the age-old reason that's well-known to the administrator of every large agency. Baltimore and the State of Maryland had become accustomed to this large agency and its payroll and wanted to keep it where it was. The Maryland delegation in Congress persuaded other congressmen to join them in successfully blocking the transfer of the Bureau back to Washington.
Cooperating with the inevitable, it was decided to construct buildings for the Bureau in the Baltimore suburbs, where the complex is now located.
This experience confirmed what I learned many years ago--good judgment is the product of experience, but experience is the product of poor judgment.