Special Studies

Special Study #3:

Review of Biography of Wilbur Cohen


"Mr. Social Security: The Life of Wilbur J Cohen," by Edward D. Berkowitz. University of Kansas Press. 1995.

Book Review by Larry DeWitt (SSA Historian)

(This review appeared in the Spring 1996 issue of the Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 59, No. 1, pgs. 91-92)

President John F. Kennedy referred to Wilbur J. Cohen as "Mr. Social Security." This was Kennedy's way of indicating his respect for Cohen's vast expertise and authoritative voice on all matters related to Social Security. And that respect was well-deserved. Wilbur Cohen was present at the birth of Social Security and watched over it with parental concern for more than 50 years, until his death at age 73 in 1987. This splendid biography by Professor Edward D. Berkowitz, Chairman of the History Department at George Washington University, does an outstanding job of telling the story of one of Social Security's most engaging figures. The book's foreword is by Joseph A. Califano, former Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) Secretary.

Wilbur Cohen was a staffer of the Committee on Economic Security (CES) that drafted President Roosevelt's social security proposal. Immediately after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, Cohen became the first employee of the Social Security Board, where he worked with energetic enthusiasm on behalf of the new program. Quickly making himself indispensable, Cohen became the Agency's chief liaison to Capitol Hill, where he worked with tenacity and effectiveness for 20 years. He would go on to become Secretary of HEW during the Johnson Administration and would become a key player in the development of the disability program and, especially, in the creation of Medicare. Berkowitz's assessment of this latter accomplishment is that "...with the possible exceptions of President Lyndon Johnson and Congressman Wilbur Mills (D-AR), Cohen played the leading role in the passage of Medicare in 1965."

Mr. Cohen was a former student of Edwin Witte at the University of Wisconsin and when Witte was appointed Executive Director of the CES he asked Cohen to become his assistant. Cohen's intelligence and hard work were valued by Witte, who would later write a memorandum to Arthur J. Altmeyer describing Cohen as "our best research worker." Edwin Witte also supported a job recommendation for Cohen as Altmeyer's executive assistant, a recommendation which contained this glowing assessment: "To say that we have been highly pleased with his work is to put it very mildly. He has a keen mind and turns out an enormous quantity of work." These traits, intelligence and prodigious hard work, would characterize Wilbur Cohen's entire career.

Cohen, like Altmeyer and Witte, was a product of the Wisconsin progressive tradition in public policy. Berkowitz describes him as a "post-Progressive Era reformer" whose approach to social reform was shaped by his studies at Wisconsin. The portrait of Cohen that emerges in Berkowitz's book is of the consummate Washington insider. Patient but determined, brilliant but not self-promoting, Wilbur Cohen was content to work behind the scenes and was willing to settle for incremental progress, so long as progress was being made. His knowledge of Social Security would lead Senator Paul Douglas (D-IL) to quip: "...an expert on Social Security is a person who knows Wilbur Cohen's telephone number."

Witte and then Altmeyer would become the young Wilbur Cohen's mentors, and others would eventually join with Cohen in a kind of informal network that Berkowitz calls "the apparatus." This group, which included Arthur Altmeyer, Bob Ball, Elizabeth Wickenden, and Nelson Cruikshank, among others, would work together in an ad hoc way to influence every piece of Social Security legislation from the 1940's to the 1980's.

Wilbur Cohen provided important staff support in the passage of the 1939 amendments that dramatically changed the character of the Social Security program by adding survivors benefits. He provided input to President Truman's famous message in 1945 calling for the creation of a national health insurance program. As an aid to Altmeyer, Cohen played an important role in the passage of the 1950 amendments that increased Social Security benefits for the first time and which Altmeyer judged to be "crucial" for the program's survival. In the early years of the Eisenhower Administration, Cohen was instrumental in enrolling the Administration in the emerging bipartisan consensus in support of Social Security.

Leaving Government in 1956, Cohen became a professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he expanded his life-long interest in education to encompass educational policy as well. He would continue to influence Social Security legislation while out of Government, returning in 1961 with the Kennedy Administration. Cohen became the Assistant Secretary for Legislation at HEW and, eventually, Undersecretary, and finally, Secretary of HEW. After his death, the HEW North Building was renamed the "Cohen Building" in his honor.

Probably Cohen's greatest accomplishment, and certainly the one about which he was most proud, was his role in the passage of the Medicare program in 1965. Working closely with the members of his "apparatus" and with contacts in Congress that he had carefully cultivated for more than 30 years, Cohen was the Administration's point man on Medicare. He shepherded the bill through a seemingly endless series of legislative hurdles, and it was his combination of negotiating skills and technical expertise that time and time again kept the legislation from going off track. At the end of his Presidency, Lyndon Johnson was reflecting with Cohen on the accomplishments of his own Administration. When Cohen told the President that he had first come to work in Washington in 1934, Johnson challenged him to name the five most beneficial pieces of legislation since that time. Although there was some uncertainty about the last two, they were unanimous about the first three: The Social Security Act of 1935; Medicare; and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Wilbur Cohen had worked on the passage of all three.

Mr. Cohen was also a pivotal figure marking the transition from the New Deal era to the New Frontier and Great Society eras. A perfect illustration of this change was his amicable disagreement with Altmeyer over the approach to welfare. For the New Deal generation, welfare meant cash assistance with little Government involvement in the lives of recipients. Altmeyer distrusted interventionist public welfare strategies because he thought they tended to undermine society's basic commitment to support those needing help. For people in the emerging social work tradition of the New Frontier era, cash assistance was only part of the attack on poverty. Cohen thought that there were "lots of other elements we must emphasize other than assistance, such as training, research, casework services, medical care, and rehabilitation." The fact that Cohen began as a New Dealer and became a Great Society interventionist illustrates in microcosm some of the changes that swept through American society from the 1930's to the 1960's.

At the end of the Johnson Administration, Wilbur Cohen left Government for the second time, and returned to academia, where he once again worked on the outside to produce his customary incremental changes to Social Security. But with the coming to power of Richard Nixon, Cohen's influence began to lessen. For the first time in his career he found himself excluded from the action. He would eventually move to interest-group politics, founding the Save Our Security coalition. Whether working on the outside or inside of Government, Wilbur Cohen worked nonstop, literally until the day he died while on a speaking engagement in South Korea.

Professor Berkowitz's book is a major contribution to the scholarship on the history of Social Security--it is more than just a biography of Wilbur Cohen, it is also a major contribution on the history of Social Security. The social and political trends associated with the program over the past 50 years, and the part played by Wilbur Cohen in these events are some of the exciting details found in this scholarly piece.

In his foreword to this book, Joseph Califano sums up Wilbur Cohen's career by stating: "Wilbur Cohen was one of the most effective public servants of the 20th century." This excellent biography shows us that he was also one of its most interesting and engaging public figures, and reminds us that if Wilbur Cohen had not passed this way, the Social Security program as we know it would not exist, and what does exist of Social Security would be much diminished in scope and in influence. And in a tribute both to Cohen and to Professor Berkowitz's efforts, Califano tells us: "Wilbur Cohen's life is what Government at its best is all about-helping- the most vulnerable among us. This book comes at a time when we all need to be reminded of that. It should be given to every young civil servant on the day he or she arrives, fresh out of college, to begin a Government career. In a few hours of reading this book, they'll learn more about public service than at any college or school of public administration. More important, they'll learn that each of them can make a difference. For, when all is said and done that's what makes Wilbur Cohen such a success: He made a difference."