Health Care Debate Elicits Memories of FDR's Battle to Get Social Security Passed

As I watched the health care reform vote on C-SPAN Sunday night, in which the House delivered legislation that President Barack Obama so happily signed today, I was thinking about something my mom told me not long ago.

It was about other times that our country has gone through rancorous debates.

Taken in context, I think the fight the president has faced on health care reform has been relatively tame. American politics can be fairly brutal. We forget that it has been far, far worse.

My mother told me about her memories of FDR's battle to get Social Security passed. Social Security seems so accepted now; a plan that would help folks through their senior years but would not be a handout.

What you might not know is that FDR, as popular as he is in retrospect, was a lightning rod who abolished the gold standard (country folks where I come from in Kentucky still complain about that one) and tried to stack the federal courts with younger judges who would vote his way. Court ruling after court ruling challenged everything from Social Security to unemployment insurance.

Think of it: Even with lawsuits pending in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Social Security Board had to issue Social Security numbers to adult citizens and quickly begin collecting taxes. It leveled them in the midst of the deepest depression the country had known. Businesses didn't want to go through the expense of collecting the taxes. After all, a lot of the workers were temporary, given the economy.

Look at these editorial cartoons of the time. I am a particular fan of the fifth one down on the page, the one that allows you to read the cartoon with whatever political slant you wish. I was so struck by how that cartoon could have been printed last week with just as much effect.

And look at these quotes about FDR that The Washington Post collected:

"The Communist leader Earl Browder said that FDR was 'carrying out more thoroughly and brutally than even Hoover the capitalist attack against the masses,' and the domestic fascist William Dudley Pelley called the President the 'lowest form of human worm -- according to Gentile standards.'

"One critic accused him of 'blathering platitudes like a parson on vacation,' and another wrote to him savagely, 'If you were a good honest man, Jesus Christ would not have crippled you.' It was in a formal address to the Chicago Bar Association, not in a harangue to an extremist rally, that a United States Senator from Minnesota did not hesitate to liken Roosevelt to the beast of the Apocalypse,' 'who set his slimy mark on everything.' Roosevelt, his critics maintained, had shown himself to be a man without principles. Herbert Hoover called him a 'chameleon on plaid,' while H. L. Mencken said, 'If he became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday.' The Sage of Baltimore declared, 'I am advocating making him king in order that we may behead him in case he goes too far beyond the limits of the endurable.' "

The health care bill will be litigated and amended over and over, just as Social Security has been. Thirteen states are already planning to sue over the new health care legislation.

It might be nice to get back to something that hasn't seemed quite as divisive lately. Something like, say, immigration, or drilling for oil in the Arctic.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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