PART IV

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FOLLY AND TRIUMPH

…all of these projects, all of this work that we are doing, spring from a necessity, a definite human need, a need of this generation, a need of the year in which we live and of last year, and the year before.

—FDR TO THE STATE EMERGENCY COUNCIL OF NEW JERSEY, JANUARY 18, 1936

You can start out from Baton Rouge in any direction and pass through town after town which has water facilities or sewer facilities or roads or streets or sidewalks or better public buildings, which it would not have had but for the Works Progress Administration.

—HARRY HOPKINS AT LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY, NOVEMBER 28, 1936

1. DEATH OF A POPULIST

Senator Huey Long was dead. His clamorous romp across the American political scene ended on September 10, 1935, two days after an assassin shot him in the Louisiana state capitol in Baton Rouge. The Kingfish had just finished muscling through the compliant legislature a package of bills that would keep his kingdom and political base intact and unassailable. One bill allowed state authorities to throw pesky New Dealers in jail for interfering with Louisiana’s constitutional powers. Another gerrymandered the district of an opposition judge. Long was crossing the marble rotunda of the capitol a little after nine on the night of September 8 when a young man dressed in a white summer suit stepped from behind a column and fired a small pistol point-blank into his body. What they had lacked in vigilance Long’s bodyguards made up in belated firepower, shooting the man more than sixty times with pistols and submachine guns. When the bullet-riddled body was identified, the assassin proved to be twenty-nine-year-old Carl A. Weiss, a Baton Rouge physician and the son-in-law of the judge whose district Long had just erased, and about whom he was allegedly spreading rumors of black ancestry.

Roosevelt, ironically, was lunching with Father Coughlin at Hyde Park when news broke of Long’s death. Despite his attacks on the New Deal, Coughlin still craved influence as a policy advisor, and he had used his fellow Irish Catholic Joseph P. Kennedy, the Massachusetts financier and chairman of the new Securities and Exchange Commission, to reach out to the president. At the luncheon, which included Kennedy, Roosevelt as usual was cordial and noncommittal to Coughlin’s policy suggestions. Nobody recorded how the two men reacted at learning Long had died—Coughlin said he brought the news to Roosevelt, but the president said his secretary Missy LeHand had told him earlier—but Coughlin would say later that the assassination was “the most regrettable thing in modern history.”

Aside from condemnation of the murder, which Roosevelt dutifully conveyed to the nation and Long’s widow, regret would not have been the president’s reaction; with Long died not only his excoriating brand of demagoguery but also his ability to take votes from Roosevelt in the next year’s reelection campaign. Without its charismatic figurehead, the Share Our Wealth Society soon withered. Millions still listened to Coughlin on the radio—in December he would declare his final break with the administration—and the Townsend Clubs still peddled their dream of golden-age prosperity. But only Long had possessed the actual potential to threaten the president’s bid for a second term.

And with his death the New Deal’s programs regained some of their appeal among the old and unemployed, who saw them once again as a main source of hope. Just the month before, Roosevelt had signed the Social Security Act into law, culminating a fourteen-month process that had begun with his appointment of the Committee on Economic Security in June 1934. The committee had made its recommendations on schedule, the president had mentioned their broad outlines in the State of the Union address in which he announced the jobs program, and he had sent legislation to the Congress on January 17, 1935. It called for a program of federal old-age insurance and federal-state partnerships in providing unemployment insurance. Less prominent parts of the proposal—at the time—were provisions for federal grants to the states for aid to the blind and disabled, the poor elderly, and dependent children and their mothers, and for maternal and child health. The unemployment and old-age payments would be funded by payroll taxes on employers and employees. Employee contributions, Roosevelt said later, would give workers a “legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program.”

Weeks of hearings and months of debate ensued. Conservatives, predictably, forecast the end of the republic; Americans would lose their initiative and sense of individual responsibility and fall to the level of the state-dependent European. The National Association of Manufacturers, in a comment typical of organized business, said it would open the door to “ultimate socialistic control of life and industry.” The American Medical Association convened an emergency meeting of its Board of Delegates, which voted to oppose any attempt to add health insurance to the bill’s provisions.

But the growing popularity of the Townsend Clubs dictated that the bill would pass. By the spring of 1935, when the congressional debate was taking place, there were 5,000 of the clubs with over 2 million members nationwide. Many of them were busy exhorting politicians with torrents of mail, and if Congress didn’t read the letters they could certainly read the numbers. The House passed the bill overwhelmingly in April, the Senate followed suit exactly two months later, on June 19, and House and Senate conferees agreed on a final version of the bill on August 9. Roosevelt signed it in the White House Cabinet Room on August 14 surrounded by its backers in and out of Congress and declared, “Today, a hope of many years standing is in large part fulfilled.” Huey Long, scant weeks from assassination, filibustered to prevent the apparatus of the new system from receiving funding, but Roosevelt took money from the NRA and the WPA administrative budgets to allow the three-member Social Security Board to set up shop.

The Social Security Act was a huge step toward guaranteeing Americans a level of economic security they had never had before. They would not see any money for quite some time, however. The payroll taxes that would fund unemployment compensation would not begin to be deducted until January 1936, and the first benefits would be paid that April. Old-age pensions were even further in the future. January 1937 was the starting date for the collection of the payroll taxes—1 percent on employers and employees up to $3,000 of earnings a year—that would establish the Social Security trust fund from which the pensions would be paid, and the first regular checks would not arrive in retiree mailboxes until January 1940.

All of this meant that for the near future, the first hope of the unemployed remained the jobs promised by the WPA.

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