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Some things never change

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POSTED October 5, 2012 9:26 p.m.

I'm reading a good book, the title of which I'll give you in just a minute. I want to share some intriguing passages from the book with you. But in doing so, I'm going to leave some words blank. I want you to fill in those blanks. Here's a little hint: the section of the book I am sharing with you involves a relatively new major government program that a certain political party wants to repeal. Here are the passages.

1. "The GOP, and much of the nation's business community were intent on killing (blank)."

2. "(Blank), the Republican party's presidential nominee, lost control of his campaign to the party's conservative diehards.

3. "So he made slashing attacks on (blank) and promised to repeal it if elected."

My hunch is that many of you filled in the blanks this way: 1) Obamacare, 2) Mitt Romney and 3) Obamacare.

Unfortunately, if those were your answers, you are wrong and score a failing grade. Here are the correct answers: 1) Social Security, 2) Alf Landon and 3) Social Security.

The book I am reading is called "Citizens of London," by Lynne Olson. It tells the story of three influential Americans, living in London in 1940, who stood by Britain during its darkest hours — that period of time when essentially Great Britain alone was defending freedom against the ravages of Hitler's war machine. For those of my readers who are not history buffs, America before Pearl Harbor was dominated by isolationists who did not want our country to get involved in "that European war."

But three forward-thinking men were working behind the scenes, serving as emissaries between Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, trying to funnel as much military and humanitarian aid as possible from the United States to England.

I'm sure most of my readers have heard of two of those men. One was Averell Harriman, the hard-driving millionaire who owned railroads, established the Sun Valley ski resort in Idaho, dated celebrities and became our ambassador to Russia in 1943. But in early 1941, he was running FDR's "Lend Lease" program in London. The other was Edward R. Murrow, the CBS newsman who became famous for his realistic and touching radio broadcasts from bomb-ravaged London.

However, I'll bet many of my readers never heard of the third influential American. And in fact, I picked up the book at my local library because I had a small connection with him. His name was John Gilbert Winant.

Winant was a very interesting person. In the 1920s, he had won national acclaim as the youngest and most progressive governor in the country, as governor of New York. But in the 1930s, as pointed out in Citizens of London, "this rising Republican star with presidential dreams forfeited his political future by attacking the GOP for its slashing assaults on the New Deal." In 1941, FDR appointed Winant to replace the isolationist — and thus not very popular — Joseph P. Kennedy, father of John F. Kennedy, as our ambassador to Great Britain. It is in that role that John Winant was arguably the most influential and helpful American in Britain's hour of need.

But the name John Gilbert Winant attracted me to read this book for another reason. For you see, he was the first Commissioner of Social Security — the agency that I worked for from 1973 until 2005.

In 1935, President Roosevelt appointed Winant to head the three-man board that would administer the new federal agency charged with running the Social Security program. FDR did so in part because he wanted the well-known Republican to help thwart the fierce GOP opposition to the new law. Still, Senate Republicans filibustered and held up funding for the fledgling agency. But Winant and the other two board members, with minimal resoruces, worked tirelessly to hire staff and patch together a network of regional and field offices that would begin the daunting task of registering most workers in this country, assigning them a Social Security number, and setting up a system to record their earnings and eventually pay them monthly benefits.

Now, back to my "fill-in-the-blank" quiz. I find it very intriguing that the very same issues that faced America in the 1930s continue to face us today. We have always been arguing about what role the federal government should play in our lives.

I think only my most die-hard "get the government off my back" conservative readers would disagree with me when I point out that the right wing Republicans were on the wrong side of the Social Security debate in the 1930s. And by the way, they also adamantly opposed the creation of the Medicare program in the 1960s, and history has proven they were on the wrong side of that debate, too. I guess only time will tell if they are now on the wrong side of the health care, i.e. "Obamacare" debate.

 

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