Mangling Franklin

When I appeared on FOX News' The Big Story on February 4, anchor John Gibson asserted that Franklin D. Roosevelt anticipated George W. Bush's privatization plan, quoting FDR as saying in 1935 that Social Security “ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.” I told Gibson that FDR couldn't have been referring to private accounts; he must have been talking about separate accounts of a sort we have today. Frances Perkins, FDR's labor secretary (we used to call her Saint Frances around the department), designed the system to be self-supporting. Each generation of workers would support the previous generation of retirees, forever.

But where had that Roosevelt quote come from? When I got back to my office, I checked. I found it in FDR's address to Congress on January 17, 1935. The question was how to pay for the Social Security benefits of those who were then too old to contribute payroll taxes and thereby qualify. Roosevelt proposed that the state and federal governments pick up the tab until the system was fully up and running. At that point, the government contributions would be “supplanted” by a “self-supporting” Social Security system. Here's the quote in full:

In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, non-contributory old-age pensions for those who are now too old to build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps 30 years to come funds will have to be provided by the States and the Federal Government to meet these pensions. Second, compulsory contributory annuities, which in time will establish a self-supporting system for those now young and future generations. Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age. It is proposed that the Federal Government assume one-half of the cost of the old-age pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.

The voluntary contribution annuities FDR proposed for future generations eventually became IRAs and Keogh plans. But nowhere did FDR ever propose diverting part of the payroll tax to finance private accounts at the expense of Social Security. FOX gave Roosevelt's words an entirely different spin -- in support of Bush's privatization plan.

Maybe it was just an honest mistake, I thought. Some lowly researcher at FOX had skimmed through FDR's speeches and didn't understand what he was really saying. But a Google check revealed the same “mistake” in a FOX News broadcast by Washington managing editor Brit Hume the day before. And John Fund repeated it on February 4 in a Wall Street Journal online column, before Gibson used it on me.

Of course, sometimes in the rush to get a story out, reporters and commentators parrot what they've heard others say without checking the truth of the original. So I phoned FOX to correct the record. A valiant watchdog group called Media Matters for America posted the FOX distortion on its Web site. Air America, the liberal radio network, criticized FOX about it.

At this point, any halfway self-respecting news organization would have publicly admitted error, or at least stopped airing the distortion. But a full five days later, on the February 9 edition of FOX News Live, anchor David Asman used the quote again. To add insult to personal injury, Asman used a news clip of me disagreeing with Gibson as an excuse to repeat FOX's distortion.

This is just one example of how the Republican propaganda machine is lying to the American people about Bush's plan for Social Security, just as it has lied about so much else. FOX News' many distortions are mirrored on other yell-television cable networks, on right-wing radio, and on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal. It's a formidable machine. The American Prospect, Media Matters, Air America, and others who are trying to set the record straight are peanuts by comparison.

If Americans get the facts about Bush's plan, they will reject it out of hand. In fact, there's no Social Security crisis. In fact, privatization would divert money out of Social Security and create a crisis. In fact, it would drive up the deficit by trillions of dollars. In fact, it would deprive future Social Security recipients of a large chunk of their benefits. (And, of course, FDR intended no such thing.)

These are the facts. But the nation continues to experience one of the gravest dangers to democracy it has ever endured, in the form of relentless and coordinated campaigns of distortion waged under the leadership of this White House. Let's hope the American people get the truth.

Robert B. Reich is cofounder of The American Prospect.

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