Doris Kearns Goodwin makes puzzling remark on CBS Social Security special

Historians in the News

If there were prizes given for the most one-sided, misleading story about Social Security this year, a segment aired on the CBS Evening News before Thanksgiving would make a great candidate.

In a breathless recitation of the horrors befalling the system, CBS painted a grim picture of Social Security, using scare words and phrases like “the system is headed for a crisis,” “the government is confronting a painful reality,” and “there’s no debating that we’re running out of time.” How’s that for opinion journalism on a news show?...

CBS presented a puzzling remark from historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who must have been consulted for a sound bite because she knew something about FDR, the father of Social Security; or maybe she was tapped in an effort to give “balance” to the piece without bringing on experts who might have known the ins and outs of the subject.

Kearns Goodwin said that one reason Social Security was established was to get older workers to retire so younger ones could get jobs; she told viewers that “it’s ironic today that we’re in the opposite direction in wanting older people to work longer, so that we can afford to keep paying them.” Gosh! That makes it sound like the main reason they should work longer is just to get a government handout. Kearns Goodwin doesn’t come to my mind as a Social Security expert, and apparently she doesn’t understand that older workers hang onto their jobs because they must, given the demise of good employer-provided pensions, the inadequacy of 401(k) plans, and the difficulty of moving around the workplace when you’re older....

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vaughn davis bornet - 12/1/2010

For years I have hated to see historian/intellectuals treating "social security" like some kind of after thought.

I used to read those reports on "the System" many years ago, and tough reading they were. I think it was three books on the System I reviewed in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. (I wonder if that venerable journal still has an audience; I know I no longer can handle such reading.)

Sometimes I think modern historians say to themselves, "Today I think I'll drop in on the New Deal and opine a bit before dinner."

What an eyeopener it was in 1952-53 when for 12 months I studied FDR full time and reported six afternoons a week to Edgar Eugene Robinson to help him with profound skut work and my young legs. Perkins, Altheimer, and Kellogg and other pioneers came to mean more to me a few years later as I became "a welfare historian" of sorts.

It is tempting to tout Robinson's pioneering book (three years of thought and toil) and my own welfare writing from 1952 to 1960, but instead I'll observe that it wasn't all that long ago that welfare archives were born and the welfare literature was shaped.

It must be tough, being Mrs. Goodwin, and having to make sage remarks off the top of one's head at ten AM quick like a bunny. It's a long way from LBJ and Lincoln to that Act of 1935 and its first payment in 1939 and its amendment over and over and over.

When the profession sits down and studies Robinson's The Roosevelt Leadership, 1933 to 1945 and admits that there is profundaty therein, why then it will be time to have so much to say about that New Deal. Maybe I'm in a mood. Anyway, I'm keenly aware of living through the Brains Trust and Court Packing and all that.

Vaughn Davis Bornet Ashland, Oregon

Lloyd Philip Buchter - 12/1/2010

I think that Kearns Goodwin gave a comment that the writer of this article did not like. The intent was to have older worker retire and I doubt that back in the 1930s there were any pension plans or 401ks. If there were they were probably wiped out by this thing called the depression. Again I think this is an example of someone taking something historical out of context.