Tribute to Dr. Townsend

Westbrook Pegler

Evansville Press/July 9, 1935

Of All The Mahatmas who have undertaken to lead the poor to plenty in the last five years the only one who has seemed to bleed internally for them and to have neither vanity nor selfish ambition is old Dr. Frank Townsend, the author of the Old Age Pension Plan. 

The only note of pride in the old gentleman’s makeup has to do with his little victories over death under difficult conditions in a rude, frontier country in South Dakota in his days as a horse-and-buggy doctor. 

He enjoys telling of operations performed on kitchen tables in isolated farmhouses, and if Sinclair Lewis had not done the job years before, in the character of Dr. Kennicott in “Main Street,” Dr. Townsend would provide the makings of a book. 

He can hardly be accused of boasting when he relates that in all his experience he never had a case of child-bed fever, although one baby was born in his buggy on a country road and another on a rusty woven-wire bedspring in the open as they carried the mother up a hill to escape a flood. 

Dr. Townsend retired from medicine one day in Los Angeles when he saw an old woman fumbling in a garbage can for scraps of food. He decided that this was too awful and abandoned the work that he did so well to attempt a task which he knew nothing about. 

There was a time, a few months ago, when he claimed to have twenty-five million pledged adherents. Townsend Clubs were springing into existence all over the country, and new membership rolls were tumbling in on him in big bundles every hour. The hat closet of his hotel room in Washington contained many batches of them, and the petitions were stored in bales in national headquarters of his plan. 

His Head Never Swelled

YET, THOUGH HEhad become the leader and the hope of many millions of old people, the doctor never for a moment thought of himself as a power. For himself he wanted not even recognition. All he wanted for himself was the knowledge that the old woman who had been reduced to foraging in a garbage can for food and all the other old people in the country were secure from want and relieved of worry about the material necessities of life until death should come to them. 

There was in his bearing neither the querulous martyrdom and mock humility of Upton Sinclair nor the strutting vanity and arrogance of Huey Long. He knew nothing about politics, and his innocence in this respect was in sharp contrast to the man in the White House, whose sympathies were about like his. 

Dr. Townsend and his plan reached their peak about the time that the papers and political reviews became suddenly aware of this strange ism which was bubbling and gassing all over the country and examined the plan as a phenomenon. 

It was a naive idea and obviously unworkable, but the publicity stimulated the movement, and millions more of discouraged belly-thinkers of all ages put their names to Townsend petitions and sent them in. The publicity abated as soon as the story had been told. Dr Townsend is no campaigner. He is not a fighter or phrase-maker, and he is not strong enough physically to engage in the rough-and-tumble that Long and Coughlin enjoy. So the Townsend movement has now declined from a convulsion to a faint twitch and presently will cease altogether.

Never Played Followers False

It Is True that he raised false hopes in many old people, but it can never be said that he played them false for any selfish purpose. He is all heart, and he suffered all over in sympathy with all the poor. But most pathetic of all, he thought, were the people who couldn’t hope to make the grade even if prosperity should by some miracle come back overnight, because they were physically tired and spent. He refused to be courted by Sinclair or Long not because he wanted the glory of achieving old-age pensions by himself but only because he thought Sinclair and Long would make use of his following for political purposes and then throw them down. 

If he could feel sure today that by turning over his leadership to someone else he could achieve the pension of $200 a month which he bespoke for everyone beyond the age of 60 who has not a criminal record, no selfishness of his would stand in the way of that consummation. 

One phase of his plan which never was exploited much provided that the old people, secure in their leisure on guaranteed pensions, should become a super-senate of the nation, an advisory body with the right to offer suggestions and exercise a veto backed by their superior wisdom. 

He thought that in a calm state of mind untroubled by any material problems, they would produce ideas for the great good of the country which younger people in the struggle for existence would not have the vision to discover. He resented the obsolescence which comes with age and hoped to minimize the pang that comes when a man realizes that the game is over as far as he is concerned.

Defeated but Unbowed

His Followers, young as well as old, supplied the fanatical wrath which Dr. Townsend could not find in his make-up. To criticize his theory was to wound him in his feelings, but he loved all his fellow-men so tenderly that he could not anger. His people, however, were capable of great rages, and some of the letters which they wrote to critics who pointed out the fallacy of his plan were models of furious vituperation. 

Soon the twenty-five million will drift off to join other isms of hope and rebellion and Dr. Townsend, presumably, will go back to his natural calling, succoring the poor in detail and in person at the bedside for the rest of his days, not a dollar richer but poorer, if anything, than he was the day he saw the old woman at the garbage can. 

He isn’t the type for politics, being too gentle and sincere and, in round numbers, too decent for the task which he undertook even though his plan had been sound.


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