MSNBC host Keith Olbermann and former Social Security associate commissioner James Roosevelt Jr. examined how FOX News Washington managing editor Brit Hume and other pundits distorted a quote by Roosevelt Jr.'s grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in order to claim that the former president would have supported privatizing Social Security.
During their discussion, Olbermann referenced the distortions by Hume, nationally syndicated radio host and former Reagan administration official William J. Bennett, and Wall Street Journal columnist John Fund -- which Media Matters for America has documented. Roosevelt Jr. echoed Air America Radio host Al Franken's call for Hume to resign, saying that "he rearranged those sentences in an outrageous distortion, one that really calls for a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation."
From the February 15 edition of MSNBC's Countdown with Keith Olbermann:
OLBERMANN: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and, at minimum, midwife to the Social Security system, would have endorsed President Bush's plan to partially privatize it. Our third story on the Countdown -- that is the claim, anyway, of at least three conservative commentators and several Republican congressmen. But it turns out those guys pretty much just made it up. In a moment, FDR's grandson, himself a former associate commissioner for Social Security, joins us to discuss the fraud.
First, the background. It began on television with Brit Hume of FOX News, taking quotes from the three principles of security for our old people that FDR expressed to Congress on January 17, 1935. Not all the quotes, mind you, just some of them, and out of context. I'm reading from the transcript on the FOX website of Mr. Hume's newscast of February 3rd. "It turns out," Hume said, "that FDR himself planned to include private investment accounts in the Social Security program when he proposed it. In a written statement to Congress in 1935, Roosevelt said that any Social Security plan should include, 'Voluntary contributory annuities, by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age,' adding that government funding, 'ought to ultimately be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans.'"
As promised, I'm joined now by James Roosevelt Jr., now senior vice president of Tufts Health Plan, formerly associate commissioner for Social Security, and, of course, grandson of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Great -- thanks for your time tonight, sir.
ROOSEVELT: Nice to be with you, Keith.
OLBERMANN: The argument is that Mr. Hume more or less twisted this entirely around. Can you explain it in layman's terms?
ROOSEVELT: I think I can. And it's really quite an amazing distortion. What they did was that they took a very simple statement that my grandfather made, which said that Social Security, when it was enacted almost 70 years ago, ought to first of all have a part that took care of people who didn't have time to build up a Social Security account. And the government should fund that out of general revenues.
Secondly, Social Security should have a self-sustaining portion that was funded by contributions from both employers and employees. That's what we know and have known for 70 successful years as Social Security.
And thirdly, those who wanted and who needed to, as many -- almost everybody -- did, to have a higher income and retirement, should have accounts where they could pay in voluntarily, in addition to the guaranteed Social Security benefit.
And then my grandfather said that eventually, the self-sustaining portion of the guaranteed insurance would phase out the government-paid portion. That's because we would have a fully functioning Social Security system as we do today.
What Brit Hume and others have done is take portions of that paragraph and rearrange it so that it says something entirely different from what he intended.
OLBERMANN: At the risk of doing a little too much reading, just to put it on the historical record, let me read the entire quote from which those quotes were pulled. The ones Mr. Hume pulled, only that he wanted to pull:
"In the important field of security for our old people, it seems necessary to adopt three principles: First, noncontributory old-age pensions for those who are now to old build up their own insurance. It is, of course, clear that for perhaps 30 years to come fund 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 for future generations.
"Third, voluntary contributory annuities by which individual initiative can increase the annual amounts received in old age." That's one of the Hume quotes there. "It is proposed that the federal government assume one-half of the cost of the old pension plan, which ought ultimately to be supplanted by self-supporting annuity plans."
So, where he raised the prospect of self-supporting annuity plans -- that was not to replace Social Security, it was to replace the money the government was contributing to Social Security for the people born in, say, 1870 and earlier. Is that about it?
ROOSEVELT: That is exactly it. And he rearranged those sentences in an outrageous distortion, one that really calls for a retraction, an apology, maybe even a resignation.
OLBERMANN: He may have been the only news reporter who did that. The other people who have made the comment on it were people like William Bennett, also in one of the live circus programs that they have over on FOX, and John Fund from The Wall Street Journal online political commentary Web site. Of course, the president referenced this vaguely in the State of the Union. What do you make, generally speaking, of what we might fairly call revisionist history?
ROOSEVELT: It is really quite amazing that all of the folks supporting privatization, from the president on down, keep invoking the name of my grandfather, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. I think it's, in a way, it is flattering to him. It's a testimony to how successful the program that he put in place has been and continues to be. And there's -- on the screen you just saw my dad standing next to my grandfather. There he is again.
OLBERMANN: But you are convinced from all that you know, and if anyone actually literally took all of the words of your grandfather and went through them with the proverbial fine-tooth comb, they would have never found anything in his mind, ultimate privatization, in whole or in part, of Social Security.
ROOSEVELT: I'm definitely convinced of that. And I'm convinced he never intended to phase it out. That indeed is why some of the greatest supporters of Social Security initially said it ought to be paid for out of general tax revenues. And Secretary of the Treasury [Henry] Morgenthau [Jr.], who headed the commission my grandfather appointed, said no, it has to have a payroll tax that's dedicated to Social Security. Because if it doesn't, it will either get to look like welfare, or it will be traded off against other good things. And the dedicated Social Security tax has been very successful over the years in raising almost all of our elderly citizens out of poverty, where half of them were in poverty before Social Security.
OLBERMANN: Indeed. James Roosevelt Jr., grandson of our 32nd president, former associate commissioner on Social Security, our great thanks for your time tonight, sir.
ROOSEVELT: Thank you.