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Slick Texan helps doctor peddle depression cure

The Free Press of Buda, Texas

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THIS WEEK IN TEXAS HISTORY

The Sept. 10, 1935 assassination of Huey P. Long, the Louisiana "Kingfish," left two living members of the Depression triumvirate - Father Cough-lin and Dr. Townsend.

Francis Everett Townsend, the stick figure millions considered a modern mes-siah, spent most of his adult life trying to stay out of the poorhouse. A cowboy, farmer, schoolteacher, miner and salesman before finally choosing medicine, he ended up a health inspector in Long Beach, California.

Cutbacks in city services cost Dr. Townsend his job in 1933. With less than $200 in the bank and no prospects of employment, the 66-year-old physician suddenly found himself in dire straits.

The majority of aged Americans were in the same sinking boat. The Depression had devoured their savings and reduced their standard of living to desperate subsistence at a time when younger relatives, who traditionally cared for elderly kin, were too hard-strapped to help. Only six states provided senior citizens with so much as a pittance leaving 98 percent of the 15 million over 60 completely out in the cold.

As Townsend never tired of telling it, he looked out the window one morning and saw three starving women scrounging for scraps in his garbage. "A torrent of invectives tore out of me," he recalled, "the big blast of all the bitterness that had been building in me for years." Spurning his spouse's efforts to shush him, the doctor yelled at the top of his lungs, "I want God Almighty to hear me! I'm going to shout until the whole country hears!"

This famous incident inspired the Old Age Revolving Pension Plan that Townsend detailed in a series of letters to the Long Beach newspaper. He prescribed a federal payment of $200 a month to everybody over the age of 60 with the stipulation they stop working and spend the whole amount within 30 days. A two-percent national sales tax would generate the necessary revenue, which seniors would pump back into the stagnant economy creating employment for their idle juniors.

The fact that the pie-in-the-sky scheme was a fatally flawed fiscal fantasy made no difference to potential beneficiaries. Couples eligible for an annual windfall of $4,800 - nearly twice the yearly income of nine out of ten households - were deaf to any criticism of the heaven-sent plan.

The idea instantly caught fire flooding the dazed doctor with requests for information and speaking engagements. He turned to Robert E. Clements, a shrewd salesman! from Texas with a checkered past, whose energetic expertise launched the Townsend Clubs.

By January 1935, the mushrooming movement had spread from southern California to every section of the country. Three thousand clubs boasted a dues-paying membership of half a million with an insatiable appetite for Clements' many trinkets - buttons, wheel covers, license plates and the like - and a publication that pulled in $4,000 worth of advertising each and every week.

The Townsend tornado roared into Washington in early 1935 in thelperson of John Steven fyJcGroarty, an editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times elected to congress by Townsend's troops. He introduced a pension package in the House of Representatives, but opponents never let the controversial bill come to a vote. The disappointed doctor managed to save a little face by claiming partial credit for the subsequent passage of the Social Security Act.

Though lumped together with Father Charles E. Couglin and Huey P. Long in a radical triumvirate, Townsend had practically nothing in common with "The Radio Priest" and "The Kingfish." He was by no stretch of the imagination a populist and carefully avoided compromising alliances with the two flamboyant figures.

However, after the assas- sination of Lc ng in September 1935, a fr< elance bigot and rabble-rc user wormed his way into 1 ownsend's inner circle. ( erald L.K. Smith replace d Clements as the numbe r-two man and duped th e doctor into supporting tl e 1936 presidential candi lacy of William Lemke on the Union Party ticket, a Cou{ hlin creation. But by the ime Townsend came to Texa ; in October, he clearly reg retted the rash endorsement. Speaking off the cuff u >on his arrival in Hous on, he frankly acknowledge i Lemke's long-shot sta us in the race

against FDR and Republican Alf Landon. With a wistful smile he added, "If we had our party in the field this fall, we'd carry every state in the Union."

A thousand silver-haired citizens packed a Houston church that night to hear "The Founder" preach his pension gospel. But the gaunt guru's perfunctory pitch for the Union Party received only polite applause.

As a plain-spoken admirer explained on his way out the door, "Texas Townsen-dites will follow you most anywhere but not out of the Democratic Party."



Copyright 2011 The Free Press, Buda, Texas. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from SmallTownPapers, Inc.

© 2011 The Free Press Buda, Texas. All Rights Reserved. This content, including derivations, may not be stored or distributed in any manner, disseminated, published, broadcast, rewritten or reproduced without express, written consent from DAS.

Original Publication Date: September 8, 2010



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