In January 1916, the young journalist Walter Lippmann dropped a note to Franklin Roosevelt, the young assistant secretary of the Navy. Lippmann was planning a visit to Washington and “would like to see you if it is possible for a little talk while I am there. . . . I shall be staying at 1727 19th Street,” he wrote, a boarding house described by James Srodes in “On Dupont Circle” as “a nondescript row house on a tree-shaded side street just two blocks east of busy Connecticut Avenue — jocularly known to its inhabitants and many visitors as The House of Truth.” It had “a raffish, slightly bohemian atmosphere that made it highly attractive to the young people who were drawn there.”
They were drawn to it out of a shared commitment to the progressive cause, a belief that the best and the brightest could employ modern science to solve the nation’s and the world’s most pressing issues. They were “a hybrid of various reformist movements that had come and gone before,” now united by “the revolutionary concept that a strong and active government was needed to intercede for the individual citizen as a referee and advocate in the increasingly exploitative relationships people had with big corporations and big city governments, which had agendas that too often ignored the public good.” Many of them were “university-trained, fiercely ambitious intellectuals” who believed — to use a phrase that by now has become hopelessly trite but then seemed fresh and new — that they could change the world.
The names of some of them remain familiar to this day: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Felix Frankfurter, John Foster Dulles and his brother Allen. Herbert Hoover, though he does not seem to have hung around at 1727 19th St. NW — indeed it is difficult to imagine the reserved, humorless Hoover “hanging around” anywhere — was not part of the group, but as a leading apostle of the notion that engineering could conquer all, he was certainly an ally. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., though far older than the others, lived in the neighborhood and “relished ruling over the dinner table debates as both referee and devil’s advocate.” Communism was much in the air at the time but was resisted by these well-dressed young revolutionaries, as was socialism. Lippmann had flirted seriously with it but eventually rejected it:
“In short, if socialism did not produce quick improvements in society, Lippmann was prepared to find another cause to support. In that, he and Frankfurter were like many other Progressives: what was important, essential, was that an idea had to work. Where doctrinaire socialists put their faith in strong central government to improve society, Progressives like Frankfurter and Lippmann argued a faith in the scientific certainty and expert interpretation of statistics to determine social policy. Facts, they believed, were indisputable. All one had to do was gather the facts, the data, the unassailable statistics that were transforming the industrial age in such a dramatic fashion, and the way to broader improvements in any community would be virtually automatic.”