The last time Rex Tugwell appeared at a public dinner in Washington was at a reunion of New Dealers in 1977 to commemorate Franklin D. Roosevelt's first inaugural. He had simply "joined" the program that had been put together by disciples of Justice Brandeis with whom he had jousted in the early days of the New Deal. He had written President Carter, he said by way of introduction, to tell the president what he ought to do and he had received a reply from "some fellow named Watson." It clearly irked him that Carter did not consider a letter from one of Roosevelt's key brain trusters worthy of a personal reply. The slight was deliberates;; no member of the Carter administration, young or old, put in an appearance at the dinner, and Vice President Mondale, who had agreed to speak, suddenly found it urgently necessary to go fishing in Minnesota.
The dinner honored Benjamin V. Cohen, who was introduced by Thomas Corcoran. They had been the chief apostles of Justice Brandels in New Deal Washington and had succeeded Tugwell and Raymond Moley as chief intellectual counsellors to Roosevelt. "Patching was all the [later] New Dealers knew how to do," Tugwell commented, "or, at any rate, all that their enemies, as they regained their strength would let them do." Echoes of this old and still relevant controversy between trustbusters and national planners reverberated in Tugwell's remarks that evening and no doubt his letter to tcarter reflected his own lifelong commitment to national planning.
That commitment began as a student of Simon Patten at the Wharton School of Business. Patten preached the economics of abundance, and national planning as the way to spread its fruits. Antedating that however, was Tugwell's passion for social justice that was reflected in youthful verses including one Whitmanesque line that rose to haunt him in the 1930s - "I shall roll up my sleeves - make America over."
His interest in planning took him to Soviet Russia in 1927 to take a look at its "experiment of running industry without the mechanism of business." It did, indeed, interest him, but like John Dewey, another visitor to the Soviet Union that year, he was an experimentalist in method with a faith in reason as the tool with which to shape the future. Marxism as a faith and ideology repelled him. It was one of Roosevelt's fascinations with him that he always the experimenter, at one point counseling his counselor, "You'll have to learn that public life takes a lot of sweat, but it doesn't need to worry you. You won't always be right, but you mustn't suffer from being wrong. That's what kills people like us."
His own opportunity to put some of his ideas into action began when Columbia colleague Raymond Moley invited him and A. A. Berle to travel to Albany to brief Roosevelt, then governor of New York and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency on the economic issues confronting the country. There were sessions on the veranda of the executive mansion followed, as summer yielded to colder weather, by evenings of talk in front of the fireplace. "Everything I saw and heard" Tugwell wrote in one of the most perceptive books ever written about the presidency, "The Democratic Roosevelt," "was merged in an impression of vitality." The brain trust threw out ideas - Tugwell's related mostly to the "social management" of American agriculture and industry - and hoped they were finding some lodgment in the governor's mind. They did. The brain trust became the nucleus of Roosevelt's speech-writing team and, on his election, its members stayed to plan the transition.
Roosevelt came to power as the mighty American economy had almost ground to a halt. "We can experiment now," was Tugwell's view, "and we ought to do it before it is too late. Otherwise we are surely committed to revolution." Roosevelt felt the same way, perhaps even more strongly. When Tugwell in a moment of gloom remarked to him that they were in for the worst of times the country had ever known economically, Roosevelt replied "with mingled dread and exhilaration, "Yes, I know it, but there is nothing to do but meet every day's troubles as they come. What terrible decision we'll have to make, and sometimes we'll be wrong!" "
To an extraordinary degree, the legislation enacted in the "100 days" reflected Tugwell's philosophy of a "managed society." National planning, Tugwell felt, was the only way by which "the private collectivism created by the new technology" could be "reliably honest to the public interest." The National Industrial Act was the capstone of the edifice. It had as a companion piece the Agricultural Adjustment Act. By the end of Roosevelt's first term, the heyday of the planners was over and the Brandeisians, led by Corcoran and Cohen, became more influential in the New Deal. But Roosevelt never gave up the concept of a planned economy, never really abandoned the NRA dream of directing the economy through some kind of central economic mechanism.
Another dream that Tugwell shared with Roosevelt was of a new America, "a land in order, wisely used, with the hills green and the streams blue." Harold Ickes tried to persuade him to become under secretary of interior in charge of its conservation activities, and Roosevelt did put him in charge of the Resettlement Administration aimed at the reduction of rural poverty and reclamation of submarginal land. Under his imaginative leadership the agency sponsored cooperative-farming projects, green-belt towns, subsistence homesteads. It was close to Roosevelt's heart, as he showed when the issue arose over whether rural housing put up by the government should have indoor bathrooms. "There's no reason why these country people shouldn't have plumbing," Roosevelt told Tugwell. But try as the resettlement people did to get plumbing "within an economic budget," they could not manage it. Tugwell went over to the White House to inform "the Boss," that "if he has his plumbing he's got to let us subsidize it." He was gone all morning. His aides, sure that momentous matters of state were under discussion, impatiently awaited his return. What had kept him? they wanted to know. He had explained their difficulty with fitting a bathroom into a house that the homesteaders could pay for, he related. Roosevelt thereupon had picked up a pad and begun to draw privies. The presidential anteroom was crowded with ambassadors, bankers and politicians and the president had spent the morning drawing privies, reported Tugwell.
By the end of Roosevelt's first term, Tugwell had become a marked man politically. "Let Tugwell get one of those raccoon coats that the college boys wear at a football game," said Al Smith, "and Let him go to Russia, sit on a cake of ice and plan all he wants." He left Washington to become head of Mayor LaGuardia's city planning commission and later, during the war, became governor of Puerto Rico where he redirected American policy away from the sugar interest to the popular forces led by Munoz Marin. He thereby set American relations with this island dependency - which might have become another Cuba - on a relatively harmonious course. The country has reason to be grateful to him for this if for no other reason.
But who knows? He died as Americans, shaken by the fuel prices and the first tremors of resources depletion, were again looking for answers. They might even look at that ideologically taboo concept, national planning. CAPTION: Picture, no caption