Thursday, April 1, 2010
On September 30, 1933, the sixty-six year old Townsend began his great political adventure with a letter to the Editor of the Long Beach Press Telegram. He then wrote additional letters to several newspapers and began circulating petitions. In February 1934, Townsend formed Old Age Revolving Pensions, Ltd., which spearheaded a national movement for a pension plan. Within fourteen months, there were fourteen thousand Townsend Clubs with memberships ranging from one hundred to seventeen hundred. Publicity surrounding later congressional hearings boosted interest and support in the Townsend Plan to the point that Townsend was able to boast of more than three million supporters and a Weekly with an annual circulation of seventy-five thousand.
On May 20 and 21, 1936, Townsend was questioned before the House Ways and Means Committee. Years later, E.B. White (author of Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Webb) would note that questions had a way of making Townsend “come apart, like an inexpensive toy.” According to White, Townsend’s “whole manner changed” and “it spoiled his afternoon to be asked anything.” In his autobiography, Townsend noted the Committee “removed its mantle of impartiality” and the investigation became a “fake trial” and a “national circus.” After a lunch break on the 21st, he submitted a written statement that accused the Committee of an “unfriendly” and “unfair” attitude and announced that he would “refuse absolutely” to make any more statements. With that, Townsend got out of his chair and left the room. Spectators offered applause and “whoops.”
As Dr. Townsend got closer to actually going to jail, however, he seemed to have a change of heart. On April 17, he was asked again about taking the initiative to request a pardon. This time, Townsend said he did not wish to discuss the matter until he had spoken with his attorney.
On a lighter note, Townsend (who had brought a type writer to jail in order to write a book) suggested that he would miss the standard jail menu items - bacon and beans. Before he returned to sunny California, Townsend met with President Roosevelt to express his gratitude for the pardon. The meeting was originally scheduled for five minutes, but lasted a full half an hour. The aged and relatively dim-witted Townsend evidently duped the President of the United States into a discussion about policy.