A Fireside Chat with James Roosevelt Jr.
The only thing he has to fear is … that the Bush administration will try again to privatize his grandfather’s Social Security system
Published in 2006 Massachusetts Super Lawyers magazine
on October 23, 2006
Updated on January 23, 2017
When the general counsel of Tufts Health Plan took President Bush to task on the oped page of the Boston Globe in January of 2005 for implying that Franklin Delano Roosevelt would have supported privatization of Social Security, he spoke with uncommon authority. The writer was James Roosevelt Jr., FDR’s grandson.
Jim Roosevelt, 60, has a moon face, an easy laugh, a cluttered office and the clear, firm voice of his grandfather. He’s Rooseveltian, too, in his commitment to pairing service to community with individual accomplishment — he became CEO of Tufts Health in June 2005 — and in championing the principles underpinning what he calls “the most successful program this country has ever had.”
Roosevelt’s views are buttressed by his experience as an associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration under President Clinton. He aggressively guards his grandfather’s legacy from charges by Brit Hume of Fox News and other conservative groups that FDR would have supported President Bush’s privatization plans. Though he never knew his grandfather — having been born six months after he died — Roosevelt is certain that he understands the original philosophy behind Social Security. “[It] is supposed to be a part of an absolutely secure base for retirement that people will know they will have,” he says from his Waltham office. “It’s intended, as my grandfather said, to prevent destitution in retirement or disability or premature death of the wage earner.” The program, he points out, was never intended to make anyone rich. “It is supposed to free up people who have the resources to make riskier investments, but Social Security itself should not be at risk and, therefore, privatization is absolutely inappropriate.”
Roosevelt acknowledges that solvency issues need to be addressed, but with less drastic, fairer measures, and not under what he considers a trumped-up crisis of impending bankruptcy. He cites widely accepted projections showing that even under pessimistic assumptions Social Security can pay full benefits until 2042, and notes that FDR held out against considerable pressure to secure a discrete and inviolable line of funding for the program.
The basic concepts of what became Social Security are outlined in a note his grandfather sent his father in 1933, as the program was being formulated. The note, which Roosevelt keeps in his office, is written on thick, beige paper in elegant handwriting. “The details are different, but the principles are all the same,” he says, bringing it down from its perch to examine more closely. “This is what I call leadership.”
Because he believes that the point of Social Security is to ensure a reasonable standard of living in old age, Roosevelt opposes shifting the basis for calculating benefits. That includes “progressive indexing,” a blend of wage and price indexing, which was proposed by Boston financial executive Robert Pozen and embraced by the White House. “I know Bob Pozen. He was a classmate,” Roosevelt says. “He’s very smart and very honest. We just disagree on this.” He adds with a touch of vindication in his voice, “You’ll notice that he just came out against privatization.”
Current events were regularly discussed in Roosevelt’s home as he grew up. He remembers thinking that all grandmothers wrote a daily newspaper column — Eleanor Roosevelt’s My Day was syndicated nationally from 1935 to 1962 — and he cites his grandmother, who lived until he was a senior in high school, as a major influence. “She felt very strongly about every American’s responsibility to be involved in community and public life in their own way, and she certainly communicated that to her grandchildren. A little more strongly to her female grandchildren, actually, than to her male grandchildren,” adds Roosevelt, approvingly. He’s the father of three daughters himself.
Roosevelt is not the only grandchild who seems to have absorbed this message. One cousin, an economics professor at Sarah Lawrence, has also spoken out against the Bush Social Security proposal. Yet another, a Texas oilman, voiced his support. “We always have diverse views in our family,” Roosevelt notes with a laugh.
Politics ran through Roosevelt’s immediate family. His father was a five-term congressman from California; his sister managed a senatorial re-election campaign for former Illinois senator Paul Simon; his half-brother served on the city council in Long Beach, Calif.; and Roosevelt himself ran for the Massachusetts congressional seat vacated by Tip O’Neill in 1986. He entered a crowded primary and seemed to be in good shape, but ended up losing after Joe Kennedy jumped in at the last minute. “I don’t think I have ever completely lost the [political] bug,” Roosevelt says, “but I’ve expressed it in different ways.”
The family lessons and ideals are evident in his biography: education at Harvard College, Harvard Law School and recently the Advanced Management Program at Harvard Business School; time spent as a Navy JAG (Judge Advocate General’s office); law practices at Boston firms Herrick & Smith (“the first major law firm to break up in Boston”), Nutter, McClennen & Fish, and Choate, Hall & Stewart; and volunteer and leadership positions with the Democratic Party, Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, the Massachusetts Hospital Association and the American Health Lawyers Association, an educational organization.
Early in his legal career, he specialized in the nascent field of health care law. It appeals to him because it touches the lives of most Americans at one time or another. “Health law is fundamentally mission-driven. … I like being a part of that,” he explains.
As CEO of Tufts, Roosevelt is well situated to address a political challenge more immediate and vexing than Social Security reform: providing and paying for health care in America. “I strongly believe that universal coverage is an absolute essential,” he says. “It’s essential for a civilized society, and — this is one thing I’d like to be part of helping business realize — it’s essential for our international competitiveness.” HMOs, with their experience managing health care costs and needs, should be in the middle of that debate. Citing a time last year when there were three health care proposals under consideration in Massachusetts, he adds, “It’s important that this activity take place on the state level because that’s how, in this country, we bring things about on the national level. But ultimately to really be effective, it has to be national.”
In a radio address on the third anniversary of the Social Security Act, FDR said, “We must face the fact that in this country we have a rich man’s security and a poor man’s security and that the government owes equal obligations to both.” Yet in today’s very different political climate, the odds of something seismic, like Social Security or universal health care legislation, being enacted seems remote. Important political or social change is never easily won, Roosevelt notes, but change can happen. Making it clear that he speaks for himself and not for Tufts, he says, “Liberals and Democrats have to learn to emphasize not necessarily big government programs, but a framework on issues that affect average people that advances our society. Liberal means everybody has access to basic health care, and people need to just stand up and redefine that on the political spectrum.”
Sounds like something his grandfather would support.