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Winant, John G.

John Gilbert Winant: First Chairman of the Social Security Board

By Larry DeWitt, SSA Historian, May 1999

Ed. Note: This entry is excerpted from a longer report written by Larry DeWitt.  The full report can be seen by visiting: Gilbert Winant, 1943[View Image]
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John Gilbert Winant, 1943
Photo: Public Domain

Introduction: When President Roosevelt asked John G. Winant to become the first head of the new Social Security Board (SSB) in 1935, Winant had already distinguished himself in public life as a three-term governor of New Hampshire and first American member of the International Labor Organization. He would go on to serve with distinction as the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain during World War II. In between, Winant served two terms as Chairman of the SSB, the first from August 1935 until September 1936, and the second from November 1936 until February 1937. This was the crucial founding period of the Social Security program and as the first head of the SSB Winant was instrumental in the early work of creating the organization that would carry-out the new Social Security Act.

A Thread-Bare Aristocrat

John Gilbert Winant (known as Gil to his close friends) was born on New York City’s fashionable East Side into an upper middle class family. His father, a descendant of Dutch immigrants who had been in America for over 300 years, was a partner in a real estate firm and for most of Gil’s childhood his home would have one or two live-in servants in residence. The Winant’s were not rich, but they were prosperous, and socially they were on the fringes of “high society.” Young Gil was a poor student, whose main intellectual interest was an abiding love of biography, especially political biography. Abraham Lincoln was his life-long idol. He fancied himself Lincolnesque, and delighted when others made such a comparison. He recalled being moved also by the novels of Charles Dickens, especially Dickens’ depictions of the injustices and cruelties of the Industrial Revolution and the world of commerce.

Strangely enough, the major shaping influence of his early life was academic, in the form of St. Paul’s preparatory school in Concord, New Hampshire. Although a poor student at St. Paul’s, it was here that Winant discovered his gift as a natural leader who could inspire and persuade others with the force of his personality. Winant became a student leader at St. Paul’s, with the help and encouragement of the Head Master. Although he would repeatedly fail his final exams and graduate a year late, and although he dropped out of Princeton once due to failing grades, he would eventually get a degree and be hired as a Master at St. Paul’s-this very poor student’s first job being that of a teacher.

Winant loved St. Paul’s because it was a thoroughly impractical school, whose only function was to prepare students to enter Princeton or Harvard or Yale. It concentrated on learning in an ideal way, without any concerns for training its young charges for a career. This suited Winant fine. He was, above all, an impractical idealist. And St. Paul’s was the only place and time in his life in which Winant was ever fully happy. As a young Master at the unworldly St. Paul’s, Winant lived on a meager salary, a thread-bare aristocrat moving in upper class society without any real wherewithal to support such a lifestyle. This would be a pattern which would haunt him throughout his life.

Winant was sober, serious, quiet, unassuming, idealistic and passionate about the causes of social justice. He cared little for the practicalities of money; he was indifferent to food, often forgetting to eat; and his Brooks Brothers suits were often rumpled. His wife could not have been more different. She was from a genuinely wealthy family and her main interests in life were the social circuit, society, the gaming tables and kennel club dog shows. She was indifferent to social causes and cared nothing for politics or government. When Winant resigned as Chairman of the SSB, the top executives there held a going away party for him. Mrs. Winant declined to attend. The snub was not unusual.

Winant’s glancing acquaintance with financial management sometimes led to embarrassing difficulties. During his tenure as Board Chairman, Winant rented a large house in a fashionable section of Georgetown. Once during his tenure he found himself unable to make the rent and he had to borrow the savings of his English maid, Orol Mears, to forestall eviction. He had already taken thousands in loans on his extensive life insurance holdings, only to lose them all when he could not keep up the payments.

A life-long tee-totaler, Winant began drinking in the final years of his life as a deepening depression turned his normally brooding personality into something darker and more destructive.

A Progressive Governor

As a young Master at St. Paul’s, Winant soon became involved in local and state politics and was elected to the state legislature in 1916 where he became the leader of the progressive wing of the Republican party. This was an era where child labor was still common, the work week was 55 hours and women could not vote. Winant surprised fellow legislators when, as a freshman, he introduced legislation to restrict the workweek for women and children to 48 hours, to support universal suffrage, to regulate wage standards and to abolish capital punishment. Winant failed utterly in his efforts to enact his legislative agenda, but his forceful advocacy of these positions brought him to the attention of the liberal factions in his party and soon moved him into position as the de facto leader of the progressives.

When the Democrats won the governorship in New Hampshire in 1922, for the first time in nearly 70 years, the Republicans realized they needed a candidate who could tap into the growing sentiment for political reform. Winant, as the leader of the progressive wing of his party, was ideally placed for this role and in 1924 was elected Governor on his first try for state-wide office.

In some ways Winant was out-of-sync with highly conservative New Hampshire and with a nation which brought Calvin Coolidge into office in the same election. He was, it is fair to say, ahead of his time. New Hampshire, and the nation, would not be ready for Winant’s liberal reforms until the coming of the New Deal. During his first term he advanced public works projects, reformed bank laws to protect depositors, restrained the power of the railroads and expanded the power of the Public Service Commission to regulate utility companies-an agenda which was very much in the tradition of that earlier leader of Republican progressives, Theodore Roosevelt. New Hampshire had a tradition of a single-term for its governors. Winant would break this mold, serving three terms.

As Governor, Winant displayed the traits that would characterize his whole life, especially his prodigious passion for his work. “Easily the State’s most indefatigable Chief Executive of the twentieth century, Winant drove himself mercilessly from the day he entered the State House. He made himself available to everyone who came into his office, disrupting his official schedule and private life . . .” And his early work habits foreshadowed the problems which would plague him throughout his life. “Winant had little sense of timing for eating, sleeping or family responsibilities, rarely stopping for a hot meal or a leisurely break during long, exhausting work days. He became totally immersed in administrative decisions and, at times, with the personal problems of troubled visitors. He often left a darkened State House late at night and arrived home in time to encounter guests leaving through the front portico of his rambling, white house. Exhilarated by increasing responsibilities, the Governor frequently overlooked commitments to his wife to host a houseful of dinner guests.” (1)

As a loyal Republican, Winant supported Coolidge and then Hoover, but as the Depression took hold in New Hampshire he became increasingly impatient with Hoover’s restrained response and increasingly in sympathy with the viewpoints of his neighboring Governor, Franklin Roosevelt of New York. After FDR’s election, Winant became an early supporter of the New Deal programs. New Hampshire was the first state to fill its enrollment quota for the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first to cooperate with the National Planning Board and was way ahead of most of the nation in securing relief funds for the state.

In his own re-election campaign in 1930, Winant would articulate a political philosophy remarkably similar to that which FDR would come to embrace: “There is want in the land today and men who know the dignity of labor are idle. When we turn into the new year and the sweep of winter winds and hunger and cold crowd in upon many a home, let those of us who plan to take on the duties of office and administer public funds see to it that the stigma of the pauper is never laid upon the consciousness of the willing worker, who asks help for wife and child because the wheels of industry have ceased to turn and there is no work abroad. We must plan to meet these great cycles of depression and manfully provide against them so that the poverty may be no part of modern civilization. That is the great task that confronts the American people today.” (2)

Winant’s early embrace of the New Deal, and his general philosophical agreement with FDR, positioned him for a role in the Roosevelt Administration. The call would soon come.

The First Advisory Council
Winant during his tenure on Social Security Board [View Image]Winant during his tenure on Social Security Board
Photo: SSA History Archives, donated by Maurine Mulliner.

Winant’s formal involvement with Social Security started before there was a Social Security program, with the work of the Committee on Economic Security (CES) in late 1934. The CES was the cabinet-level group FDR chartered in June 1934 to “study problems relating to the economic security of individuals and . . . report to the President not later than December 1, 1934, its recommendations concerning proposals which in its judgment will promote greater economic security.” The CES consisted of an Executive Committee of five cabinet-level officials (under the chairmanship of Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins), an Executive Director (Professor Edwin Witte of the University of Wisconsin), a Technical Board (headed by Arthur Altmeyer) which was composed of about 100 technical experts from within existing Federal agencies and an Advisory Council composed of prominent persons from outside of the federal government.

It was the Technical Board which did the intellectual “heavy lifting” of researching and designing the Administration’s Social Security proposal. It was the Executive Committee which had the political and decision making responsibility. The 20-member Advisory Council included representatives of business, labor and the public. President Roosevelt personally made the selections for the Council and John Winant was the only governmental official to be appointed.

The role of the Council was limited and Winant was not a major player in its work. To be frank, the role of the Council was largely symbolic and Winant’s presence on the Council was itself more symbolic than substantial. The Advisory Council was appointed to give an imprimatur of wide-spread support to the work of the CES. And Winant was appointed to the Council because of his stature as a leading progressive Republican and strong supporter of the New Deal. There was no doubt, however, that Winant did strongly support the work of the CES and was very much in agreement with the program it developed. Winant’s membership on the first Advisory Council established him as the most prominent Republican politician with a connection to the new Social Security program.

The International Labor Organization

The International Labor Organization (ILO) was the only major part of the old League of Nations to survive into the modern era of the United Nations. It was a leading force in a movement in the early decades of the 20th century on behalf of greater economic opportunity and justice for the working classes of the world. The ILO was part the Treaty of Versailles, drafted by a Commission chaired by the American labor leader Samuel Gompers. It featured a unique tripartite structure with representatives of governments, labor organizations and business. Washington was the host city for the ILO’s first international meeting in 1919, but because of American antipathy toward the League of Nations, the U.S. declined to participate in the ILO until 1934. (In 1939 Winant would become the first American to head the ILO.)

In October 1934, as Winant was finishing his third term as Governor and was looking to expand his horizons, President Roosevelt recommended him to be the first American representative to the ILO. The ILO Director, Britain’s Harold Butler, readily agreed, with the aim of grooming Winant to become his successor. For his part, Winant had a deep sympathy with the aims of the ILO and he admired the ILO’s success in raising the living standards of workers throughout the world. But New Hampshire Republicans wanted him to be their senatorial candidate in 1936 and many in the party had begun touting him as a potential presidential candidate. FDR even suggested to Winant that he could have an appointment to the National Labor Relations Board or to the proposed Social Security Board. But Winant was not ready to plunge into national politics. He believed in the cause of international world peace and economic justice and he saw the ILO as an opportunity to be of service in the larger arena he was seeking.

Winant had been indirectly associated with the international labor movement through the American Association for Labor Legislation (AALL), of which he was an officer. The AALL was one of the agents behind the push for social insurance in America. In the U.S., social insurance was fed by three great intellectual streams: the social work movement, out of which Frances Perkins emerged; the social insurance theorists, such as I.M. Rubinow and Abe Epstein; and the labor legislation movement, which had its center around the University of Wisconsin and the work of John R. Commons, out of which emerged Ed Witte, Arthur Altmeyer and Wilbur Cohen. The labor legislation movement took organizational form in the AALL. So Winant, a progressive Republican sympathetic to the New Deal, was also associated with the emerging social insurance movement, which would culminate with the passage of the Social Security Act.

In April, 1935 Winant sailed for Geneva, on the same day that Father Charles Coughlin held a massive rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden to denounce Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Father Coughlin, who had been an early supporter of FDR, had turned against him by 1935, accusing him of insufficient revolutionary zeal and referring to him as “Franklin Double-Crossing Roosevelt.”

Starting-Up Social Security

Winant was in Geneva for barely four months when FDR began lobbying him to return to the U.S. to accept the post of Chairman of the Social Security Board. But in those four short months he managed to get the ILO Conference to commit to the 40-hour work week as an international standard-a goal which had eluded him for 10 years in New Hampshire.

But FDR wanted him back home. The Social Security Act had created a three-person Board (the SSB) as the organization which would administer the new law, and it required that the Board be bi-partisan, with no more than two members being from the same political party.(3) FDR immediately thought of Winant, not just as the Republican member, but as Chairman of the Board. Roosevelt and Frances Perkins began lobbying Winant to accept the position even before the bill had cleared the Congress. On the day FDR signed the Act, Winant cabled his acceptance to Frances Perkins. The Senate confirmed his nomination on August 23rd and John G. Winant became the first Chairman of the SSB.

Winant was chosen by FDR because he wanted a sympathetic Republican to lead the Board. Frances Perkins supported his selection because she thought he could provide the philosophical leadership she knew the new program would need to succeed. For his part, Winant accepted because he had a strong sense of duty and could not decline an opportunity to make what he believed to be a significant contribution to social justice.This is the first meeting of the Social Security Board, September 14, 1935. Left to right: Arthur J. Altmeyer, John G. Winant (Chairman), and Vincent M. Miles.[View Image]
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This is the first meeting of the Social Security Board, September 14, 1935. Left to right: Arthur J. Altmeyer, John G. Winant (Chairman), and Vincent M. Miles.
Photo: SSA History Archives

Joining Winant on the SSB was Vincent Miles, a former Democratic party official from Arkansas and Arthur Altmeyer. Frank Bane was selected as the Executive Director and Henry Seidemann as Coordinator for the SSB. Altmeyer, Winant and Bane, formed a trio of like-minded administrators, with Miles as the odd man out. (Seidemann would also become a fifth-wheel.) In theory, the three voting members of the Board would set policy and Bane, as a kind of chief operating officer, would be responsible for the nuts and bolts of carrying it out.

In practical terms, all of the important work of setting up the new organization took place in that first year-and-a-half when Winant was SSB Chairman. A system of 12 regional offices was created and their Directors appointed. Seventy-seven field offices were opened by January 1937. The record keeping systems were devised and put in place in Baltimore’s Candler Building and a massive enumeration effort was designed and successfully carried out, with over 23 million SSNs established. Payroll tax withholding started on schedule on January 1, 1937. State plans for the non-Title II programs were reviewed and approved. The first batch of claims for Title II old age benefits had been received and adjudicated and more than $215 million had been disbursed under the Act’s various provisions by the time Winant left the Board. Much of the credit for these nuts-and-bolts accomplishments has to go to Altmeyer and Bane, who were the real administrators at the SSB. But as Chairman, Winant deserves credit for much of the tenor and direction of the early SSB and for the wisdom and sound judgment of supporting Altmeyer and Bane in their efforts.

In February 1937, just days before Winant’s final resignation, a story in the New York Times magazine would capture the atmosphere of this exciting period in Social Security history:

“That old Labor Building-yellow brick on the outside, slovenly as to paint, smelling of mingled heat, stale cigars and disinfectant, not quite scrubbed clean-is very busy these days. It has not room enough for the whole central organization, and, while the board members themselves are there, some officers have spilled into other buildings, so that a man invited to ‘step in’ to see a superior for a moment may find he must walk blocks. . . Hatless men rush in and out, fume at the slowness of elevators, dart down corridors and up the fire stairs. The newly functioning press room is as busy as a bucket of minnows. The responsible heads of bureaus, like the members of the Board, are hard to see because almost any engagement may be broken by a sudden conference . . .The head of all this bedlam is a quiet scholarly and slow-spoken person which conceals extraordinary competence and a burning passion for social justice under an almost painful shyness. John Winant’s thick black hair covers his head like a frontiersman’s cap. His dark eyes gaze out from deep sockets set under black brows. His speech hesitates, hunts for the word in a poet’s way, comes in rushes. As he talks he winds long legs about the rungs of his chair.” (4)

Some Early Decisions

The first and most vexing challenge the SSB faced was the issue of political patronage. For much of American history it was commonplace for jobs in the government to be dispensed based on political patronage. In fact, one of the legacies of the New Deal was that FDR made at least a half-measure move toward a professional civil service. And the Social Security Board was one of the very first agencies in the modern era to be staffed solely on the basis of merit. But within the Board, Vincent Miles was constantly pushing for political appointees; and members of Congress exerted a similar pressure. Only by voting as a block were Winant and Altmeyer able to block Miles and the pressure for patronage. Miles could not understand why the Board was not appointing “good Democrats” to fill its ranks; after all, that’s how it had always been done. And members of Congress were not used to being told “no” when it came to patronage. Senator Carter Glass (D-VA) once asked Frank Bane to appoint one of his constituents to a job for which she was not qualified. When Bane rebuffed the suggestion, Glass had a rider inserted on the SSB appropriation bill reducing Frank Bane’s salary by 5 percent.

In one instance the Board was unable to keep politics out of its decisions. When the Board’s 1937 appropriations request was being considered, the hearings before the House Appropriations Committee did not go well. Henry Seidemann was the chief budget witness and he was unable to adequately answer some probing questions from Committee Chairman James Buchanan (D-TX). The problem was that all the Board’s budget estimates were just best-guesses since the agency was just starting and all its activities were unprecedented. The Board thought Congress should give them leeway until actual operational experience was gained and more rigorous budget requests could be formulated. But Chairman Buchanan was impatient and he signaled his intention to significantly cut the Board’s request. When Winant learned of this, he paid a personal visit to the Chairman with the hope of dissuading him from the cuts. Winant learned to his dismay that Buchanan intended budget cuts of up to 25 percent in some areas. But it soon became clear that the Chairman had a quid pro quo in mind. He offered to go easy on the budget request if the SSB would agree to place one of its 12 regional offices in his hometown of Austin, Texas. Put on the spot, Winant agreed. The problem was that the Board had already selected San Antonio, Texas for the southwest regional site and had appointed a Regional Director, Oscar Powell, whose own hometown was San Antonio. Winant reported to Frank Bane what he had done and pleaded with Bane to somehow repair the damage. Bane went back to the Chairman and eventually worked out a deal whereby the regional office would stay in San Antonio but the Board would agree to place the first field office in Austin. And that is how SSA’s first field office came to be opened in Austin, Texas, on October 14, 1936.

Wilbur Cohen, who was Altmeyer’s personal assistant in the early years, recounted an anecdote of how Winant and Altmeyer operated in those early days. He told of entering Winant’s office and finding Altmeyer and Winant on the floor on their hands and knees surrounded by hundreds of 3×5 index cards on which names of potential office managers were written. They were personally selecting every field office manager hired by the Board in the early months. Years later Winant, when Maurine Mulliner was talking with him about how successful some of the early executives were, would observe, “Yes, well I would expect that of Henry (Aronson) and of all those other people in key positions because, you know, we employed them for their character.” (5)

One key decision on which Altmeyer and Winant were in unusual disagreement concerned the system for reporting earnings. Early on Altmeyer became convinced that a stamp book system like those in use in Europe was the best plan. Under the stamp book system workers would have a stamp book, rather like a bank passbook, in which their employees would place stamps indicating covered earnings. The stamp book could then be presented as proof of earnings when filing a claim. The Treasury Department was opposed to the stamp book approach, preferring the standard employer reporting system which was eventually adopted. Several times Altmeyer tried to push the stamp proposal through the Board but a cautious Winant blocked action and eventually Altmeyer gave in.

The biggest challenge the Board faced was the enumeration effort. (6) Tax collections and lump-sum benefit payments were to start on January 1, 1937. Twenty-six million workers and two million employers would have to be issued account numbers before that drop-dead date. The length of time from the passage of the Act in August 1935, to the start of program operations, was almost 16 months–which would seem to be plenty of time for a well-paced enumeration effort. But the Board’s delays and indecisions resulted in the enumeration effort being one of SSA’s most heroic early achievements, since the actual distribution of SS-5 application forms did not start until November 24, 1936. The problem was the Board could not decide when to do the enumeration, how to do it, or who should do it. Altmeyer wanted to deliberately delay enumeration until after the 1936 elections. There was controversy about enumeration in those days, and he feared the process would become part of an unproductive political debate. Miles thought the practicalities required the work to start as soon as possible. Winant, typically, was undecided. More problematic were the questions of who and how. A whole series of false starts ensued. A consultant hired by the Board estimated it would take 16,000 employees to do the job and recommended that the SSB not try to do it but contract the function out to the U.S. Employment Service (USES) of the Department of Labor, which had a national network of field offices. The Board’s European expert recommended the effort be postponed until January 1, 1937 and then accomplished in a single day (it was not clear how).

In March of 1936 the Board appointed a committee to study the problem. The committee started work in March 1936, convening a meeting with other Federal agencies in hopes they would be helpful.(7) The committee decided that two enumerations would be needed, first one of employers and then one of employees. And they urgently recommended that it be done “as rapidly as administratively possible.” By late April 1936 the committee had settled on an approach in which the USES would do the enumeration in its district offices and the SSB would open its own district offices in the same space as the USES offices to facilitate the coordination of the work. However, in private discussions between Winant and the head of the USES in early May, it became clear USES was not willing to play this role. For one reason or another the other Federal agencies also declined to cooperate, so the Committee recommended to the Board in May 1936 that the agency carry out its own enumeration effort. Winant then left on an extended European trip to survey social insurance systems abroad and was gone from mid-May to late July.

Winant had his own ideas for approaching this project. He wanted to hire a prominent executive from the private sector and give him the responsibility for designing and carrying out the effort. Throughout the early summer of 1936 he courted Mr. O’Neil of the Equitable Life Insurance Company. O’Neil was coy about taking the job, finally agreeing he would do so only if the President personally asked him to. Winant passed the request to the White House but the President’s Secretary, Marvin McIntyre, was the one who placed the phone call. This so offended O’Neil’s sense of self-importance that he refused the job. While all this was going on, the Board postponed any decisions.

Finally on June 5, 1936, the Board decided that the SSB would in fact conduct the enumeration. Only three days earlier it had settled on the nine-digit account number scheme. The Board authorized the opening of 89 district offices and 469 branch offices, of which 202 would be designated as enumeration centers. These offices were to be open and operating by mid-October. The proposed enumeration centers would cover only 67% of the country, so the Board began negotiating with the Post Office to assist in the non-covered areas. By September it was clear that the SSB would fail in its efforts to open its 500+ offices (in fact, only 77 offices were opened by January 1937). It formally asked the Post Office to take over the job, but the Post Office refused. Winant personally went to President Roosevelt and persuaded him to order the Post Office’s participation, which he did. So on September 15, 1936, the actual plan for the first enumeration was finally agreed to. It called for the Post Office, employers and labor unions to distribute the SS-4 employer and SS-5 employee application forms, for the forms to be returned to the Post Office and the account numbers typed and assigned by Post Office employees in 1,074 postal typing centers around the country. The completed SSN record would then be forwarded to Baltimore for recording in the SSB’s master files. And this is how the enumeration was actually carried out. (The Post Office continued to be the Social Security program’s enumerator until July 1937 when the SSB finally had enough field offices in place to take over the responsibility.)

Winant did not intend to return to the SSB after his first resignation in September 1936, but FDR personally asked him to do so to break the log-jam in decision making which had settled on the Board in his absence. Altmeyer and Miles were too often at opposite ends of whatever issue was at hand, and Winant had often been the deciding vote, tipping the balance toward Altmeyer’s position. Soon after Winant’s return, however, Miles absented himself from Board deliberations, claiming illness which left him bedridden. Technically, two members could make binding decisions, but the tradition had been to make sure all three members voted on significant matters and Winant was unwilling to violate this tradition. Matters finally came to such an impasse that Winant dispatched Frank Bane to Miles’ sick room where Bane painstakingly went over every outstanding issue and obtained Miles’ vote.

One problem Winant had to personally solve after his return was a problem he created in the earliest days of the Board’s operations. Unable to agree with his fellow Board members on the selection of an Executive Director, Winant hired two people for essentially the same job: Frank Bane of the American Public Welfare Association and Henry Seidemann from the Brookings Institution (where Winant was on the Board of Directors). Bane, Altmeyer and Miles’ candidate, was designated as Executive Director and Seidemann, Winant’s preference, as Coordinator for the Board. One of them was destined to be a fifth wheel and that fate befell Seidemann. Bane was a good practical administrator. Seidemann was more of a theoretician who spent his time devising plans and schemes and offering grand designs for building the organization. As the months unfolded, the situation became increasingly strained and when the Acting Director of the Bureau of Old-Age Insurance, Murray Latimer, resigned to return to the Railroad Retirement Board, Seidemann was moved into the Bureau Director job. This was a major misstep, given Seidemann’s skills and interests, since the Bureau Director was the primary operational manager for the entire organization. It soon became clear this assignment would not work. On Winant’s return in December 1936, one of his first tasks was to engineer Seidemann’s graceful exit. He spent an agonizing day drafting version after version of Seidemann’s resignation letter and his own acceptance letter, insisting his secretary tear up rejected drafts and flush them down the toilet so no one would learn about them before he had talked with Seidemann.

A Balancing Force

As an administrator, Winant was pretty much a disaster. He rarely managed to keep an appointment on time. His office hours were erratic and unpredictable. Paperwork piled up around him. His filing system often consisted of papers stuffed in his pockets. During the War, his staff was constantly disconcerted by the spectacle of Winant wandering around London with top secret cables and papers bulging out of his coat pockets.

Winant was known to agonize for hours, sometimes days, over a single decision, and then after having made it, reversing himself the next day and starting the process all over again. Frank Bane told of frequently being awakened in the middle of the night as Winant was calling to talk about some decision he was struggling with, or which he wanted to second-guess.

Despite Winant’s shortcomings as an administrator, he was an effective leader. He was an inspirational leader, a visionary, of the type organizations need in their founding era. Frank Bane said of him, “. . . here was a man who greatly impressed you upon first acquaintance. He radiated sincerity, a consuming and almost painful interest in public problems and in people. You sensed immediately that here was a man with enormous capacity for leadership.” (8)

His partnership with Altmeyer and Bane proved to be just the right mix of talents the new organization needed. Winant and Altmeyer were visionaries. Altmeyer paired his visionary zeal with sound administrative skills. Winant paired his with a political acumen and with the ability to inspire others. Frank Bane, in the words of the Board’s Executive Secretary, Maurine Mulliner, “was a great harmonizer” who could bridge differences and broker amiable compromises. Bane was also a master at public relations and public speaking, areas in which both Altmeyer and Winant were uncomfortable.

The contrast between Altmeyer and Winant was stark, yet complimentary. Altmeyer was cool, cerebral, and impersonal. He once said of himself, “A successful administrator is about as interesting to the public as cold spinach.” Winant was passionate, with a smoldering emotional intensity. For him, every public policy issue was personal; it was about people, sometimes specific individuals, and the effect of the policy on them. He personalized virtually every decision he had to make, which is one of the reasons that decisions came so hard. Altmeyer engendered respect and admiration. Winant evoked loyalty and devotion.

Maurine Mulliner could succinctly sum up the contrast:
“Mr. Winant was a gentleman who needed for his own comfort to look at every facet of a policy issue. He wanted to turn it over, look at every angle, explore it, have it discussed . . . Mr. Winant was a highly sensitive, introspective philosopher who was politically oriented toward public service and extremely shrewd in his political sensitivities. . . He was an idealist . . . Mr. Winant was a most slow reader, and he didn’t like to learn by reading; he liked to have people sit down and talk with him about things. Mr. Altmeyer could comprehend what was on a page just about as rapidly as he turned over that page. It was much easier for him to reach decisions quickly. . . Mr. Altmeyer, I think, for the most part, would have been quite happy to read through the documentations the bureau director sent to him, write yes or no on it, and send it back.” (9)

Winant made strong first impressions on people. Mulliner, who was a Congressional staffer when Winant hired her, vividly recalled her first meeting with him:
“So when I picked up the phone this day I was surprised to hear a very gentle voice say, ‘Hello, this is Mr. Winant. . . And he said, ‘I would like to talk with you . . . would it be convenient for you to come down now?’ So I hung up the telephone, and I remember I simply raced. I picked up a copy of the Social Security Act, my pocketbook, didn’t even stop to put my hat on, took it in my hand, raced out the Senate Office Building into a taxicab, down to the Department of Labor where Governor Winant and a few people who were on the staff had their offices, and waited the usual hour-and-a-half in his reception room before he was free to see me. I knew afterwards that this was characteristic of him; he was always running behind schedule. Then when he was free, I was told I could go in. And it was one of those large offices in the Labor Department Building. I walked to the door and his desk was quite a way away from the door, and he got up and walked around the desk toward me. I first was rather startled by his bushy eyebrows; he had quite a Lincolnesque look-tall and thin and that lock of hair over the forehead and very bushy eyebrows. As he walked toward me around the desk, I thought to myself, why this man could hypnotize me if he tried. There was a such a magnetic quality about his personality. We sat down in easy chairs and he never once asked one fact about me, about my education, about my experience. He talked only about members of the House and the Senate. After the interview was over, I realized how much he must have learned about what I believed and what I thought about public issues and government legislation from the way I had discussed the various members of the House and Senate he’d brought up for discussion.” (10)

Thomas Eliot, who was hired by Winant to be the Board’s first General Counsel, recounted a moment during his job interview with Winant which he never forgot, and which reveals a lot about Winant: “He suddenly asked me, in what I called his ‘hushified’ manner, what single quality was most important for a person in public office to have. Taken aback, I answered rather tentatively, ‘Well, integrity I suppose, and intelligence.’ He shook his head and uttered one word: ‘Kindness.’ “ (11)

Shortly after Winant’s death, Frank Bane would sum him up this way:

“He was, at one and the same time, one of the most effective and ineffective men I have ever known. He was, at the same time, one of the worst and one of the best speakers I have ever know. He was, at the same time, one of the most exasperating and one of the most delightful and stimulating people to work with that I have ever known. He was a wealthy man but always broke. He was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, one of the great characters in American public life during the past twenty years, and few people have made as significant an impression upon government, as it should be, as did Governor Winant. In my book of memories and experiences, if I had to discard all save one, the Winant memory and experience would be the one that I would keep.” (12)

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): DeWitt, L.W. (2012). John Gilbert Winant: First chairman of the Social Security Board. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved from

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