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OBITUARIES | Robert M. Ball, 1914 - 2008

Head of Social Security under three presidents

January 31, 2008|Joel Havemann and Johanna Neuman | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Robert M. Ball, an indefatigable champion of Social Security who was present practically at its creation in 1935 and rose in the bureaucracy to become its commissioner under three presidents, has died. He was 93.

Ball, a resident of suburban Maryland, died Tuesday night after a brief illness, according to the National Academy of Social Insurance. Ball was the founding chairman of the organization.

Active virtually until his death, Ball was a key player on a package that rescued Social Security from financial ruin in 1983 and as recently as last year was writing alternatives to President Bush's proposal to privatize the program, an approach that Ball abhorred.

"No individual has done more to advance American social insurance programs than Robert M. Ball," said Lawrence Thompson, chairman of the National Academy of Social Insurance.

"He led the Social Security program for more than 20 years, and he has been its most influential and articulate advocate, architect and philosopher."

Even before the first monthly Social Security check was paid ($22.54 to Ida May Fuller of Vermont in 1940), Ball was working as a 25-year-old clerk in the Social Security office in Newark, N.J.

He rose steadily through the bureaucracy to become commissioner of Social Security for Presidents Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon. On his watch, Social Security became the biggest and most popular benefits program.

And, in 1983, when he had already been collecting retirement benefits for four years, he was a key negotiator of the law that rescued Social Security from the brink of insolven- cy.

"We could never have made that compromise without him," former Secretary of State James A. Baker III recalled Tuesday.

Baker, as President Reagan's chief of staff, led the negotiations to rescue Social Security in 1983, often in the basement of his home in Washington, D.C.

Baker represented the White House. Ball represented Democratic House Speaker Tip O'Neill of Massachusetts. "He was very knowledgeable," Baker said. "Serious and imposing."

With the possible exception of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, perhaps no one had been associated with a federal institution as intimately and for so long as Robert M. Ball. He was one of the last of a nearly extinct species: career civil servants who became top policymakers.

Ball met nine presidents during his career, from No. 33 (Harry S. Truman) to No. 42 (Bill Clinton), except No. 38 (Gerald R. Ford). He bristled particularly at the proposals of No. 43, George W. Bush.

"FDR talked about a basic retirement income that would guarantee a certain replacement rate for everybody to build on," Ball said. "For the last 70 years, we've been operating a system that's useful to every American family. Bush's plan now says we'll maintain the benefits promise only for the poor."

Not everyone was enamored of Ball and his ideas, arguing that his adherence to the original principles of the Depression era impeded reform.

"Robert Ball comes from a generation that saw government as a solution to national problems," said Richard Thau, director of Third Millennium, a youth organization backing individual stock accounts.

In an interview with the Associated Press in 1999, Thau argued, "This is a dynamic, not a static, program, and each generation has an obligation to model it according to its needs."

In his biography of Ball, George Washington University historian Edward D. Berkowitz gave him much of the credit for the commission's success.

"No one else," he wrote, "had Ball's combination of interpersonal skills and impersonal knowledge."

Over the years, Ball had a firsthand look at how presidents handled the politics and finances of the popular retirement program.

In 1962, he was appointed by John F. Kennedy as Social Security commissioner, a job that he held not only through Lyndon B. Johnson's Democratic administration but also for the first term of Republican Richard M. Nixon.

In 1972, when he was running for reelection, Nixon supported a 5% benefit increase along with a longtime goal of Ball's -- automatically adjusting benefits in future years to keep pace with inflation. Congress kept the inflation protection, but not before granting a 20% benefit increase for 1972.

Nixon had opposed the 20% raise as unaffordable. Still, his aide Charles Colson got the idea of including in the envelope with the first beefed-up Social Security check an insert crediting Nixon with the increase. Ball threatened to quit and, by implication, go public with the reason, if the White House took the unprecedented step. The White House backed down.

Nixon replaced Ball the next year. Among the framed photos that adorn Ball's office walls is one of him and his wife, Doris, flanking Nixon at Ball's farewell visit to the Oval Office.

"Nixon was terrible at small talk and repeated the same formula over and over," Ball recalled. "As this picture was being taken, he said, 'This is the only time I come between a man and his wife.' "

Ball was born March 28, 1914, in New York City. He earned his undergraduate degree in English and a master's degree in economics at Wesleyan University.

Survivors include two children, Robert Jonathan Ball and Jacqueline Ball Smith.

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joel.havemann@latimes.com

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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