The Poet in Congress: John S. McGroarty of California

By Ray Hill
“One of the countless drawbacks of being in Congress is that I am compelled to receive impertinent letters from a jackass like you in which you say I promised to have the Sierra Madre mountains reforested and I have been in Congress two months and haven’t done it.  Will you please take two running jumps and go to hell.”  – Letter to an impatient constituent from Congressman John S. McGroarty.

Only the saintliest of those who have held public office has not wanted to reply to a demanding constituent as did John S. McGroarty.  Yet when he died, the San Bernadino Daily Sun referred to the former congressman as a “gentle soul.”  McGroarty was frequently described as kindly but colorful.  The editorial also noted McGroarty was “first of all a poet.”  Yet John Steven McGroarty was a man of many talents.  A gifted writer who profoundly appreciated the natural beauty of Southern California, McGroarty authored a mission play still performed to this day.  In his long life, John S. McGroarty wore many professional hats, moving from Pennsylvania to Montana where he worked for the Anaconda Mining interests as an executive.  In 1901 McGroarty moved to Los Angeles where he spent the rest of his life.  McGroarty wrote for the Los Angeles Times and in his spare time penned books and plays and at one time was the chief editorial writer for the newspaper.  McGroarty’s views on race endeared him to Los Angeles’ Black community.  John McGroarty also found the time to edit the West Coast Magazine.  Historian, playwright, poet, writer, and politician, John McGroarty was not only a busy fellow but also a man of many interests.  McGroarty’s “The Mission Play” was estimated to have been seen by 2.5 million people in 3,500 performances by the time John McGroarty died in 1944.  McGroarty’s regular column was entitled “From the Green Verdugo Hills” which ran regularly in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times for twenty-eight years.

Author and critic Henry Van Dyke once wrote, “It remains for a Pennsylvanian and a Celt, a poet and historian, to tell the story of California as it should be told.  This he has done in his Mission Play – – – which stands as the greatest of all the world’s pageant dramas.”

McGroarty built a wood and stone house, Rancho Chuppa Rosa in Tujunga in Los Angeles.  Today it is the McGroarty Arts Center.

The California state legislature voted to name John S. McGroarty the Golden State’s Poet Laureate in 1933 and the columnist remained one of the Golden State’s more notable citizens.  That notoriety did not diminish his chances when McGroarty announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives from California’s Eleventh Congressional District.  Speaking before the Seventh Assembly District Democratic Club, McGroarty said, “I’ve about made up my mind to be a candidate.”  That declaration prompted Mrs. Alice Kraft to propose a resolution endorsing John McGroarty’s candidacy.  The entire group came to its feet in a standing vote of support for McGroarty’s candidacy.  McGroarty then told his listeners, “Recently somebody said, ‘If you send John McGroarty to Congress, he’ll just be a “yes man” for Roosevelt.’”

John McGroarty paused and then said, “I want to tell you that’s just what I will be.  If, by some miracle I should be sent to Congress, every morning I will wake up, call the White House and ask him what his pleasure is.  Then I will go down and vote as he tells me.”

“If he is not there,” McGroarty continued, “I will say, ‘Is this you, Eleanor?  What do you think of such and such bill?’  I will vote as she tells me.”

John McGroarty said as a historian he believed Franklin D. Roosevelt to be “the second greatest president” in America’s history.  McGroarty told his audience “There is no question in my mind about that.”  The congressional candidate also predicted, “During the next year he will be subjected to the bitterest attacks ever made on any president with the exception of George Washington.  They will not be as strong as those made upon Washington, for they called him everything a filthy tongue could conceive, but this year is crucial for President Roosevelt.”

McGroarty denied he was even remotely anything resembling a socialist, but also decried a system that allowed some to build great fortunes while leaving others with incomes so little “that any setback like illness or a death in the family would be an expense too great to overcome.”

John S. McGroarty won the Democratic primary over five other candidates with a decisive plurality.  In the general election, McGroarty faced the Republican incumbent, Congressman William E. Evans.  Evans had first been elected to serve California’s Eleventh District in 1926 and had been reelected relatively easily every two years until 1932.  Congressman Evans barely scraped by that year as the Depression had deepened and people were suffering.  McGroarty’s name recognition proved to be an asset, as was his pledge to back President Roosevelt.  On Election Day, John S. McGroarty won with 54% of the ballots cast.

In Congress, Congressman McGroarty became an advocate for what was known as the Townsend Plan.  That plan was conceived by Dr. Francis Townsend, who had enjoyed a varied career marred by little financial success.  The essentials of Townsend’s plan was every person in the United States would receive the sum of $200 per month (worth more than $4,200 in today’s money), yet there were restrictions to the good doctor’s plan.  Recipients must be retired, they could not be criminals, and they had to spend the entire $200 each month.  The funds to provide for the scheme were to come from the imposition of a national sales tax of 2%.  In a country where there was no Social Security or any other kind of governmental safety net, the Townsend Plan was wildly appealing to millions of people, especially when the country was mired in the Great Depression.

Congressman John S. McGroarty sponsored a bill, which according to the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record “differed radically” from Dr. Townsend’s original plan.  Republican congressman Bertrand W. Gearhart, who represented Fresno in the House of Representatives, readily acknowledged, “The most serious objection to the Townsend old-age revolving pension plan has been removed by the revised McGroarty bill.”  According to Congressman Gearhart, “This objection was that the pension could not be paid, that it would wreck the federal treasury and perhaps create an uncontrollable inflation.  The revised bill, by creating a pension fund which will be distributed among aged and needy persons, completely eliminates that objection.”  Congressman Gearhart also noted McGroarty’s bill required the administrative costs of the pension to be paid out of the taxes collected.  Gearhart, like McGroarty, was a strong supporter of providing old-age pensions for elderly Americans.

Despite Congressman McGroarty’s statement he would ask what President Roosevelt wanted to be done in Congress and then do it, the Californian encountered stiff opposition from the White House in his quest to adopt the revised edition of the Townsend Plan in the House.  The First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, warned the plan created “false hope” for many desperate people.  Congressman McGroarty snapped back that the entire New Deal program “has raised a hell of a lot of false hopes.”  Bruce Catton, then an editorial writer for the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA), wrote, “In this one sentence the gentleman seems to have put his finger on the distinguishing feature of the present era – – – the thing which makes it both a more encouraging and a more potentially dangerous time than any in recent years.”  Catton acknowledged, “It is an era of hope; of high hopes, some of them, held by people in all classes of society.  The course our society will take in the next generation may easily depend very largely on the extent to which these hopes can be satisfied.”  So it remains true to this day.

Congressman John McGroarty, then 74 years old, ran for reelection to Congress in 1936.  It was even a better year for Democrats than 1934 had been, but it was also true the congressman represented a fundamentally GOP district in Congress.  Congressman McGroarty faced Republican Carl Hinshaw, a successful realtor and insurance man in the general election, as well as candidates running on the Progressive and Communist tickets.  McGroarty won a bare majority in the general election while Hinshaw didn’t poll quite 40% of the ballots cast.  The Progressive candidate won nearly 9% of the vote, while the Communist didn’t tally even 1%.  President Roosevelt had won a landslide reelection, carrying every state in the nation save for Vermont and Maine.

1936 had not begun with John S. McGroarty devoted to the New Deal.  Apparently unhappy with the Roosevelt Administration for its opposition to the Townsend Plan and his own bill, Congressman McGroarty had run at the head of a Townsend Plan ticket in the California presidential primary, much to the displeasure of FDR and his associates.  There was a deepening divide between factions of California’s Democratic Party into two hostile camps.  One, headed by U.S. senator William Gibbs McAdoo, represented the regular Democrats who were, more or less, New Deal stalwarts.  The other faction of Golden State Democrats were known as “Epics,” who supported old-age pensions and several political panaceas.  For any of those who doubted Franklin D. Roosevelt’s personal popularity in California, the vote in the Democratic presidential primary reiterated he remained a champion vote-getter.  President Roosevelt polled more than 755,000 votes as compared to just over 100,000 for Upton Sinclair, leader of California’s “Epics” and a paltry 58,146 for the Townsend Plan ticket headed by Congressman John S. McGroarty.

McGroarty chose not to run for reelection to Congress in 1938.  Perhaps he sensed his district was swinging back to its Republican roots.  It may well have been he wanted the distinction of serving in statewide office.  McGroarty announced he was seeking the Democratic nomination to serve as California’s Secretary of State.  That particular office was occupied by one of the most accomplished vote-getters in California, Frank C. Jordan, who was a Republican.  At the time, candidates in California could “cross-file,” meaning they could run in the primary of their own party, as well as that of other parties.  It was not uncommon for candidates to cross-file in the Republican, Democratic and Progressive primaries in the Golden State.  Frank C. Jordan had served as California’s Secretary of State since 1911 and his vote-getting prowess was such that he outran the Democratic candidates inside their own primary, including Congressman John McGroarty.  Jordan died in office in 1940 and his son, Frank M. Jordan beat an interim appointee to become California’s Secretary of State in 1942.  The younger Jordan held that office until 1970 when he too died in office at age 81.

John McGroarty was 76 years old when he lost the 1938 election.  It was the end of his political career, and the philosopher of the Green Verdugo Hills entered a contented semi-retirement.  It was John S. McGroarty who sponsored the bill in the House of Representatives which saved the sugar pines in Yosemite National Park.  The former congressman also saw the introduction and passage of the Social Security Act and his dream of old-age pensions realized.

In his declining years, McGroarty suffered through the loss of his beloved wife Ida, a loss from which he never recovered.  Ida McGroarty also left behind her elderly mother for whom the former congressman cared until she too passed away.  When McGroarty died after a “lingering illness” at age 81, Elmer Ellsworth Helms, a longtime friend of the former congressman, sent a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times mourning the passing of his friend and published a letter sent to him before McGroarty’s own death.  Helms wrote he was nearing 81 himself and imagined the day when he would “find Brother John wandering around the Green Verdugo Hills of the Land Celestial.”

© 2023 Ray Hill