What ever happened to Johnson’s plans for the Common Consumer? Not much
RECENTLY I CAME ACROSS the name Esther Peterson, which I hadn't seen in ages. It was a bit like stumbling on the name of a forgotten movie star and yet, only last March, blonde, energetic Mrs. Peterson was one of the best publicized people in the U. S. civil service. She was — and still is for that matter — President Johnson’s special assistant for consumer affairs, and before that had been an assistant secretary of labor. She was the first of the “fifty women” President Johnson promised to put in top government jobs.
This, naturally, focused a lot of cameras on her and had half the reporters in Washington chasing her with pencils and microphones. It also made her a hot political asset — or so it seemed. When I talked to her late one afternoon she’d just been interviewed on tape by three congressmen, for broadcasting stations in their home constituencies. She'd had to put off interviews with half a dozen others and she'd
testified before two congressional committees, received half a dozen delegations from consumers' outfits, given her opinion on a new international coffee treaty, and had an hour left to pack and catch a plane for Texas, where she was due to speak twice the next day.
All this was happening to Mrs. Peterson while Johnson was still going through the motions of whittling down government expenditures. He dramatized his campaign by turning out White House lights that used to burn at night solely for the edification of tourists. It looked as though economy, private as well as public, would be a hot issue in the November election.
President Kennedy had said as far back as March, 1962, that “consumers are the only group in the economy who are not effectively organized and whose views are not often heard.” Johnson later amplified this: “The consumer buys in the marketplace nearly two thirds of our gross national product. Yet, for far too long, the consumer has had too little voice and too little weight in government. That situation is changing.”
When Johnson named Mrs. Peterson his special assistant he gave her the job of solving such mysteries as what is a “serving,” what is “economy size,” what is “king size,” and whether it is true, as Mildred Brady of the Consumers' Union has charged, that unless more morality is injected into the marketplace the fellow with the biggest mouth and poorest product will drive out honest competitors.
Letters poured in to Mrs. Peterson at her new office in the executive building next door to the White House:
■ “My husband gets $2.74 an hour and it is not fair to have to pay 69 cents to $1.09 a pound for beef and find it is too tough to eat."
■ “The TV set cost $350 and I paid $100 down. Then I found I still owed $328.95. which includes $78.95 in finance charges.”
■ “Our one-year guarantee on six household appliances has expired. In six months I have paid over $90 in repair bills on them.”
But there are political issues that catch fire, and political issues that don't. The civil rights issue superseded all else. The War on Poverty, the fighting in Vietnam, the space race again, the murders in Mississippi, Alabama Governor George Wallace, the riots in Harlem, Barry Goldwater, the trouble in Cyprus — all these things slowly pushed the American consumer into smaller and smaller paragraphs and shorter and shorter spots on television. Now the silent consumer is silent again.
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