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Friday, August 06, 2010

SENATOR WETBACK

I prefer to refer to him as Senator Wetback. His real name was Patrick Anthony McCarran, and this bitter xenophobic, contemptuous narcissistic windbag, represented the very worst in the American character. He  preached fear of the future, fear of our enemies,  evenm and fear of ourselves. It was Pat McCarran who gave the Health Insurance industry their anti-trust status. It was Pat McCarran who fed America’s vile dead end phobia of Mexican immigration. It was Pat McCarran who used the Senate of the United States to bully and terrorize loyal American citizens. It was Pat McCarran who turned Joe McCarthy’s bungling histrionics into the best weapon the Communists had in the cold war. In short, it was Pat McCarran who was the wellspring of much that poisons American politics to this day.
Pat McCarran was born the same year that George Custer died on the Little Big Horn; 1876. He was raised on an isolated sheep farm outside of Reno, Nevada, 15 miles from his nearest human playmate. He remained an isolationist his entire life. He attended the University of Nevada Law School, but had to drop out when his father was injured. Pat would later pass the bar, studying on his own.
As a new lawyer Pat McCarran made two big mistakes. The first was in 1907 when Nevada Governor John Sparks offered the thirty year old an appointment as a judge. But Pat’s paranoia drove him to reject the appointment. He later admitted ruefully, “That was the first and only appointment that was ever offered to me.”
His second mistake was when he served as counsel in a divorce case, Wingfield v Wingfield. The husband, George Wingfield, was the Democratic political boss who ran Nevada politics. And by representing the wife, Mae Wingfield, Pat McCarran earned the undying enmity of the Nevada Democratic Party. When he tried to run for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 1908 he was black balled. One party leader noted, “His reputation as a double-crosser is too well established thoughout the state.” Twenty years later the black ball still denied him a nomination for a Senate run.
Pat McCarran was finally allowed to run for the for U.S. Senate in 1932, at the age of 56, primarily because nobody else wanted what seemed like a useless nomination. But in the general election this “ rotund man with a double chin, wavy hair and a high-pitched voice, who often says "My hide yearns for the alkali dust and the desert"— was swept into Washington on Franklin Roosevelt’s coat tails.
But the new Junior Sentator (left - second row) from Nevada opposed every element of the New Deal. “The innovations of executive power, indulged in by Jackson, promoted by Lincoln, expounded by Garfield, declared righteous by Roosevelt and philosophically promulgated by Wilson, appear to have been but forerunners, rivulets, as it were, contributing to a flood that now sweeps on, submerging the utopian doctrines and theories of Jefferson and conferring unheard of and unfettered expansion to the executive” That kind of retoric got him re-elected in 1938 with 73% of the vote.
Now secure in his seat, McCarran made speechs along side fellow Catholic Charles Lindberg, preaching isolationism. “I think one American boy, the son of an American mother, is worth more than all central Europe.” He condemed Roosevelt’s “secret plan” to push America into WW II, and it was the desperate attempt to justify his prewar opposition to increased military budgets, which gave birth to the conspiracy myths that FDR had purposfully ignored Japanese plans to attack Pearl Harbor.
After Pearl Harbor, however, Senator McCarran was certain that Nevada got it’s share of war spending, including the third largest manufacturing facility built during the war, Basic Magnesim’s $140 million plant, built at government expense, and the town of Henderson, built to house the plant’s 15,000 workers. Pat won re-election in 1944 with 68% of the vote.
The war and time made Pat McCarran one of the nation’s most powerful senators, by making him one of its most Senators. By 1945 he had become the new political boss of Nevada, the new George Wingfield. Pat even filled the U.S. capital building with so many graduates from Nevada Universities that they became known as “McCarran’s Boys”. And after a couple of years working in Washington, many of the “boys” became part of the McCarran Machine, back home in Nevada.
Pat McCarran handed out just as many “black balls” as he had been handed. Federal Marshall Les Kofed explained to the Senator that Federal law prevented political appoinities from him from making speeches in support of a local politician. “Out of a clear blue sky, shortly thereafter,…I received a call from the chief deputy at Carson City, that a new marshal had been appointed, that I had better come in and turn in my key.”
By 1950 Time magazine had begun describing the 73 year old Pat McCarran as “pompous, vindictive and power-grabbing”. According to the magazine he “staged a one-man committee filibuster against an “Emergency Immigration bill” to admit (250,000) D. P’s to the U.S  The D.P.’s were Displaced Persons, who had survived the Nazi death and work camps, but whose identification papers had been lost or destroyed. They were people without homes or a nation willing to accept them. What concerned Pat McCarran was that many of them were Jews. He argued that the “Emergency Immigration Bill” was supported by a particular “pressure group” with “unlimited money”.
The DP bill had the support of President Eisenhower. But when it was first introduced into a subcommittee in the spring of 1953, Senator McCarran “demanded” a ten day delay while his wife sought medical treatment. But when “Senator Wetback” instead surfaced in Los Angles, holding hearings for his own Senate Security and Intelligence Sub Committee, and asked for three more weeks of delay, the immigration hearings finally began.
Three weeks into the hearings McCarran managed to snooker the Judiciary Committee (parent committee to the subcommittee) into voting to delay any further action by the subcommittee. When most of the Senators realized they had been tricked, fisticuffs almost broke out. It took a week, but the delay was eventually overturned. Still, in the end, McCarran managed to kill the bill.
In June of 1952 Pat McCarran co-sponsored a rewriting of immigration law, declaring that “…we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated… Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain… I do not intend to become prophetic, but if the enemies of this legislation succeed in riddling it to pieces, or in amending it beyond recognition, they will have contributed more to promote this nation's downfall than any other group since we achieved our independence as a nation.”
Next came the program which, for me, earned the Senator his nickname, “Operation Wetback.” It was launched in 1954 after Senator McCarran’s prodded the bureaucrats of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The program contrasted with the ten year old “Bracero” system, in which Mexican recruiters contracted to supply workers for American farmers and railroads.
By 1954 some 300,000 Mexican citizens were legally working in the United States on temporary “Bracero” visas. However those programs, which protected the worker’s rights and wages, were disliked by employers for those very reasons; those protections were also why Texas had refused to join the program for five years.
The INS would later claim to have expelled 1.3 million Mexicans (not the 13 million claimed in recent mythology) under Operation Wetback.  But a closer examination of the data shows the service could only prove some 80,000 were expelled. The addition half a million were an estimate of those who left the country out of fear, but the number was more hopeful than accurate.
The U.S. Army resisted joining the program, and in an internal report written later carried the notation, "Thank goodness."  The program ended abruptly when seven “illegals” being deported by ship, drowned while trying to swim back to the American shore. The crew of the steamer transporting them, then mutinied against their captain, and against the entire program. In the conservative myth the mutiny may get mentioned but never discussed.
But Pat McCarran’s most powerful weapon was his anti-communism. In this he was merely echoed by Senator Joe McCarthy. McCarran also supported Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, to the point that he was called “The Senator from Madrid.” He was an equally fierce supporter of Chiang Kai-Shek, after Chiang and his supporters were driven out of mainland China and retreated to the island of Taiwan. So rabid was McCarran's defense that it was not until Richard Nixon visited China in the 1970’s that some sanity and common sense return to American foreign policy in the region.
The McCarran’s Internal Security Act (of September 1950) required members of the communist party to register with the Attorney General. So onerous were the details of the act that between 1965 and 1967 almost all of it was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Walt Kelly, who drew the popular "Pogo" comic strip chose to memorialize McCarrain with "Mole J. Macarney", a blind, paranoid creature, who spread tar on everything and everyone within reach.
Pat McCarran died of a heart attack in September of 1954, proving once again that politics is not about being right. It is about being re-elected. To most politicians, nothing else matters.
  - 30 -

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

FLIGHT OF FANCY

I doubt Galileo ever considered the full human implications of his experiments with falling objects. The formula he came up with reduces the problem to startling simplicity. Six and one half seconds after she threw herself off the 86th floor Observatory of the Empire State Building, Evelyn McHale landed on the roof of a limonene parked on West 33rd Street, 1,050 feet below.
You would not know it to read the headlines but twice as many Americans kill them selves as kill each other. Suicide is the dirty little secret about being human. There is another suicide in the United States every 17 minutes. It is only the 11th leading cause of death overall ( 7th leading cause of death in males, 16th in females), but suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death between the ages of 15 and 24 year olds, and the second leading cause of death in college students. And the working theory seems to be that if we just don't talk about it, it will go away. Honestly, that simply does not seem to be working.
In 1947 Evelyn McHale was a 20 year old bookkeeper at the Kitab engraving company, in the Long Island community of Baldwin. Over the weekend of April 19th she traveled by rail the 67 miles to the little town of Easton, Pennsylvania. It was known as the “City of Churches”, with the highest ratio of houses of Christian worship to overall population in America.
But it had also been known during prohibition as “The Little Apple” where police protected the speakeasies, which were, every weekend, filled with New York City tourists. On the hill overlooking Easton was the (then) all male Lafayette College, a military school of higher learning. And one of the 2,000 students attending Lafayette College in 1947 was Evelyn McHale’s fiancĂ©.
In 1929 the twin luxury hotels, the Waldorf and the Astoria, occupied a block on Fifth Avenue, between 33rd and 34th streets. For over fifty years these jointly managed edifices were the social abode of the vaunted Four Hundred, the supposed cream of New York society. (The number represented how many could comfortably fit in Mrs. Astor’s ballroom.) Between the four star restaurants in each hotel ran a winding corridor, lined with marble Corinthian columns, dubbed “Peacock Alley”, for all the elegantly dressed women who strolled there to be seen. That year the management company sold the properties for $13.5 million to the Empire State Corporation. And the instant the sale was finalized the president of Empire State, John Jacob Raskob, led the contractors through the front doors. He was intent upon capturing for his Connecticut estate the peacock alley columns he had often admired. To his disappointment, those symbols of Gilded Age luxury and extravagance proved to have been plaster imposters.
Construction began on the Empire State Building on March 17, 1930. The frame rose at the astounding rate of 4 ½ floors a week. Midway into the construction, one of the steelworkers was given his notice while on the job. He threw himself down an open elevator shaft, becoming the first person to commit suicide on the premises.
John Jacob Raskob may have thought about joining him, because 410 days later, a month and a half ahead of schedule, the building opened. The final cost was $5 million under budget, mostly because the depression had so devalued the dollar. But on opening day, May Day 1931, the Empire State Building was well over half empty. It remained so for years. A decade later the press was still referring to The Empire State Building as a financial disaster.
The visit to Pennsylvania had proven to be a disaster. Evelyn McHale’s fiancĂ© had broken off their engagement. In some ways it was to be expected. So many lives had been placed on hold during the Second World War, and so many lives had changed and were still changing once the war had ended. The divorce rate, which pre-war had been two out of every one thousand marriages, had doubled in 1946. But those were statistics, and when Evelyn returned to her own bookkeeping on Monday morning, she returned with a broken heart. And in the weeks that followed she obsessed on her disappointment.
People do not commit suicide (from the Latin “sui caedere”; to kill yourself) because they are depressed. But add depression to alcohol or other drugs, and the risk of suicide increases by 90%. If there is a family history of suicide, a history of physical or sexual abuse, or if friends have recently committed suicide, the risk grows even greater. And finally, if the person at risk is a Christian the risk is greater still. Protestants and Catholics kill themselves much more often than do Jews, or Buddhists.
In the first fifteen years after its opening 16 people threw themselves to their deaths from the Empire State Building. But 1947 was a very bad year. In January a suicide injured an innocent pedestrian on the street below, and a lawsuit was threatened. The Empire State Corporation, which still owned the building, began to slowly consider alternatives. Thus it was that about 10:30 on the morning of Thursday May 1st, 1947, when Evelyn McHale stepped from the elevator on the 86th floor observatory, there was nothing between her and eternity, except the urge to take the step.
First she took off her grey cloth coat and draped it over the low wall near the south west corner of the observation deck. Then she laid her purse on the floor. Then she deliberately let her scarf float from her fingers into the void. She watched it swirl and float in the wind eddies. And when she saw it begin to slip downward, she clambered atop the lip of the chest high wall and threw herself into space.
Six seconds is long enough to think, and if Evelyn McHale was not radically different than those who attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge and lived, then we know what she was thinking as she plummeted weightless toward the pavement. Universally these failed California suicides report that their first thought after jumping was, “This is the worst mistake of my life.” After that first second, however, the sensory overload would likely have not left her with the ability to think of a prayer.
In the first second of the end of her life Evelyn McHale dropped 32 feet, or about three stories. Over the next second she fell an additional 64 feet. Over the third second she traveled another 128 feet. Over the fourth second she fell 238 feet. By the fifth second she was traveling over 60 miles an hour, and the sensation of falling would have caused her body to release massive amounts of adrenalin. But she would never feel its effects. She would have felt an eerily calm, which I suspect surprised her. She might have realized she was falling away from the building, driven by the wind and by her effort to avoid the abutments and ledges. And she would have felt the regret for her decision, but it was now too late. At the speed of about 100 miles an hour, her body slammed into the sheet steel roof of a Cadillac limonene parked 200 feet up 34th Street.
Something caught traffic cop John Morrissey’s eye. He was working at the corner of 34th Street and Fifth Avenue. When he looked up he saw a white cloth, dancing lightly about the upper floors of the Empire State Building. It was just 10:40 A.M. and suddenly there was a loud crash, and the wrenching sound of bending metal. Officer Morrissey ran west on 34th Street. He found a crowd gathered around the big black limo, with United Nations’ license plates, parked on the north side of the street. All of the windows were shattered, and the roof had been caved in. There, embraced by the folded steel, was the body of a young woman.
Her white gloved left hand seemed to be playing with the pearls strung around her neck, almost as if counting a rosary. Her white gloved right hand was cautiously raised as if seeking permission to interrupt. She was barefooted. One stocking was bunched about her crossed ankles, as if she had been caught in the act of undressing. There was no visible blood, no dismemberment. She was a sleeping beauty. But images can be deceiving, as the workers from the medical examiners office could have testified.
When they picked her up, her once firm body must have behaved more like Jell-O. Every bone would have been fractured and splintered, and her internal organs turned to mush by the violence of her death. Those who contemplate suicide should consider the impact of their actions on the innocent who must clean up after them. Suicide is the rudest way to exit this world.
A few minutes after her death, Robert Wiles, a young photography student, approached the scene. He had been eating breakfast across the street, at the same lunch counter as the limo’s driver. Now he approached the scene and snapped a single photo. He immortalized Evelyn McHale. He sold the photo to Life Magazine, which published it a week later, on page 43. The caption read; “At the bottom of the Empire State Building the body of Evelyn McHale reposes calmly in the grotesque bier her body punched into the top of a car.” Robert Wiles never took another professional photograph. Each suicide, it is figured, shatters the lives of six other people. I suspect, his was one.
The New York Times headlined the story, “Empire State Leap Ends Life of Girl, 20”. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said, “Doubting Woman Dives to Death”, and the Chicago Tribune claimed, “Afraid to Wed, Girl Plunges to Death from Empire State.” The photograph, now labeled as "The Most Beautiful Suicide”, may have been at least partly responsible for the July 14th, 1947 leap of a 22 year old man from the same obervation deck. Guards were now stationed to stop any copycats.  And during October and November, they managed to stop avert five more deaths.
Finally the management was forced to admit this was not a temporary trend, and in December the now iconic inwardly curving fencing was installed to discourage those possessed by the impulse to end their lives.
If you think someone is might be suicidal, then they are. Do not leave them alone. Immediately remove their access to firearms and all drugs, and call 911. Death can be a release, but it is never beautiful. Never.
 - 30 -

Sunday, August 01, 2010

FRIENDS AND FOES: TWO OF THREE

I would not suggest reading “The Complete Report on Construction of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” if you do not like numbers. Over the 8 years it took to build the 250 mile long aqueduct, from its head at an elevation of 3,812 feet, to its mouth at the northern end of the San Fernando Valley at 1,135 feet, not a single pump or moving part was required.
For their $24.5 million investment the citizens of Los Angeles got “…215 miles of road, 230 miles of pipe line, 218 miles of power transmission line and 377 miles of telegraph and telephone line.
Fifty-seven camps were established…(for) laborers who numbered, at their peak, 3,900….(who) blasted and drilled 142 tunnels totaling more than 43 miles…They built 34 miles of open unlined channel, 39 miles of concrete lined channel, and 98 miles of covered conduit…”
The project also cost 43 lives, considered a significant inprovement over previous large construction programs. The system also brought electricity to Los Angeles for the first time, through the construction of two generating stations. Still, it is amazing to remember that the entire thing was built only with muscle, human and animal, and the liberal application of dynamite.
It was no wonder then why, when the gates were officially opened on November 5, 1913, that "Controlling Engineer" William Mulholland looked upon the tumbling white waters and proudly told the citizens of Los Angeles, “There it is. Take it.”
And yet on the day the aqueduct was opened, it was not finished. A series of drought years beginning in 1923 reminded everyone that the aqueduct lacked a head-end reservoir. Frank Eaton, the man who had inspired the aqueduct and who had risked his fortune to make it happen, was not at the opening ceremonies. He had stubbornly refused to lower his asking price for the required reservoir on the northern Owens River, and Mulholland (pushed by the DWP board) had stubbornly refused to raise his own offer. But without that reservoir low snow pack in the Sierra meant low water flowing through the aqueduct.
By now, with the aqueduct finished, Mulholland could have admitted the problem and paid Eaton’s asking price of one million dollars. Instead he ordered the drilling of wells and started buying up local irrigation canals in the Owens Valley, to produce more water for Los Angeles.
As the residents of the Owens Valley saw their wells drying up, and Mulholland’s Department of Water and Power filling in the irrigation ditches that once fed their fruit orchards, their anger began to simmer.
The center of resistance became the Inyo County Bank (above) in Bishop. The bank was owned by Wilfred (center bg) and Mark Watterson (left bg). There was also an uncle, George Watterson, who, though less of a fire brand, was also an Owens Valley supporter. As William Karl observed in his book “Water and Power”, “…the Wattersons could gather around their family table the same sort of concentration of power and expertise that members of the San Fernando Land syndicate applied with such effect in Los Angeles.” ( P 276).
Besides holding extensive business and mining interests across the Owens Valley, the Wattersons headed the Owens Valley Irrigation District, which sought to organize landowners in a united front against Mulholland and the D.W.P. Still, a few farmers chose to sell out to the DWP, or the drought forced others to just give up.
Only the bravest and the most stubborn farmers hung on and followed the Wattersons. And many of those who did saw their soil reduced to dust and their trees wither and die. Some desperate farmers were reduced to stealing  water from the aqueduct. When L.A. responded by sending in armed “private detectives” to arrest violators, the Wattersons asked the Governor to send in the National Guard. The Governor, who had depended on the L.A. elite for his re-election, refused.
And then, at 1:30 A.M. on May 21, 1924, a party of about 40 men cut through a fence around the adueduct's Lone Pine spill way gate. The attendants were peacefully detained, and several sticks of dynamite were set of against the pipeline, blowing it apart and sending the water spilling across the desert floor. Now, it was war.
Mulholland’s reaction was predictable. He regretted, said the old Irishman, “the demise of so many of the valley's orchard trees, because now there were no longer enough trees to hang all the troublemakers who live there.” More “detectives” were hired and a $10,000 reward was offered for any information as to the identity of the “dynamite gang”.  None was obtained. The D.W.P, seeking to avoid bad publicity, offered to buy out all members of the Owens Valley Irrigation District for $365 an acre. The Watterson’s rejected that  offer as insulting.
Instead, on November 16, 1924, 70 armed men, led by Mark Watterson, descended on the Alabama Gates on the aqueduct and completely shut off the flow of water to the entire city of Los Angeles. And this time the  explosions were only headlines.
By the next day the 70 men had become 700 men, women and children, who threw a gigantic picnic above the aqueduct. Businesses in Lone Pine and Bishop displayed signs in their shop windows informing their customers, “You can find me at the Aqueduct”.
Movie cowboy star Tom Mix provided a mariachi band to entertain the crowd. When two carloads of armed D.W.P “detectives” arrived at the scene, the sheriff of Inyo County warned them not to cause trouble because, “I don’t believe you will live through it.”
Newspapermen from San Francico and out of state snapped pictures and wrote about plucky farmers standing up to the all powerful Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Now Los Angeles asked the governor to send in the National Guard. But again the Governor refused. It suddenly occured to Mulholland that his DWP was losing the Owens Valley Water War.
And at just this moment Wilfred Watterson arrived in Los Angeles to present the DWP with two bills; either pay the citizens of the Owens Valley $5.3 million in “reparations” for damage to crops and livelihood, or $12 million to buy out the entire valley. The D.W.P refused,  pleading that legally they were not allowed to buy land that did not have water rights attached, which was true. But the DWP also promised to return to the negotiations. The Wattersons decided that they had made their point and the occupation of the Alabama Gates ended after four days. But now the entire mess ended up in court.
The bad news for the Wattersons was that this was a battlefield which favored the power structure of Los Angeles. Legal delay followed legal delay. As the court cases dragged out, slowly the farmers of the Owens Valley were squeezed between depressed markets and expensive money and water. What came next was predictable.
On May 20, 1927 an explosion cut the aqueduct outside of Mojave. Over the next two months there were 10 more bombings.
Mulholland now sent an entire train of “detectives” into the Owens Valley.
Then, in August, both of the Watterson brothers were arrested and charged with embezzlement from their own bank. They were convicted of 36 counts and sentenced to ten years each in San Quentin. Their bank failed and amongst the depositors who were wiped out was Fred Eaton, whose son had taken out a $300,000 mortgage on his ranch (and Owens River dam site) with the Watterson's bank. The bank's assets were sold at auction and eventually Los Angeles bought the dam site for a pittance. After the bank was offically closed a note was left taped to the locked front door: “This result has been brought about by the last four years of destructive work carried on by the city of Los Angeles.”
The Owens Valley opposition had lost its heart and soul. There would be future battles, and the Owens Valley would win more than a few. But that was in the future. And well before then, on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam, built by Mulholland to replace the unbuilt Long Valley dam, collapsed, killing at least 1,000 people and shredding William Mulholland’s reputation forever.
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