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Friday, September 07, 2012

SMOKE AND MIRRORS

I miss the old smoke filled rooms – sometimes. In the old days there were no passionate amateurs willing to bring on a political doomsday, just to muck things up. The process was dispassionate, calculated and handled by people who saw politics as a job, aided, of course, by political writers who supplied the passion in print. From such combinations, legends were born -  such as this one I shall now relate.
On April Fools Day, 1920, bland faced Ohio political manager Harry Daugherty (above) was hastily packing his bags in his room at the old Waldorf Astoria hotel on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Into the room sauntered two reporters, seeking a quote. They taunted Daugherty on his boastful support for the turgid and mediocre Ohio Senator, Warren G. Harding for President. Nobody else thought Harding stood a chance. Just who were these senators that Daugherty claimed would support Harding at the Republican Convention, come June? When Daugherty refused to take the bait, the reporters suggested he must be expecting Harding to win the nomination in some hotel back room, by a small group of political managers, “reduced to pulp by the inevitable vigil and travail” of a deadlocked convention. Daugherty said nothing. So the reporter suggested r that Daugherty must be expecting the managers to collapse about 2:00 A.M. in a smoke filled room. Weary of the dialog, Daugherty responded off handed, “Make it 2:11". Then he grabbed his bags and headed out to catch the train back to Ohio.
The reporter turned that one sided conversation into this quote, which he stuck into Daugherty’s mouth; “I don't expect Senator Harding to be nominated on the first, second or third ballot, but I think we can well afford to take chances that about eleven minutes after 2 o'clock on Friday morning at the convention, when fifteen or twenty men, somewhat weary, are sitting around a table, some one of them will say, "Who will we nominate?" At that decisive time the friends of Senator Harding can suggest him, and can afford to abide by the result.”
And amazingly, that is almost exactly how it really happened. Except that the back room was a suite of meeting rooms in Chicago’s Blackstone Hotel at the corner of Michigan Avenue and Balboa -  room numbers 408 through 410, with Room 404 set aside as the reception room.
The suite had been rented by Will Hays, the big-eared big-talking “mighty little ear of corn” from Indiana. He was the Republican National Chairman, and had hopes of being President himself in 1920. And maybe the greatest compliment you can pay the professional politicians of that era is that at least they did not let Will Hays become President.
The Republican Convention that June was officially taking place 9 blocks south of the Blackstone hotel, in the old Chicago Coliseum on South Wabash Avenue. This cavern had been home to every Republican Convention since 1904. It is worth noting that the building had originally been constructed to house a prison, Richmond’s Libby prison, bought lock, stock, and barrel by a Chicago candy millionaire and shipped north to form the centerpiece of a Civil War Museum. The museum went bust in 1899, and the owner “re-imagined” the space as a public meeting center.
It was into this den of iniquity that some 2,000 delegates and their alternates marched on Tuesday June, 8th, 1920, sixty years after Republicans had first met in Chicago to nominate Senator William Seward for President, but instead chose Abraham Lincoln. It was an ominous bit of history to consider if you were General Leonard Wood or Illinois Governor Frank Lowden, as they were considered the front runners for the 1920 Republican nomination.
The dour faced Lowden (above) wanted to be president so badly that when Governor, when both houses of the Illinois state legislature voted to abolish the death penalty, he had vetoed the bill, proving again that politicians are even willing to kill people to win a few votes.
In contrast, Leonard Wood (above) claimed to have little political hunger. He was a  Medal of Honor winner who had graduated medical school and then risen to Army Chief of Staff. He said he wanted to be President out of a sense of duty.  While Will Hays had not entered any of the twenty primaries held that year, he still had hopes that Wood and Lowden would deadlock, and the convention would turn to the little Hoosier to beak the tie. There were in fact a number of candidates with the very same plan.
The convention finally got down to the balloting on Friday evening, June 11th, and immediately things started looking up for Hays. On the first ballot Wood led with 285 votes, Lowden showed 211, Senator Hiram Johnson, of California, a Teddy Roosevelt progressive, was third with 133 votes. Far behind was Governor William Spool of Pennsylvania with 84 votes, followed by New York’s Nicholas Butler with 69 votes and Ohio’s favorite son, Senator Warren G. Harding, who had lost in the Indiana primary and could muster just 65 votes. Six other candidates held the remaining 132 delegates.
On the second ballot Wood gained just ten votes, while Governor Lowden’s total grew by 40. But still nobody was close to the 439 votes needed to nominate. General Wood reached his peak on the fourth ballot with 314 votes, and then his support started to slip. Governor Lowden beat him with 311 votes on the fifth ballot. Still, no one seemed to be gathering enough support to win it all. And the longer this went on, the less confidence actual voters would have in any eventual choice. So the professionals stepped in and the convention adjourned for the night. The negotiations shifted to the infamous fourth floor rooms at the Blackstone hotel.
Actually political junkies were meeting all over Chicago that night, but Hays’ rooms at the Blackstone got all the publicity because that was where Associated Press reporter Kirke Simpson was working. He was there to cover Harry Daugherty, because, as you have seen, Harry was always good for a quote, even if you had to spoon feed it to him.
Also present was George Harvey, who ran Harper publishing, and Republican Senators Wadsworth, Calder, Watson, McCormick and Lodge, Governor Smoot, political fixer Joe Grundy, and Lawyer Charles Hillers, counsel to the R.N.C., as well as his client, R.N.C. Chief, Will Hays. Their problem was that none of them could agree upon who the party should rally around, either.
It was, by general agreement, the original “Smoke filled room”, and the 130 pound Hays was the host. Even though he neither smoked nor drank himself, Hays kept the cigars lit and the booze flowing “Neighbor”, he and once said to Herbert Hoover, “I want to be helpful.”  It was his natural instinct.
Harry Daugherty’s (left) natural instinct, on the other hand, was his drive for his man. He said of Harding (right), “I found him sunning himself, like a turtle on a log, and I pushed him into the water. “
Since the top three vote 'getters' were not willing to compromise with each other, the Senators were now looking for “The best of the second raters.”, and Daugherty suggested that Harding was their man. There is no indication that anybody even mention Will Hays - not even Will Hays, who was in the room..
They dispatched a small delegation upstairs to  Hardings’ room, where they roused the stunned Harding from his bed.  While he stood before them in this pajamas, they asked him point blank if there were any embarrassing episodes in his past. Harding might have said that giving a job interview while standing in his pajamas might qualify as an embarrassing moment, but he did not. Instead Harding swallowed and said, “No”. He was lying of course, but that would not come out until Harding was long dead.
It wasn't as if the party managers issued orders and the party regulars fell in line. It would take five more ballots before the crowd at the Colosseum would give up out of exhaustion and hand the nomination to Harding. But as of 2:15 A.M., the decision has been made, just as the reporters in New York had written that Daugherty had predicted - if f nobody seems to be winning, we will rally around Harding and make do.  What a way to pick a president! And it worked.
At 5 A.M. on Saturday June 12, 1920, Kirke Simpston filed a story that included the following phrase, “Harding of Ohio was chosen by a group of men in a smoke-filled room early today.” And that is how the phrase "smoke filled room" entered the vernacular. The connotation became negative because after Warren G. Harding won in a landslide, he and his “Ohio Gang” - his buddies, including Harry Daugherty - moved to Washington D.C. and started selling everything  that wasn't nailed down.  Many of them ended up in jail, or disgraced, or at least spending a lot of the graft they had collected on lawyers.
Harding appointed Harry Daugherty (above) as his Attorney General. And after three heady years, Harry was forced to resign when his chief aide, Jess Smith, was caught taking kickbacks from bootleggers. Smith had been collecting the kickbacks for his boss, Harry Daugherty, but the professional politicians in Washington decided not to prosecute Harry.  And luckily Smith committed suicide, so Harry was allowed to just resign, Besides, Harry was just one of a dozen Harding appointees who either went to jail, or ought to. As Forest Gump might have put it, Presidents are like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get. Take little Will Hays'
Will Hays served as Hardings’ Postmaster General. But after only one year he smelled the impending scandals coming and he got out. In 1922 Hays took another job, running the Hays Production Code office, which set standards for on-screen morality in the Hollywood film industry. It was the Hays Commission which gave us forty years of married couples sleeping in twin beds, no acknowledgement of drug use (which was going on),  no adultery in marriage without retribution, and endless stories with sacerin sweet "Hollywood" endings. It was the Hays' Commission that turned Rhett Butler’s exit line as he walked out on Scarlet O’Hara into a major social crises, even though the line appeared in one of the most widely read books in America, "Gone With the Wind". It seemed that Mr. Hays had built his entire career selling smoke and mirrors, and he was not going to get out of that business just because he had gotten out of politics.
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Wednesday, September 05, 2012

AN ACCIDENT OF HISTORY


I was thinking about the Tea Party, and that naturally got me thinking about the burning down of Washington, but when our enemies did it, in August of 1814. And I found myself pondering the unlikely combination of coincidences and accidents required to make that (or any) historical event happen. In short, the odds are never in favor of history turning out quite like it did. This particular case ended with a 1 in 5,000 event, but it started 35 ½ million years ago when a mile wide chunk of rock traveling at about 70,000 miles an hour, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean just off the Virginia shore. I mean, what were the chances of that happening? Well, about one in 182 trillion, actually.
Now, between the rock's first contact with the atmosphere 100 miles up, and its stopping point 7 miles deep into the continental crust, the journey took less than a second. And stopping several million tons of hurtling rock so quickly generated a great deal of heat, enough to vaporize several billion tons of sea water and earth rock. Another several billion tons were displaced. Tsunamis swamped the Blue Ridge Mountains and millions of living creatures were incinerated. It was a very unlikely event that given enough time becomes inevitable. Then about 10,000 years ago the rising ocean poured into this wound, flooding the Susquehanna River valley, beyond and forming the 200 mile long Chesapeake Bay. And on the oppressively hot Tuesday, August 16th , 1814, this allowed 50 British warships to sail through the Chesapeake Channel, centered over that crater, and into America's vulnerable interior.
Commanding that fleet from aboard the 74 gun HMS Royal Oak was 56 year old Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis Cochrane. His family had been intimately involved in America for the last half century. In 1776 his brother-in-law, John Pitcairn, had commanded the party that opened fire on the Minute Men on Lexington Green, starting the American Revolution. And coincidentally, six years later, Cochrane's older brother Charles had been killed at the battle of Yorktown, which effectively secured American independence. And now, 33 years later, Cochrane spent the summer raiding American towns, capturing American ships, and more importantly freeing 4,000 American slaves. That threatened the very foundation of the economy of Virginia and the Carolinas, and made the War of 1812 with Britain very unpopular there. Cochrane hoped this August to subject New England to a similar argument. But the new commander of his ground troops favored a different target.
Six months earlier the 48 year old Brigadier General Roger Ross had been a colonel, leading his brigade in what he thought was the main assault against the little village of St. Boes in southern France. Ross captured the town on the first rush. But unbeknownst him, his commander, the Duke of Wellington, abruptly shifted the main effort to the other flank. So when the French counterattacked, Ross's men had no support. While desperately fighting to hold the church in the village center, shrapnel had smashed and slashed open the left side of Ross's jaw. He dismissively refereed to it as a “hit in the chops”, but the odds of surviving such a wound were pretty slim - an inch lower and he would have bleed to death – and once the bleeding was stopped, he stood a good chance of dieing from infection. His survival was a miracle. As it was he would bear physical and emotional scars for the rest of his life. Ross had lost the village, but Wellington won the battle, and the war. As a reward for his devotion and unlikely survival, the Duke promoted Ross and gave him command of the 4,500 ground troops in Chesapeake Bay. .
Ross saw the capture of Washington as a way to quickly make a name for himself. And Admiral Cochrane needed little convincing. The British were not looking to reconquer America, just convince the upstarts to end the war. Peace talks were already going on back in Europe. All that was needed was a little shove in the right direction. And surprisingly, General Ross's and Admiral Cochran's greatest ally in moving America to make peace would be the American Secretary of War. That doesn't seem very likely, does it?
It is hard to think of something nice to say about John Armstrong. His personality was once described as “obstinacy and self-conceit.” His enemies were not nearly as kind. Armstrong was disliked because he was arrogant and smug. His hubris drove the most successful American general, William Henry Harrison, to resign, and it drove Armstrong's boss, President James Madison, to disaster. When Maryland officials begged for help with their undefended coast, Armstrong snapped he could not defend,“every man’s turnip patch”. And when his President asked if it was not at least possible the British might try to capture the capital, Armstrong snorted, “What the devil will they do here? No! No! Baltimore is the place, sir. That is of so much more consequence.” He was right, of course. In 1814 Washington was a village of about 8,000 people. It had no industry, no harbor – it wasn't even on the main road. And yet, the British came. What were the odds of that happening?.
The invaders stepped ashore 15 miles northeast of Washington on Friday, August 19th, and in 100 degree heat marched on the capital. After brushing aside a scratch American force at Bladensburg on Wednesday, the 24th, and chasing Dolly Madison out of the White House on Thursday the 25th, they ate the meal intended for President Madison and his cabinet before setting fire to the building. They did the same with the Treasury and every other government building in town. They used the 289 foot high Capital Hill as their base, and wanted to burn the unfinished capital as well, but it was made of stone. So they had to content themselves with piling its fittings and furniture outside and kept those fires burning all night long. The next morning, Friday, August 25, 1814, as the British were finishing up their destructive work, the final unlikely event in our story occurred.
The heavy sweltering surface block of air oppressing Washington had become trapped beneath an advancing cold front . It was a conflict in motion, the humid air rising, cooling on contact with the invading antecedent, dropping its moisture as rain, until it broke against the desiccated cold front and was shoved forward, back to earth. As these atmospheric coils rolled faster across the land, each successive wave was driven higher until they punched through the roof of weather, six miles up, where a loop in the jet stream was scrapping 100 mile an hour winds northeastward across the tops of these skirmishes. Friction with the jet stream twisted the vertical battles into the horizontal. And that happens in only 1% of all thunderstorms in North America. But it happened here.
Eighteen year old British Ensign George Rodgers Gleig was there, and he later noted, “towards morning a violent storm of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, came on...The flashes of lightning vied in brilliancy with the flames which burst from the roofs of burning houses, whilst the thunder drowned for a time the noise of crumbling walls, and was only interrupted by the occasional roar of cannon, and of large depots of gunpowder, as they one by one exploded.” .
As the invaders formed up for their return to the fleet, the rear of the storm approached, The rain began to pound down even harder. And out of the lowering clouds, a finger of sheer catastrophe touched the surface. First the heavy chain bridge across the Potomac River was buckled and twisted. Then several homes along the tidal basin lost their roofs, or were reduced to kindling. Feather mattresses were sucked out of windows. Trees were torn up by their roots and left scattered. Brick chimneys were shattered and collapsed. And with a “frightening roar”, the twister climbed Capital Hill, and plowed through the center of town..
Soldiers fell flat in the streets or ran for shelter before the monster's sudden advance. Two British 150 pound brass cannon were lifted and tossed like kindling. Invaders and civilians were buried as houses collapsed atop them. One officer and his horse were lifted and slammed down into the mud. And then, just as quickly as it had come, the monster was gone. Like most tornadoes, this one had lasted less than five minutes.
One newspaper crowed afterward that the tornado killed more British than the Americans had at Bladensburg, and described the storm as divine retribution. But that was probably wishful thinking.
It is probable that some invaders were killed in the storm. It is certain many were injured. It is also certain, the rain doused most of the fires still burning. But it is unlikely any of that made much difference. Most of the destruction had already been achieved before the storm arrived. But it is also clear that this abrupt assault did quench much of the exhilaration felt by British troops.
While the ashes of Washington were still smoldering, President James Madison fired Secretary of War John Armstrong. The conceited fool retired from politics, retreated to his farm in Red Hook, New York and wrote history books until his death in 1843. Meanwhile, the shaken British army moved on toward the target Secretary Armstrong had predicted all along - Baltimore. But that was where they were stopped. Their bombardment of the harbor defenses at Fort McHenry only inspired the “Star Spangled Banner”, and while scouting the town's land defenses, General Roger Ross's luck ran out. He was cut down by a sniper, and this time it killed him. Baltimore was deemed too strong, and the British retreated without a ground assault.
The navy stuffed Ross's body into a barrel of Jamaican rum, and shipped it north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the General was buried in September of 1814. In January of 1815 most of his little army was thrown against the defenses of New Orleans, but again they were stopped. As hard as it may be to understand, the Duke of Wellington blamed the defeat at New Orleans and the death of General Ross at Baltimore, on Vice Admiral Cochrane. The sailor spent a decade shuffled aside and unemployed. But eventually they found him a job, and he died a full Admiral in 1832, at the age of 73.
Not that the defeats at Baltimore and New Orleans really mattered, because the burning of Washington had accomplished its goal. A month before the Battle of New Orleans, the peace treaty had been signed and this silly war was over. Just a century later the United States would join the first of two world wars as a British ally, and at every White House visit since, the President and British Prime Minister exchange bad jokes about that August day when the British came, bearing torches. Such an alliance must have seemed impossible in 1814.  It was, of course, not impossible, merely very unlikely. And given enough time it was actually, inevitable.
Just something to think about the next time you start thinking the future can be predicted with any degree of certainty.
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Sunday, September 02, 2012

COXEY'S ARMY Pt. Six THE GATES OF PARADISE

I would say that it is a dangerously romantic concept, this idea that government can be petitioned directly by its citizens. It had not been tried in America since the revolution. Still, working class Americans came out to have a look at Coxey’s Army, which was doing this odd thing, and they were not frightened by what they saw. But the same images did scare congressmen and presidents, infuriated the wealthy and powerful, and worried local police officers and mayors. But it also provided a sense of excitement for those with a rebellious spirit. In the latter category was 14 year old Albert Hicks, of East 83rd street in Manhattan. According to the Brooklyn Eagle, Albert had a fight with his mother and ran away from home, saying he was going to join Coxey’s Army. Albert made it no farther than the Brooklyn Bridge, where a police officer took him into custody, and called his father to come to collect the boy. It was a common story, an angry fourteen year old running away from home, not worth repeating on the front page of a large newspaper, except for the name in the headline “Coxey’s Army”. 
"Once, indeed, the Tin Woodman stepped upon a beetle that was crawling along the road, and killed the poor little thing. This made the Tin Woodman very unhappy, for he was always careful not to hurt any living creature; and as he walked along he wept several tears of sorrow and regret. These tears ran slowly down his face and over the hinges of his jaw, and there they rusted. When Dorothy presently asked him a question the Tin Woodman could not open his mouth, for his jaws were tightly rusted together. He became greatly frightened at this and made many motions to Dorothy to relieve him, but she could not understand. The Lion was also puzzled to know what was wrong. But the Scarecrow seized the oil-can from Dorothy's basket and oiled the Woodman's jaws, so that after a few moments he could talk as well as before." 
1900  L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
On Sunday, April the 22nd , the Philadelphia recruits which the Army had been waiting for, arrived in Hagerstown. There were just 18 of them. This day, too, the Chief of the D.C. Metropolitan Police publicly announced that if the Army entered the Federal City, he would enforce an 1830 regulation making it illegal for anyone to enter the District who would likely become a “public charge’. It was an absurdly pompous threat on the face of it, since being arrested for violating the 60 year old ordinance would achieve the very object the ordinance was designed to discourage. Prisoners were by definition, in the public charge. There is a reason the practice of criminalizing poverty has been discarded. But, it seems, every generation must relearn it on their own.
But the commission that ran the District of Columbia went even further. Henceforth, they announced,  it was illegal to solicit funds without a license, even though no procedures had yet been written to qualify for such licenses. And it would now be illegal for there to be any public assembly on public property without a license. (ditto) And no obstruction of public roads would be permitted, either. If these regulations were meant to discourage Coxey’s Army, they failed. In fact, the confrontational approach probably added to the Army’s numbers, as the unemployed who before had just been desperate, now began to get angry.
Bright and early on April 23rd some 300 plus members of Coxey’s Army marched out of the Hagerstown camp, with flags and banners flying. But they only made about six miles that day, stopping for the night at the little community of Hyattstown, where some of the men were provided with home cooked meals by locals, and the rest were welcomed to camp along Little Bennett Creek. Thousands of people turned out for speeches and general festivities in the Army’s camp that night
One of the reasons the welcome was so strong for Coxey’s Army in Hyattstown was that the area had for generations suffered with what was described as “the deficient link of the Great National Western Road.”. This was the central cause for which Coxey’s Army marched, the desperate need for improvements in the nation’s roads, and work that was desperately needed by the millions of unemployed. The section of the National Road beyond Hyattsville, between Rockville and Gaithersburg, Maryland had been described this way; “Deeply rutted and dusty in dry weather, it became a muddy morass after a heavy rain. Often it was nearly impassable, and its dismal condition was disparaged and deplored by the local press and public.” English General Braddock had almost been defeated by this very stretch of road long before he was killed in Pennsylvania, a generation before the American Revolution. A generation after that war, Thomas Jefferson’s road improvements bill had failed to fix the problem. Now, four generations later, the problem persisted. (In fact, this section would not be fixed until 1925 when it was finally paved)
The mayor of Frederick, Maryland (above), one John E. Fleming, boasted that Coxey's Army would never set foot in his town. Forty additional deputies were sworn in to keep them out. However, on the 24th , Coxey’s Army, now 340 strong, marched into town, escorted by the deputies. And the world did not end. That night the press reported a “drunken brawl”, but the details were never confirmed. And the next day, when the Army marched out, their numbers were now 400 strong. 
It was on Saturday, April 28th that Coxey’s Army, reached the doorstep of their goal, Brightwood Riding Park – now the Brightwood Recreation Area - along Rock Creek, just outside of the border of the District of Columbia. Here they established what they called Camp Stevens. They were greeted by a crowd of 10,000 people. Also on hand were 1,500 federal troops (3 for every member of the Army), with more in position in Baltimore, Annapolis, and Philadelphia, ready to rush to the capital to put down any rebellion. There was none.
Instead, over Saturday and Sunday an estimated 6,000 unarmed curious citizens visited the encampment in peace. Coxey was quoted in the papers as explaining the march this way; “Congress takes two years to vote on anything…Twenty-millions of people are hungry and cannot wait two years to eat.”
On Tuesday, May 1st, 1894 perhaps 15,000 people crowded around as the Army of 500 left camp (above) for their final seven mile march on the Capital. The Baltimore Herald said “Such a fantastic aggregation never paraded itself in seriousness before the public.” 
First came Mrs. Annie L. Diggs, carrying the American flag. She was followed by Jacob Coxey’s 17 year old daughter, representing the goddess of Peace. Then came Carl Browne, dressed in his buckskin fringe. Then came Coxey in his carriage, ridding with his second wife and their infant child, “Legal Tender Coxey”. They were followed by an actress on horseback, Ms. Virginia Le Valette. She was draped in an American flag. And only behind this final exhibit of female pulchritude, did the public at last get a view of the object of the entire discussion, the army of the unemployed, totting banners and signs. It must have been the most bizarre procession that ever walked down Washington's 16th street, not excepting the parade formed by Dolly Madison as she fled the White House in 1813, with wagons piled high with silverware and paintings, just ahead of the British arsonists.
As they had formed up for the final march, Carl Browne had told the men, “The greatest ordeal of the march is at hand. The eyes of the world are upon you, and you must conduct yourselves accordingly.” And they did.
Ahh, if they only knew the high drama and low comedy that was about to descend upon their heads.
"This will serve me a lesson," said he, "to look where I step. For if I should kill another bug or beetle I should surely cry again, and crying rusts my jaws so that I cannot speak." Thereafter he walked very carefully, with his eyes on the road, and when he saw a tiny ant toiling by he would step over it, so as not to harm it. The Tin Woodman knew very well he had no heart, and therefore he took great care never to be cruel or unkind to anything. "You people with hearts," he said, "have something to guide you, and need never do wrong; but I have no heart, and so I must be very careful."
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" 
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