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Saturday, October 08, 2016

THE CORRUPT BARGIN

I don't think 1828 was even close to being the dirtiest political campaign in American history. It was filled with lies and insults and half truths and smears, and things which written or said in any other context would have produced a number of libel suits. But then politics has always produced despicable public behavior. The 1828 election was, however, significant for other reasons. It was the first presidential election when the majority of American voters actually had a voice in the outcome And it was the first time the Democrats boasted of having a jackass as the symbol of their party,  the first "million dollar" campaign, the first time an American political party cut a deal to sell its soul for victory, the first time the voters had a choice between investing in themselves or protecting the wealthy, and last but not least, it was one of,  if not the,  longest campaign in American history, starting four years earlier with the infamous “Corrupt Bargain” which was, in fact, just politics as it was supposed to be practiced.
See, in 1824 Henry Clay (above) of Kentucky,  wanted to be President. He was already Speaker of the House, and he had considerable political support along the frontier, which then constituted the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys. But Henry knew that was not enough, for two reasons.
In the first place the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams (above) of Massachusetts, also wanted to be President, and he had the support of the two previous Presidents, James Madison and James Monroe, both of whom had been Secretary of State like Adams, before becoming President themselves. That is what you call a Presidential precedent. And secondly, Clay shared his regional power base with Senator, war hero and political superstar Andrew Jackson, from Tennessee. Still, Clay wanted to be President.
Senator Andrew Jackson (above) did win the most popular votes in 1824 - 151,000. Now, out of a population of about 10 million that should not have been enough to be President,  but from an electorate limited to the 366,000 largest property owners in America, it gave Jackson almost half of all votes cast. Almost. However the hero of New Orleans won only 99 electoral votes, thirty-two short of the number required. Adams was next, with 88 electoral votes. Clay had won only 37 electors, putting him behind even Judge William H. Crawford of Georgia, who had suffered a debilitating stroke during the campaign, but who still won 41 electoral votes. For the second time in the nation's history, the election would be decided in the House of Representatives. And did I mention that Henry Clay was the Speaker of the House?
Now, the Constitution allowed the House to consider only the three candidates receiving the most votes - in the electoral college. You might think that rule left fourth place Henry Clay out of luck, but politics is not about the rules – its about making the rules work for you. And it was obvious to everybody that a political deal was going to be required to settle this. That was the point of having an inconclusive election decided by the professional politicians. Clay saw to it that in January the Kentucky legislature ordered their 12 congressmen, originally required to vote for him for President, (above, sewing Jackson's mouth shut), but to instead vote for Adams for President. And once he became President in February of 1825, Adams named Henry Clay his Secretary of State - and thus presumably next in line to be President. That's not corrupt, children, that's politics.
On receiving the news however, Jackson bellowed, “Was there ever a witness of such a bare faced corruption in any country before?!” The logical answer was, yes, of course, millions of times. And I repeat, it was not corrupt – it was just politics. But Jackson was thin skinned and convinced that any contest which he did not win must be corrupt - sort of like Donald Trump.  Jackson had been christened “Old Hickory” by the militia who served under him in 1812 because of his harsh discipline (above)  and because once he made a decision he stubbornly refused to reconsider it, even after he learned it had been a mistake. And he was now convinced he had been cheated. He was confirmed in this opinion by Martin Van Buren, leader of the “Albany Regency” - the elite who ran New York State politics.
“Old Kinderhook” (he was from that upstate village) had tried to deliver his state to Crawford in 1824. But Van Buren (above) failed for various reasons – his overconfidence being the biggest one, but there was also Crawford's stroke, and a political “paltroon” named Stephen van Rensslaer who switched his vote to Adams at the last second. But now Van Buren could blame the infamous “corrupt bargain”, which luckily would also justify Van Buren now switching his allegiance to Jackson. 
He was joined by the editor of the Frankfort, Kentucky newspaper “The Argus of Western America”, Amos Kendall (above). This scarecrow with a brain had been a long time supporter of Henry Clay. But in April of 1825 a barbecue was held to honor the four Kentucky congressmen who defied party orders and insisted on voting for Jackson. They had not stopped Adams from taking the oath, but the soiree to celebrate their defiance was so well attended and enthusiastic, it convinced Kendall that Jackson was going to be the next President. The editorial slant of the Argus switched sides to support Jackson, immediately.
That spring of 1826, Van Buren would make a tour through the Carolinas and Georgia to organize support for Jackson. Again, the response was so positive that even Judge Crawford, still recovering from his stroke, endorsed the hero of New Orleans for the election over three years away. At every stop, Van Buren created “Huzza Boys”, who would plant stands of Hickory trees, and hand out sticks of Hickory wood at pro-Jackson rallies. The trees did not grow well in New England's rocky soil, but its wood was popular for use as wheel spokes and ax handles, because it would break before it bent. As one biographer has noted, the public thought of Jackson as disciplined, brave, uneducated but clever, which closely matched the self image of most Americans living on the frontier.
But myth, public and personal,  was always part of Jackson's persona. In truth Jackson, although born in poverty,  had clawed his way to wealth. He was largely self educated, but was now the polished owner of a 1,000 acre plantation worked by 90 human slaves. He was a very rich man.  He built his political career attacking the Bank of the United States – forerunner to the Federal Reserve System – but he also owned stock in its Nashville branch. Still, the personality which drove him to attain his station in life, did not seem best suited for a successful career in politics. A longtime friend once warned the General's new personal secretary, “to make it a point not to mingle or associate with anyone who the General believed, was either personally or politically unfriendly to him, although he may have unfounded jealousies against individuals on that subject.”  In other words, never question Jackson's reason for hating anyone.. 
Still, despite the 13 duels he fought, Jackson engaged in none which did not benefit his reputation. The only man he is known to have actually killed in a duel, Charles Dickenson, had to call Jackson a coward, a poltroon and a worthless scoundrel in the pages of a New Orleans newspaper, before Jackson issued the challenge. In fairness, once the shooting started, Jackson's attitude was always, “I should have hit him if he had shot me through the brain.” In fact Dickenson shot Jackson in the chest. Old Hickory would suffer from that bullet for the rest of his life, but at the time he ignored the wound, and a misfire, and methodically reloaded and then shot Dickenson dead.
And Jackson now had another unexpected ally, the political wild card John Caldwell Calhoun (above), who had plotted his own strange path to the White House. Once the rock jawed gambler realized his own state of South Carolina was not going to support his run for the top job, he became the only man in 1824 to have actively campaigned for the office of Vice President. It proved to be a smart move, for while the top job was mired in political machinations, Calhoun was easily elected. But his goal from the day he took the oath for that secondary office was to knock down Henry Clay, to make room for himself at the top. Calhoun called the “corrupt bargain” made by his one time friend Clay, “the most dangerous stab, which the liberty of this country has ever received.” It was an interesting observation, overlooking the Alien and Sedition Acts of a decade earlier, and signed by John Quincy’s father. But then most successful politicians have short memories.
To the supporters of John Quincy Adams this was all outrageous. Their man had not even taken the oath of office before his enemies were moving to ensure he would be, as other politicians  200 years later would insist, “a one term President”.   It was vulgar, unpatriotic, and beneath contempt. And politics as usual. You can almost share their frustration though, even when they began to refer to Jackson as “Andrew Jackass”, and an Adams newspaper published the cartoon (above)  "The Modern Balaan and his Ass", showing Jackson on a stubborn donkey and Van Buren dutifully following behind, saying, "I shall follow in the footsteps of my illustrious predecesor". 
But the reality was that it wasn't personal, except to Old Hickory of course. A number of powerful politicians simply saw greater advantage in working against John Quincy, than in working with him. And if the bargain to assemble a governing coalition for Adams was not corrupt, neither was the rebellion raised to overthrow him. The founding fathers were no strangers to the murky, disgusting side to politics. And having experienced the evils of royalty and elitism, they were willing to embrace even the dark side of public elections.

Lucky us.
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Thursday, October 06, 2016

FOLLOW THE LEADER


"A leader in the Democratic Party is a boss, in the Republican Party he is a leader. "
Harry Truman
I would describe it as a generation gap. When James Pendergast won big betting on a horse named Climax, he invested the winnings in a bar, restaurant and hotel in St. Louis’s West Bottom neighborhood (middle, above). The town was then divided between the uptown establishment Republicans, and the working class Democrats who were actually "on the bottom".  James' business was so successful that he became one of the town’s most powerful councilmen. His competition for Democratic votes was Joe Shannon who controlled the police department. But, rather than fight, “Big Jim” cut a power sharing deal with Shannon. To get what he wanted, James' first instinct was always to negotiate. 
“You use a saw to shape wood, not a hammer.”
James Pendergast. 1892
James hired his youngest brother, Tom (above), as cashier and bookkeeper at the “Climax” in the early 1890’s. He also schooled Tom in local politics, lecturing him that, “The important thing is to get the votes.” In 1900 James secured Tom the position of Superintendent of Streets. Tom immediately hired two hundred new employees, all loyal goats - as Pendergast supporters were called. And every goat voted the way the Pendergasts told them too. Why wouldn't they? The Republican Party was not interested in representing them, Then, in November of 1911, at just 55, James died of kidney failure. Tom stepped in to fill his brother’s seat on the council, but resigned after just five years. The position was no longer powerful enough for him. Tom’s first instinct was always to go for his opponent’s throat..
“Today, politics may be our friend, and tomorrow we may be its victims.”
Owen D. Young. Chairman of General Electric. 1922-1939
In 1916 Tom Pendergast had himself appointed to the leadership of the Jackson County Democratic Party, headquartered in a two story yellow brick building (above, left)  at 1908 Main Street. With the votes from the Irish and Italian neighborhoods in his pocket, Tom drove Shannon’s people out of the police department, making him the invisible hand in writing of the new city charter, adopted in 1925. “Boss” Tom could now manipulate both the city and county governments, Democratic and Republican parties, from behind the scenes, following a simple rule; "The important thing is to get the votes-no matter what.”
“Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.”
Plato 400 B.C.E.
Boss Tom’s name never had to appear on a ballot. As one St. Louis writer noted, “Pendergast never did hunt ducks with a brass band. It has always been hard to tell what he is doing, but easy to tell what he has done the day after the election.” Tom helpfully described the methods he had learned from his older brother. “Every one of my workers has a fund to buy food, coal, shoes and clothing. When a poor man comes to old Tom's boys for help….we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.”  Again, why wouldn't they? The Republicans had nothing to offer these folks except suspicion and attack.
“Politics have no relation to morals.
Niccolo Machiavelli. 1532
James "Blackie" Audett explained the methods Boss Tom developed for himself.  “My first job in Kansas City was to look up vacant lots…we would give addresses to them vacant lots. Then we would take the address and assign them to people we could depend on – prostitutes, thieves, floaters, anybody we could get on the voting registration books. On election days we just hauled these people to the right places and they went in and voted…”  By implication, the prostitutes, thieves and floaters must have almost outnumbered the honest folk in Kansas, else how could they thrown an election to the Democrats. The truth was  no elections in Kansas were ever won by the handful of votes from prostitutes, thieves or floaters, anymore than Republicans ever won an election based solely on votes from Retirement homes.
“The political machine triumphs because it is a united minority, acting against a divided majority.”
Will Durant. 
With the arrival of the Great Depression, Boss Tom did not wait for Hoover to sympathize with Kansas Cities’ 38%  unemployment. In November of 1930 the town voted a $40 million bond issue, for a “Ten-Year-Plan”. What Kansas got for its investment in the future was the “Power and Light Building”, still a landmark in KC., as well as a new City Hall, the Jackson County Court House, a new Police Headquarters, a new Municipal Auditorium, and several schools. When the KC “Star” described all these new buildings as “Pendergast’s concrete pyramids”, Tom merely smiled. The truth was that Pendergast Ready-Mix Cement was probably his only entirely legal business. But in fact what brought Tom Pendergast down, was another legal business; political consultant. 
“There are no true friends in politics. We are all sharks circling, and waiting for traces of blood to appear in the water’
Alan Clark. 1974
Since 1922 the State of Missouri and 137 companies had been sparing over rate increases for fire insurance. The difference in any individual policy was small, but after 15 years the amount impounded while the courtroom wrangling continued was $10 million. Then, suddenly, the state agreed to a settlement, giving the insurance companies $8 million, and the right to increase future rates. In May of 1938 Republican Governor Loyd Stark (below, right), a Tom Pendergast pick (below, left), ordered an investigation.  This discovered that the insurance companies had delivered a half million dollars in cash to Tom Pendergast as a “political consulting” fee, just before the settlement. Since Pendergast had no direct authority over the insurance commissioner, this fee was legal. However it was politically embarrassing. And in order to avoid the embarrassment, Boss Tom had not declared it on his Federal income tax. And that was illegal.
“The hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
Adlai Stevenson.
The end came quickly. On 7 April, 1939 Boss Tom (above) was arraigned on two counts of tax fraud. On 22 May, 1939 he plead guilty. He paid a fine and served 15 months in prison, and was never involved in Missouri politics again.  Maybe he saw it as a handy way to get off the political treadmill.
“An election is coming. Universal peace is declared, and the foxes have a sincere interest in prolonging the lives of the poultry.”
George Eliot. 
The reformers patted themselves on the back, and the Republicans reveled in their triumph over Democratic sin. Governor Stark (above) hoped to use the toppling of Boss Tom to propel himself into the U.S. Senate. But in 1940, he lost a nasty contest to Harry Truman, who had also been a Pendergast man. After that Stark was through in Missouri politics. When Boss Tom died in January of 1945, his funeral was well attended, and the only thing that changed about Missouri politics was the names on the ballots. 
“If you can’t convince them, confuse them.”
Harry S. Truman.
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Tuesday, October 04, 2016

CORRUPTION

I sympathize with the stupid, stupid thing Governor William Langer (above) did on the night of Tuesday 17 July, 1934. He was frustrated. He had been outmaneuvered, railroaded and thoroughly screwed over by his political opponents. Even his friends. The North Dakota Supreme Court had just validated his exile and he was facing two years in prison and disbarment. He'd spent the day commiserating with ten friends in the governor's mansion. The dedicated temperance man might even have been a little drunk. If he did that would help explain why, late that night, “Wild Bill” locked the font door of the executive mansion and signed a declaration that he was succeeding from the Federal union, and taking 680,000 people and 71,000 square miles with him.  North Dakota was now a brand new country, where the national tree was the telephone pole, and the national motto was “I'm not paying for that.”
Wild Bill” lived up to his nickname during his 1932 gubernatorial campaign, telling voters, “Shoot the banker, if he comes for your farm. Treat him like a chicken thief.” It was a popular message. That year 76,000 North Dakota farms had been sold at bank auctions, but the repossessions were not helping the small banks: of the 900 banks operating in North Dakota in 1920, by 1933, barely a third were still open, and that number continued to drop. Nationally, $140 billion – $2.5 trillion in today's money - in uninsured customer deposits had simply vanished. Almost every farmer in the cash starved North Dakota was “upside down” on their loans The unemployment rate in the state would rise from 9.4% in 1930 to 27.3% in 1933. Wild Bill goaded his supporters, “There can be no return to prosperity in North Dakota that does not begin with the farmer.” But Governor Langer was just trying to catch up to a radicalized public.
In February a crowd of a thousand stopped a farm seizure and sale, and in March a group pulled guns on a sheriff, burning the foreclosure papers on another farm. In response Governor Langer called up the National Guard – and ordered them to stop all such sales. Then, in October, with the price of wheat hitting an all time low, Langer closed the state's borders to all wheat exports. The embargo was short lived, ending before the railroads and banks got a court order over turning it. While the price of wheat rose only a few cents, he had convinced farmers the government was on their side. The governor did not have the legal authority to do such things, and in traditional Republican circles Langer was denounced as a dictator. Amazingly, neither extra-legal action had anything to do with his 1934 indictment.
Winning the 1932 election had almost bankrupted the Republican Non Partisan League of North Dakota. Governor Langer even had to loan his party $21,000 out of his own pocket. And if the party was to survive a rematch with the traditional Republican establishment in 1934, they were going to have to raise cash. That summer Langer began republishing the old NPL weekly newspaper “The Leader”. And he pressured state employees to buy a year's subscription, equal to 5% of their salary. It was a common practice in many states at the time to require workers to donate to the party in power, but at least in North Dakota, for every additional subscriptions a state worker sold, an equal dollar amount would be returned. It made every state worker a salesman for the NPL.
The Governor's plan might have worked except for fellow NPL Republican and U.S. Senator, Gerald P. Nye (above), aka “Gerald the Giant-Killer”. He earned his nickname by uncovering the Tea Pot Dome scandal in the Harding administration. He and Langer were both afflicted with the puritanical egotism that had repeatedly splintered the NPL and prevented it from dominating North Dakota politics. Nye began urging the federal Justice Department to investigate his old political "frenemy", William Langer.
After reviewing Senator Nye's allegations, newly appointed federal prosecutor, Democrat Powless William (P.W.) Lanier (above) thought he'd found “an offense...that is indictable.” Roosevelt's New Deal was funding 2,300 miles of road improvements and 60 new bridges across North Dakota. And that made the members of the state highway department technically federal employees, covered by federal corruption laws. A federal Grand Jury was convened in Bismark to hear the evidence on 8 March, 1934. They refused to return an indictment. So P.W. convened a second jury on 10 April, but this time, carefully selected its members. Of the 23 jurors, twenty were city residents, in a state that was still heavily rural, and 22 had previously made public statements opposed to the NPL. P.W. kept the hand picked juries' indictment a secret until 16 May, the same day Governor Langer announced his campaign for re-election. But the case was really decided when it was assigned to the court of federal Judge Andrew Miller.
Judge Miller (above) was another Harding appointee, but before that, as a private attorney, he had defended the railroads when the South Dakota Attorney General had sued them for $2 million in back taxes. The A.G. who won that judgment and humiliated Andrew Miller had been William Langer. And even though Federal Prosecutor Lanier agreed to postpone the trial until after the Republican primary - with so few Democrats in North Dakota, winning the primary was paramount to winning the general election - Judge Miller refused to delay the trial.  In an arraignment that took only fourteen minutes, Miller went a step further, ruling the defense could not mention Langer's loan to the NPL, making it seem “The Leader” subscriptions were pure graft. And then he required the sitting Governor, accused of a non-violent crime, to post bail.
The trial, which opened on Tuesday, 22 May, 1934, charged Governor Langer (above) with two related offenses: conspiracy to extort funds from federal employees, and blocking the orderly operation of an act of congress. As the case was handed over to the jury, Governor Langer could sense what was coming, and on Thursday, 12 July, he tried an end run. Arguing that only the legislature had the power to remove a sitting governor, “Wild Bill” called for a special session to investigate his actions. 
Tensions began to mount while Bismark filled with Langer supporters (above) and opponents.   Then, after sixty hours of deliberation, at 12:26 in the morning of Sunday, 17 July, the jury convicted William Langer on both counts.
Judge Miller could not help gloating, admitting he was delighted and pleased by the verdict. “You have earned the confidence and respect of the whole state,” he told his jury, adding for some reason, “Your verdict...(is) the result of honest conviction without fear or favor.” Then, bright and early Monday morning, Lieutenant Governor Ole Olson (above), asked the state Supreme Court to answer a simple question – since the state constitution said convicted felons lost all rights of citizenship, was the newly convicted William Langer still Governor? The court had to answer “No”. But they also refused to rule on William's ability to  stand for re-election until after his sentencing. 
And as his first official act, “Governor” Ole Olson rescinded the call for a special session of the legislature. The next day, Tuesday, 18 July, “Wild Bill” Langer, easily won the Republican primary for Governor.
About 10:30 that night, with ten friends as witnesses, “Wild Bill” (above left) declared himself and his state a new nation, conceived in bitterness and dedicated to the proposition that William Langer was getting screwed. Luckily somebody convinced “Wild Bill” not to tell many people about his bold move, or he might have been removed for mental incompetence. On Sunday, 22 July, Governor Langer assured the 94 out of 159 members of the legislature who showed up for the special session anyway, “I want this legislative assembly to investigate how the federal government and officials have persecuted me with the advice and aid of Senator Gerald P. Nye...I am still your governor. If I have been guilty of any corrupt conduct...I want this legislative assembly to impeach and remove me from office.” Dutifully, his supporters voted to begin impeachment proceedings against not only Ole Olson, but the entire State Supreme Court too.
That night there was a quiet meeting between a calmer William Langer and the entire state supreme court. They managed to reason with “Wild Bill”, who moved the sofa away from the front door of the executive mansion, and resigned. The constitutional crises in North Dakota had been averted. The union of states was saved, again. Of course, William Langer still refused to leave the mansion (above) until what would have been the end of his term.
That fall Senator Nye and the “Governor” Olsen threw their support behind Democrat Thomas Moodie (above) for Governor...
allowing him to beat Lydia Langer (above, right), “Wild Bill”'s wife.  Then, in February of 1935, the State Supreme Court ruled that Moodie had not met the five year residency requirement for state office holders.
That made Lieutenant Governor Walter Welford (above, seated) the fourth Governor of North Dakota in four months.
It wasn't until 7 May, 1935 that the Federal Appeals Court overturned “Wild Bill”'s conviction and ordered a new trial. Judge Miller refused to recuse himself, and at the new trial managed to at least get a hung jury, 10 to 2 for conviction. Langer immediately appealed again, and the Appeals Court again ordered a new trial, this time ordering Judge Miller to step aside. Prosecutor Lanier responded by charging Langer with committing perjury in his appeal filing. First a new trial jury, under an impartial judge, found William Langer (above, left)  “not guilty” of corruption. Then the judge in the perjury trial found the supposed falsehoods were merely personal opinion, and ordered a directed verdict of not guilty. The following year, in 1936, William Langer ran again for Governor, and won again. Senator Nye growled, “Langer has more lives than a cat.”
While these intense political battles were raging,  the state of North Dakota was burning up and blowing away.  The dry year of 1933 (just 13 inches of rain) was followed by the drought year of 1934 (9.4 inches). That September a plague of locusts descended on the state . There were 4 inches of grasshoppers on the streets of Killdeer. After the Dust Bowl Years, North Dakota lost so many citizens, the population would not return to 1930 levels until the year 2010. But the politicians are just as corrupt, partisan and irrational.  Did anybody expect them to change?

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