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Senators Worth Remembering

William “Will Bill” Langer – North Dakota

The Sixth in an Occasional Series…

John McCain might think of himself as a “maverick,” and many politicians aspire to that label, but few really qualify. Even fewer can hold a candle to the former Governor and United States Senator from North Dakota, William Langer who just might qualify as the original maverick.

When you think of states with colorful political characters, you might immediately think of Louisiana or Texas, but probably not North Dakota. Actually, North Dakota has an extraordinarily colorful political history and no person made it more colorful than “Wild Bill” Langer.

Langer’s political career – more technicolor than just color – had its origins in the radical Nonpartisan League, a farm-based moment that in various states tried to take over one or the other major political party and, in the case of North Dakota, implement reforms like women’s suffrage and state ownership of banks, insurance companies and grain milling.

The NPL succeeded with much of its radical agenda in North Dakota in the 1920’s, including establishing the Bank of North Dakota still the only state-owned bank in the country. The bank’s deposits are backed not by the FDIC, but the full faith and credit of the state of North Dakota. In 1916, Langer received NPL backing in his campaign for Attorney General. He won and on his first day in office swore our arrest warrants for 167 liquor dealers and vice operators. He sued the railroads for back taxes did some courageous – or perhaps outrageous – things to support North Dakota farmers.

Elected governor in 1934, he declared a moratorium on farm foreclosures and called out the National Guard to stop sheriff’s sales. Langer ran afoul of the Roosevelt Administration when he required state employees to contribute a portion of their salaries to his political fund. Convicted in federal court, he was removed from the Governor’s Office, but kept on fighting and eventually – three trials later – had the conviction overturned. Langer went back to the North Dakota Governor’s Office in 1937. At one point in this period, North Dakota had four governors in seven months!

Elected to the Senate in 1940 as a Republican, Langer’s seating in the Senate was challenged by some of his North Dakota constituents who charged him with “moral turpitude.”

As reported by the Senate historian, “In one particularly outrageous occurrence, witnesses recounted a 1932 occasion when Langer as a private attorney kidnapped his own client from a local jail, transported the man and his ex-wife across the state line, and convinced the woman to agree to a marriage ceremony. Langer did not deny that he concocted this bizarre scheme to prevent the wife—the only eyewitness to a sordid murder—from testifying against her husband. In exchange for her cooperation, Langer promised to arrange a second divorce without fees right after the trial. The woman subsequently married someone else on Langer’s assurance that she was free to do so, only to learn nine years later that he had in fact neglected to arrange her divorce.’

The Senate investigation went on for months and eventually Senators voted by a sizable margin to seat the controversial “Wild Bill.”

Langer served in the Senate until his death in 1959 and he never abandoned his isolationist views on foreign policy. Langer was one of two Senators to vote against U.S. membership in the United Nations.

Not always right, but seldom in doubt would be a good way to characterize William Langer’s career. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that North Dakota hasn’t produced a few incredibly interesting political characters and in “Wild Bill” Langer a Senator Worth Remembering.


Mark Hatfield

Not Likely to See His Kind Again

I’ve always thought of Mark Hatfield, the Oregon Republican who died on Sunday, as looking and acting exactly as a United States Senator should. If Hollywood were casting a role for a wise, reasoned fellow to be a U.S. Senator, Hatfield could have played the part. Heck, he did play the part for 30 years.

Most of the obits describe Mark Hatfield as “a liberal Republican,” and that is probably a fine description, as far as it goes. I think of him in the great tradition of Senate independents and independence is way more important in politics than being a Republican, a Democrat, a liberal or a conservative. Hatfield was an independent.

My old friend Joel Connelly correctly calls Hatfield one of the political “giants” of the Pacific Northwest and in his remembrance notes the range of things Hatfield touched, including appropriations, opposition to the Vietnam War, northwest salmon, nuclear disarmament and civil rights. Joel also remembers him, as I do, as one of the most dignified and best dressed guys in politics. Central casting again. Suits don’t make the man, but they don’t hurt, either.

The Oregonian’s Steve Duin remembers, as all who have been close to real politics know, that even the greatest of men walk on feet of clay. Hatfield was complex, could hold a grudge and he relished the perks of power displaying a blind eye to the propriety of accepting gifts from admirers and those whom had benefited from his power.

“Hatfield never lost an election, and rarely campaigned.” Duin writes, quoting the five-term senator as saying, “I am the Senator. I never yield that advantage by becoming a candidate.”

Hatfield was also highly religious and wise in how he applied the lessons he learned as a Baptist who – here is complex again – loved movies and learned early to enjoy dancing. An extensive interview he did in 1982 with Christianity Today introduced Hatfield this way:

“He is a Republican, but is known as a liberal in politics. He is against nuclear war, but he is not a pacifist. He supports all sorts of programs to aid the poor, but he is a diehard fiscal conservative. He is a friend of Billy Graham, and he cosponsors a resolution with Sen. Edward Kennedy. He has never been a “wheel” of the Senate’s power structure, but he has become chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He antagonizes his Oregon constituency by voting flatly against a measure 90 percent of them badly want, and they turn right around and reelect him to office. He is a devout evangelical and an active member of Georgetown Baptist Church, but no fundamentalist or evangelical organization has him in its pocket.”

When the role is called for United States Senators from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, I’m betting that the higher power that Mark Hatfield believed in and thought deeply about will want to know how those senators came down on a few issues that define their generation – Vietnam, civil rights, nuclear weapons and treatment of the most vulnerable among us. Flaws and all, Mark Hatfield, the independent, the complex man of faith, was on the right side of history and, who knows, perhaps his God.

Either way, the Northwest has lost one of the true political giants of the 20th Century.


Senators Worth Remembering

PopeJames P. Pope, Idaho

The Fourth in a Series…

Democrat James Pinckey Pope served only one term in the United State Senate from 1933 to 1939, but left his mark on both domestic and foreign policy. Pope was the first Boise Mayor to go directly to the United States Senate. Dirk Kempthorne repeated that political leap 60 years after Pope’s election.

Pope, a Louisiana native and University of Chicago law school grad, came to Boise in 1909, served in a variety of civic and political positions, including a term as mayor and work in the Idaho Attorney Generals office, before his election to the Senate in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932.

Pope was a reliable New Dealer whose election to the Senate clearly benefited from Roosevelt’s popularity as the Great Depression gripped the nation and Idaho. As Idaho historian Bob Sims has written, Pope’s 1932 campaign “anticipated the New Deal, as he stressed ‘the issue of the little man’ and ‘economic relief for the lower strata.'”

Idaho’s great Sen. William E. Borah was nearly as much of an issue in Pope’s 1932 campaign as was the nation’s distressed economy. Borah nominally supported his GOP colleague John Thomas, but did little to campaign for him, while Pope stressed that Borah’s vote in the Senate had often been cancelled by the more conservative Thomas. Pope easily defeated Thomas and soon enough emerged from the huge political shadow cast by Borah, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

While Borah, like many of his Idaho constituents, was a committed non-interventionist in matters of foreign policy, Pope was an advocate for American involvement in the World Court and the League of Nations. Critics in Idaho, according to Sims, took to calling Pope the “ambassador to Europe from Idaho,” especially after the junior senator made two European trips in 1934 and 1935.

Ironically Pope’s participation in the Senate investigation of the munitions industry – the so called Nye Committee of 1934 and 1935 – served to undercut his internationalist foreign policy views. The Nye Committee, named for progressive Republican and isolationist North Dakota Sen. Gerald P. Nye – held more than 90 hearings investigating the role big money and the big armaments industry played in U.S. involvement in World War I. The committee reflected much popular sentiment in the country in the early 1930’s that the U.S. had blundered into the world war and that Wall Street – J.P. Morgan was hauled before the committee – had added and abetted American intervention by selling arms to all the belligerents.

The munitions industry earned the label “merchants of death,” which was also the title of a best selling book advancing the theory of Wall Street conniving to get the country into war. Nye earned lasting Democratic scorn for attacking Woodrow Wilson. Nye accused the former president of being less than honest about why the country had gone to war in 1917.

The Nye committee, with Alger Hiss serving as counsel for a time and with prominent members like Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, gave momentum to those, like Borah, who favored neutrality legislation and a general withdrawal from European affairs.

As a reliable vote for any manner of New Deal legislation, including FDR’s controversial court packing scheme in 1937, Pope’s political standing in Idaho, particularly compared to Borah, suffered near the end of his only term. The Idaho Democratic Party was also fractious, with Pope clearly at home in the liberal wing of the party. When a more conservative Democrat, popular eastern Idaho Congressman D. Worth Clark, challenged Pope for the Democratic nomination in 1938, Clark won. Clark’s foreign policy views were much more in line with Borah than Pope had ever been.

Still, even with defeat for re-election to the Senate, Pope’s political career was far from over. In 1939, Roosevelt appointed Pope to be a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority, a position he held until 1951. After his TVA tenure, Pope lived in Tennessee, practicing law, and eventually relocated to Alexandria, Virginia where he died in 1963.

James P. Pope of Idaho was another United States Senator worth remembering.

Others in this series: Reed Smoot of Utah, Bronson Cutting of New Mexico and Edward Costigan of Colorado.

Senators Worth Remembering

smootReed Smoot – Utah

The Third in a Series…

If Reed Smoot, the Utah Republican who represented the Beehive State in the U.S. Senate for 30 years, is remembered much today it is for his role in passing what is now widely regarded as the disastrous Smoot-Hawley Tariff.

The tariff legislation, passed in 1930, put in place historically high import duties in the interest of protecting American farmers. Many historians now say that Smoot-Hawley contributed to prolonging the Great Depression.

Smoot was chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee in 1930 and generally supported protectionist measures. He never really admitted that the tariff that has carried his name into history might have been a contributor to prolonging the world-wide economic collapse.

Beyond tariff legislation, Smoot is a senator worth remembering for at least two other significant reasons. He sponsored the legislation in the Senate that created the National Park Service and he championed legislation to create two of the great National Parks – Zion and Bryce. He also suffered through one of the most protracted and nasty episodes in Senate history when his first election to the Senate was contested on the basis of his religion.

Smoot came to the Senate in 1903, elected by the Utah Legislature, not long after being named to one of the most senior positions in the leadership of the LDS Church. Smoot was an apostle of the Mormon Church and, as a result, some of his fellow Senators – Idaho’s Fred DuBois one of the most prominent – held him responsible for the fact that polygamy was still practiced by many of the faithful, including some church leaders. Even though the church had formally repudiated plural marriage in 1890, the practice was still widespread in the early years of the 20th Century and, while clearly not a practitioner himself, Smoot was, in some eyes, guilty by association with his church.

Unbelievably, the celebrated Smoot hearings went on for four years with the investigating committee eventually voting in favor of expelling the Utah Senator. Cooler heads prevailed when Smoot’s fate was finally considered by the full Senate and his opponents failed to muster the necessary two-thirds vote to expel him.

In her excellent 2004 book, The Politics of American Religious Identity: The Seating of Senator Reed Smoot, Mormon Apostle, historian Kathleen Flake examines the issues that Smoot confronted during his long Senate ordeal and concludes, persuasively I think, that “a broad coalition of American Protestant churches,” acting through their leaders, sought to expel Smoot from the Senate for his religious views. The professed concerns about polygamy provided a convenient pretext. Flake also argues that the ordeal actually served to strengthen the LDS Church in the United States and in Europe.

One of Smoot’s defenders was Sen. Boies Penrose, a Republican of Pennsylvania, who made fun of several of his Senate colleagues that he suspected of being less than straight arrows in observing their own marriage vows.

Penrose, in defending Smoot, said, “As for me, I would rather have seated beside me in this chamber a polygamist who doesn’t polyg than a monogamist who doesn’t monag.”

Smoot lost his Senate seat to Democrat Elbert Thomas in the Roosevelt landslide of 1932. He returned to Salt Lake City where he continued as a top leader of the LDS Church. He was third in line for the presidency of the church when he died in 1941. Utah historian Milton R. Merrill has written the definitive biography of the church leader and politician, appropriately entitled Reed Smoot – Apostle in Politics.

Reed Smoot of Utah was another United States Senator worth remembering.

Other’s in this series, include Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico and Sen. Edward Costigan of Colorado.


Senators Worth Remembering

CostiganEdward P. Costigan – Colorado

The Second in a Series…

Democrat Edward P. Costigan had a short, but extremely productive and influential tenure representing Colorado in the United States Senate. Costigan served only one term from 1931 – 1937 and is now mostly forgotten, but his courage in fighting for a federal statue to outlaw lynching puts him in a category of Senators worth remembering.

Costigan’s biographer, Fred Greenbaum, titled his book about the Denver lawyer turned politician Fighting Progressive and Costigan certainly was. Educated at Harvard, Costigan settled in Denver in 1900 and immediately took up the progressive cause helping form a Progressive Party, running unsuccessfully for governor, representing the interests of miners and unions and eventually winning a Woodrow Wilson appointment to the Tariff Commission.

With the Great Depression crushing Colorado and the rest of the country, Costigan ran for the Senate in 1930 promising to work for economic recovery and relief for those hardest hit by the disastrous economic conditions. Once in the Senate, Costigan joined other western progressives in advocating relief measures and he became, if anything, more liberal than Franklin Roosevelt after FDR’s election in 1932.

Costigan was impatient with the pace of economic recovery and pushed for more sweeping effort to aid the unemployed, but it was the championing of anti-lynching legislation hat perhaps assures his place as an early day proponent of civil liberties and worthy of being a Senator worth remembering.

Time magazine noted in a 2002 article that, “lynching evolved into a semiofficial institution of racial terror against blacks. All across the former Confederacy, blacks who were suspected of crimes against whites–or even “offenses” no greater than failing to step aside for a white man’s car or protesting a lynching–were tortured, hanged and burned to death by the thousands.”

Lynching became a form of domestic terrorism against blacks and by one estimate more than 4,700 lynchings took place from the late 1800 to the 1960’s.

Costigan was outraged by the crime and was determined to see the federal government pass a law. With another liberal Democrat, Robert Wagner of New York, Costigan drafted the Costigan-Wagner Act that sought to require local authorities to protect their prisoners from the mob, while making lynching a federal crime. Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary was Costigan’s chief Republican ally on the legislation. Costigan worked tirelessly on the bill in the early 1930’s, possibly to the detriment of his own health, but could never get it passed.

In Senate debate arguing for the anti-lynching legislation, Costigan eloquently said, “no man can be permitted to usurp the combined functions of judge, jury and executioner of his fellow men; and whenever any State fails to protect such equal rights, I submit the Federal Government must do its utmost to repair the damage which is then chargeable to all of us.”

Roosevelt offered only tepid support for the federal anti-lynching concept, perhaps on practical and Constitutional grounds, but also because he was fully aware that such an “anti-state’s rights” measure could erode Democratic Party support in the still “solid south.” FDR was also correctly convinced that southern Democrats would filibuster the legislation putting his own legislative agenda at risk.

Costigan’s health deteriorated to such a degree that he was unable to seek re-election in 1936 and died in 1939 having never realized his dream to end one particularly heinous crime of domestic terrorism. It wasn’t until 1946 that a federal civil rights conviction was gained against lynching.

Edward P. Costigan of Colorado is another Senator worth remembering.

Senators Worth Remembering

CuttingBronson M. Cutting – New Mexico

The First in a Series…

Sen. Bronson M. Cutting was among the most interesting men to have ever sat in the United States Senate.

New York born into a wealthy family and, like Franklin Roosevelt, educated at Groton and Harvard, Cutting settled in New Mexico believing the climate would be good for his health. He served in World War I, became a champion of veterans benefits, published the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, entered politics and was eventually appointed to a Senate vacancy and then elected in his own right.

In 1932, Cutting, a progressive Republican in the tradition of Idaho’s William Borah, was one of a handful of elected Senate Republicans who abandoned the party’s nominee, Herbert Hoover, in order to endorse Franklin Roosevelt. Imagine the impact of such a move today, and it was no less important in 1932. Cutting’s endorsement of FDR prompted speculation that the New Mexico Senator might be appointed to the president’s cabinet – Secretary of the Interior perhaps. But when Roosevelt turned to another progressive Republican, Harold Ickes, for that job, Cutting focused his legislative attention on veterans issues and advocacy of aggressive action to speed economic recovery during some of the darkest days of the Great Depression.

Before long, Cutting, like many in the Senate’s progressive caucus, grew disillusioned with both the pace of the economic recovery and the Roosevelt Administration’s failure, as they saw it, to provide relief for the millions unemployed and hurting. Cutting, as his excellent biographer Richard Lowitt notes, “was if not the lone then certainly the most prominent Anglo seeking to bring Hispanic voters into the mainstream as independent citizens without ties to either a patron or a political boss.”

Cutting favored aggressive banking reform and was also a champion of free speech and free expression and he fought against rules and regulations that banned certain publications and works of art from entering the country. During this period, Cutting carried on a fascinating correspondence with the poet Ezra Pound and their letters have been collected into a book.

When Cutting sought re-election in 1934 it was without the support of the White House, a political calculation that infuriated many of Cutting’s progressive colleagues. Cutting’s friends accused Roosevelt of disloyalty to the New Mexican who, after all, had risked repudiation by his own party for backing the president in his election. The 1934 New Mexico senate race was an epic battle pitting Cutting against a prominent attorney, Democrat and Hispanic Dennis Chavez.

The election was extremely close, but when all the votes were tallied Cutting came out on top. But Chavez, with backing from the Roosevelt Administration, alleged fraud and challenged the election. The subsequent investigation took months to play out and required enormous amounts of Cutting’s time and energy. During a return trip to Washington, D.C. after a trip to New Mexico to attend to the election challenge, Cutting died in a airplane crash in Missouri. Several other passengers survived the tragic crash, but Cutting – apparently not wearing his seat belt – died instantly. His death shocked the Senate.

Many of Cutting’s Senate friends – he was extremely well liked and respected as an honest and earnest lawmaker – were convinced the contested election had cost Cutting his life. Progressive Republican Sen. George Norris of Nebraska, tears in his eyes, told a friend, “(Cutting’s) blood is on the head of the politicians who traduced him and forced this contest on him.” Ickes confided to his diary that President Roosevelt “felt a little conscience-stricken about the whole thing.”

With Cutting dead, New Mexico’s Democratic governor appointed Chavez to fill the vacant seat and he went on to serve until 1961. Still the hurt over Cutting’s death remained. Senate progressives remained angry that the White House had supported the election challenge and they were determined to clear Cutting’s good name even as Chavez, now safely in the Senate, abandoned the election challenge. A Senate investigation eventually concluded there was no evidence of election fraud and “nothing in the record that reflects, either directly or indirectly, upon the honor or integrity of the late Senator Bronson M. Cutting.” The report was unanimous and the disputed election officially ended.

On the day Dennis Chavez was sworn in to replace Cutting, five senators quietly walked out of the Senate chamber rather than witness the ceremony and Borah was conspicuous by his absence.

When Cutting’s estate was settled some months later, he left vast amounts of money – his estate was valued at over $3 million dollars in 1935 – to many friends, office staff and, as Lowitt writes, “humble individuals” in New Mexico, many of them with Hispanic surnames. He also left a significant bequest to a school attended overwhelmingly by Hispanic students in poverty stricken northern New Mexico. The handling of Cutting’s estate only cemented his reputation as a committed liberal who devoted much of his life to bettering the conditions of the people of his state.

Lowitt’s biography also treats with care the speculation both during and after his life that Cutting was homosexual. He never married and his correspondence contains warm and loving letters to at least two adult males with whom Cutting was long acquainted. Lowitt leans toward the view that Cutting wasn’t gay and, perhaps more importantly, concludes that in the broad sweep of Cutting’s life his sexuality is not “worthy of undue attention.”

Bronson M. Cutting of New Mexico is one United States Senator worth remembering.