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.