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The Case for Jeannette

Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.

I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.

Rankin shortly after his first election to Congress in 1916.

Rankin shortly after her first election to Congress in 1916.

But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.

I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.

Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.

Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.

Rankin campaign button.

Rankin campaign button.

In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”

15 Jan 1968, Washington, DC, USA --- A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

January 1968, Washington, DC — A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.

I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.

Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”

“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”

I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.



Politics, War and Death

image028_w200When labor organizer Frank Little came to Butte, Montana in the summer of 1917 he had to have known that he was stepping, even on his one good leg, into the middle of a political powder keg. But going from frying pan to fire was fairly typical for Little. He’d been in Bisbee, Arizona earlier in 1917, another hot bed of labor and political upheaval, and along with a thousand others had been deported out of town and out of the state.

Trouble had a way of following Frank Little.

Ninety-six years ago on August 1, 1917 Frank Little was kidnapped at 3:00 am by a half dozen armed men. Having suffered a broken leg while in Arizona, Little hobbled out of the boarding house where he was living and into the street. His kidnappers tied him to the rear bumper of a big touring car and savagely pulled him through the dark streets of Butte. On the outskirts of town a rope was fastened to a railroad trestle and Little’s kidnappers and torturers became his murderers. When his body was cut down the next morning the IWW “radical,” who had come to Montana to recruit union members, agitate for better working conditions and oppose the United States’ involvement in The Great War in Europe, had a note affixed to his clothing. The note warned other “radicals” of a similar fate.

No one was ever charged with Little’s murder. It was a gruesome crime, a milestone in American and international labor history and remains to this day a near century old “cold case.” Newspaper editorials at the time essentially said Little had it coming. He was unpatriotic, the power structure contended, because he had openly challenged the war and should have been arrested for preaching sedition and attacking President Woodrow Wilson. In other words he was acting out his First Amendment rights.

Was Little murdered by agents of the mine owners of Butte? That’s my guess, but others have pointed to rival labor leaders or even citizen-vigilantes who were worried about what a prolonged period of labor unrest would mean for business and the profits flowing from a fully mobilized war economy. Maybe the killers were local law enforcement agents acting on orders from anti-union political leaders. I spent a day some months back digging in vain in the recently opened archives of the once-powerful Anaconda Mining Company, in its day one of the largest mining companies in the world, for any clue that “the Company” ordered Frank Little’s murder. Whomever did Little in covered their tracks pretty well.

Butte in 1917 must have been a hell of a place. One historian has called the one-time copper mining capitol of the world the only mining camp in the country that became an industrial center. Butte was home to vast, almost unimaginable wealth, but also desperate and unrelenting poverty.

One-time Butte Pinkerton detective turned detective writer Dashiell Hammett set his classic novel Red Harvest in a town that sounds a lot like Butte. “The city wasn’t pretty,” Hammett wrote, “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in a ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter’s stacks.” I imagine that to be a pretty good description of Butte in 1917.

 The mines operated, at least when miners weren’t striking, 24/7 and the taverns and whore houses did, as well. The “company” men – the shorthand for the swells who ran the Anaconda Mining Company – generally lived on the west side of Montana Avenue in grand houses. The Silver Bow Club – J.P. Morgan was a member – was as fancy as any New York “gentlemen’s club.” Caruso and dozens of other great acts played the theaters of Butte.

The miners came from Cornwall and County Cork, Finland and Serbia. The “no smoking” signs in the mines were printed in a dozen languages. If you needed to campaign for the state legislature or the city council you could best reach the voters in one of the dozens of bars in Butte where buying a round for the house constituted a wise campaign expenditure.

In June of 1917, just before Frank Little showed up to pour IWW gasoline on the already raging labor-management fires of Butte, 163 miners had died under awful circumstances at a mine in north Butte – The Speculator. A cable being lowered into the deep mine came in contact with a miner’s lamp and quickly flamed into a torch that  ignited timbers in the mine. Most of the miners died quickly from the smoke although some struggled for days to breath and live while waiting for the rescue that never came. The disaster still ranks as the worst in American hard rock mining history.

The Speculator fire and all the death outraged the miners of Butte and set off strikes and protests that were seen by Frank Little and others as an opportunity. Little paid for seizing that opportunity with his life. His funeral procession through the streets of Butte was recalled years later by those who saw it as one of the great labor protests in American history.

Montana native Michael Punke’s marvelous 2006 book Fire and Brimstone tells the Speculator and related stories is vivid and tragic detail. Punke notes that “in 1930, a Justice Department official who studied the fire and its aftermath declared that ‘the story of Butte in 1917 was altogether normal for its time. Indeed, in that very normality lies the stories significance. What took place in Butte took place elsewhere as well. When we know the Butte story we know the others.'”

It is easy for us to forget as union membership in the United States continues to decline – down from nearly 18 million workers 30 years ago to just over 14 million today – that workers have long fought brutal battles in an effort to improve their lot. As labor historian Philip Dray has written, “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor…were not handed down by anyone or distributed ready-made, but were organized around, demanded, and won by workers themselves.”

The next time you hear a politician attack a labor union – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example – or move to restrict worker rights pause and consider our history. A good part of the battle for the life of the modern American worker was fought in places like Butte, Montana and not so long ago.


No Coincidence

120424_brian_schweitzer_605_apThe abrupt and very surprising announcement last Saturday that former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer would take a pass on seeking the open U.S. Senate seat in Big Sky Country seems proof once again of what ought to be the Number One rule in politics. It’s often said that the fundamental rule in politics is to “secure your base,” but Schweitzer’s decision, sending shock waves from Washington to Wibaux, reinforces the belief that the real Number One rule in politics is that there are never any coincidences.

Consider the timeline.

On July 10, 2013 Politico, the Bible of conventional political wisdom inside the Beltway, ran a tough piece on Schweitzer under the headline “Brian Schweitzer’s Challenge: Montana Democrats.” The story made a point of detailing the bombastic Schweitzer’s less than warm relationships with fellow Democrats, including retiring senior Sen. Max Baucus and recently re-elected Sen. Jon Tester.

“Interviews with nearly two dozen Montana Democrats paint a picture of Schweitzer as a polarizing politician,” Politico’s Manu Raju wrote. “His allies adore him, calling him an affable and popular figure incredibly loyal to his friends, who had enormous political successes as governor and would stop at nothing to achieve his objectives.

“His critics describe him as a hot-tempered, spiteful and go-it-alone politician — eager to boost his own image while holding little regard for helping the team, something few forget in a small state like Montana.”

The story quoted one unnamed Montana Democrat as saying Schweitzer “doesn’t do anything if it doesn’t benefit him…he’s an incredibly self-serving politician.”

Added another: “He’s the most vindictive politician I’ve ever been in contact with.”

Meanwhile, conservative bloggers were zeroing in on Schweitzer with one comparing his frequent flights of colorful rhetoric – he recently said he wasn’t “crazy enough” to be in the U.S. House or “senile” enough to be in the Senate – to the disastrous campaign of Missouri Senate candidate Todd Akin in 2012. Other Republicans suggested they had done the opposition research on the man with the bolo-tie and found, as one said, “a lot of rust under the hood.”

Then last Saturday morning Schweitzer, who went almost instantly from a sure-fire contender to hold the Baucus seat for Democrats to a non-candidate, told the Associated Press that he would stay in Montana. “I love Montana. I want to be here. There are all kinds of people that think I should be in the U.S. Senate,” Schweitzer told AP. “But I never wanted to be in the U.S. Senate. I kicked the tires. I walked to the edge and looked over.”

The surprise announcement came as Montana Democrats were gathering in convention. Schweitzer did no real follow up with the media. His advisers had nothing to say. The national media reported that the decision not to run was a blow – as it is – to national Democrats. Then Sunday, the day after Schweitzer’s surprise announcement, the Great Falls Tribune published a lengthy piece, a piece that had been hinted as in the political pipeline earlier in the week, that raised numerous questions about Schweitzer’s connections with shadowy “dark money” groups that are closely associated with some of the former governor’s aides and close political friends. The “dark money” connections are particularly sensitive in Montana, a state that has a long and proud tradition of limiting corporate money in politics and a state that unsuccessfully challenged the awful Supreme Court decision in Citizens United that took the chains off corporate money.

As a friend in Montana says Schweitzer is staying on Montana’s Georgetown Lake rather than head for Georgetown on the Potomac. But there is always more to the story.

Brian Schweitzer had a political gift, the gift of making yourself a unique “brand.” The bolo-tie, the dog at his heels, the finger wagging, blue jeans swagger. He was gifted, perhaps too much, with the quick one liner. He won many fights, but almost always by brawling and bluster and with elements of fear and favor. In politics always making yourself the “bride at every wedding” and the “corpse at every funeral,” as Alice Roosevelt famously said of her father Teddy, exacts a steep price. Brain Schweitzer may have found the truth of another rule of politics: your friends die and your enemies accumulate.

Schweitzer may genuinely want to stay on Georgetown Lake in beautiful Montana or, if you believe in no coincidence, he may have found that his personal political brand had finally reached its “sell by date” and would simply not survive another round of intense scrutiny. Politics is always about personality. People like you or they don’t. They respect you or not. Rarely do they dislike you and fear you and also hope that you succeed.

“It’s always all about Brian,” another Montana Democrat told Politico. “That I think is the root for every problem.” No coincidence.


Appointing Senators

senateSam Ervin, the white haired Constitutional law expert from North Carolina who presided over the most famous and consequential Senate investigation ever, may never have made it to Senate had he not first been appointed to the job. That’s Ervin in the photo surrounded by Watergate committee staff and Sen. Howard Baker in 1972.

Ervin, appointed in 1954, served 20 years in the Senate and is now remembered to history for his drawling, gentlemanly and expert handling of the investigation that exposed the corruption at the very top of the Nixon White House. Ervin is one of about 200 people appointed to the Senate by governors since we started the direct election of Senators in 1913. All but seven of the Senators by stroke of the pen have been men.

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie considers his enormously high profile appointment to fill the seat vacated by the death of long-time Sen. Frank Lautenberg, it’s worth pondering the unique gubernatorial power under our system to literally create a senator. There is nothing else quite like it in our politics.

In keeping with his flamboyant style, Christie made news by saying he’ll appoint a temporary replacement and then immediately call a special primary election in August and then a Senate election in October, just weeks before Christie himself faces the voters, in order to give New Jersey voters a say in who their senator will be. New Jersey will then vote again for a Senator in November 2014. If all this plotting seems a little too calculating even for Gov. Christie then welcome to the strange world of appointed senators.

The analysis of Christie’s strategy has been rich and for a political junkie intoxicating. The governor knows he needs to make an appointment, but by calling a quick election to either validate or reject his appointee Christie (perhaps) can distance himself from his own pick. By scheduling the election three weeks before his own re-election goes to the voters Christie can get the complicated Senate business out of the way in hopes it won’t impact issues or turnout in his campaign. Or…well, offer your own theory.

One thing seems certain in New Jersey. Christie is too smart and too politically savvy to appoint himself. That has been tried and never works. Montana Gov. John Erickson orchestrated such a self-appointment in the early 1930’s and he subsequently lost when voters correctly concluded the appointment smacked too much of a backroom deal. Same thing happened with Idaho Governor-turned-Senator Charles Gossett in the 1940’s. Gossett resigned as governor having cut a deal with his Lt. Gov. Arnold Williams to immediate appointment him to the Senate. Voters punished both at the next opportunity. In 1946 the Senate actually had two self-appointed Senators – Gossett and Nevada’s Edward P. Carville who cut the same deal with his second-in-command. Carville also lost a subsequent bid to retain his self-appointed Senate seat. History tells us there is not a high bar to Senate appointments, but one thing that doesn’t pass the voter’s smell test is an appointment that smacks of an inside deal. Note that Christie made a point in his public comments to say he wouldn’t be part of such a deal, but his appointment when it comes will be scrubbed up one side and down the other for hints of just such a deal.

Idaho is actually in the running for the most appointed Senators – six by my count – with one of that number, Sen. John Thomas, actually appointed twice, once in 1928 and again in 1940. Alaska’s Ted Stevens first came to the Senate by appointment, so did Maine’s George Mitchell (a future majority leader) and Minnesota’s Walter Mondale (a future vice president). Oregon’s great Sen. Charles McNary came to the Senate by appointment and stayed to become a respected Republican leader and vice presidential candidate in 1940. Washington’s three-term Gov. Dan Evans was later appointed to the Senate. Arthur Vandenberg of Michigan, a great leader on foreign policy during the early Cold War years, was an appointed Senator, so too Mississippi’s James O. Eastland, a power on the Judiciary Committee and a six-term Senator after his appointment.

Virginia’s Carter Glass had a remarkable political career – Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, appointed Senator who went on to serve 26 years in the Senate and become an authority on banking and finance. The Glass-Steagall Act, a hallmark of the early New Deal regulation of banking, bares his name.

Only a handful of women have come to the Senate by the appointment path and most have replaced their husbands. Rose McConnell Long filled out the remainder of husband Huey’s term in 1935 and 1936, but opted not to run herself. Arkansas’ Hattie Caraway was appointed to fill the term of her deceased husband and then became the first women elected in her own right to the Senate in 1932. She won another election in 1938 and then lost a Democratic primary in 1944 to J. William Fulbright who went on to become one of the giants of the Senate.

Gov. Christie has a lot to ponder as he considers creating a United States Senator with the stroke of a pen. Will he create a Thomas Taggart of Indiana or an Irving Drew of New Hampshire? Both were appointed Senators and, don’t be embarrassed, there is absolutely no reason you should have ever heard of either one. Taggart, a Democrat, served a little over seven months in 1916 and lost an election bid. Drew, a Republican, served barely two months in 1918 and didn’t bother to run on his own. For every Sam Ervin or Charles McNary there is an appointed Senator who is something less than a household name.

Maybe Christie create a Senator like Idaho’s Len Jordan, a former governor appointed to the Senate in 1962 who went on to twice win election in his own right and establish a solid legislative record.

If history is a guide, Christie will reward a loyal and safe member of his own party – former Gov. Tom Kean for example – and someone unable or unwilling to overshadow the governor. The person appointed must also fulfill the fundamental qualification for the office – do no harm to the person making the appointment. Did I mention that appointing a Senator is just about the most political thing any governor can do? It’s going to be rich political theater to watch and analyze the actions of the governor of New Jersey who both wants to be re-elected this fall and run for president in 2016. Let the appointing begin.


War and Congress

Burton K. Wheeler was a Democrat who served as United States Senator from Montana from 1922-1946. His career, as he acknowledged in his memoir, was full of controversy. Among other things, Wheeler was indicted on corruption charges and fought with powerful interests ranging from the mining companies in his adopted state to Franklin Roosevelt, a man he had once enthusiastically endorsed for president.

The FBI followed him, particularly after he criticized Roosevelt’s foreign policy prior to American entry into World War II. His patriotism was assaulted. He was deemed a Nazi sympathizer by some. He helped stop Roosevelt’s Supreme Court power play in 1937 and championed important legislation impacting utility companies and Native Americans. If you are defined in politics by your enemies, Wheeler had many. His friends included Charles Lindbergh, William E. Borah, Joe Kennedy, Huey Long and Harry Truman. He was considered a serious presidential contender in 1940. FDR put an end to that with his third term.

Wheeler’s kind of senator really doesn’t exist anymore. Senators of his generation were, of course, from their respective states, but they represented more than local interests. Wheeler and Borah and Robert Wagner and Pat Harrison, who I wrote about recently, were national legislators and the Senate was their stage. Wheeler walked that stage most prominently in 1941 when Americans were profoundly divided over how far the nation should go to provide aid to Great Britain during some of the darkest days in the history of western civilization. Wheeler battled, as he called them, “the warmongers” who he thought were altogether too eager to get the country involved in another European war.

Wheeler lost this “great debate,” the U.S. did come to the aid of the battered Brits, Japan attacked in Hawaii and the Montana senator eventually lost his seat in the Senate. This is a story I’ve tried to tell in the most recent issue of Montana – the Magazine of Western History, the respected history journal published by the Montana Historical Society.

At first blush Wheeler’s fight for non-intervention in 1941 seems like ancient history. Americans fought the good and necessary war to stop fascism and the Greatest Generation is justly celebrated. But, like so much of our history, the fight over American foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor has a relevance that echoes down to us more than 70 years later as the morning headlines tell of President Obama’s parley in the Oval Office with Hamid Karzai.

We are apparently at the end of the beginning of our longest war. Americans have been fighting and dying in the mountains and deserts and streets of Afghanistan for nearly a dozen years. As we prepare to leave that “graveyard of empires” (leave more or less) the question is begged – have we accomplished what we intended?  And when we are gone will we leave behind such a corrupt, incompetent government that the Taliban and assorted other bad guys will again quickly take charge?

Before 1941, when Montana’s Wheeler and others raised their objection to an interventionist foreign policy, the United States was comfortable with a modest role in the world. The county was stunned by the violence and by what seemed at the time to be the ultimate futility of the Great War. During the 1920’s and 1930’s Americans embraced their traditional attitude of remaining aloof from European disputes, gladly eschewed any ambition to supplant the British as the world’s policeman and the country happily retreated behind two deep oceans. After 1941, hardened by the trials of another world war and the threat of Communist expansionism, Americans embraced a national security state and we have never really looked back.

Today, as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, the United States spends more on its military than the rest of the world’s nations combined and we’ve tripled defense spending since the mid-1990’s. Despite the sobering experience of Vietnam, we rather casually, at least by 1941 standards, deploy our troops around the world with certain belief that such power can impact all events. Americans have been camped in Europe since 1945 – 80,000 are still deployed – protecting our NATO allies who increasing reduce their own military outlays.

After a nine year war in Iraq, a dozen years in Afghanistan, with deployments and bases from Australia to Turkey, and given the need to confront a national fiscal crisis one might think that America’s aggressively interventionist foreign policy would be at the center of Washington’s debates, but no. Once the U.S. Senate had such debates; debates that engaged the American public and where Congress asserted its Constitutional responsibility to actually declare war. But even after September 11 the national foreign policy “debate’ has more often been about the need to expand and deploy American power, rather than how to make it more effective. The current shaky state of the nation’s budget would seem reason enough to really have a foreign and defense policy debate again, but even more importantly Americans and their leaders should, with cold and calculating focus, assess our role in the world.

George W. Bush once famously advocated a “humble” foreign policy and disowned “nation building.” Bush’s rhetoric, of course, hardly matched his policy and a dozen years later, with little debate and perhaps even less sober reflection, we wind down a war that likely will again offer new proof of the limits of American power.

Montana’s Wheeler lost his seat in the U.S. Senate in 1946 largely because he was deemed out of touch with the post-war world. His old-fashioned attitudes about expressing American power were out of fashion. But were they? At least he forced a debate; a debate similar to the one that we need again today.


Following More Money

Are Corporations People, My Friend?

It is rare – very rare – that a state Supreme Court rises up on its hind legs and says to the United States Supreme Court we think you blew it.

Yet, that is pretty much what the seven member Montana Supreme Court said just before the New Year with a decision that seems sure to get the ultra-controversial Citizens United corporate campaign finance case back before John Roberts and Company very soon.

Citizens United is the case, you will recall, that President Obama denounced in his State of the Union speech. The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision, decided 5-4, not only overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, but served to midwife the unprecedented level of unregulated and mostly undisclosed spendingof the so called Super PAC’s in the current Republican presidential primary process.

According to recent news reports, Newt Gingrich was on the blunt end of more than $4 million in such spending by a group with close ties to Mitt Romney that certainly contributed, if not caused, Gingrich’s dramatic shellacking in the Iowa caucuses. This political nuclear warfare has now moved on to South Carolinawhere Super PAC’s aligned with Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other candidates are going after Romney.

As Romney might say, “politics ain’t bean bags,” so what’s the problem here? The Montana Supreme Court tried to answer that question in its recent ruling involving similar, shadowy, state-level, secret groups intent on influencing election outcomes in a state that historically knows a thing or two about political corruption.

The Montana Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the state’s 99 year old ban on corporate contributions in state races. In doing so, Chief Justice Mike McGrath delved deeply into the history of political corruption in Big Sky Country citing historical works by the great Montana historians K. Ross Toole and Mike Malone. The Judge referenced the notorious Montana “war of the cooper kings,” the extraordinary corporate influence that the Anaconda Mining Company once held over Montana, and the notorious case of William Andrews Clarkwho used his vast corporate wealth to bribe his way into the United States Senate. Here’s one section of McGrath’s opinion:

“W.A. Clark, who had amassed a fortune from the industrial operations in Butte, set his sights on the United States Senate. In 1899, in the wake of a large number of suddenly affluent members, the Montana Legislature elected Clark to the U.S. Senate. Clark admitted to spending $272,000 in the effort and the estimated expense was over $400,000. Complaints of Clark’s bribery of the Montana Legislature led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1900. The Senate investigating committee concluded that Clark had won his seat through bribery and unseated him. The Senate committee ‘expressed horror at the amount of money which had been poured into politics in Montana elections…and expressed its concern with respect to the general aura of corruption in Montana.'”

Chief Justice McGrath then continued his fascinating history lesson, “In a demonstration of extraordinary boldness, Clark returned to Montana, caused the Governor to leave the state on a ruse and, with the assistance of the supportive Lt. Governor, won appointment to the very U.S. Senate seat that had just been denied him. When the Senate threatened to investigate and unseat Clark a second time, he resigned. Clark eventually won his Senate seat after spending enough on political campaigns to seat a Montana Legislature favorable to his candidacy.”

You have to wonder if John Roberts or Samuel Alito has ever read that little bit of American history. The Montana law upheld in the state court’s decision was passed in the wake of the Clark scandal and has been on the books for nearly a century, a detail with wicked similarity to the Teddy Roosevelt-era federal law banning corporate money that was overturned in Citizens United.

In his opinion in the Montana case, McGrath asks the obvious question that applies at both the state and federal levels. “The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did. If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy is the State required to throw away its protections?”

The group that sought to skirt the Montana corporate ban wasn’t very subtle about its aims. “As you know,” the group called American Traditions Partnership said in its appeal for money, “Montana has very strict limits on contributions to candidates, but there is no limit to how much you can give to this program. No politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”

American Traditions has said it will appeal the Montana decision.

Two Montana Supreme Court judges dissented and made the case, as indeed may be all too correct, that a state level court is bound to live with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, even as it tries to reason its way around why a state has a compelling interest in regulating its own elections with laws based on its own unique history.

But even in dissent, Montana Justice James C. Nelson expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision. “Corporations are not persons,” Nelson wrote. “Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”

Incidentally, Nelson was born in Moscow, Idaho and graduated from the University of Idaho.

The faux talk show host Stephen Colbert has created his own Super PAC to poke serious fun at this supremely serious business. Even the name of Colbert’s PAC, – “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC – is an effort to show how the uplifting sounding names of these entities usually hide real motives. They might better be called “The Committee to Assault Mitt Romney” or “The Barack Obama Walks on Water PAC.”

The whole point here – re-enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United – is secrecy and unlimited money.

Colbert’s PAC, to make a point with absurdity, recently put up television ads supporting the owner’s side in their dispute with the N.B.A. players association. As the New York Times reported in a fascinating magazine cover story on Colbert last Sunday:

“These [ads] were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. ‘What’s the difference between that and money laundering?'” Colbert delightedly told the Times.

“In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a ‘hero.’ We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, ‘Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.'”

Exactly. Montana knows something about the need for political disinfectant. Stay tuned and, if you want to understand Citizens United in actual practice, read the reasoned, informed, context rich, real world opinions of the Montana justices on both sides of this fundamentally important issue.