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.

Senators to Remember

capitol domeLong Forgotten, But Worth Remembering

Regular readers here know that I have a soft spot for the institution of the United States Senate. I find the history fascinating, the great debates echo down through our history and, since the earliest days of the Republic, the Senate has been populated with some of our great political leaders as well as some of the biggest scoundrels.

The modern Senate has its problems to say the least, including too much blind partisanship and what many scholars see as a growing lack of collegiality.

Still, the history of the Senate, masterfully displayed at the U.S. Senate website, helps us understand what the Senate means to our system and to the great concept of “separation of powers.” The fact that the institution works hard to attend to its own history, including a dedicated staff of historians, is a wonderful testament to the value of remembering and reflecting upon our past.

As my own little tribute to the long, colorful and important history of the “world’s great deliberative body,” I’m launching a new series of thirteen posts on some of the great and near-great United States Senators. Think of them as long forgotten politicians who deserve to be remembered. I’ll roll out this Baker’s Dozen once a week, sort of like a new fall TV series! I’ll start the series on Friday.

My criteria for inclusion is pretty simple: all of the thirteen are westerners, all are deceased and all were interesting, if not exactly great, members of the Senate.

First up, Sen. Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. Cutting, a Republican who served in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, was the publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, a World War I veteran and a committed advocate of free speech. He also carried on a long and spirited correspondence with the poet Ezra Pound. Cutting easily passes the “interesting” test.

In following weeks, I’ll provide short profiles of Senators worth remembering from Montana, Idaho, Nevada, California, Wyoming, Washington, Colorado and Arizona.

I’ll leave it to you to decide how well my Baker’s Dozen compare to the current crop populating the most exclusive political club in the world, but any comparisons to the current members is, well, purely intentional!



16670_artist_in_tent_270Charlie Russell for Governor

The great western artist Charlie Russell – that’s him in a tent with a paint brush – never, as far as I know, contemplated a political life. Considering that he spent many early years as a cowboy in the tough country of central Montana, he would have been a shoo-in. Russell, a great artist, was by all accounts also a great story teller and he could ride a horse. Russell was a legit cowboy. That might just have been good enough to win high public office.

Russell is remembered today for his iconic paintings of cowboys, Native Americans and, perhaps his masterpiece, Lewis and Clark meeting the Flatheads at Ross’s Hole. The huge painting – 25 by 12 feet – hangs in the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Go see it if you get close.

But back to cowboys and politics. Amid all the position papers, TV commercials and editorial endorsements, a political race always comes down to two people and a choice. That choice can be influenced by a lot of factors. Who do you most agree with? Do you desire to punish someone for something and, as a result, “vote the SOB’s out?” Maybe you make your election choice, as I think many do, on the basis of who seems the most likable, the most easy to identify with.

Running for public office is not an IQ test. The smartest guy seldom wins. Think President Bill Bradley. And, while experience counts, maybe it counts less this year than it has before. Running for public office often comes down to defining your brand. Who is this person? Do I trust him or her? Are they authentic? Can they ride a horse, like say, Charlie Russell?

Speaking of that, the cowboy factor has become a factor in the Idaho gubernatorial campaign. As the Associated Press’s John Miller reported recently, incumbent Butch Otter (a team roper) and challenger Keith Allred (a successful cutting horse competitor) seem at times to be contending for the Cowboy-in-Chief label.

Call me crazy, but the Miller story provides about as much nuance and insight into the two competitors as we’ve seen so far from the reporting of this race that has been dominated by taxes and education spending. Otter favors Stetson, Allred is a Resistol man.

As Miller notes in his story, by the way it was picked up far and wide from the L.A. Times to Salon, the cowboy thing has often worked in western politics. Montana’s Brian Schweitzer did commercials on horse back and often wears a bolo tie when he’s not wearing a plaid shirt. New Mexico’s Bill Richardson fancies cowboy duds. No wingtips for former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who is working on a comeback. Kitzhaber is a jeans and boots kinda guy.

“They have castrated thousands of calves,” Miller wrote of the Idaho contenders. “They spend free time riding the range on horseback or hunting with shotguns slung over their shoulders. Cowboy hats, oversized belt buckles and scuffed-up boots are standard attire.”

Each of the Idaho candidates has photos on their websites of them totin’ a gun and riding a horse. One picture each in a blue suit.

As Steve Crump pointed out in a Times-News editorial, the cowboy thing is harder for a Democrat to pull of. After all, the ultimate cowboy politician was the Great Communicator, a Republican.

“Like Ronald Reagan, Allred gets it about cowboys. Reagan would never have tried to brand a calf, but he always looked like the Marlboro man whenever he mounted his Arabian gelding El Alamein. And the president forever wore his Stetson askew, tilted to the left, like Alan Ladd in Shane.”

The normally reliable Crump – a good student of Idaho history – did get one thing wrong in his editorial last Sunday. After analyzing the cowboy cred of the two political cow punchers running for governor, he brought another guy who sits a horse pretty well into the analysis, former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.

“Hell’s bells,” Crump wrote with regard to the Otter-Allred race, “nothing like this dust-up has happened in Idaho since a mule owned by then-Lt. Gov. Otter kicked then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, on a camping trip.”

Say what?

First, that wasn’t a camping trip. Real Idahoans don’t call an elk hunt a camping trip and that mule that did the kicking in Andrus’s elk camp wasn’t owned by Butch, but by Cecil. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Qualye: I knew Ruthie the mule. Ruthie was, well sort of, a friend of mine and Butch Otter didn’t own Ruthie.

I note this both for the historical record and in order that I can posit what I consider the real test of political viability in Idaho.

Which of the two cowboy candidates actually did what real Idahoans do in the fall – head for the hills, set up the elk camp and hunt the mighty Wapati? I am awaiting an answer on that.

Both these guys – Otter and Allred – look good in a hat on a horse, but can they make camp coffee? Now, there’s a question for their next debate. Charlie Russell shoulda run for something. You gotta know that guy knew his way around an elk camp.

First Monday in October

supreme courtOur Least Understood Institution

The new term of the U.S. Supreme Court opens today with a new justice, for the first time ever three women sit on the high court and, for the first time since 1970, no Justice John Paul Stevens.

Tomorrow night – October 5 – I’ll be talking about some of the most significant history of the Supreme Court at the Library at Cole and Ustick in Boise. The event, free and open to the public, begins at 7:00 pm.

The focus of the talk, presented under the banner of the Idaho Humanities Council’s Speakers Bureau, is the huge fight over the summer of 1937 that resulted from Franklin Roosevelt’s sweeping plan to enlarge the courtpack it his critics said – and turn the Court in a dramatically new direction. As I’ve researched the story – Idaho’s William Borah was deeply involved in the fight – I have come to believe there are still echoes of that long ago fight in the way the Court operates today.

The modern confirmation process was, in many ways, born of that fight in 1937 and the raw political implications of who sits on the Court and why came sharply into focus. Still, even when its actions are in the news constantly, the Court remains perhaps the least understood of our government institutions.

I’ll look forward to the chance to talk about the Supreme Court Tuesday evening and answer questions. Please come by if you can.

So Long Bobby

bobby_cox_cigarAn All-Time Great

The rap against Bobby Cox, the 25 year manager of the Atlanta Braves, has always been that he won only one World Series. Never mind the more than 2,500 wins, all the Division and National League titles, Cox has not been a big winner on the biggest stage in baseball – the World Serious.


Cox, who says he’ll hang it up at age 70 when this season ends, deserves to take a victory lap as one of the greatest managers the game has ever produced. The record speaks for itself: a .557 winning percentage over a lifetime in the dugout, five pennants, four times manager of the year (and in both leagues) and a classic, classic baseball guy. That winning percentage put Cox just behind the legendary John McGraw and Joe McCarthy at number three all-time in most games over .500. No one has ever had more first place finishes – 15. Talk about consistency and longevity. In the years Cox has managed in Atlanta, the Cubs and Red have each had 11 different managers. The Marlins and Astros ten each.

Here’s the great Braves lefthander Tom Glavine on Cox: “It’s very simple what he expects out of you. Show up on time, play the game right, wear you’re uniform the right way. And if you can’t do that then you’re going to have problems with anybody…Because things were so simple and so easy to follow, it lent itself to there not being a lot of drama.”

ESPN’s Jason Stark has written a great piece on Cox and this sentence stands out: “Cox…has set a record that might never be broken: We’ve never heard a single player rip him. Not one. Not ever.”

If a player has criticized Cox, says Brave president John Schuerholz, “I’ve never seen it. I’ve never heard it.”

That is the essence of why Cox has been such a star in the dugout – he’s a leader. You don’t see a Braves player failing to run out a pop fly or showing up wearing their uniform like some bum pulling down $5 million a year. Cox set standards, treated his guys like adults and expected them to behave accordingly. It also doesn’t hurt to have your manager enjoy an occasional Cohiba. Cox is a baseball throwback, but there is nothing out of style or old fashioned about leadership or style.

Get the plaque ready for Cooperstown. This guy is headed there and really deserves it.

The Red Corner

LeninCommunists in Montana? You Must Be Joking…

See if you can transport yourself to 1920 in extreme northeastern Montana. It must have been a heck of a place; booming settlement, bootlegging, truly radical politics and real support for a guy named Lenin.

Sheridan County, Montana borders on North Dakota to the east and the Canadian prairie province of Saskatchewan to the north. It is about as far removed from Soviet Russia as you can imagine, yet Sheridan County from about 1920 to 1930 was at the very center of the tiny American Communist movement. Led mostly by radical farmers and a bombastic newspaper editor, Sheridan County voters sent an openly Communist state senator and a state representative to the state legislature in Helena. The sheriff and most other county elected officials operated, as they say, under the Red Flag.

The local newspaper – The Producers News – published in the county seat of Plentywood, eventually became an official mouthpiece of the Communist Party USA. The editor, Charles “Red Flag” Taylor, was a brilliant propagandist who, after serving in the Montana State Senate also ran for the U.S. Senate and actively participated in Communist Party activities nationally. Taylor was on friendly terms with William Z. Foster, the perennial Communist Party candidate for president, and brought Foster to Sheridan County in 1932.

This fascinating, and mostly forgotten story, has been well chronicled in a fine new book by Verlaine Stoner McDonald. The book – The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana – was published earlier this year by the Montana Historical Society Press in Helena. Professor McDonald grew up in Sheridan County and her great-great uncle, Clair Stoner, was elected to the state legislature in the 1920’s. He was a Communist.

One of the most interesting aspects of McDonald’s book is that for decades, as she writes, “during the McCarthy years in the 1950’s and the Cold War, the people of northeastern Montana tried to forget their brush with notoriety.”

McDonald, who graduated from Plentywood High School, “without having heard of the Sheridan County Communists” and knowing that her relative had been a leader of the radicals.

In his review of The Red Corner, Montana historian Donald Spritzer notes that once the New Deal relief efforts of Franklin Roosevelt brought benefits to Sheridan County – the WPA built a courthouse in Plentywood, for example – the county’s Communists faded from significance and the locals seemed more than happy to have the history disappear, as well.

“Today residents are not particularly proud of what occurred in that bygone era,” Spritzer said. “But they are no longer so ashamed that they seek to hide it from their schoolchildren.”

Montana native Ivan Doig, whose splendid book Bucking the Sun, is set in northeastern Montana in the 1930’s gets the last word on the radicals of Sheridan County.

“When there was enough rain,” Doig wrote in his story about the Montanans who built Fort Peck Dam, “the soil of the northeastern corner of Montana grew hard red wheat. When drought came, politics of that same colorization sprouted instead.”

Harry Truman said,“The only thing new in this world is the history that you don’t know” How true.

McDonald’s book tells a great story that has been long forgetten; a rich history of the rural American west and one area’s flirtation with – truth stranger than fiction -Communism.