By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Triumph of Reaction
Progressives and the Election of 1920
IV. I'm for Hiram
Unlike General Wood, Johnson was an unabashed progressive, a man who as both Governor and Senator of his state had amassed a pro-labor, pro-civil liberties record. (That is, for white Americans. Johnson was also the champion and signer of the Alien Land Law of 1913, which barred Japanese farmers and other "aliens ineligible for citizenship" from holding land.) This made him, according to The New Republic, "a vote-winner in a country now reacting against the Elbert H. Garys and the coal operators and their little brothers, the A. Mitchell Palmers." To Oswald Villard of The Nation, Johnson - who "alone has stood up bravely and fearlessly for the right of free speech" (Debs notwithstanding) -- "more nearly voices, in certain respects, the aspirations of many liberals than any other candidate."1
And unlike Frank Lowden, Johnson was assuredly a national figure, and one who aroused some degree of controversy in Republican circles. Wildly popular in California, Johnson had made a career of continually thumbing his nose at the Penroses of his party - while remaining reasonably satisfactory to conservative interests in his own state - and his irreconcilable opposition to the League was well-known. This made him, TNR thought, a "perplexing… problem for the Old Guard leaders." Only eight years after Roosevelt split the party, "[w]hat will happen if the Republican leaders stick to tradition and refuse to nominate a man who can get the votes of labor and the liberal and the radical and the progressive?" Johnson aimed to make the Republican kingmakers sweat that question.2
Naturally, Johnson enjoyed the support of his Irreconcilable comrades-in-arms, George Norris and William Borah, as well as innovative adman Albert Lasker -- a man Colonel Roosevelt had thought "the greatest advertiser in America" - and progressives like Felix Frankfurter, Dean Acheson, and Harold Ickes. "I know Senator Johnson pretty well," Borah wrote to one constituent. "I am supporting him in this campaign because I entertain no doubt, first, of his Americanism, and second, because I feel that he truly represents nationally what he unquestionably represented in California, that is clean, wholesome just government." In short, Borah, concluded, Senator Johnson's record demonstrated "beyond question that he is his own master and that he stands for wise and just administration of public affairs."3
It was on this question - of clean government - that Johnson managed to draw the deepest blood during the 1920 campaign. In his typical fashion, Johnson ran rhetorically as an insurgent against his own party - the fearless progressive speaking truth to power - and so by necessity, he relied on a semi-successful strategy of relying on presidential primaries rather than appealing to party regulars (although, unlike Wood, he also worked to ensure that he did not unnecessarily antagonize favorite sons like Lowden and Harding.) As part of that strategy, during the North Dakota primary, Senator Johnson lashed out at the many millionaires supporting Wood's candidacy - a charge of corruption quickly echoed by both Democratic newspapers eager to score points against the presumptive Republican nominee and Johnson's ally, Senator Borah, in the halls of the Senate.4
Upon Borah's urging, the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections created a subcommittee to conduct a survey of campaign expenditures, which became known as the Kenyon Committee after its chairman, Senator William Kenyon of Iowa. It ultimately found General Wood's campaign had spent the then-unprecedented sum of over $2.1 million during the primary season. "The public at large," argued The Nation, "cannot but distrust a President or a party that is placed in power...by multi-millionaire soap and oil producers." By contrast, the next closest amount spent was Lowden's $415,000, then Johnson's $194,000. But, despite his less appalling spending levels, Lowden too was found wanting: His campaign in Missouri had cut $2500 checks for two men in St. Louis that went on to become Lowden delegates, "for nothing in particular but to create sentiment for Governor Lowden."5
The mind reeled at Wood's two million in campaign spending, but here in Lowden's camp was a seemingly simple, easy-to-understand case of quid-pro-quo corruption. And even as it later came to light that the Illinois governor had nothing to do with the bribes, the revelation effectively ended Lowden's chances at the presidency -- and further infuriated party bosses against Hiram Johnson, as did Senator Johnson's continued rhetorical attacks against Lowden and Wood on the eve of the Chicago convention. And with Lowden now compromised, the Old Guard would have to look elsewhere for a candidate in Chicago. Harry Daugherty's prediction was one step closer to reality.6
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2. "Hiram Johnson - Problem," 369. Bagby, 31-33. Pietrusza, 177-179.
3. Lowitt, 133-134. Borah to Leslie L. Long, May 14, 1920. WJB, Box 85: Politics - Idaho. John Morello, Selling the President, 1920: Albert D. Lasker, Advertising, and the Election of Warren G. Harding (Westport: Praeger, 2001), 39.
4. Bagby, 31-33. Pietrusza, 177-179. As home to the Nonpartisan League, an agrarian-populist political movement that advocated state ownership of mills and banks and railed against corporate intrusions into agriculture, North Dakota was particularly fertile ground for this sort of attack. In fact, Johnson ended up winning 96% of the vote over Wood and Lowden. (On the Democratic side, William Jennings Bryan defeated William Gibbs McAdoo, 87%-13% This would be North Dakota's last presidential primary. Lloyd Omdahl, "ND Once Flirted with Presidential Primaries," Williston Herald, February 20, 2012 (http://www.willistonherald.com/opinion/columnists/nd-once-flirted-with-presidential-primaries/article_4d5d051c-5bf0-11e1-976e-0019bb2963f4.html)
5. Russell, 351-352. Bagby, 35. Pietrusza, 184-185, 203. "The Price of the Presidency," The Nation, June 12, 1920 (Vol. 110, No. 2867), 787.
6. Bagby, 35. Pietrusza, 184-185, 203. "The Price of the Presidency," The Nation, June 12, 1920 (Vol. 110, No. 2867), 787.
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