By Kevin C. Murphy, Copyright 2013. All Rights Reserved.
The Politics of Normalcy
Progressives and the Fight for Good Government
IV. The Taint of Newberryism
Soon enough, dark dealings within the Harding administration would furnish several poster children in the fight against government corruption. But in the early years of the Harding era, the most compelling exhibit of money in politics was Senator Truman H. Newberry of Michigan, the same Senator who had been vilified by name in the Democratic platform of 1920. In a 1918 Republican primary against Henry Ford, Newberry - a former Secretary of the Navy under Taft - spent between ten and twenty times the $10,000 maximum that had been set in the 1910 Federal Corrupt Practices Act. (Michigan state law prescribed an even lower acceptable figure - 25% of the anticipated salary of the position, which amounted to approximately $3750.) While Newberry went off to Congress, Henry Ford used his considerable pull to get an official investigation launched, one that - with the help of evidence culled by Ford-hired detectives -- brought multiple indictments and a lower court conviction against the sitting Senator and 133 accomplices in March 1920.2
But in a 1921 5-4 decision, U.S. v. Newberry, written by Justice James McClark Reynolds, the Supreme Court determined that Congress had no constitutional authority under either Article 1, Section 4 or the Seventeenth Amendment to set spending limits on primaries or nomination proceedings - only general elections - and thus the spending limits in the Federal Corrupt Practices Act were unconstitutional. One of the concurring opinions, written by Justice Mahlon Pitney and joined by Louis Brandeis, agreed there were irregularities as to how the case against Newberry was brought, but found the stance of the Court hugely troubling. "That a government whose essential character is republican…has no power by appropriate laws to secure this election from the influence of violence, of corruption, and of fraud, is a proposition so startling as to arrest attention and demand the gravest consideration."3
Either way, Truman Newberry's conviction was overturned…in the court of law. In the court of public opinion, his fate was still to be decided. As the 1920 platform attests, Democrats saw an easy chance to score political points against the Republican majority by complaining about Newberry, and they did so with a relish - arguing that seating him was an offense to the august institution of the Senate. James Heflin of Alabama decried "the slimy trail of the boodle serpent" that Newberry left in his wake. Oscar Underwood of Kentucky argued his presence put the whole Republican Party under indictment. Other Democrats argued his presence in the Senate was a first step "into ruin and oblivion."4
Old Guard Republicans, meanwhile, rallied around one of their own. Newberry was a Navy man whose sons served in the war, argued Michigan's other Republican Senator, Charles Townsend, while Henry Ford was a pacifist whose sons did not. What more did you need to know? For his part, the president, a former Senate colleague of Newberry's, didn't play the veteran card, but Harding did conspicuously embrace the Senator by inviting him to golf, a private dinner, and a seat in the White House box at the theater. "Hardly a day passes," declared The Searchlight in Congress in disgust, "when the Washington newspapers do not report some parlor or dining room event in which Newberry commingled with the elite."5
What gave the case more than a partisan resonance was the opposition of Republican progressives - most notably Borah, La Follette, Norris, and Kenyon - to the seating of Newberry. William Borah in particular became, according to the Baltimore Sun, "a mountain of strength against Newberryism." "The Newberry case," the Senator wrote a constituent, "is in many respects the most intolerable thing which has happened in the whole history of the Senate." To another, he called it "one of the most deplorable things which has happened as I see it since I have been in public life, indefensible and intolerable it seems to me from any possible standpoint. Neither Party interest nor anything else can justify such a fearful moral breakdown in politics." The Searchlight agreed. The whole sordid case, it opined, revealed "the political morals of the ruling group at the lowest ebb in the history of the Republic."6
On January 10, 1922, Borah delivered a wrathful hour-long address to the Congress about why the Senator from Michigan should not be seated, in which he excoriated "the leprous disease of venality [which] has fastened itself upon the body politic though the cursed customs and evil practices which seem to luxuriate in the soil of free peoples." La Follette, meanwhile, called Newberry's conduct "reprehensible" and "injurious," and argued that the question at hand was "whether it is possible to buy a seat in the United States Senate for a quarter of a million to half a million dollars." Because of the progressive pushback, what should have been an easy partisan vote for Republicans became suddenly contested. The final vote was a much-closer-than-expected 46 to 41 in favor of Newberry, though it came with a censure of his campaign finance misdeeds as unbecoming "the honor and dignity of the Senate."7
For Democrats and progressives, this was a tactical defeat, with Borah particularly disgusted by the outcome of the vote. "We find the defendant guilty, therefore, he is acquitted," he summed up the resolution. Deeming its passage "one of the most significant in the whole history of American politics," Borah hoped that it would "serve to awaken the people to greater vigilance, for the cure of these things at last lies back with the masses." But, in terms of keeping the corruption charge alive against the Old Guard, the Newberry incident turned out to be a strategic victory - especially after a letter from Harding to Newberry congratulating him leaked to the press. "Many comments are to be heard to the effect that the admission of Mr. Newberry is a disgrace to the Senate," argued TNR in an editorial called "The Senate: Pay As You Enter," "and there are cartoons picturing Uncle Sam gazing mournfully at a huge splotch of mud on the Senate door. As if there were not sufficient mud already floating about in a body which could muster forty-six votes in favor of seating a beneficiary of corruption." Newberry, stung by all the criticism and deeply unpopular by this point in any event, resigned his seat in November of 1922. In the midterm elections that month, only two pro-Newberry Senators on the ballot were returned to office.8
Along with the Harding scandals to come, the Newberry imbroglio set the stage for a revision of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act in 1925. While this new Act still could not extend to primaries for constitutional reasons, the revised FCPA strengthened disclosure requirements considerably. All House and Senate candidates and multi-state political committees now had to file quarterly reports that included the source of every donation above $100. In a concession to changing times, it also raised the limit for Senate races to $25,000. (House races remained at $5000. If a state law set a lower maximum, it still took precedence.) In addition, banks and corporations under federal charter "were expressly forbidden" from donating to political campaigns. Unfortunately for combatants of congressional corruption, both enforcement and compliance remained haphazard at best in the years to come. In the entire history of the act, only two men were denied their congressional seats for going over the limits -- William Scott Vare of Pennsylvania and Frank L. Smith of Illinois, both Republicans who ran for the Senate in 1926. 9
First, Mr. Vare. Pennsylvania had always been a state particularly susceptible to political bossism, as evidenced by the iron grip, in their day, of both Matthew Quay and Boies Penrose over the state. But, when Penrose died in 1921, it left a battle for succession in the Keystone State between the (Andrew) Mellon machine, which controlled Pittsburgh, and the Vares, who ran Philadelphia. (This confusion, along with a nationwide electoral surge for progressives in 1922, helped to pave the way for Governor Gifford Pinchot.) William Scott Vare and his two older brothers - both deceased by 1922 - were scions of the Philadelphia machine, and collectively known as the "Dukes of South Philadelphia."10
In 1926, Vare decided to challenge Penrose's successor, George Wharton Pepper, for his Senate seat. To block the move, the Mellon interests backed Senator Pepper. And, further confusing matters, Governor Pinchot - who was term-limited - decided to make a run for the seat also. (All three were Republicans. This being Pennsylvania, the Democrat in the race, former Wilson Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, never stood a chance.) As the only Wet in the race, Vare managed to win by over 100,000 votes, with Pepper coming in second. "I have just taken a very thorough licking, running a poor third in a three cornered race," a demoralized Gifford Pinchot wrote his nephew. "The man who won is a wet gangster who represents everything that is bad in Pennsylvania. The man who ran second was the candidate of the great special interests and the respectables who want to stand well with the powers that be."11
But rumors of excessive spending and other campaign illegalities prompted Senator James Reed, a Missouri Democrat, to ask for a formal inquiry into the spending situation in Pennsylvania (and Illinois, where Frank L. Smith won a similarly dubious victory.) The conclusions drawn by this investigation put the case of Truman Newberry to shame. In 1918, Newberry was thought to have spent as much as $200,000 to win over Henry Ford. By 1926, the Mellon-financed Pepper ticket had spent $1.8 million in the primary, the Vare machine $789,000. (Pinchot had spent $187,000, William Wilson, uncontested on the Democratic side, only $10,000.) In an editorial, an aghast George Norris deemed these figures abhorrent to the "national conscience" and a threat "to the fundamental principles that underlie every free government," and argued that "the only remedy the country has is to demand of the Senate that it refuse to seat" Vare. This set up a quandary of its own, for, however much Vare spent, Mellon had doubled it for Pepper, so Norris, a Republican, pleaded with the "honest, patriotic citizens of Pennsylvania" to vote for William B. Wilson, Democrat, in the general election. Norris then went on a whirlwind election tour of the Keystone State, visiting as many as seven cities a day to stump against Vare. Vare still won the seat, although he ran well below the rest of his ticket and lost by 50,000 votes outside of Philadelphia -- suggesting some of that old machine magic might have taken place in the city of brotherly love.12
In any case, Senator Norris did not accept Vare's victory as legitimate. In December of 1926, he argued that his seating would mean "the domination of the Senate and the entire country by political machines, corrupt and immoral."13 Vare's hopes took another blow the following month when Governor Pinchot, in the customary letter of certification, argued Vare hadn't really been "duly chosen" since "his nomination was partly bought and partly stolen." William B. Wilson made his own objections known in March 1927, and the Senate voted 56-30, on a resolution submitted by Norris, not to seat Vare until a full investigation was completed by the Reed Committee. That took over two years, but on December 6th, 1929, another resolution introduced against Vare by George Norris passed 58-22. A subsequent resolution to seat William B. Wilson failed 66-15, at which point yet another would-be Pennsylvania political boss, textile manufacturer Joseph R. Grundy, took the seat.14
As for Frank L. Smith of Illinois, here was another situation where winning the Republican nomination was tantamount to general election victory, and, in a rematch of the 1920 Senate election, Smith had managed to beat the sitting senator, William B. McKinley (no relation to the ex-president.) But Smith, the Chairman of the Illinois Commerce Commission overseeing public utilities, had not only spent $400,000 in the race - He had taken $125,000 from Chicago utilities magnate Samuel Insull, which, in that simpler time, suggested all sorts of unsavory collusion.15
This $125,000 donation was a particularly egregious offense to George Norris, who at the time was leading the fight for public ownership of the Muscle Shoals power plant, and once again he threw himself into the case. "These stupendous figures stagger the imagination of the ordinary citizen," Norris exclaimed on the Senate floor. As for Insull, "[i]t is quite apparent," Norris argued, "that his interest in the Senate of the United States is a financial one. He is interested in what he can get out of it. Can any citizen of the United States look upon conditions such as these without a feeling of regret, of horror, and even with shame?" When McKinley died in December 1926, a month after the election, the Governor of Illinois replaced him with Senator-Elect Smith. ("If after the holidays on your approach to the Capitol," Harold Ickes told Hiram Johnson, "you detect an unpleasant and unusual smell, please be advised that it will probably be Colonel Frank L. Smith with the appointment to your august body of Governor Len Small in his pocket.") But here again, on a vote of 48-33, the Senate refused to seat Smith until an investigation could be conducted. Unlike Vare, Smith gave up the fight relatively early, in February of 1928, at which point Otis F. Glenn defeated future Chicago mayor (and assassination victim) Anton Cermak for the long-empty seat.16
"Money has come to be the moving power of American politics," lamented William Borah in August of 1921. "Let us hope that…exposure will arouse the whole country to the necessity of dealing with a problem which has assumed the proportion of a great national evil." But the Newberry and Smith-Vare battles aside, progressives lost the war when it came to keeping money out of politics in the New Era. "The news item to the effect that the two parties are to spend twenty million in this campaign seems incredible," Borah said seven years later, in August 1928. "It is impossible to spend twenty million dollars in this campaign without transgressing every rule of decency and common honesty. It would be nothing less than an attempt to debauch the American electorate." And it would not be stopping any time soon.17
Return to the Table of Contents.
2. Ashby, 37. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy, 82-83. Newberry v. US 256 US 232 (1921). The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan," United States Senate (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/contested_elections/102Ford_Newberry.htm)
3. Newberry v. US 256 US 232 (1921). The Election Case of Truman H. Newberry of Michigan," United States Senate (http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/contested_elections/102Ford_Newberry.htm) This constitutional ban on campaign finance laws for primaries lasted until the US v. Classic decision in 1941. Anthony Corrado, Campaign Finance Reform: A Sourcebook (Harrisonburg: R.R. Donnelly, 2007), 29.
4. Murray, The Politics of Normalcy, 82-83.
5. Ashby, 38. "Harding and Newberry," The Searchlight on Congress, December 31, 1921 (Vol. VI, No. 7), 5.
6. Borah to William Burke, January 20, 1922. Borah to Ray McKaig, January 13, 1922. WJB, Box 118: Newberry Case. Harding and Newberry," The Searchlight on Congress, 5. Ashby, 38. Notably missing in the Newberry fight was Hiram Johnson, who later confessed to missing "the bitterness or even the importance of the Newberry contest." Waiting until the last moment to return from California, he got stuck in a blizzard that resulted in him missing the vote. "I have but myself to blame. I'll take my medicine as best I can," he told a friend - although not before procuring a formal note from the Pennsylvania Railroad stating that, yes, Johnson had in fact been sidelined by a blizzard. Ibid.
7. William Borah, "The Newberry Case," January 10, 1922. WJB Box 118: Newberry Case. La Follette, 1038. Ashby, 38-39. One of the deciding votes in favor of Newberry's seating came from the Senate's newest member, George Wharton Pepper of Pennsylvania, who had just been elected to replace the now deceased Boies Penrose. Pepper was not only courted by the Old Guard and the President, he was summarily sent out of the Senate chambers as soon as Borah began his anti-Newberry tirade.
8. Borah to William Burke, January 20, 1922. Borah to Robert Ruark, April 12, 1922. WJB, Box 118: Newberry Case. Murray, 82-83. "The Senate: Pay As You Enter," The New Republic, January 25, 1922, 239. La Follette, 1038.
9. Corrado, 29. Samuel J. Astorino, "The Contested Senate Election of William Scott Vare," Pennsylvania History, Vol. 28, No. 2 (April, 1961), 196.
10. Astorino, 187-190.
11. Astorino, 187-190. Lowitt, 386. Miller, Gifford Pinchot, 261.
12. Lowitt, 387-390.
13. Lowitt, 391-392. Norris also refused to go to the traditional White House breakfast conference on account of Vare (and Smith), since "Vermont maple syrup and buckwheat cakes have no charm for me if the object is bridging the chasm made by…fraud and corruption." Lowitt, 391-392.
14. Lowitt, 390-392. Astorino, 190-199. Miller, Gifford Pinchot, 261. The argument put forth in Vare's defense - that the spending at issue was primary spending and thus, according to the US v. Newberry decision, was outside the bounds of the corrupt practices act was actually correct, from a legal perspective. The Senate refused to seat him regardless.
15. Lowitt, 393-394.
16. "Norris Denounces Vare-Smith Costs," The New York Times, December 7, 1927. Lowitt, 394-395. Ickes to Johnson, December 21, 1926. HLI Box 33: Hiram Johnson.
17. William Borah, "Speech at Fairfield," August 13, 1921. Borah Box 779: Speeches 1919-1922. William Borah, "For the Press - August 3, 1929," WJB Box 782: 1928 Speeches.
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