Monday, May 5, 2008

BURTON K. WHEELER (1882-1975)

Burton Wheeler, a New Englander transplanted to Montana, is an enigma: a populist early in his political career, tilting against big business, a Democratic maverick in Congress, he ended as a right-wing conservative lawyer for interests that he had attacked most of his political life. But throughout, he left no doubt that he was always his own man.

As a young Democratic lawyer in Montana he courageously fought the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, which dominated business and politics in the state, including the Democratic Party. Though elected to the state legislature in 1910, Anaconda opposition led to defeats in 1912, when he ran for state attorney general, and in 1920, when he ran for governor on both the Democratic and Nonpartisan League tickets. In this last campaign he was mercilessly red-baited, and had a rival Democratic opponent entered against him. In 1922, however, with the Democrats now united behind him, he won election to the U.S. Senate, then under Republican control. He was to win re-election to four more successive six-year terms.

Upsetting the Lodge

Wheeler immediately challenged long-standing custom. Committee assignments having been set by the majority and minority leadership, Henry Cabot Lodge, the majority leader, on December 10, 1923 in time-honored practice, asked for Senate approval by “unanimous consent”, without a vote. The presiding officer then traditionally calls, “Without objection, so ordered.” But this time Wheeler, the new freshman, objected loudly, creating a stalemate that was to last thirty days. Wheeler objected because Albert B. Cummins of Iowa, the President pro-tem, who presided over the Senate whenever the Vice President, the Constitutionally-designated presiding officer, was absent – which was often – was also in line to chair the Interstate and Foreign Commerce Committee. Wheeler, whose main legislative interest at the time was control of the rates that the railroads charged farmers, objected to Cummins, “the man who championed the cause of the railroads” , holding two such important posts. Cummins refused to give up the presiding office, and it took until January 9, 1924 for the Republican Old Guard and Progressives and the Democrats to sort things out. When the sorting was over, “Cotton Ed” Smith, a Democrat of South Carolina, had been elected Chairman of the Committee, in a Senate with a Republican majority!

Upsetting an Attorney General

A little over a month later, the still green freshman took the floor to deliver what he considered “the most important speech of (his) career” , in support of his resolution calling for a select committee to investigate the failure of Harry M. Daugherty, President Harding’s crony and Attorney General to prosecute those accused in the Teapot Dome oil lease scandal and other fraud cases. The Senate having approved, Wheeler conducted the inquiry, presenting evidence which led President Coolidge, who had become president on Harding’s death, to force Daugherty’s resignation. The freshman had become a national figure.

A LaFollette Progressive

Before 1924, a presidential election year, was out, Wheeler made more national headlines. A Democrat, he had nevertheless agreed to run as candidate for the vice presidency on “Fighting Bob” LaFollette’s Progressive Party ticket, which, despite a vigorous campaign, suffered the defeat that most third parties suffer in presidential races. The Progressives, though polling over 4,800,000 votes, carried only Wisconsin, LaFollette’s home state, and its thirteen electoral votes.

The New Dealer

Wheeler was the first prominent Democrat outside New York State to endorse Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency in 1932. He supported most New Deal legislation, although he was to break seriously with FDR on two very crucial issues.

As Chairman of the Interstate Commerce Committee, he performed an extraordinary service for FDR in 1935 when he managed through the Senate and a conference committee with the House, the Public Utilities Holding Company Act. He did so against ferocious pressure from the industry. The complex bill, carefully drafted by Administration lawyers, was aimed at the pyramiding of non-operating holding companies above operating utilities, leading to overcapitalization and concentration of control in fewer hands that translated into what Wheeler called “outrageous prices on light, gas, water and power consumers.” This was a basic pocketbook issue for households and businesses throughout the country. In the 1930s thirteen holding company groups controlled 75% of the privately-owned electric utility industry, and the three largest controlled some 40% themselves.

The Senate bill contained a provision, which the industry PR people called a “death sentence”, that required all holding companies not part of geographically and economically integrated systems to dissolve or reorganize themselves by January 1, 1938. On this provision the industry concentrated its formidable fire. It unleashed an onslaught whose fury is difficult to imagine. After it was over, a Senate committee headed by Hugo Black of Alabama, investigating the industry lobbying that went on, reported that the utilities had spent about $1,500,000 – a huge sum at the time – to stimulate protests against the bill, financing a campaign of 200,000 telegrams and 5,000,000 letters to Capitol Hill. The Scripps-Howard newspapers reported that the industry had marshaled an army of 660 lobbyists to pressure 527 members of Congress. They came very close to swaying Congress to their will.

Wheeler, wielding a handwritten note that he’d personally coaxed from FDR saying that the President wanted the “death sentence” kept in the bill, just managed to get it through the Senate by one vote, 45-44; the House knocked it out in their version. There were even indications that, in the face of the pressure, FDR was shying away from actively rallying the troops. With the House conferees threatening to kill the “death sentence” in conference, Wheeler persuaded the President to sign a note, delivered to Speaker Rayburn, stating that he wanted the “death sentence” in the final bill. That did the trick. The House conferees backed off, and the Administration bill was passed by both Houses and signed into law by FDR on August 26, 1935.

Saving the High Court

The first serious break with the President occurred in 1937 when Wheeler, “flabbergasted”, as he said, by FDR’s bombshell announcement of his Court Packing Plan, resolved that he “would have to do everything (he) could to fight the plan.”

The Supreme Court, taking a constricted view of the reach of Congress’s power over interstate commerce and of its power to assign discretionary functions to administrative agencies, had been throwing roadblocks in the path of the New Deal’s efforts to deal with the Depression: it had declared unconstitutional the National Industrial Recovery Act and the first Agricultural Adjustment Act. Chafing in frustration, Roosevelt, flushed with his landslide victory in the recent election – and apparently without consulting his leaders in Congress – announced his plan calling for the authority to appoint one new Supreme Court justice for every judge who refused to retire after his seventieth birthday (Federal judges have lifetime appointments!). His purpose was transparent: to pack the Court with justices with a more expansive view of Congress’s powers under the Constitution, who could outvote the more obstructive of the “nine old men.” Wheeler would have none of it.

After alerting his wife to the political risk that he was about to run in opposing a President at the height of his popularity, he released a statement to the press opposing the plan. Throughout, he remained one of the leaders of the fight against the plan. He resolutely declined invitations to dine with FDR, avoiding the spell of the President’s charm. He repelled a constant flow of Democratic leaders, beginning with Vice President Garner, urging him to back off or compromise. In his testimony before the Judiciary Committee he said that although he disagreed with many decisions of the Court, he opposed in principle “tinkering” with the composition of the Court; that “age has (nothing) to do with liberalism” , and that it was a serious reflection on the Court to say that it was behind in its work. He trumped the contentions of the proponents of the bill by drawing from his pocket a letter that he had received from Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes and signed by liberal Justice Louis D. Brandeis and conservative Justice Willis VanDevanter, refuting point by point the Administration’s position. The letter caused a sensation and was instantly seized upon by the media. It decisively turned the tide and set it running against the bill, which was voted down 70-20 in the Senate.

In the end, the Court Packing struggle turned out to be a win-win affair: Wheeler won the battle, but FDR – and Wheeler – won the war. Even as the battle raged, the Supreme Court altered course and held the Wagner National Labor Relations Act and the Social Security Act constitutional. Some of the “nine old men” began retiring, making way for more congenial presidential appointments. When Justice VanDevanter retired that same year, FDR appointed Senator Hugo Black of Alabama to the vacant seat, rewarding his ardent support. To the next vacancy he appointed Senator Sherman Minton of Indiana for the same reason.

The American Firster

Wheeler’s other break with the President came over the war in Europe. He was implacably against American involvement. After the death of Senator William E. Borah of Idaho, he became the leading isolationist in Congress. He actively opposed every measure that might lead to intervention, often going to excess. Distorting a slogan of the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, he called the Lend-Lease bill in aid of beleaguered Britain “the New Deal’s triple-A foreign policy – it will plow under every fourth American boy,” a remark which FDR called “the most untruthful … most dastardly, unpatriotic thing that has been said in public life in my generation.”

With Charles A. Lindbergh, Wheeler became one of the leaders of the America First Committee, dedicated to keeping America out of the war, and one of its principal speakers. In April 1941, he joined Lindbergh in proclaiming Britain defeated and calling for negotiated peace with Hitler. Wheeler went further; in July he called a press conference to announce that the United States was about to occupy Iceland, doing so before the troops had departed or before the Administration was to make its announcement. Shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he released to the press a classified War Department Victory Plan, leaked to him by a disgruntled Army Air Corps officer, outlining steps to be taken by the Untied States in the event it entered the war.

The attack on Pearl Harbor effectively ended his insurgency, and he thereafter supported the war effort. This did not save him from defeat when he ran for re-election in 1946. So prominent an America Firster had he been, that Philip Roth cast him as Lindbergh’s fictional Vice President in his terrifying 2004 novel, The Plot against America.


Wheeler took positions and said and did things from time to time that even objective observers would consider discreditable. However, in all his public acts he was his own man, beholden to his conscience alone, following his own moral compass. He also did much good. Although a loner for most of his political life, he left a profound mark on Congressional and American history. In his autobiography, Wheeler wrote:
I felt then and I feel now that the office of United States Senator is the finest there is – if you are a free man. By this I mean free from dictation by political bosses and control by corporations, labor or other pressure groups. A Senator as fortunately situated as I was in Montana could disagree with a President who was in his own party when he believed the President was wrong. To be beholden to any individual or group would have made the Senate a stultifying experience for me.
It would be hard to find more encouraging words for nonpartisans.

To download a complete copy of A Modest Proposal, click here.

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