POLITICS: In 1868, a Wild Fraud to Dwarf Today’s Political Sleaze.

Photo from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Thanks again to our friends at the Bloomberg “Echoes” financial history blog for running this item first on June 14, 2012.  Check them out for a great daily history fix.

Do big corporations really control U.S. politicians through money and contributions? Is the system more corrupt today than ever before?

It often seems that way. U.S. corporations spent about $3.32 billion in 2011 to lobby officials in Washington, according to OpenSecrets.org. This, plus billions more in newly liberated campaign contributions and other practices have combined to create a system many describe as “legalized bribery.”

Still, lobbying is protected by the First Amendment and, if anything, decades of reforms designed to increase transparency have made today’s abuses mild by comparison.

How bad was it?

Probably the low point for corporate-influence peddling in the U.S. came in 1868, when the New York state legislature decided a contest over control of the Erie Railroad, then one of America’s premier corporations.

The battle pitted the venerable Cornelius Vanderbilt, the owner of the New York Central Railroad, against Daniel Drew of Erie and his two young proteges, Jay Gould and James Fisk Jr.

Vanderbilt’s goal was simple: With Erie in his pocket, he could control all rail links from New York City to the Great Lakes, an immensely profitable monopoly. But Drew, who had grown rich manipulating Erie stock prices as company treasurer (before insider-trading bans), had no intention to let go.

The so-called Erie War took place during one of the most corrupt periods in American history. Historians call it the “Era of Good Stealings,” the years just after the Civil War when William “Boss” Tweed ruled New York City, Ulysses S. Grant sat in the White House, and scandals — from the Whiskey Ring to Credit Mobilier to postal frauds to Reconstruction to Indian agent frauds — all bubbled just beneath the surface. The New York Stock Exchange was an unregulated frontier of booms, busts and manipulations.

The complex contest between Vanderbilt and Drew — involving bribed judges, stock fraud, dueling injunctions and corporate piracy — reached its climax in March 1868. Decades before the existence of rules governing tender offers, stock registration, disclosures or other such niceties, all Vanderbilt had to do was buy Erie stock as fast as he could until he owned enough to control the company — what was known as a “raid.”

But Drew cheated. Tipped off to Vanderbilt’s plan, he secretly authorized and printed thousands of new Erie shares, turning the market into a quicksand pit.

Furious, Vanderbilt responded by finding a friendly New York judge to declare Drew, Gould, and the other Erie directors in contempt, forcing them all to flee across the Hudson River to New Jersey to avoid arrest.

Drew, in turn, responded by sending Gould to Albany to persuade the state Legislature to approve a bill legitimizing the large block of new stock issued to thwart Vanderbilt’s raid. Tweed, as a state senator (among other titles), personally represented Vanderbilt in the fight.

It’s difficult today to conceive the scale of the ensuing contest between Gould and Tweed for the hearts and minds of the state Legislature. Gould brought along a suitcase full of cash and set up shop in Parlor 57 of Albany’s Delavan House hotel, tending bar and doling out largess — in thousand-dollar bills. Tweed was equally generous. Nobody knows the true totals, but the two men reportedly distributed close to $1 million apiece (worth about $50 million or more today) to Albany lawmakers as they debated the Erie legislation.

It wasn’t just a senator or two they were trying to buy, but the entire statehouse.

The lawmakers, in turn, played both sides for suckers. For years, a group of about 20 assemblymen calling themselves the Black Horse Cavalry had specialized in blackmailing businesses with what they called “strike bills” — proposed laws designed to cripple businesses that refused to pay bribes. For them, the Erie War would be the richest payday ever. Instead of directly taking sides, most simply bid the two against each other.

One state senator, A.C. Matoon, reportedly took Erie’s side after receiving $15,000 from Gould, switched to Vanderbilt’s after taking $20,000 from Tweed, then supported Erie on the final vote.

“The wealth of Vanderbilt seemed pitted against the Erie treasury,” wrote Charles Francis Adams Jr. in his classic expose, “Chapters of Erie.” At one point, when a Vanderbilt agent arrived from New York with fresh cash, Gould reportedly paid him $70,000 to disappear.

Vanderbilt steamed at the spectacle. “It never pays to kick a skunk,” he said. He then ordered Tweed to cut off the bribes.

The legislators realized their fountain of easy money had run dry. Senators and assemblymen who had demanded a thousand dollars for their vote days earlier now offered their support for a mere hundred. To Adams, the mood among lawmakers was reminiscent “of the dark days of the war when tiding came of some great defeat.”

The legislators passed the Erie bill — which made the secretly issued Erie stock legitimate and thus secured Drew’s hold on the company — by a vote of 101 to 6. They had rejected it 83 to 32 when Vanderbilt money was being offered.

Vanderbilt and Drew ultimately settled their battle with a backroom deal that made them both much richer at the expense of Erie stockholders, in effect paying them both “golden parachutes” long before that term became common. At the same time, it left Gould and Fisk in charge of the company — Gould’s first big step in building one of the great American fortunes.

How does this compare with today’s big corporations attempting to influence Congress on issues close to their pocketbooks? There’s still plenty of money in politics, and plenty of favoritism by politicians toward big donors and high- powered lobbyists. But today the system is far more public and regulated — even with its flaws and gaps. And sunlight, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis famously told us, is the best disinfectant.

(Kenneth D. Ackerman is the author of four books, including “Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

NEW SUMMER BOOK: Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860

Scene in the Chicago convention hall at it prepared to nominate Abe Lincoln for president, from Harper’s Weekly, May 1860.

Every president is shaped by his nominating convention. Lincoln’s in 1860 not only was one of the most important, but also the most exciting in America up to that point. In a three day, three-ballot carnival of music, fireworks, and politics drawing some 40,000 people, Lincoln and his friends outwitted the leading celebrities of their party, capturing the prize with nerve, ambition, and brass tacks. They played the kind of hardball politics that usually made reformers cringe. Still, it gave us one of the best presidents in American History.

Joe Howard Jr. of the New-York Times, who wrote the article below, was one of the most flomboyant newsmen of the era.  His dogged Civil War reporting sometimes crossed ethical lines even by Nineteenth Century standards.  Still, it was first rate, earning him a national following and a rare by-line.

From Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860:

1. Headline: They nominated who?

The New-York Times, Saturday, May 19, 1860.
By Joe Howard, Jr.


Abram Lincoln, of Illinois, Nominated
For President.
The Late Senatorial Contest in Illinois to be Re-
Fought on a Wider Field.
Disappointment of the Friends of
Mr. Seward

Special Dispatch to the New-York Times
Chicago, Friday, May 18

The work of the Convention is ended. The youngster who, with raged trousers, used barefoot to drive his father’s oxen and spend his days in splitting rails, has risen to high eminence, and ABRAM LINCOLN, of Illinois, is declared its candidate for President by the National Republican Party.

The result was effected by the change of votes in the Pennsylvania, New-Jersey, Vermont, and Massachusetts delegations.

Mr. SEWARD’s friends assert indignantly, and with a great deal of feeling, that they were grossly deceived and betrayed. The recusanis endeavored to mollify New-York by offering her the Vice-Presidency, and agreeing to support any man she might name, but they declined the position, though they remain firm in the ranks, having moved to make Lincoln’s nomination unanimous. Mr. Seward’s friends feel greatly chagrined and disappointed. [Recunasi is an old word referring to English Roman Catholics in the 1600s who refused allegiance to the Church of England, a crime back then.]
Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

Western pride is gratified by the nomination, which plainly indicated the departure of political supremacy from the Atlantic States. …

Immense enthusiasm exists, and everything here would seem to indicate a spirited and successful canvass. The city is alive with processions, meetings, music, and noisy demonstrations. One hundred guns were fired this evening.

The Convention was the most enthusiastic ever known in the country, and if one were to judge from appearances here, the ticket will sweep the country

Great inquiry has been made this afternoon into the history of Mr. Lincoln. The only evidence that he has a history as yet discovered, is that he had a stump canvass with Mr. Douglas, in which he was beaten. [U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas from Illinois was the likely Democratic nominee and Lincoln’s likely chief opponent for President. Lincoln actually had won the popular vote in his 1858 Senate contest against Douglas, but the Democratic Illinois legislature nevertheless awarded the seat to Douglas.] He is not very strong at the west, but is unassailable in his private character.

Many of the delegates went home this evening by the 9 o’clock train. Others leave in the morning…..

Massachusetts delegates, with their brass band, are parading the streets, calling at the various headquarters of the other delegations, serenading and bidding them farewell. “Hurrah for Lincoln and Hamlin – Illinois and Maine!!” is the universal shout, and the sympathy for the bottom dog is the all-pervading sentiment.

The “Wide-Awakes,” numbering about two thousand men, accompanied by thousands of citizens, have a grand torch-light procession. The German Republican Club has another. The office of the Press and Tribune [today’s Chicago Tribune] is brilliantly illuminated, and has a large transparency over the door saying “For President, Honest Old Abe.” A bonfire thirty feet in circumference burns in front of the Tremont House, where thirty-three guns were fired from the top, and illumines the city for miles around. The city is one blaze of illumination. Hotels, stores and private residences, shining with hundreds of patriotic dips. Enough.


We hoped you enjoyed this excerpt from Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860.  If you enjoyed it, please consider downloading the full book through Amazon, Nook, or Apple iTunes.

In Abraham Lincoln’s Convention: Chicago 1860, we tell the story of Lincoln’s convention primarily through the eyes of newspaper writers, giving it the immediacy of the moment, with annotations, background, and updated formatting.

BOOKS: Publish Now! — a June 23 workshop at The Writers Center

Publish Now:  From Manuscript to Book and eBook in the New World of Publishing

At this comprehensive day-long seminar, keynote speaker Justin Branch of Greenleaf Book Group, a nationally known publishing, marketing and distribution company, will share his expertise on the whole publishing landscape and “controlling your publishing experience” for e-books and digital publishing. Other presenters include authors, agents, book marketers and attorneys who will offer guidance on finishing your manuscript, preparing for publication, getting help, marketing your book, understanding copyright and more.

Publish Now! Take Your Writing from Manuscript to Book & ebook in the New World of Digital Publishing

At The Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Saturday, June 23,  9 a.m. – 5 p.m.

Cost includes networking lunch and closing reception



“The New World of Publishing” will be led by Justin Branch, a publisher with Greenleaf Book Group, a publishing, marketing and distribution company based in Austin, Texas, whose clients range from well-known brands such as John Gray and Kanye West to debut authors.

Ken Ackerman & Neal Gillen will present “The Non-Traditional Publishing Experience.” Ackerman has authored four published books and founded his own publishing company. Gillen is the author of eight self-published novels.


“The Story – The Manuscript is Finished – Or is It – What’s Next?”, led by C.M. Mayo, author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, a Library Journal Best Book 2009; Miraculous Air and Sky Over El Nido, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, among many other works. Her presentation will answer the question, How do I know when my manuscript is ready to be published, and whose help do I need to get it there; for example, a private editor, writing coach, or trusted reader?


“Developing Your Marketing Plan,” led by Ally Peltier, chief editor, writer and editor of Ambitious Enterprises and Angela Render, owner of Thunderpaw Business Intelligence & Network Systems Management and author of “Marketing for Writers,” will break down what a successful manuscript is and how to design your own program for marketing it. Please call 301-654-8664 to receive student pricing.


Attorneys Laura Strachan and Cynthia Blake Sanders will demystify copyright, fair use and commercial speech laws, which are changing rapidly in the new world of publishing and help you understand who owns your manuscript.

Click here to find out more.

MONEY: Boss Tweed’s Bondholder Revolt

Cartoon by Thomas Nast depicting the Tweed Ring in Harper’s Weekly, Aug. 19, 1871. Source: Library of Congress.

A hearty thanks to the Bloomberg “Echoes” financial history blog for running this item first on May 9, 2012.  Check them out for a great daily history fix.

How can excessive debt sink a government? Look no further than New York — in 1871, under the leadership of the eminently corrupt William M. Tweed.

Today, the U.S. government owes some $15.2 trillion. Its largest group of public creditors comprises foreigners and foreign governments, led by China and Japan. Overseas creditorshold $5.1 trillion in U.S. paper and continue to be big buyers at Treasury auctions. What would happen in the (still unlikely) event they stopped buying?

Take a look at “Boss” Tweed’s New York. Tweed, the legendary Grand Sachem of Tammany Hall and a renowned political fixer, was easily the most corrupt politician in American history. He and his cronies stole a remarkable amount of money during their brief reign from 1868 to 1871: Estimates range from $60 million to $100 million in 1871 dollars, worth many billions today.

Tweed himself ultimately was convicted on 204 counts of fraud and died behind bars in New York’s Ludlow Street jail as a disgraced man.

Still, while in power, Tweed ran a happy city. Everyone made money under his system. Real estate boomed and business prospered. He financed his corrupt regime on low taxes while providing good service and plenty of graft for friends. To pay the tab, he borrowed.

Debt, Debt, Debt

Under Tweed, the city treasury issued oceans of debt: Croton Aqueduct Bonds, Central Park Improvements Bonds, four classes of County Court House stock, Bonds for Repayment of Taxes, Assessment Fund Stock, Park Improvement Bonds, Street Improvement Bonds. New York’s city and county debt swelled to more than $97 million by mid-1871 from $36.3 million in January 1869, with interest payments approaching $10 million a year.

Local banks and brokers snapped up these bonds and sold them to investors in Europe, mostly British and German, who didn’t know any better and considered them safe.

But that changed in July 1871, when the New York Times (NYT)received a stolen copy of the Tweed Ring’s secret accounts and published it on its front pages — disclosing all manner of fraud and theft, including embezzlement and bill padding on construction of the Tweed Courthouse in lower Manhattan. City leaders read with disbelief.

Thomas Nast’s clever cartoons of the time depicted Tweed as a laughable crook. But one group that found no humor in the situation was the bondholders. In late July, they cut off credit. The city put $40,000 in bonds up at auction one day and failed to receive a single bid. A few days later, the Commercial and Financial Chronicle warned of a panic. In Europe, the Berlin Stock Exchange banned New York’s city and county bonds from its official trading list.

The city had a looming interest payment of $2.7 million due Nov. 1, and its agents could no longer raise money in world markets. “They distrust our securities in London,” an unnamed broker told the New-York Tribune.

If credit dried up and the city defaulted on its debt, the impact on New York’s wealthy would be devastating, wiping out their bulging bond portfolios and crippling their standing in Europe, which was still a principal source of capital for American finance.

An “insurrection of the capitalists” quickly organized itself in lower Manhattan. Some 1,000 merchants rushed to sign a petition refusing to pay any more property taxes until city officials gave a full account of their spending. Another group filed a lawsuit to block a city construction project on Broadway. Calls went out for city leaders to convene publicly on Sept. 4 — when wealthy men had returned from their summer holidays.

The Fall

After that, the fall came quickly. In early September, reformers won a court injunction demanding an accounting and blocking any more spending by Tweed’s City Hall. By October, Tweed had been indicted, and would soon begin his long journey through the city and state prison system. The flow of credit only resumed after the entire Tweed system had been dismantled.

America’s current mountain of debt wasn’t built on fraud like Tweed’s. Nor did the European bondholders in Tweed’s day worry that stopping the money flow to one city government would hurt their larger investments portfolios in the long term, as U.S. creditors today surely would. They demanded regime change – – replacement of the Tweed Ring with an honest government — and they got it.

But there are lessons for modern American politicians here. First, don’t steal. (Hopefully they know that one already.) Second, it’s not just in Europe where debt can topple governments — in a pinch, creditors always call the tune.

(Kenneth D. Ackerman is the author of four books, including“Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

GUEST BLOG: Susan Tejada on crime fighting technology in the era of Sacco and Vanzetti

The original electric chair at Sing Sing prison in New York where, in 1905, Robert Elliott executed
a prisoner for the first time in his career.

The story of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two left-leaning Italian immigrants convicted and executed in the 1920s for a murder in South Braintree, Massachusetts, they claim they never committed, became an international cause celebre at the time and is re-discovered in the new book by Susan Tejada, In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti: Double Lives, Troubled Times, and the Massachusetts Murder Case That Shook the World.  Here, Susan tells us more about the crime-fighting technology of the era, copied with permission from her web site:
The collision of old and new technology is striking in the story of Sacco and Vanzetti—at least when it comes to cars, coal, and capital punishment.

In 1920 not all law enforcement officials had cars, or even knew how to drive. A criminal with access to an automobile, a so-called bandit on wheels, could often escape unpursued.

A coal bin could facilitate covert ops. In 1921, when defense committee members wanted to make a secret recording of a bribery attempt in their office, they concealed a secretary with an early-model Dictaphone in a coal bin.

The scariest technological innovation appearing in this story has to be the electric chair.

It’s difficult to believe now, but in the late nineteenth century the chair was seen as a humane method of capital punishment, more humane at least than the gallows it replaced.

As a teenager in upstate New York in 1888, Robert Elliott became fascinated with the then-emerging technology of consumer electronics, so fascinated that he decided to become an electrician. He could not have foreseen that he would go on to become a part-time executioner, and would electrocute Sacco, Vanzetti, and three hundred eight-five other people over the course of his electrician’s career.

Visit Susan Tejada at her web site, www.SusanTejada.com

GUEST BLOGGER: Edwin Ivanauskas, on Modern Day Prohibition in America, as applied to Marijuana.

When someone thinks about the term “prohibition,” where first comes to mind usually is the era of illegal alcohol from 1919 to 1933 in the United States. Unbeknownst to many, similar legal bans were in effect during this same time period in other countries around the world, including Russia, Iceland, Norway and Finland.  But prohibition in America was unique, as alcohol consumption was so intertwined in the American  popular culture.  Today, we see many of the same  effects playing out over the use of marijuana.

The prohibition movement was first initiated by the American Temperance Society (ATS), which was primarily made up of women concerned at the effect of then-widespread alcoholism on their husbands. The ATS turned into an overwhelmingly effectively lobbying force behind state and the federal bans on drinking. Later, at the end of the 1800s, the movement was later taken up by The Prohibition Party, working with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union to educate the public on the need to control drink. 

By the early 1900s, prohibition became a hot button political topic.  Those in favor of Prohibition – the “dries” – were generally religious, associated with Methodist, Baptists, or other churches.  In the 1916 presidential election, the last before prohibition went into effect, both parties and candidates, including Woodrow Wilson, purposefully ignored the topic, since both Democrats and Republicans were split throughout the country and had candidates on each side of the issue.

The prohibition controversy was undoubtedly similar to the modern day debate over the potential legalization of marijuana. Both Democrats and Republicans have internal devisions on the issue, and individual candidates sometimes divorce themselves even from their own personal experiences. Many candidates admit to smoking marijuana in their past, but will still stand against its legalization. Practically every presidential candidate in the last two decades has admittedly smoking marijuana, including Barack Obama, Bill Clinton (though famously not inhaling), and John Kerry.

Marijuana and alcohol both have their negative sides. Alcohol, when consumed in excess, can cause danger to others in the form of drunk driving, or general public intoxication. It can also lead to the use of more addictive and dangerous intoxicates.  Marijuana too, many believe, can to be a stepping stone or gateway drug to other substance abuse like cocaine and meth.   Still, alcohol and marijuana are generally considered to be less severe intoxicates, with both considered to have about the same potency.  And while alcohol has an addictive nature and can eventually lead to alcoholism, many experts believe marijuana to not be addictive.

Going back to the prohibition era, the law forbidding alcohol consumption, sale, and storage in the United States eventually was repealed after its enforcement proved nearly impossible, creating networks of organized crime and widespread violations.   Police and prohibition agents generally ignored violations by wealthier citizens while cracking down on everyone else.  A lower low class citizens could get into trouble for housing a bottle.  Presidents Wilson and Harding both kept large alcohol supplies with them in the White House during prohibition.

In our modern era, the law against marijuana have produced similar inconsistencies — though without the social class inequalities. People of all class levels use marijuana, like alcohol in the ‘20s, and they are all treated fairly similarly.  Some law enforcement is lenient in bringing cases for marijuana possession, other not. Furthermore, marijuana charges can only be brought for possession, because there is no field sobriety test as there is for alcohol. With that said, there was no such test in the prohibition days, and those charged, like marijuana now, had to have been in possession.

A substantial political rationale for legalizing marijuana is that it would allow the government to become involveed and regulate the business, as it has done  with alcvohol since prohibition ended in December 1933.  Legalizing marijuana would allow the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) to oversee its quality and use, and monitor the over-25,000 products derived from marijuana, including many hemp products.

Perhaps the most often-mentioned reason for allowing marijuana is its medicinal use. Many believe the drug helps those with a variety of health conditions, including pain control for diseases like cancer. Although there have been some abuses where permitted, eighteen state so far have decided to experiment with legalizing it for this lmited purpose.

Whether you believe in the legalization of marijuana or not, the parallels between the modern debate and America’s earlier experiment with prohibition in the 1920s are striking. Many legalization advocates point to the mistake of alcohol prohibition to support their view, and they make a very strong argument.

Edwin Ivanauskas is an unabashed history nerd who studied economics and marketing at the University of Utah.

GUEST FEATURE: Nell Minow and her exclusive interview with Senator Adlai E. Stevenson III

Senator Adlai Stevenson III in 1975 (second from right, standing) with bipartisan delegation to Chica including (back row, from right) Ambassador George H.W. Bush and Senators Stevenson  and Claiborne Pell and (front row) Senators Jacob Javits and Charles H. Percy (2nd and 4th from right).

  Illinois has had its problems with elected officials, but it is also the home of Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama.  In between those two Illinois Presidents, great public servants from the state have included five generations of the Stevenson family.  Most recently, Adlai E. Stevenson III served as United States Senator from 1970 to 1981, following terms as Illinois State Treasurer and representative to the state legislature. His father was Illinois Governor and the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1952 and 1956, losing both times to Dwight D. Eisenhower.  After that, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, memorably confronting the Soviet Union over the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Going back further, Senator Stevenson’s grandfather held state office in Illinois and his great-grandfather was a Congressman and Vice President of the United States under Grover Cleveland. His great-great-grandfather, Jesse Fell, was Secretary of the Illinois Republican Party. He proposed the historic Lincoln/Douglas debates and persuaded Lincoln to run for President. He did not run for office himself but set his family an example of citizen statesmanship that still resonates today.

Senator Stevenson is currently active through the Adlai Stevenson Center on Democracy, with an upcoming event on the Presidential Debates featuring my father, Newton Minow, whose work with Governor Stevenson during his Presidential campaigns in the 1950s formed the basis of the current system of Presidential debates.

The Stevenson family has a tradition of collecting thoughts and quotations about politics, history, and related topics, and Senator Stevenson has now edited what the family calls The Black Book with 150 years worth of insights and advice.  It is an enthralling compilation, rewarding a quick look at a random page or careful study of chapters on topics from “Congress and the Legislative Process” to “Religion and Politics,” “Lincoln, War, Peace,” and even poetry — a treat for fans of history, politics, and just good reading.

I was delighted to have a chance to interview Senator Stevenson, for whom I worked as an intern in the summer of 1973, when I was in college and the Watergate hearings were underway.   Here is some of what he told me:

The Senate

 NM: What has been the biggest change for the worse since you were in the Senate? What has been the biggest change for the better?

AES: In the Senate I entered, there was no partisanship. We worked across the aisle – remember Nixon supported Environmental Protection, product safety, OSHA, even supported wage and price controls. The center was broad. Reason still reigned – and some wise men (yes, mostly men). Nowadays anybody can be elected without sufficient money or notoriety. The process is paralyzed. Civility broke down as ideology and money invaded. Now a handful can stop consideration of measures and paralyze Congress. I haven’t observed any favorable changes.

 NM: Do you think there is any way to limit the impact of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on corporate money in politics?

Campaigns and Politics


AES: Yes. The Court may reconsider the issue. Campaigns could be shortened – and ballots to reduce costs. The Federal Communications Act might again be enforced so licensees of public air waves are held to some public, convenience, and necessity standards as in the past. Partial public financing may be the most doable solution. I am skeptical about a Constitutional amendment and proposals to take limits off contributions to parties and candidates to counter super PACs. We could also fund public TV and radio adequately as other democracies do. We just had an Adlai Stevenson Center program on the subject but I did not hear any easy answers.

NM: There are a lot of wonderful quotes in the book. Did any of the selections collected by your father surprise you? Do you have a favorite?

AES: Remember, the quotations came from everywhere and were added over four generations, probably most by me. As I say, every page uncovers a surprise that I added for illustrative, not so much argumentative, purposes. (The open letter to Santorum was ahead of its time like others). I have many favorites, for example:

  • ” With all the temptations and degradations that beset it, politics is the noblest career; any man can choose. Andrew Oliver, ca 1810.
  • “Ever’ once in a while some feller with no bad habits gits caught,” Will Rogers.
  • And my cardinal rule: A politician owes the public: “his conscience and his best opinion…not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.” Edmund Burke, 1774

NM: Your father was selected as the Democratic Presidential candidate in a brokered convention. Are there advantages to that system over the primaries?

AES: “Brokered” is pejorative. Given the present spectacle, old-fashioned conventions of party leaders with some knowledge of the candidates, the demands of public office and the issues are preferable. Those conventions debated issues like civil rights in 1948 and war in 1968. They adopted platforms after extensive hearings and debates – Democrats driving much of the South out of the party in 1948 with a civil rights plank. (I was a sergeant at arms – that was security!) Now conventions are media events. The New York Times reports that the National Committees have each already raised over $100 million each for their respective media events. All great presidents during the span of The Black Book (and some not so great) were chosen by old-fashioned conventions. Clinton was the first Democrat of the new era of money, tactics and the deal. The jury is still out on Obama, but he was an accident in his Illinois elections – all his opponents, Democratic and Republican, self-destructed.

NM: How have social media and the 24-hour news cycle changed politics?

AES: They are undermining established sources of political authority here and elsewhere. Campaign staffs spend their time answering charges from anywhere in the blogosphere and responding in kind. For these anonymous assassins there is no accountability. I can see plusses but on balance it looks negative. The Arab spring is fascinating, but we may be disappointed by the results. Real issues were never more complex so we debate contraception and gay marriage, which are better suited for 24-hour news. The world is appalled by the political spectacle.

Senator Stevenson on election night, 1974.

NM: The quotes by your father on page 55 seem particularly apt in describing the current political climate.

  • “I am seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
  • “A campaign addressed not to men’s minds and to their best instincts, but to their passions, emotions, and prejudices is unworthy at best.” Is there a way to win office today by appealing to “minds and best instincts?”

AES: Judging from responses to my TV and radio interviews, book signings and speeches, most people would respond to a candidate who leveled with them and did so with reason and truth. I sense near desperation among voters. But how to appeal to the narrow base needed to win the nomination in this “democratic” process? Once nominated a candidate might get enough time, even if bought, for face-to-face talks with the American people as my father did.

NM: The Black Book has a section on the importance of humor. What does humor tell us about politicians and what does a politician’s humor tell us about him or her?

A family snapshot of father and son playing tennis.

AES: Humor is revealing. It can come naturally and spontaneously to the politician of light heart and clean conscience. He does not have to check to make sure it is consistent with his “message” or get advice from consultants. It can be effective as a means of telling the story, denigrating the opponent without being mean-spirited and conveying the person. It makes the audience feel good. Lincoln was a great humorist. The absence of humor today reveals a different condition and candidate.

NM: Is there a politician today who reminds you of Adlai I or Adlai II?

AES: The short answer is no. Adlai II [who ran for President in the 1950s] was a student of the world from on-the-ground starting as a college student. Now that is more important than ever — to see this world from within it. I know there are many good and decent public servants out there. But no Adlai II. Let’s face it, even in my time sensation attracted media attention from the US press – not the complex issues. Not even terrorism when I was conducting its first in depth study, predicting it and introducing measurers to control and prevent it. Make no mistakes, or worse yet, get it right and you don’t get much if any attention from mainstream media.

My generation produced some strong candidates like Ed Muskie and Phil Hart. I don’t see them today. Lincoln, the Whig and supporter of a strong central government, has been traded in for Reagan. The Dick Lugars are threatened, or like Olympia Snow resign. I hope I am wrong. I do see an occasional well-qualified Congressional candidate.

NM: What was the best advice you got from your family about politics?

AES: None — except by example. We rarely discussed politics. My father advised establishing a career at the law to fall back on in times of need — as he did. It was advice I rejected when Richard J. Daly gave me a chance to run for the legislature and lead 236 at-large candidates! I am so glad I rejected Dad’s advice. He lived just long enough to see the name carried on. We even out-polled an Eisenhower in that 1964 election! Besides, I wanted to start at the bottom.

NM: You served during one of the most significant political crises in American history, the Watergate
hearings and impeachment. What did you learn from that experience?

AES: I did not learn anything from Watergate. I had warned the Democratic caucus about Nixon, somewhat presumptuously. The system worked brilliantly. Sam Ervin was heroic in the Senate. The House, led by Pete Rodino, rose to the occasion. Nelson Rockefeller became Vice President. I had a hand in it. I reached an agreement with Elliott Richardson which was publicized during his confirmation hearing for Attorney General. He was pleased to agree publicly to this agreement as a condition of his confirmation . It set out the powers required for the independence of a special prosecutor.. To comply, he resigned when ordered by Nixon to control the special prosecutor The Saturday night massacre followed. The system worked. Today, Newt Gingrich, an adulterer, is chastised by the full House, forced for the only time in history to resign the Speakership, fined $300,000, resigns to become a high-paid unregistered lobbyist for Fannie Mae, and then runs for President and after he had tried to impeach Clinton!. When I was chairman of the Senate Ethics committee, the mere pendency of an investigation terminated one’s career. I saw it happen.


NM: The quote from Adlai II on page 165 is also very timely: “I believe in what is called for want of a better word ‘free enterprise.’ But free enterprise…must be a source of well being for the many, or it won’t be free very long.” What is the cause of the precipitous increase in income disparity and is American enterprise still a source of well being for the many?

AES: I think my chapter on Finance says it all. I was surprised to hear President Obama refer to Social Darwinian economics — as if he had been reading the Black Book! It is back, but this time there is little reaction and the country is in a self-induced economic decline. Benefits are cut as unemployment rises. Resources are invested in unwinnable wars to undermine other people also, as in Iraq. China rises and makes a conscious effort to reduce the inequalities, a big challenge. The Epilogue of the book puts it in historical context. For Lincoln, Union required hope and opportunity for all. Government was of, for and by ALL the people.

Nell Minow is co-author of three books about corporate governance and the author of one book about movies.  She reviews the week’s movies and DVD’s and writes about media and pop culture on her Blog.  Visit her at www.moviemom.com.

BOOKS: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti

I recently had the chance to write a cover blurb for the new book  In Search of SACCO & VANZETTI: Double Lives, Troubled Times, & and Massachusetts Murder Case that Shook the World, by Susan Tejada.    Here’s what I came up with–

Susan Tejada gives us Sacco and Vanzetti as real human beings ripe with complexity, which makes their sad case all the more compelling.  In the process, she opens a window on a younger America, and presents this cause celebre case as what it is, a classic drama of an unsolved crime cutting so close to society’s rawest nerves that it can spill spark heated arguments a century later.  This is an important story told well.” 

Here’s the longer, starred review from Booklist–

“This is a terrific reexamination of the Sacco and Vanzetti case by journalist Tejada, whose lively writing and reporter’s eye offer a fresh, invigorating perspective on otherwise familiar characters and historical episodes. She brings the suspense and engagement of a good thriller to the events surrounding the April 1920 murders of a Massachusetts paymaster and security guard. . . . Her examination of the case and her “alternative theory” of their guilt or innocence are both compelling. . . . In the process, she has also written a very entertaining and perceptive history of early twentieth-century radicalism, anarchism, the Wobblies, and the American Labor Movement.” –Booklist (starred review)

Check it out.  Hope you enjoy it.  –KA