Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Flashback: Billy the Kid, Everett Dirksen and Shirley Statton’s Inaugural Gown.

[Memories from fifty plus years in politics for my kids and grandchildren].

As I prepared to meet private citizen Billy the Kid for the first time at the M & M Club lunch in August, 1964, he was 51, grey-haired, two-time Congressman-at-Large, two-time state treasurer, a two-term governor, mentioned as a possible dark horse vice president…and under indictment. It came in the pre-primary period where, normally…given his being such a political animal…he would have run for governor again against Otto Kerner. The indictment charged he had evaded $46,676 in taxes on $82,542 of unreportred income from 1957 through 1960. The case was built on the “net worth theory” that his holdings had increased more in value than his reported taxable income would allow. “Net worth” was used by the IRS for mobsters for whom reliable data was not available. Stratton’s salary had not been more than $30,000 annually during the period in question and was $25,000 much of the time. He had reported taxable income oaf $86,097 for the four years and had paid income taxes of $23,311.

In response, Stratton said he had given the IRS complete access to his records for the years since 1961. When he spoke to me, he was suspicious that the Democrats had the mallet out for him, naming Senator Paul Douglas whose wife Stratton beat for reelection and Bobby Kennedy, certification of whose brother in carrying Illinois Stratton as governor had delayed. His case was assigned to federal district judge Hubert I. Will who as a young lawyer had backed presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson in 1952. Leading the prosecution was U. S. Attorney Edward Hanrahan, then looked to as a possible successor to Mayor Richard J. Daley.

When we met, both of us believed, rightly, that Goldwater was done and that Lyndon Johnson would win handily which he did in Illinois—LBJ by 891,000; Kerner over Chuck Percy by 179,000 and Sam Shapiro over John Henry Altorfer (in those days lieutenant governors were elected separately) by 380,000…Paul Powell (pronounced in southern Illinois “Pol Pal”) secretary of state, Michael Howlett as state auditor and William Clark as attorney general by a half a million plurality each.

“I’m going to be cleared,” he told me, with confidence. I agreed with him that the evidence looked specious but wasn’t so sure.

The trial began in January, 1965. The government maintained that Stratton deposited his salary in a Springfield bank and wrote checks on it for personal expenses which was okay—but other personal expenses were paid for by cash which had not been reported as income. Witnesses for the prosecution said that cash was paid for furnishings for the lodge on his farm and clothing for the Strattons. The defense said the clothing might have been worn at the inauguration, the inauguration of the president and the visit of Queen Elizabeth to Chicago where the Strattons were hosts. The defense made this the main brunt of its case: that Stratton had multi-roles: as candidate, party leader and governor which made political expenditures needed in contrast to what would be done for a private citizen. It sure seemed okay to me. I came from the super-clean state of Minnesota where my governor was a multi-millionaire who paid for all his own clothing and entertainment but I wondered what would happen for a man of ordinary income.

Yes, the government said, but what about the bill of remodeling and electrical work at his house in Morris which cost $9,900 which was paid in cash? But, said the defense, his house was a political base—which it was. As many as 1,500 people gathered there on occasions like on election nights which made the improvements needed. Then the government made what I thought was a technical mistake.

It produced Shirley Stratton’s red satin inaugural gown and said she wore it on numerous other occasions. It said she made 155 visits to Springfield’s “Francine’s House of Beauty” during 1958, 1959 and 1960 and paid an average of $3 a trip. It also said they paid for a magazine subscription for Sen. Everett Dirksen to “Realities,” a Paris publication. It insisted the Strattons lived on a more lavish scale than their income would allow. The Stratton lawyers cited Shirley Stratton’s $3 a visit “wash and set” hair treatment, questioning that it was lavish.

The government called Statton’s ex-wife, Muriel Munyon, of Florida who was a reluctant witness for the prosecution. They got her to testify that when they were divorced, Stratton’s net worth was next to nothing. As the last of 89 witnesses, the government called an IRS official who said Stratton’s net worth had gone from $1,406 in 1949 to $209,000 in 1960. Defense attacked his ability to determine which expenditures were political and which were not. In all the proceedings, Stratton sat calmly with his attorney and even accompanied his lawyer into private conferences with the judge. John Dreiske of the “Sun-Times” testified that he had visited Stratton at his Morris home and at the farm. Stratton gave him Christmas gifts—a silver tray, a book, a small desk set. Such gifts would explain some of Stratton’s purchases from local stores, he said. He denied the gifts influenced him to write favorably about Stratton.

Stratton told me he was suddenly gripped by depression as the trial neared its end—something that hadn’t happened to him before. “While the trial was on,” he said, “I was busy with it, helping my attorney. But by the time we neared the end, I was overcome with sadness.” What led him to the brink of despair was a contrast with one of his friends. When he first went to Congress, he noted he was about the same age as a young Congressman from Michigan, Gerald Ford. Now Ford was elected Republican leader at 51; and at 51, Bill Stratton felt his career was over. “And for the first time, I started to fear that I would be convicted,” he told me.

But the last big howitzer fired in his behalf won for him. The last defense witness was the U. S. Senator from Illinois who had become a national celebrity—the minority leader, Everett McKinley Dirksen. As Dirksen made his way through the crowd before the federal building in Chicago, with his tousled hair and suit in careless disarray, his pouched face resembling that of Bert Lahr in the role of the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz, it was unclear to Stratton whether he would be an asset or liability. Stratton asked him to testify but characteristically Dirksen had waved aside all real understanding of the details of the trial. Accepting a glass of water that was his trademark, Dirksen began responding to the lawyers’ questions by starting his sentence…sipping the water in mid-sentence for effect…and returning to the predicate with aplomb. He was so much an old-world thespian that Stratton caught himself worrying that his testimony would be of no effect. In fact, his testimony enchanted the trial and probably wrote a precedent for any other similar actions of this nature brought against politicians.

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