Tuesday, November 7, 2006

Flashback: Billy the Kid Stratton: A Crook or Not? Sure Looked that Way at First…but, Hey, Wait a Minute.

illinois capitol

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

As I plunged mid-way into researching former governor William G. Stratton, several days before we were to have our lunch at the M&M club, my mind was just about made up about the 50-year-old man older politicians called “Billy the Kid”: he was a hack. Moreover, he was not just a hack but the son of another hack who had possibly been a crook and jury-tamperer. Now with an IRS scrape hanging over him, I got the feeling that Billy the Kid was very probably a crook himself. But as I researched at the library and talked to a number of people including George Tagge and John Dreiske of the “Sun-Times”—both now dead and friendly rivals--gradually the suspicion eased and a different view emerged.

From toddler days on, Billy the Kid had one all-consuming interest: the advancement of his beloved father through politics. He followed William J. around, paid careful attention to the bargaining—developing innate skills that served him well later in life. Billy had no training or interest whatsoever for any other pursuit. His father had inherited a Lake county farm but only dabbled in agriculture, climbing up tediously on school boards and commissions, getting his name known locally. At his side came toddler Billy, schooled in the trade of political barter and swapping since babyhood.

I was initially turned off as I studied his history because a man with that amount of all-consuming ambition for politics first and foremost was far different from the people I knew in politics in the pristine, non-patronage state of Minnesota. I felt he was different from the people I worked with: they seemed to have had ideals of some sort. And most of them came to politics after having mastered serious professions or enterprises. Walter Judd as a Mayo Clinic surgeon, then medical missionary to China, captured twice by the Chinese and returned to the U. S. to raise money for his Congregationalist church when Pearl Harbor happened. He practiced medicine in Minneapolis, built a large practice, but then decided to run for the Congress in Minneapolis because the incumbent was an isolationist Republican. That was an idealistic self-sacrificing decision, the first of many by Judd.

Elizabeth Heffelfinger and her husband Peavey were mega-multimillionaires who could have frittered away their lives. But Elizabeth wanted to set her Republican party on a progressive track and wanted her secret platonic lover Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. to become president: not for anything she could get out of his presidency except possibly a few dinners at the White House. There was nothing any president could do for her that she needed. She spent hundreds of hours on the phone trying to achieve this goal which she felt was in the best interest of the country (the fact that I think she was far wrong doesn’t negate it). Peavey listened to her and did what he was told. He was more conservative than she (most people were) but he too had a vision that he wanted the Republican party to adhere to: frugality in government, character, not expediency in making decisions and a foreign policy that would instill America as a land of hope to the dispossessed. Pretty robust idealism on both their parts.

Chicago-born Elmer Andersen started as an orphan and poor boy sent to live with his aunt and uncle but hit it big as a salesman and made his multi-million-dollar fortune as an entrepreneur before venturing into state politics, the state Senate and then the governorship. He was stirred by the ideal to help all classes, blacks, mentally disturbed and psychotic children and to spur the economy, a taconite amendment passed to boost employment in hard-pressed northeastern Minnesota. Even Al Quie, not noted as a man of vision, moved from an inherited dairy farm—which he markedly improved as an income-producer using his education in agricultural economics—to the legislature, Congress and the Minnesota governorship where he worked to link farmers and laborers together in free market economics and became noted as a cultural conservative when being such was not popular in Minnesota: an idealistic career.

Hubert Humphrey was drawn to politics early; trained as a pharmacist he took a master’s in government and taught as a professor at Macalester college, a highly-rated private university before he got involved in his party. His first activism was to oppose Communist intrusion into the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party which Reds wanted to do following World War II. His entire labor as a Senator and Vice President was to impel America to succeed in the Cold War. An idealistic goal.

Gene McCarthy had been a Benedictine monk, in training to be a priest before he started a career as a university professor and had entered politics out of intellectual curiosity but became a critic of the war in Vietnam and ran to restrain undue presidential activism in foreign and military matters. A noble aspiration.

But Bill Stratton? Did Bill Stratton have ideals? The only goal I could find at the outset was that he revered his father ( a laudable view) and wanted to succeed where the old man had failed (again: laudable but not necessarily brimming with ideals). That’s why the old man’s record has always been important in assessing Billy the Kid—just as George H. W. Bush’s is essential for understanding George W. Bush. And when you look hard at it, you see a far different picture of Billy the Kid.

Billy the Kid was weaned on his father’s deals, rewards and punishment in politics. Bill Stratton, Sr. had grabbed patronage job after patronage job on a local level, rising to deputy state game warden under Republican Governor Frank Lowden while he also served as Lake county Republican chairman and Republican boss of Lake county. He moved up the chairs to state game and fish warden. He was strikingly good looking (unlike his son): tall, six feet in height, handsome, well-groomed with dark hair, photogenic features and a cleft in his chin: by all measures handsome. Bill Stratton, Sr. made sure his name got around the state. He aligned himself with a governor who was not exactly savory: Lennington (Len) Small of Kankakee, a wily farmer, was an enemy of change, believing in the spoils system and who campaigned to return Illinois to the good old days from the sterile reformism of the progressives.

Len Small got elected as state treasurer and promptly became the downstate partner of Chicago’s most corrupt mayor and willing tool of the Outfit, Big Bill Thompson. Small got elected governor in 1920. A year later, he was indicted by the state attorney general on charges he ran a money-laundering scheme as treasurer. Small was almost sure to go to jail until his lawyers managed to get the venue changed to Lake county where William J. Stratton, the boss of the county, ran the political show. Stratton, Sr. set to work. We don’t know exactly how he did it but the jurors in Waukegan acquitted Small and after a short while, several of them got good paying state jobs. One doesn’t have to be conspiratorial to imagine what happened. I’ll bet the ranch that Stratton, Sr. played a major role in that bribery—although there’s no proof.

Then there came a promotion for Stratton, Sr. Small ran for reelection and won despite everything the then great Chicago “Tribune” could do to stop him. On the morning after election, the “Trib” had a a lead editorial entitled, “It Seems Small Has Been Reelected” following which there was a long column of white space with no comment. The “Tribune” animosity carried over to Stassen, Sr. In his second term, Small created a new department of conservation and named William J. Stratton as director and the “Tribune” draw the ominous conclusion: it was a payback. Stratton, Sr. criss-crossed the state landing in the papers favorably as director and putting his name on everything that wasn’t nailed down. Then he ran for the GOP nomination for state treasurer and plastered billboards with his name on them throughout the state. But he lost. He took a big financial hit.

But Stratton, Sr. was determined to win a state constitutional office so he decided to screw his patron. In 1928 the fiercely controversial Governor Small made a bid for an unprecedented third term. The Republican secretary of state, Louis Emmerson, decided to run in the primary against Small. Quick as lightning, Stratton decided to run for secretary of state. He figured Len Small would endorse the move. Why he believed this, no one knows. But, understandably, Len Small didn’t. He suspected Stratton, Sr. had put Emmerson up to the challenge to that Stratton could cash in by running for secretary of state: a reasonable supposition. He told Stratton: Do you think I’m crazy enough to buy that deal? But he was nice about it. He told Stratton to drop his bid for secretary of state and he would be well provided for in recompense. But Stratton’s ambition was such that he bucked his old friend the governor and ran anyhow. Small called Stratton, Sr. a no-good back-stabber and plotted to destroy both Emmerson and Stratton. But this time Stratton, Sr. was on the right side of the “Tribune.” By screwing Small, Stratton became a kind of minor hero with the “Tribune.”

Emmerson got the gubernatorial nomination and won election along with his new ally Stratton, Sr. as secretary of state. The climb for Stratton, Sr. took more than twenty years but he believed was worth it. Next stop for Stratton was obvious: the governorship. But the good luck ran out. Next came the depression of 1929 and all Republicans became tarred with the Herbert Hoover onus. Stratton, Sr. lost reelection as secretary of state, although was the leading vote-getter for the Republicans. Young Billy, traveling on the campaign trail with his Dad in summers when he was home from the University of Arizona where he majored in political science, said the Republican tallies in Chicago under Big Bill Thompson that ruined his father’s political chances were “fixed.” Fixed they probably were but the Depression was the deciding factor. Still, filled with anger at the Republican machine of Small and Thompson, Stratton became a rebel and an idealist of sorts.

Bill married in 1934 and the couple eventually had two daughters. Determined to overcome the Hoover onus, William J. ran for state treasurer and was beaten again. His legatee, Billy the Kid, then a dark-haired young man followed his father through all the county fairs and sat in on the backroom deals. Stratton, Sr. kept trying, spending his estate on campaigns like an addict, hooked on the idea that with just a few more billboards he might win. It never worked out. Worn out, broke and sick he died of complications from gall bladder surgery at the age of only 52. The conclusion was irrevocable for Billy the Kid: the GOP machine ruined and then killed his father. Thus he vowed not just to succeed where the old man had failed, but to be a very different kind of administrator. And about that time in reading the files and newspaper accounts, I started to develop a revisionist view of Billy the Kid.

Rather than deciding to build his own machine and punish his father’s detractors, Billy the Kid seemed to develop an animosity against big-time political organization and never built one himself. He and his brother had a meager inheritance from his father: a broken down farm and a barn full of out-of-date brochures and folded up billboard posters which were left when the money ran out. But the name “Bill Stratton” which had been plastered across the state for twenty years was now the personal franchise of Billy the Kide. And it was one of the best known names in Illinois.

Billy worked for the gas company as a salesman and used the last dollars of his father’s inheritance to buy a luxurious ten-room Victorian house in Morris, Illinois which was his legal residence and him, his wife and family. It looked good but the house was available for back taxes and whatever the Grundy county bank had in it. Billy borrowed money to buy it and paid it back for years throughout his life. Now he decided to take the first big gamble and run for office as the second Bill Stratton.

When the Illinois legislature refused to redistrict the state, there were fourteen candidates for Congressman-at-large, a post that would represent the entire state not unlike the U. S. Senate posts. Billy Stratton filed for the job and often hitch-hiked across the state to keep speaking dates; he was often hungry: staying overnights with friends of his father. Once in a while, he and his cousin traveled the state in an old car, visiting 95 of its 102 counties—often sleeping the night in the car. In Springfield he was found sleeping in the car by businessmen who remembered his father who chipped in for a hotel room for him and his cousin. In Danville, he looked so scruffy that a few people took him to a clothing store and bought him a new suit. When he came to speak at the LaSalle hotel in Chicago, he was wearing tennis shoes (his other pair had worn out). A few people bought him a pair and sat him down in the hotel kitchen before a luncheon where he wolfed down two full meals. There is no exaggeration about this. I verified it from two newspaper aces who covered him in those days: George Tagge of the “Tribune” and John Dreiske of the “Sun-Times.” They disagreed mightily on politics but both agreed the Stratton experience—running despite poverty—was unrivaled in the country at the time.

But his father’s legacy of the Stratton name paid off and Billy the Kid led the ticket with the highest vote in the November, 1940 election. At age 25 he had just reached the legal limit for service and was the youngest House member in the United States. He and his family drove to Washington in a run-down used car. Billy was more interested in state politics than federal, although he could have been reelected handily. But being a Republican in a Democratic Congress was no fun; besides, he wanted a career in state government which had been short-circuited in his father’ s case. So, astoundingly, assured of reelection, Billy Stratton announced that he was coming back to Illinois to run for state treasurer! Some people thought there was something wrong with his head.

Again the fabulous Stratton named paid off. He won and was sworn in at 28, the youngest man to hold statewide office in the history of Illinois, a record that still holds. There were no juicy contracts to award in those spare days where a room full of green eye-shade accountants labored. Stratton lived on his pay-check which was not exorbitant. The house he had bought in Morris meant a lot to him and to pay off the debt, at times his bank account was down to zero. And like his father, he was earning enmity from a powerful governor of his own party: Dwight H. Green. Stratton announced that he would run for secretary of state, the office his father had held all too briefly. Green decided to cut off Stratton’s ambitions in the bud.

Green, who made his reputation as the man who sent Al Capone to prison through income tax delinquency. Viewed as a reformer, Green came close to defeating the powerful Edward J. Kelly Democratic machine. Armed with the luster of a reformer, he ran and was elected governor. But like another prosecutor who became governor, Jim Thompson, once elected, Green put all ideas of reform to rest and concentrated on building a machine of his own. Running the GOP party with a closed fist, Green denied Stratton slating for secretary of state. Stratton ran for reelection anyhow but the clout from the governor was too much and Stratton got creamed. Thus father and son were crushed by a governor’s machine. He was developing a kind of idealism: him against the organization.

After he lost, Stratton decided to add a stint in the military to his resume and enlisted in the U. S. navy in 1945 just as the war was nearing its end, serving in the South Pacific as a lieutenant j. g. where he saw no action. In 1947 when he was mustered out from Okinawa, he ran once more for the post of Congressman-at-Large. His military stats show that at that time he was five-feet nine inches tall and weighed 145 pounds. Once again, the Stratton named paid off and he got the nomination. He was paired against Emily Taft Douglas, a liberal darling seeking her second term; she was the wife of Paul Douglas another liberal darling who had been an independent Chicago alderman and who late in life volunteered in the Marine corps and was seriously wounded during World War II.

No one gave Stratton a chance to beat Mrs. Douglas. Some suggested he red-bait as an issue and he skirted it, talking generally about Communism and corruption in the Truman administration while also endorsing the United Nations. Even Paul Douglas in writing his autobiography many years later, praised his wife’s congressional service but said she was defeated because there was a general view for “rapid demobilization” not Red baiting, saying she was caught in the push. But armed with his fabulous name and avoiding advice he was given to link her voting record with charges of pro-Communism, Stratton ran a clean campaign, unseated her and went to Congress once more.


Next: Stratton continues his pursuit of the Governorship of Illinois and surprises many by being one of the best governors in Illinois history.

1 comment:

  1. Tom:

    Thanks for the nice background on William G. Stratton who became Governor in January 1953. I remember, he ran with Ike under the slogan "Clean up the Mess in Washington and Illinois."

    Governor Stevenson liked it so much that He ran his National Campaign with the Slogan"Clean up the Mess in Washington." He did not endear himsefl to President Harry S. Truman.

    The first time I voted, in 1960 I voted for Governor William G. Stratton. I thought he deserved a Third term. However, more people thought Judge Kerner was the man. He was later known as Otto( and there they go) Kerner.