Monday, November 27, 2006

Flashback: Dirksen’s Brilliant Testimony Exonerates Stratton but Scandals Unconnected to Him Ended the Career of One of State’s Most Effective Governors.

[Fifty plus years in politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Billy the Kid Stratton told me that as he sat at the defendant’s table he worried as he saw the glorious old thespian, Everett McKinley Dirksen, bowing and tossing waves to the audience, jury and judge…responding to the affirmation to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but with his famous resonant whispery rumble that nevertheless carried throughout the courtroom: “I do.” Stratton worried that Dirksen was not going to be a smash hit in the Democratic courtroom of heavily Democratic Chicago with a Democratic-appointee federal judge and a jury pool drawn from largely Democratic Chicagoans. Moreover that Dirksen may have become a comic figure to some people. Both ideas were wrong.

Acknowledged as a master craftsman of legislation, even in 1965 Dirksen had become a kind of parody of old-fashioned 4th of July oratory where he had earned the title “the Wizard of Ooze.” Stories about him were magnificent, including the time in 1962 when he was engaged in a fairly heavy cocktail party fund-raiser during his campaign at the side of his veteran aide Harold Rainville…himself as eccentric as Dirksen, a man who walked like a duck because of sore feet and who by dint of years served the senior Senator more as a friend than servant: insisting that when campaign dinners were held he, Rainville, was to sit at the head table. Neither Dirksen nor Rainville were noted for having many staffers around them, Dirksen jotting notes about future engagements and giving them to Rainville who, on very rare occasions when he had one of his two baggy suits sent out to be cleaned, forgot to rescue the missives.

Anyhow, they were at a Dirksen cocktail party for heavy hitters in the Conrad Hilton. Dirksen had always believed that the rural vote…the vote of farmers and small towners in Illinois…could save him from the evil city of Chicago. As they imbibed among friends with Dirksen at his best telling enlarged Senate stories, someone came up to Rainville and whispered in his ear that a major Illinois farm organization was meeting downstairs in the grand ballroom. The messenger checked and said the organization would be delighted to have Dirksen greet them for a minute or two in the ballroom. Dirksen reacted with alacrity. It was reelection time and a convention of several thousand farmers from all over Illinois just a few floors below was duck soup.

As they sped down the corridor to the elevator Rainville briefed Dirksen by saying, “now this is the Illinois Farm Bureau. Remember: they love the free market. They don’t want high price supports; in fact they want no price supports whatsoever, so you should tailor your brief remarks to that fact.” Dirksen nodded; they landed on the ballroom floor and were greeted with open arms by farm leaders with the minority leader escorted to the rostrum where he was introduced to great applause. Somewhat fortified by priot liquid refreshment, neither Dirksen nor Rainville did not notice banners attesting to the kind of farm convention it was.

Dirksen opened by praising them and saluting the idea of a free market. Pausing to sip the inevitable glass of water mid-way through his remarks to hold their attention, he noted that there was embarrassing silence. He tasted the water briefly and returned to his theme, making his allegiance to the free market even more oracular. He paused for theatrical effect and there was no response. He looked down at the rostrum and there was a hastily scribbled note from Rainville: “Cripes, I was told wrong! This is the Illinois Farmers Union! They want higher price supports!”

Whereupon Dirksen whipped off his spectacles and said: “What you have heard is the conservative side of the question—the one that I presented in fairness to them…but, now the side which I believe to achieve the balance you deserve: Unfortunately, total reliance on the cold statistics of the marketplace ignores the humanity, the compassion that goes with the vocation of farming…because, yes, it is a way of life!... a vocation, ladies and gentlemen. Where our friends on the right make a mistake all too often is that they believe farming is a way to make a living. Indeed, farming is far more: it is a family institution on which this nation has been fed and nurtured…a family institution that has been with us since the foundation of this country and as I stand here I give you my pledge that I shall continue to fight for this way of life…liberated from cold balance-book numbers…

“…reliant on the fact that just as the government has a certain role in supporting the poor of the cities, it also has an important stake in seeing that the agriculture on which this nation and the Free World depend…the agriculture of our forefathers survive and whether it takes 90 percent of parity…92 percent of parity…or 100 percent of parity—whatever the conference committees come up with…you can be assured that from my seat at the sword’s point directly under the gaze of the vice president of the United States…my old colleague in arms, Lyndon Johnson who has been a valiant comrade in so many battles in behalf of this nation…and the young man whom we both serve regardless of partisanship—a young man who turned to me so often as the junior Senator from Massachusetts, now president…under the gaze of his running-mate looking down upon the members in the canyon called the Senate of the United States…and with full reliance on this young president…I shall be fighting once more again with him for the well-being of our farm families so gallantly defended by the Illinois Farmers Union!”

Finally! The applause thundered. He was almost carried to the exit on their shoulders. Once he passed though the army of well-wishers and was ensconced on the elevator up to his cocktail party, he turned to Rainville, and snarled to his cowering assistant: “Goddam you, Rainville, don’t you dare do this to me again! I had to work myself up into such a frenzy to get out of that box you put me in that you may well have shortened my life!” Back at his party he downed a glass of straight scotch whiskey to steady himself from the ordeal and turned a cold shoulder on Rainville for the remainder of the evening; but by the time Rainville had to drive him to his hotel, he was sufficiently relaxed and convivial so that he was forgiving. “I will just say, Senator,” said Rainville, “not to excuse myself for my error: but confronted with the problem, you were ingenious! Brilliant!” To which Dirksen said, “well…thank you, Harold. But let us never again force the occasion on which I have to be so.”

The story became legend and has circulated in Republican circles since 1962. And it was that story and many others like it that crossed Stratton’s mind as the Senate’s number one impresario sat down in the witness chair. Dirksen began by reading from a letter he received from “a humble little nun—Sister Mary Charlesita, BVM, a teacher in the Regina convent in Dubuque, Iowa who wrote that her prayers were with the former governor in this case.” She wrote, intoned Dirksen, “there are few whose lives could be scrutinized as yours in this endless presentation of minutiae without revealing weakness or vice.” The nun was Stratton’s first cousin, an incidental Dirksen saw no need to acknowledge.

After that, there was such quiet in the courtroom that the ticking of the clock could be heard. It seemed that everyone was absorbed in thought. Then in response to the question from Judge Will as to whether Dirksen had ever spent contributions on clothing for himself, the Senator responded: “I came very close on one occasion, Your Honor, and it might have been a sizable sum. Let me tell you how it almost happened.”

The judge and jury sat transfixed as the Senator recounted that in 1933 he arrived in Washington for Franklin Roosevelt’s inauguration without a tuxedo. He wore a rented tuxedo that fit so badly he was reported in the newspapers as the man who attended the inauguration in a rented suit. He said his friends were so embarrassed for him that they raised by private subscription the money sufficient to buy a white tie and long-tailed coat. Then, with an eye to the IRS possibly probing himself, he said: “I did not use the money for that purpose but gave it to charity but I felt I might be justified in doing so.”

There was a comforting rumble of approval from the jury. Dirksen then faced the members and said…particularly to the women jurors: “0, the ladies: yes, the ladies who keep our home life together, who suffer so much as we males go about our political duties and are missing from the dinner tables…this is partially what this trial is about, is it not? I’ve said a thousand times that Mrs. Dirksen is the most valuable unsalaried member of my staff. It is my feeling that the ladies…God bless the ladies…God bless them, I say…that the ladies be adequately clothed as a legitimate political expense. If a wife attends two functions in the same dress, the next time around there should be a new gown!” Applause had been ruled out of order in the courtroom but Dirksen, eying an approving Judge Will, knew that he had delivered for Billy the Kid. Even so, Billy the Kid was unsure.

The jury began deliberating late in the day on March 10, 1965 and until the evening. At 10 p.m. Judge Will sent it home for the night. The next day it resumed at 9:30 a.m. and by 11:40 a.m. it had reached a decision. Shortly after twelve noon the decision was read that found William Stratton not guilty. There was a loud cheer in the courtroom. Judge Will declared to Stratton: “You have earned the right to freedom in our free society. You are entitled to walk a little taller from now on.” Dirksen’s eloquence notwithstanding, the jury took eight ballots before unanimity was reached. The climactic argument, Stratton agreed, was Dirksen’s but the government also failed to credit him with cash reserves he might have had and its failure to pin down any unreported taxable income.

Stratton’s lawyers’ fees were $100,000, a large amount in 1965. The Strattons had to stay in a downtown hotel for each week at their own expense on all weekdays from January to March. People from all over Illinois contributed including Paul Powell, the Democratic secretary of state who had become House Speaker because of Stratton. “I’m kicking in,” he told the press, “because I consider it a great victory not just for Bill Stratton but for all of us in public life.” Ironically, Powell kicked off not long after with a wad of cash on the upper shelf of the St. Nicholas hotel in Springfield…a far different man from Stratton.

As for Stratton, he believed until the end that Bobby Kennedy and his associates had decided four years earlier that if his brother was going to be reelected, they better smear him because as governor he held up issuing the certificate of election. The course of criminal prosecution takes long and it continued after the Kennedy assassination into two years of the Johnson administration. After his acquittal, Billy’s spirits soared immediately—but his career had ended, no matter how he tried to revive it. He ran once more for governor, against Dick Ogilvie in 1968 but couldn’t jump-start it.

Thus completed the career of Billy the Kid on three counts of “scandal.” One, was the fact that State Auditor Orville Hodge, a Republican and rival of Stratton, elected state auditor on his own and in charge of his own office, stole money from the state—for which Stratton was blameless. Second was William “Smokey” Downey, Stratton’s press secretary, who tried to work in a little private p. r. and lobbying at the same time he was working for Stratton, in contravention of Stratton’s direct personal order—with no loss of state monies just a rupture of Downey’s personal ethics for which he paid the price of conviction. Third was the bogus alleged misuse of campaign funds by Stratton for his own use for which he was exonerated by a jury. In all, compared to prior and future governors…Kerner, Ogilvie, Walker, Thompson, Edgar—certainly Blagojevich—…his administration was pristine. As he was not a lawyer and was hit by these episodes for which he was all but non-accountable, Bill Stratton didn’t serve on any boards but was a working stiff, assistant to the president of the Canteen Corporation, and a in-name-only bank vice president which gave him a modest desk and a place to go to every morning through his entire life.

A few years later and Billy the Kid was all but forgotten.

I was proud to salute him one day at Rotary when he sat unnoticed near the wall, prompting a standing ovation which startled him. It turned out to be his last day at the Club he would attend without fail every Tuesday. He came to me…walking very slowly…to the speaker’s table with his little chuckle. A one-time qualifier for the best governor in the country, for potential vice president on the Republican ticket, now very modest who would walk out the door with his little cane down Michigan avenue. Not long later, he died in 2001 at age 87.


  1. John Thomas Mc GeeanNovember 27, 2006 at 4:26 AM


    You have spoken well of a great governor. He became Governor when I was an 8th grader. My first election was 1960 and I voted for Governor Stratten. I still believe I made the right choice. He stands head and shoulders over ALL his successors. Three of them--Kerner, Walker and Ryan have been convicted. Two served time an Ryan will soon be serving time.
    He stands out as a Giant.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with this good man.

  2. Thank you for the insights into the life and career of Bill Stratton. It would be interesting if you brought your readers forward through the Ogilvie and Thompson years.