Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Flashback: With No Charisma or Rhetorical Blarney, Why is Bill Stratton Regarded as One of Illinois’ Great Governors? He Veered Away from Building a Cadre of Political Professionals—Relying on Himself Largely.

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

Once I started researching him for our forthcoming lunch, I was convinced he was not just a hack but a kind of duplicitous, faceless white-collar governor crook, reportedly set to be indicted on income tax evasion. Then I said, “what a minute.” I doubled back and talked to two very different seasoned reporters of his era: George Tagge of the “Tribune” and John Dreiske of the “Sun-Times.” They both had very different takes on Illinois politics. Tagge lionized conservatives, hated big government and stood fore-square with his boss Colonel Robert R. McCormick; Dreiske, a generation younger, was an admirer of Adlai Stevenson and was a reformer. Was there a nobility about Billy the Kid Stratton? They told me and, for once, were in total agreement but I reserved my own opinion, continuing the research doggedly. Tagge told me: “We could figure he was calculating when we could hear his little chuckle.” Dreiske added: “Billy was never in a sour humor. Even when he talked about some troubles, he’d go…” and Dreiske imitated the little chuckle.

A kind of quiet, reflective, half-apologetic sound like clearing his throat.

Never satisfied with the office he held and believing he could go higher, Billy the Kid began his rise trying to emulate his father who was downed by his enemies and the Great Depression. More than any other Illinois politician, Billy was a high-wire performer, taking chances no other candidate would: leaping from office to office. He would grab one office, then startle the crowd by leaping mid-air to another—occasionally failing when he was opposed by his own party but always dazzling the audience. All this with little wealth beyond his paycheck—or did he have a secret cache squirreled away? In succession he was (a) Congressman-at-Large for one term at age 25 [1941-43]; (b) state treasurer at age 28 [1943-45] ; (c) elected to a second term as Congressman-at-Large at 33, knocking off a prize liberal, Emily Taft Douglas, wife of Paul Douglas [1947-49]; (d) defeated for secretary of state at age 34 by Democratic stalwart Edward J. Barrett [1948]; (e) elected to second term as state treasurer [1951-53] at 37; (f) elected governor at 39 [1952-56]; (g) reelected governor at 41 [1956]; (h) defeated for a third term at 45 [1960]; and (i) defeated for the gubernatorial nomination at 54 [1968].

I had my doubts that he was living on his own income, because, poor as he was at the outset, he lived in an old mansion in Morris, Illinois which he got as a bargain by paying its back taxes and whatever the Grundy county bank was owed. Was this on the up-and-up? What sort of a guy is this?

With his insatiable ambition, did he do any good in public office? The staggering rise is ticked off in the preceding paragraph; here’s the narrative.

As Congressman-at-Large he bid for and was given the secretary of state’s nomination by Republican governor Green, once a reformer now a “regular,” who was coming around to the fact that Billy the Kid had staying power: he was like moss on a tree, you could pull it off but he’d return and come up smiling. At last, Billy thought, he would reclaim his Dad’s old office, secretary of state. But the year was 1948—supposedly a good one for Republicans but actually the Truman year. Everybody in the GOP went down including Billy for secretary of state in the year which elected Adlai E. Stevenson to the governorship. And if 1948 was bad enough, the next year was double bad for Billy. His wife got fed up with his high-wire antics in running for office—in one year, out the next, in Washington, D. C. one year, in Springfield the next. She couldn’t charge Billy was unfaithful to her, though. He was so busy on the political high-wire he had no time: probably not enough time for her or anyone else. She couldn’t honestly say the same thing about herself. She walked out taking their two children. Billy charged desertion which she didn’t challenge.

Being divorced was bad for a politician in those times. He really turned poor at that time: no lawyer, he didn’t want to be a lobbyist because he feared what he might get involved in could lead a future political opponent to say he was a hustler. He tried banking, selling real estate, trying a newspaper column on politics, any number of things—and didn’t make much money. He came close to having to sell the big house; he fell into arrears with child support which Mike Howlett used to verbally publicize. The press rumored that his wife’s lawyer kept hounding him for money for the kids’ dental bills, prescription glasses. In the divorce settlement his wife was given a note for half of what they paid for the house in Morris; he had nothing else to divide. (After he died, his meticulous files showed pencil notations for the gin rummy games he lost in 1949-50--$.3.40, $2.80, $4.10—ironic in view of the millions he had handled as state treasurer).

Another note in those files, again in pencil, carries the words to the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”: “Oh, once I was happy and now I’m forlorn/ Like an old coat that is tattered and torn.” But at the end the scrawl: “Look, he floats through the air with the greatest of ease/ The daring young man on the Flying Trapeze!” The song continued: the daring young man was “betrayed by a maid in her teens.” His divorced wife had just gone out of her teens when they had married. Then a phrase underlined: “His movements are graceful/ All girls does he please.” A letter from Smokey Downey his old press secretary tucked in the files: “Keep you nose clean with the babes, Billy!” Billy was reminding himself that, plain looking as he was, there were some girls who liked him but that he would keep his nose clean for politics. He did.

Billy the Kid, age 35, newly divorced, was down but not out. It was 1949 and the next year 1950—even-numbered and an election year. He’d run for state treasurer for a second term. There was good political news for Billy. No Republican governor meant there was no big power in Springfield blocking him as happened before. He ran against six opponents almost all of whom were better financed than he. He borrowed nearly $500 on his life insurance policy which was probably all it was worth. On his birthday, his mother wrote that in lieu of a party and cake she was sending a check. Also during the primary, a number of stenographers donated their time in the evenings to helping Stratton get out the mail. One was Shirley Breckenridge, 28, who was a friend of Andy Fasseas, a Stratton campaign volunteer. She had a good job in a Chicago insurance firm and was divorced herself. She typed many of Stratton’s letters. One letter to a longtime older woman assistant he appended: “Love and kisses” which was intended to show Shirley Breckenridge that he was a sophisticated and dashing fellow. .

In the primary, Stratton drew 290,000 votes and got the nomination. This despite the fact that Chicago’s John T. Dempsey, Dwight Green’s old patronage boss with links to the Mob, opposed him and united the West Side Bloc against him. The “Chicago Daily News” cheered: Billy Stratton “is his own man” and called him a Lone Ranger. Ex-governor Green wired him: “I must ask—tell me how you did it!”

In the Fall he ran against Michael J. Howlett—a tough competitor—and handily defeated him. Billy was back in the saddle. In December, 1950 he and Shirley Breckenridge were married: he was 36. Joe Immel, who was my alderman from the Republican 41st ward, a Catholic, was Stratton’s deputy campaign manager. One of his jobs was to try to smooth Stratton’s divorce and re-marriage with certain clerical authorities including Catholics. Divorce—and particularly re-marriage was seen as a severe liability for politicians but not for Stratton. Immel told me that the couple was so “bland and conservative-acting” that there was not a great deal of fuss.

As state treasurer, aware of Republican and Democratic machine tactics, he stopped the practice of forcing state employees to give a percentage of their salaries (often 2%) for political use of the office. Joe Immel told me everything Stratton did, including adopt reforms, was for political purposes: true--but, so what? He did it. He said Stratton wouldn’t hire people who wouldn’t work; he reduced his state treasurer budget. Immel said many Republicans in Cook county were cutting deals with Democrats, selling out their own candidacies, in return for favors. Erickson, Stratton’s main opponent in the party, regularly presided over this stratagem, he said. Looking over the headlines of the period showed that Stratton was at war with the variant of the “Combine.”

And, typically Stratton, once back in office, he took a squint at the bright Democratic governor, Adlai Stevenson. He figured Stevenson was also divorced (although not re-married): so if Stratton ran for governor his divorce couldn’t be used against him. His rummy players gasped and said: what? You’re going to run for governor in 1952 against Adlai Stevenson who is riding a wave of publicity across the country and is regarded as a future president one day? Billy said: yep. Despite all that publicity, he said, he’s been a lousy governor. He could prove it. He talked in prosaic, flat and administrative terms—not exciting for a media who thought they spotted a huge meteor in the heavens: Adlai Stevenson.

As an administrator, Stevenson was a near-disaster for all his imagery. But the notion wasn’t clicking. Not big news items here or covered across the country where the liberal media had fallen in love with Stevenson’s brilliant, literary prose and his understated wit and erudition which was a preview of what was later processed by ghostwriters as the John F. Kennedy Harvard classiness—except that Stevenson did it on his own. Billy was convinced that Stevenson’s literary accomplishments wouldn’t cut any ice in Peoria or Decatur next to Billy’s forensic forays.

And, continued good news for Billy, the Republican machine of the past—run by Dwight Green—was dead. His victory for state treasurer proved that--so the fact that the machine boys of the party didn’t like him didn’t matter when he considered the governorship. He would run as one of seven in the primary. Most had more money than he. His top rival, Bill Erickson, the Evanston committeeman, had funding from patronage sources and hidden, notorious associations with venal operators. Stratton had the same asset he always had: the Stratton name had been on billboards thanks to his father and he for decades on all the highways and rural roads in Illinois. Only one Republican ward committeeman backed Stratton; the rest supported Erickson.

But in the middle of the primary, Erickson got indicted in a ghost payroll scandal and withdrew from the contest leaving Park Livingston of Hinsdale, president of the U of I board of trustees and Richard Yates Rowe, an appointed secretary of state among others…no name guys to compete with Stratton’s. Then, good news for Stratton: scandals arose in the Stevenson administration which were big news in this state but not nationally: the horsemeat scandal when state agricultural inspectors turned crooked and approved the use of horsemeat for prime filets served at, among other places, Chicago’s classy Blackhawk restaurant…the cigarette tax stamp scandal where state employees were dealing with counterfeit stamps and pocketing the money… a mine explosion in Centralia which rivaled the one under Dwight Green in West Frankfort which had elected Stevenson.

But all this rolled off him like a duck’s back with the national media for Stevenson. The “Sun-Times” zinged Stratton here at home, calling him “Billy the Kid.” It was to be a classic race between Stratton and Stevenson—one Stevenson might well have lost given that he didn’t carry Illinois for president…but in July, 1952 the Democratic national convention nominated Stevenson. Stevenson pushed his lieutenant governor, Sherwood Dixon, to the fore as his successor when a better opponent for Stratton would have been Edward Barrett who had beaten Stratton for secretary of state. And riding the Stevenson scandals for all they were worth, Stratton swept in to the governorship. Newsmen were stunned at the number of people he knew across the state; his father had boasted he personally knew 20,000; it was thought that Billy the Kid knew more than that. And why not? He was a professional pol thus far in his life. But was he an honest one, though?

I didn’t know but I was really changing my mind about his distrust of the creation of a professional command system of managers. As I pored over the reports, I found out he didn’t rely on a lot of staff, didn’t have anyone who would be a political guru; he purposely didn’t train young men for careers in government, expecting that after they served in his administration they would go back to the private sector. After a young lifetime of striving for the governorship, he believed he was the best equipped to meet the problems of the state. He wasn’t rich and didn’t wonder about how he would make out in the money department. Where other governors—particularly Republican ones—who followed him worked to set up an elite group of political managers who would leave government and turn tricks for the next governor be he Democrat or Republican…or turn tricks for the Democratic mayor…Stratton wasn’t running any elite “West Point” school for professional political operators because he believed it would be a school for fixers…a school for scandal. How right he was. But seemingly working alone on policy, how did he do as governor? I aimed to find out.

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