Friday, May 11, 2007

Flashback: As Ogilvie Struggles for Reelection, Billy the Kid Offers Some Thoughts…and I Do Too, about BDSA.

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

It was well into the fall of 1972 when Billy the Kid (aka former Illinois governor William G. Stratton) and I sat down again for lunch in the Merchants & Manufacturers Club of the Merchandise Mart where we both worked. Governor Dick Ogilvie was behind in the polls for reelection; the choice Democrat, the candidate of Mayor Richard J. Daley, Lt. Governor Paul Simon who had cooperated with Ogilvie on getting a state income tax, had been defeated by an insurgent, Dan Walker.

Walker gave every sign of being a nonconformist: having walked the entire state, 1,197 miles zig-zag in 116 days. Downstate, he noticed popular discontent as with Ogilvie’s new environmental agency that thoughtlessly banned the burning of fall leaves which angered farmers and small town residents. Walker agreed with them and railed against regulatory excess. In Chicago he noticed great neighborhood discontent with the proposal to build a Crosstown Expressway so, heedless of antagonizing Daley, he opposed it.

He was charismatic and a lone wolf; he had a reputation of being a reformer-populist, combining elements of conservatism and anti-machine liberalism. He had the required intelligence and drive, rising from a California truck farm with no money for college education to the U. S. Navy, service in World War II on a destroyer, taking an exam for the Naval Academy that was open to all seamen, finishing third in the nation and going to Annapolis.

He put in two additional years in fleet duty, then resigned to enter Northwestern University law school where he edited the Law Review. He moved swiftly to become a lawyer on the Little Hoover commission set up by Governor Adlai Stevenson to reorganize state government, then on to Washington where he became law clerk to Fred Vinson, chief justice of the United States. In the Korean War he was recalled by the Navy for fleet duty but it didn’t last long, got back to private life as deputy chief commissioner of the U. S. Court of Military Appeals.

Back to Springfield to serve as an administrative assistant in the state capitol. Then a litigator with the blue-chip law firm of Hopkins & Sutter in Chicago where he dabbled in free time as a reform Democrat, founding a group that was anti-Daley, the Committee on Illinois Government, a Stevenson legacy. It went out of business so he formed the Democratic Federation of Illinois, a liberal group which Mayor Daley smothered. In 1960 he appeared before Democratic slate-makers, asking to be tapped for state attorney general.

They refused, picking William G. Clark instead. After serving as secretary to Businessmen for Kennedy, he attracted the attention of William (Tom) Brooker, head of Montgomery Ward which had been amalgamated into Marcor; he became vice president and general counsel for that holding company. I talked with him often in the mid-1960s as he would regularly fly to Washington on the early Monday morning red-eyes with me. We often sat together.

Right away I was alternately enthused with, and still terrified of, him. His eyes had a burning mesmeric quality and his diction was practiced even in private conversation as if he were before a jury. Born with no sense of humor and an abiding sense of his own destiny, it was rather like riding above the clouds with an embryonic Adolf Hitler. Occasionally our conversation dealt with Catholic theology since he, a Methodist, had married a Catholic, Roberta Dowse, whose grandfather had been a state rep from Lake county and whose great uncle had been an early president of the Chicago Board of Education. Walker was interested in the hierarchal nature of the Church, the fact that it is not a democracy which plainly mystified him. I take it Roberta was a believing Catholic as they had seven children.

By 1967 Walker had become a senior officer with Marcor and I saw very little of him on the red-eye. Instead, since the company had no objection to his civic activities, he became president of the Chicago Crime Commission and the last chairman of the Illinois Public Aid Commission. Then with the Grant Park melee which ruined the Democratic National convention in Chicago in 1968, Walker got himself named to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, then maneuvered so that he could head up a subcommittee to report on the causes of the disorders at the convention.

In the much-publicized “Walker Report,” he affixed total blame on the Chicago police, saying that the violence there was prompted by a “police riot.” That angered Mayor Daley which was exactly what Walker wanted. He parlayed his celebrity into a national reputation with liberals who sided with the demonstrating kids. But Walker was far from an orthodox liberal. As we flew along together he was very much interested in Ronald Reagan who had been elected California governor.

As I tried to doze on some of those flights before he became a celebrity from the “Walker Report”, Walker would talk about the need to craft a new party in place of the old Democratic one, composed of equal parts of (a) civil rights dedication, (b) anti-tax fervor (c) anti-patronage and (d) to some extent, anti-big corporation (although he represented one) and (e) anti-labor union bossism. I told him that his view fit more neatly into the Republican framework than his own Democratic one but it was plain he wished to stay a Democrat.

I was not surprised when he cobbled together as much money as he could from his savings and the help of others and decided to challenge Paul Simon. Frankly, never a fan of Simon’s who to me was a charade (working very hard to craft a humble-pie image but inside a down-the-line undeviating liberal) I wished Walker well. I still think he would have been in a good position to run for president had he not goofed up the governorship by concentrating on fighting with the legislature, insisting most of them were crooks, fighting with Daley and refusing to bargain as governors are wont to do on legislative matters.

The idea of walking the state, tied to his name Walker, was not his but shrewdly borrowed from Florida’s Lawton Chiles who as an unknown state senator and U. S. Senator wannabe walked the length of Florida—1,003 miles in 91 days in 1970--earning statewide celebrity and the moniker “Walkin’ Lawton.” I remember Norton Kay who became Walker’s press secretary telling me that Walker made a special trip to Washington to talk to then Sen. Chiles to get tips on how to do it.

So wearing a bandana around his neck as a scarf, wealthy suburban lawyer Dan Walker started out as a kind of Johnny Appleseed. Once he got nominated, I bumped into him and for the only time that I can remember he was actually funny, telling me how he would drive off dogs that came running at him from farmers’ yards as he strolled along. As the mutts would roar out of the fields toward him, he remembered how Chiles would do it and would stop…pull his pockets inside out in his dungarees…extend his arms and yell “rrrrrrrororororwwww!” He said nine times out of ten the dogs would skid to a stop, turn tail and roar back home.


When I sat down to lunch with Billy the Kid (former two-time Congressman at large, two-time state treasurer, two-term governor of Illinois who like most governors was mentioned at least as a potential presidential or vice-presidential aspirant), Walker had won the nomination over a disconsolate Paul Simon and was cruising to election. Walker was performing heresy by liberal standards, criticizing Ogilvie for the state income tax. Stratton who knew Illinois’ fiscal condition was beside himself with exasperation, pointing out that Ogilvie had indeed been a good, even great, governor because of the courage he exhibited in passing the income tax.

I said: Why do you think it’s courageous to do what Ogilvie did, Governor—not mention a peep when he ran about his intention to introduce an income tax, springing it on the people after he was elected which resulted in both he and Russ Arrington losing control of the legislature? Why was that courageous?

“Because Illinois government sorely needed more revenue. Listen, I had hoped you would have been the same kind of moderate Republican you seemed to be when you left here and went to Washington to start your own agency. Instead, you sound like Charlie Barr. What is it: `that government governs best that governs least?’”

Yeah. Kinda like that.

“Well to follow that to the logical conclusion it means that no government is the best system of all, right? Where do you get this stuff?”

I got it by being in the federal government. Listen, after I was fired I had a few days time to walk around the Commerce Department still with the rank of assistant to the secretary but with nothing whatsoever to do. One day I came to a door marked BDSA. BDSA. I asked a guy passing by “can you tell me what BDSA stands for?” He said: “Yes. It stands for Business and Defense Services Administration, a division of Commerce.

I then asked him: Hmmm. What does BDSA do? He said it would be rather complicated to describe. I said, go ahead, I have all the time in the world. He said, “well, do you remember World War II when President Roosevelt set up the War Production Board?” I said: yep.

“Well, the WPB as you recall was set up in 1942 by executive order of FDR. It was supposed to regulate the production and allocation of materials and fuel during World War II, rationing such things as gasoline, heating oil, metals, rubber and plastics. To do this, the WPB set up a large bureaucracy to study the industries of the U. S. Like the food industry, for instance but also industrial plants. Roosevelt wanted to be sure that industry wouldn’t continue making refrigerators and cars when it should be making tanks and Jeeps. So the first talk of the WPB was to study all industry in preparation for an even greater emergency when in case we were attacked, the president could take over the direction of the entire economy.”

I said: That’s nice. So we’d have a government-run economy created in the fight against fascism and Nazism similar to the government-run economies of the Axis powers.

“I didn’t say that. You did.”

The WPB. I remember it well. A Chicago Sears-Roebuck executive, Donald Nelson, was hired by FDR to run it. How did it do?

He said: “Depends. We dealt with the three most important industrial materials—copper, steel and aluminum. The WPB would issue regulations that gave priority to wartime needs. For example, we stopped all production of automobiles; we issued regulations regarding clothing. We banned double-breasted suits, vests, cuffs, ruled that suits could only have so many pockets. We banned pleated skirts, long hemlines on dresses and adopted the two-piece bathing suit; we created a new synthetic rubber industry with a 77 –acre plant in West Virginia which produced 10% of the total synthetic rubber. Then Senator Harry Truman came forth with his investigation committee and charged that we were favoring big industry too much. Donald Nelson left and more liberal people came in. That’s what we are today—the old War Production Board.”

But after we won World War II it was dissolved, wasn’t it?

He said: “Technically yes. But all the people and records were tucked away here and we were given the name BDSA—Business and Defense Services Administration.”

Wait a minute. You mean the War Production Board which was created to regulate American industry still exists and it’s here?

“That’s right. And I work for it. I’m the assistant deputy director of the Food division of BDSA.”

And what do you do?

“Well, we continue to research in case--.”

In case the same World War II conditions recur and we’re possibly attacked by German Messerschmitts and Japanese Zeros?

“Now you’re being funny. No, we’re still ready to serve if we are attacked. The only problem is our budget is at a lowly $300 million and we cannot update our files very well. For example, I understand you come originally from the food industry? Well, our research stopped in 1945 and we don’t have the funds to update it so there’s no provision for, say, frozen food like Birdseye which came in after World War II.”

Well wouldn’t that be a good reason to disband?

“You’re being funny again. In government there is no real disbanding. The names are changed, the mission is changed just as every thirteen months or so we get a new name. I can’t even remember all the names we’ve had. Now we’re BDSA.”

Why do you change the names every thirteen months?

“Well, it’s a strategy. On an average we get a new secretary of commerce every thirteen months. We change the name to--.”

You change the name so to confuse the new people so you can--.

“Endure or persist. The bottom line of bureaucracy is `to endure or persist.’”

I told Billy the Kid: Not long ago on a trip to Washington, I dropped by Commerce to see how BDSA was making out. Sure enough, I had to look at the directory and ask a few old hands. I asked `em: where’s BDSA now? They told me. And I walked in and saw the same guy who nodded to me and said, “ah, you found us, I see!”

Billy the Kid said: “Now I understand. The Washington experience radicalized you. That’s a shame.”

I said: yes it did. And no it isn’t.


  1. I must admit I voted for Ogelvie in 1972. Richard J. Daley should have told the precinct workers not to get out the vote for Walker in 1972. If the mayor of Chicago has an enemy in Springfield, it should always be a man from the other party.

    I was teaching at Montini in Lombard and one of the Assistant Principal's was able to get Walker to talk to the student body. I NEVER came across anyone as phony as Dan Walker. He was obviously a "Madison Avenue" creation.
    He not only walked Illinois, he walked to prison for things he did after he left office.He dumped his first wife, in favor of another Roberta and when he got convicted she dumped him.