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Political Powerhouse of the Past: A Biography of U.S. Senator B.K. Wheeler

The University of Oklahoma Press released Marc Johnson’s biography of Montana’s influential and controversial United States Senator Burton K. Wheeler on March 21, 2019. The book, “Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana” is the first full treatment of Wheeler’s 24-year Senate career.

The biography explores Wheeler’s role in launching a sensational investigation of the U.S. Justice Department, a run for vice president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924, involvement in major New Deal-era legislation, opposition to Franklin Roosevelt’s efforts to “pack” the U.S. Supreme Court and, most controversially, opposition to U.S. foreign policy prior to World War II.

Passionate about history and literature, author Mark Johnson is a book collector, a film buff and has been a long-time advocate for the humanities and civic education. He served as chair of the Idaho Humanities Council and the Federation of State Humanities Councils and has served as a National Endowment for the Humanities site visitor to several state humanities councils. He chaired the board of the Boise Public Library and currently serves as president of the North Tillamook Library Friends. He also chairs the board of the Nehalem Bay Health District.

Johnson has worked as a broadcast journalist and communication and crisis management consultant and served as a top aide to Idaho’s longest-serving governor, Cecil D. Andrus. His work on politics and history has been published in the New York Times, California Journal of Politics and Policy, and Montana: the Magazine of Western History, and appears regularly on the blog and podcast Many Things Considered. Johnson writes a weekly column on politics for the Lewiston Tribune (Idaho). He is currently working on another book on U.S. Senate history.

He spoke to the Montana Press recently about his new book, “Political Hell-Raiser,” and his perspective on political history.

Montana Press: What is it in your background that made you want to write a history of Burton K. Wheeler and his times? 

Marc Johnson: My work life has involved both journalism and politics. My avocation is history, particularly twentieth-century U.S. political history and the period between the two world wars. I’ve made a lifetime study of that period, including the Franklin Roosevelt presidency, the Great Depression and the run up to U.S. involvement in World War II. Nearly everything I have read about that period contains some mention of B.K. Wheeler, but when I went in search of his biography, I found that, unlike many of his contemporaries, a good biography didn’t exist. That set me on a course to see if I could begin to do justice to his story, the things he accomplished and the controversy that seemed always to follow him.

Montana Press: What has the experience of writing the book and getting it published been like for you?

Marc Johnson: Tim Egan, a friend of mine and a marvelous writer of non-fiction, including a great book about Thomas Frances Meagher, told me that getting a first book published is always a big challenge. Tim knows of what he speaks. Getting a first book published is a particular challenge when the subject is a politician who has been dead for more than 40 years, has been out of the Senate for more than 70 years, and was first elected when Warren Harding was in the White House.

So, seeing the book come to be was a long slog, but like most writers I discovered that it helps to have a little luck along the way. Some years ago I became acquainted with Molly Holz, the former editor of the Montana Historical Society’s great journal, Montana: the Magazine of Western History. Molly was interested in the Wheeler story and kindly published an article that I wrote about Wheeler and FDR prior to World War II.

When I was getting a bit discouraged about finding a publisher, I spoke to Molly and she said, “You really ought to talk to Chuck Rankin.” Chuck once held the job Molly had at the Historical Society before he became the top editor at the University of Oklahoma Press. Chuck, now living again in Helena, still does acquisition work for the OU Press.

We had an initial telephone conversation on a Saturday afternoon three years ago. I told him about the book and my research and he immediately became a champion of the project. Without the two of them I’m not sure I’d be answering your questions. And I simply can’t say enough good things about Chuck, the OU Press and, of course, Molly.

Montana Press: You’ve worked extensively in journalism and politics. You served as Idaho Governor Cecil Andrus’s Chief of Staff. Does Wheeler remind you of Andrus or any other contemporary or recent politicians? 

Marc Johnson: This is a great question and one I have thought a good deal about. The short answer is a definite yes, Wheeler does remind me of Andrus or vice versa. Each man had an incredible ability to transcend partisan labels and appeal across the political spectrum. Each was candid, sometime to a fault, which endeared them, for example, to political reporters who knew they would always be good copy. And each was a highly principled person. It’s often said that in politics “your word is your bond.” I never found a shred of evidence that Wheeler was anything but a man of his word and I know that Governor Andrus was the same.

At the same time, and this is one thing that makes Wheeler so very interesting to me, I can honestly say there is no one in the U.S. Senate today who remotely resembles his type of politician. In his days as a true maverick, John McCain displayed some Wheeler-like qualities. Years ago, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, a true independent and a man who consistently opposed the expansion of presidential power, was not unlike Wheeler in many respects. While I admire some people in the Senate today, I honestly don’t believe there is anyone like Wheeler in national politics today.

Montana Press: Though he was well-known in Montana from the 1910s thru the 1950s, Wheeler is not well known by contemporary Montanans. What, in your view, should they know about him? 

Marc Johnson: Three things, I think, make Wheeler’s story relevant to citizens today, particularly those who may be wondering about where the country is headed.

First was his remarkable political independence. Wheeler had many personal and political relationships that transcended partisan labels. He was close to William Borah, for example, the famous Idaho Republican. They were the bipartisan leaders of the effort to stop Roosevelt’s plan to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937, an issue with some eerie parallels today.

Wheeler routinely endorsed and campaigned for Republicans who he found to be principled progressives. As I note in the book: Wheeler always considered himself a Democrat, but partisanship always took a backseat to his fundamental independence.

Second was his record of legislative accomplishment. He rooted out political corruption at the U.S. Justice Department that forced the resignation of the attorney general of the United States. He, more than anyone, deserves credit for the construction of Fort Peck Dam and the Buffalo Rapids irrigation project in southeastern Montana. He battled and cajoled the Senate to pass legislation in 1935 to break up the massive utility holding companies, one of the landmark pieces of New Deal legislation.

With the help of his friend Harry Truman, he spent months and months reorganizing failing railroad systems, preventing an economic disaster that would have created havoc for American farmers and businesses. And while Wheeler’s isolationist foreign policy, or what should more correctly be called his non-interventionist beliefs, remain controversial and have largely defined his legacy, he did force in 1940-1941 the last sustained debate we have had in this country about the broad shape of U.S. foreign policy. And, of course, he is more responsible than any other legislator for saving the Supreme Court from what I believe would have been a profoundly destructive partisan makeover in 1937.

Finally, and this aspect of his career and beliefs could hardly be more relevant today, was Wheeler’s fundamental opposition to concentrated power in all its forms. He disliked and distrusted big banks, big utility companies, big government, Wall Street and especially too much power in the hands of what the historian Arthur Schlesinger has famously termed “the imperial presidency.” I’m guessing here, but I don’t think B.K. would have liked Amazon.

Montana Press: Wheeler was known for his willingness to cross party lines and at various times has been described as radical, liberal, progressive and conservative. How would you describe his politics? 

A bust of Senator Wheeler is displayed in the Montana State Capitol in Helena where he served one term as a State Representative.

Marc Johnson: In many ways he defies labels because he was not a traditional liberal or a conventional conservative. The historian David A. Horowitz coined the term “insurgent progressive” and I think that fits Wheeler. He was a skeptic about power in part because he came of age in Montana when the Anaconda Company dominated the state’s economy and politics and, as a result, he acquired a healthy dislike of centralization or regimentation. At the same time, Wheeler was a champion of small farmers, independent business people, mine workers, and all those he saw as suffering the consequences of too much, as he would have said, “bigness.”

Montana Press: Wheeler was a Butte politician in an era when Butte held great sway in Montana politics, economics and culture. How do you think the fact that he was from Butte (though he grew up in Massachusetts) affected him and his political career? 

Marc Johnson: His Butte experience was a huge factor in his political outlook. He, of course, represented Silver Bow County in the state legislature and he was active in Butte politics from the time he arrived in Montana in 1905. He came of age politically in an environment of management-labor strife that often included shocking violence. He came to understand the melting pot nature of Butte. He understood that the place could be corrupt, dangerous, outrageous, even one suspects very exciting. In describing Butte, I quote Joseph Kinsey Howard who wrote of Butte in the 1940s that it was “an island of easy money surrounded by whiskey.” You could not live in Butte, I think, and practice the political arts in that fascinating place without being profoundly influenced by all that Butte was and is. It is a great story and it is at the center of the book.

Montana Press: If you had to describe Wheeler’s most prominent personality traits or characteristics, what would they be? How did these traits evidence themselves in his political career? 

Marc Johnson: Well, I have mentioned his independence, which is his overriding characteristic. He was unabashedly candid. He would tell you precisely what he believed. He also had a sense of humor and, by all accounts, he was extremely likeable. The journalist Allen Drury, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Advise and Consent,” knew Wheeler well and often interviewed him during World War II. Even after Wheeler had lost a good deal of his influence by virtue of his non-interventionist foreign policy views, Drury said that he was likeable, capable and smart. In fact, Drury said he liked Wheeler as well as anyone he knew in the Senate.

All of which is not to say that he wasn’t capable of being tough, even vindictive at times. He had a celebrated, decades-long feud with fellow Montana Senator Jim Murray, for example. I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the two, both Democrats, hated one another. Still, he was very loyal to friends and he had many, including Harry Truman, Norman Thomas (the Socialist Party leader), and Wellington Rankin, the brother of the celebrated congresswoman from Montana.

Montana Press: Wheeler was elected four times to the U.S. Senate by the people of Montana, by wide margins in all cases but one. What accounted for his long-standing appeal to Montana voters? 

Marc Johnson: Well, he was a damn good politician. He had an informal network of advisors and confidantes spread across the state that would feed him political intelligence. And he listened; he paid attention to local issues. He was also quite good on the stump, not a great natural speaker but someone with an ability to connect with an audience. Until his last campaign in 1946, when I believe all the anti-war baggage finally came to wear him down, he always seemed to be two steps ahead of any opponent.

Montana Press: What kind of a senator was Wheeler? How would you describe his priorities as a senator? How did he get along with his colleagues? Was he a powerful senator? If so, what accounted for his power? 

Marc Johnson: I would say that, above all, he wanted a clean government that worked for real people. He was outraged by the corruption that he helped uncover in the Harding Justice Department, for example, and was determined to call it out. His primary test for a piece of legislation was whether it concentrated power or decentralized power, which is why he was such a champion of breaking up the big utility holding companies in the 1930s. At one time he proposed nationalizing the railroads. He opposed Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act legislation precisely because he thought it would have allowed big business to side step existing anti-trust law.

Wheeler was a real power in the Senate, primarily from his perch as chairman of what was then called the Senate Interstate Commerce Committee. The committee had wide jurisdiction of a big swath of the economy – utilities, railroads, and telecommunications especially. And, while he never served on the Foreign Relations Committee, Wheeler became a leader, perhaps the leader, of the non-interventionist, anti-imperialist bloc in the Senate.

I believe his single greatest accomplishment was stopping Roosevelt’s effort to expand the Supreme Court and to increase vastly the number of federal judges in 1937. The Constitution is silent on the question of how many justices should sit on the Supreme Court – Roosevelt proposed adding six new judges in one fell swoop – but Wheeler thought FDR’s idea was really an affront to the Constitution, since it would have done real violence to the concept of separation of powers. In effect, Wheeler believed and I certainly agree that the judicial branch of the federal government would have become subservient to the executive branch.

We tend to forget our history, and some folks are talking today about a new effort to “pack” the court in response to the two judges Donald Trump has named. Others might follow. That is a genuinely awful idea in my view, because you don’t strengthen basic American institutions by radically changing them for purely partisan political reasons.

Wheeler told Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 that the way to bring change to the Supreme Court was by filling vacancies when they occurred with qualified people who could be vetted and confirmed by the Senate. Of course, that was before every single nomination became subject entirely to the partisan makeup of the Senate.

Montana Press: Wheeler suffered some serious setbacks in his political career, for example, being forced out of his position as U.S. Attorney under heavy political pressure in 1918 and losing badly to Joseph Dixon, the Republican candidate, in the 1920 gubernatorial election. And yet he bounced back from these and other setbacks. What do you think accounts for Wheeler’s willingness to ‘get back in the ring’ after bad defeats? 

Marc Johnson: He was clearly ambitious. He hated losing. He wanted at some level to avenge his defeats at the hands of the Anaconda Company and the state’s conservative economic interests; that kept him going early in his life. And you are correct when you say he “suffered.” His gubernatorial campaign in 1920 was a case study of the politics of personal destruction. He was smeared, lied about, and physically threatened. It was perhaps the ugliest campaign in Montana political history, rivaled only by Wheeler’s Democratic primary campaign – the one he lost – in 1946.

Montana Press: Wheeler was known as a ‘fighter’ throughout his political career. What were his biggest fights? 

Marc Johnson: There were many battles, but a few stand out: the fights with the Anaconda Company, its newspapers and the company’s political allies during and immediately after World War I; Wheeler’s fight to pass the utility holding company legislation in 1935, which I and many historians considered the greatest legislative battle of the New Deal era; his efforts to expose corruption at the Justice Department that resulted in his own “frame up” by the Justice Department and the FBI in 1924; and, of course, “the great debate” over U.S. foreign policy prior to Pearl Harbor.

Montana Press: Wheeler’s career in electoral politics ended with his 1946 defeat in the Democratic senatorial primary. What, in your view, accounted for the defeat of one of the strongest politicians Montana had known?

Marc Johnson: That defeat is attributable to a variety of things, but I think essentially it came down to a rejection by Montana Democratic voters of Wheeler’s persistent opposition to Roosevelt foreign policy. Wheeler played a large, very constructive role in the Senate during World War II, but he was still often a critic of specific policies – drafting fathers, for example, or opposing the U.S. policy of “unconditional surrender,” which he thought would prolong the war.

Also, by 1946, Wheeler had alienated a large segment of the Montana Democratic Party, for a variety of reasons. His willingness to make common cause with the state’s Republican governor, for example, became a liability with some Democrats. Jim Murray used his influence with rank-and-file Democrats to go after Wheeler, just as Wheeler had gone after Murray. To many, Wheeler also seemed to have grown more conservative over time. So it was a variety of things that combined to catch up with him.

Also, for the only time in his political career, in 1946 he had a candidate challenge him from the political left. He became the conservative in a race where Montana Democrats were looking for a liberal. I’m convinced that had he won the primary he would have breezed through a general election to a fifth term.

Montana Press: If Wheeler could somehow be brought back to life and placed in his old senate seat, how do you think he would act? Would he fit in with the Democrats of today? How do you think he’d deal with the Republicans? With President Trump? 

Marc Johnson: I’m going to resist the temptation, as attractive as it is, to say what Wheeler might have done with specific issues in the political environment of our time. But I’m pretty confident based upon his long career that he would still be totally independent.

He would still be opposed to any president acting unilaterally or accumulating power at the expense of the Congress. He believed in the separation of powers, and that Congress should have an equal role with the president in crafting foreign policy. He’d be insisting on hearings, oversight and rooting out corruption. Wheeler was an institutionalist. He really believed in the Senate as a bulwark against too much power in the White House.

Montana Press: What two things do you hope readers will take away from your book? 

Marc Johnson: I think a lot of Americans look at Congress, particularly the Senate, and see that it has in many ways lost it way. Bipartisan, at least on big, important national issues, hardly exists. The Congress has largely ceded foreign policy to the president. Congressional oversight is rare and often more theatrical than meaningful. The Senate has never been perfect, but in Wheeler’s day it worked much more like the Founders envisioned. My hope is that readers of Wheeler’s story can get a glimpse of how things once worked and, hopefully, will once again work.

I also hope readers will enjoy the pure intensity of this guy’s life – controversial, courageous, important. It’s a bit of a political thriller in a way. He was always in a battle. Wheeler said late in his life that he had always been in the middle of controversial issues, but that is where he wanted to be because that meant he was in the middle of the action with a chance to make a difference. I think in a way, Montana was made for B.K. Wheeler, and he was made for Montana. Two originals, each a little bigger than life.

Four new Senators in Washington, D.C. in 1923: left to right: Sen. S.W. Brookhard (Iowa), B.K. Wheeler, Dr. Henrik Shipstead (Minnesota), and Lynn J. Frazier (North Dakota).

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