Kansas City becomes known as “the cleanest dirty city” in the nation—“the Paris of the Prairies.” There are 500 nightclubs in one fifteen-block area. Jazz musicians flock there from all over the country looking for work. Nobody pays any attention to Prohibition. Herb goes to law school at night with an older man named Harry Truman and gets involved in politics.

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Chapter 17: Politics

Jim Pendergast organized a Democratic political club in Kansas City in the 1890s. When he died in 1911, his brother, Tom, inherited the club and turned it into a political machine that dominated the city for the next 28 years. Tom boasted:

I know all the angles of organizing, and every man I meet becomes my friend. I know how to select ward captains, and I know how to get to the poor. Every one of my workers has a fund to buy food, coal, shoes and clothing. When a poor man comes to old Tom’s boys for help, we don’t make one of those damn fool investigations like these city charities. No, by God, we fill his belly and warm his back and vote him our way.

Kansas City became “Big Tom’s” town, and since he owned a cement company, he saw to it that “his town” had more paved roads than any place in the country except Wayne County, Michigan, and Westchester County, New York.

Journalists dubbed the city “the Paris of the Prairies.” A writer for the United Press called it “the crime capital of the nation.” There were 500 bars in an area of 15 blocks and more nightclubs per capita than any other city, which made it an economic oasis for jazz musicians during the Depression. Prohibition was ignored. Bars (“speakeasies”) operated openly. A journalist wrote of seeing a waiter in a white jacket sitting in a police car parked outside a “speak.” He was there to monitor calls while the officers were inside drinking. Some “speaks” featured nude waitresses and gambling. All of them paid protection money to Johnny Lazia (“Brother John”) who ran the mob, and he paid off the ward bosses and city officials who reported to “Big Tom. “Brother John,” incidentally, had an office at police headquarters.

The city was a vacation destination for the nation’s gangsters. They could relax there knowing the police would not bother them. Consequently, they usually behaved themselves. But there were exceptions. One was the Union Station Massacre. In 1933, Federal agents had brought the bank robber, Frank “Jelly” Nash, to Kansas City by train. They were walking him from the train station to a car, intending to drive him to the federal penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Several of his friends attempted to rescue him. The subsequent shoot out involved pistols and “Tommy” guns (a.k.a. “Chicago Typewriters”). “Jelly” was killed; the rescue failed; and the gangsters fled, leaving behind four dead law enforcement officers: two detectives, the police chief of McAlester, Oklahoma, and an FBI agent. Two other men were wounded. The killers, it was said, were guided out of town by a Pendergast ward boss.

Herb read about the gangsters, the payoffs, and the boondoggles in the Kansas City Star, which was, at the time, a Republican newspaper, but he didn’t see what he could do. Then a man he knew from the days he lived at the YMCA asked him to join the National Youth Movement, a group of idealistic political reformers. Herb was reluctant to get involved. He thought he was doing enough for society by teaching a Sunday school class and leading a Boy Scout troop. But the gangsters were getting bolder. Rabbi Samuel Mayerberg, an outspoken opponent of the machine, survived an assassination attempt only because he had the foresight to outfit his car with bulletproof glass. Nobody seemed safe. The situation was even affecting Herb’s company. Harry Truman, who was Pendergast’s man in the county administration, was refusing to give the American Sash and Door Company an easement it needed.

“He knew we were all Republicans over there.”

So Herb signed on with the National Youth Movement. Before the 1934 election, the NYM forced the election board to strike 88,000 fraudulent names from the rolls. But the reformers were not ready for the machine’s response on election day. It may have been the bloodiest municipal election in the nation’s history. Herb was in charge of the 15th Ward. He and his friends set up their headquarters at 47th and Troost. At the last minute, he was told that the NYM poll watchers didn’t have legitimate credentials and wouldn’t be allowed inside any polling place. To Herb’s relief, the Republican ward leader, George Satterlee, offered them Republican credentials.

“So we got around that one all right.”

The next day, Pendergast gave free drinks to the laborers who were working for the city and told them they would lose their jobs if the Democrats didn’t win. And “Brother John” Lazia sent his “toughs” out to “smoke the precincts”—meaning, to drive off the reformers’ poll watchers, so that “the girls and the ghosts” would be free to vote. The toughs carried baseball bats, brass knuckles, and guns.

Anyone who worked for the Kansas City Star was a special target. The editor’s driver was shot and beaten as he drove anti-Pendergast voters to the polls. A reporter stopped his car when bullets began flying through it. He and the reformers riding with him were dragged out and beaten. Other toughs killed a black precinct captain who was trying to protect one of his poll watchers. 

But the machine’s toughs were not only “smoking” the reformers, they were settling personal scores. The machine had two factions: the Goats and the Rabbits. And there were even rivalries between members of the same faction. A Rabbit walked into a deli on Swope Parkway and shot a deputy sheriff who was also a Rabbit. He staggered to the front door and shot back at men who were shooting into the deli from three cars parked outside. The deputy was killed but not before he killed one of his attackers. The owner of a nearby hardware store was killed by a stray bullet. An ex-serviceman showed up to vote that day wearing his old uniform, complete with steel helmet.

Someone phoned Herb to warn him that a car full of toughs was heading his way, so he and his friends crossed the street to a bank where they borrowed some guns. In those days banks often kept small arsenals on the premises. Another phone call informed him that toughs had driven the NYM poll watchers from one of his precincts. He drove out there and persuaded all but one of the men to go back inside.

But as he was walking back to his car, a black sedan swerved in front of him and stopped. Four toughs jumped out and surrounded him. They wanted to know who he was. He told them as little as possible:

They asked me, how would I like to go for a ride. Oh, brother, what could I say? They said I ought to be minding my own beeswax. Well, I kept mum, and they let me go, but I’m pretty shaken up, and then as I was driving away, here’s blackie again, right alongside of me, and the fellas in there are grinnin’ and wavin’ their guns.

It was like a movie, but not one he wanted to be in. He told himself he was a fool. His wife was “in a family way,” and here he was out trying to get his head blown off. When the votes were counted, Pendergast had not only kept control of Kansas City and Jackson County, he had extended his power statewide by sending his man, Harry Truman, to the U.S. Senate.

But the machine’s victory came at a price. All over the nation, newspapers ran lurid stories about the violence. An editorial writer for a Philadelphia paper observed that “In Kansas City elections, you are not entitled to score a point in killing unless you get the victim before he has a chance to vote [against the Democratic ticket].” But Big Tom was riding high. The Democrat panjandrums in Washington rewarded him with control of all Works Progress Administration patronage in Missouri, some 80,000 jobs, and he paid them back during the 1936 presidential election by flooding the polls with a record number of ghost ballots. There were 295,000 votes cast in Jackson County, 73 percent of them for Roosevelt. Thirty years later, in 1996, even though the county’s population was much larger, only 247,000 votes were cast.

However, J. Edgar Hoover had not forgotten that an FBI agent was among those killed in the Union Station Massacre. And now the Justice and the Treasury Departments began investigating Pendergast. In 1939, he was convicted of tax evasion and sent to prison. This left his machine in disarray, and the reformers were finally able to win an election. Upon examining the city’s books, they discovered a hidden deficit of twenty million dollars and a list of 3,000 workers who were being paid for doing nothing. Several ward leaders, the police chief, and the local head of the WPA went to jail. Two hundred and fifty-nine people were convicted of voting fraud.

Pendergast was loyal to his friends, so many of them, notably President Truman, remained loyal to him. But even those loyalists were glad to see the political power of the gangsters broken. And both the reformers and the Pendergast loyalists had in common an affection for Kansas City that had been forged in their struggle with one another. It was “their city” in a way it could never be for their children.

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The chiefs of the reform party, now known as the Citizens Association, offered Herb a political job. It paid more than the one he had and Mary Ellen thought he should take it. But he turned it down. I asked him why. He said he’d enjoyed the organizational work that went with the election but that was it.

“I wasn’t flexible enough for politics.”

As far as Herb was concerned, all politics “came down to” was “double-dealing, double-talking, and double-thinking.” Given his “druthers,” he’d have gotten rid of local political parties and run the city “like a business.” He wanted a well-ordered society but saw no need for political ideas. As far as he was concerned, they were just “a lot of hooey.”

To some readers that will make Herb sound like he was one of the many Americans who admired Mussolini, the founder of fascism. He definitely was not. He wanted the government to stay out of his business. The American elitists who admired Mussolini, and there were a lot of them, assumed that ordinary people needed guidance, and that people like themselves needed power in order to provide “the people” with guidance. In their eyes, fascism was an Italian version of the futuristic utopia proposed by Edward Bellamy (“the American Marx”) in his science fiction novel Looking Backward (1888), which was immensely popular—an international best seller. In Bellamy’s utopia, the United States becomes one big corporation—one big business—and was run by a panel of experts.

To many Americans this was what Mussolini was doing in Italy, transforming the nation into one big, efficient corporation. He was “making the trains run on time.”

From 1922 to 1935, “fascism” had none of the defamatory connotations it has today. People who took an interest in foreign affairs described it as a reform movement. President Roosevelt called his own book Looking Forward, hoping people would associate it with Bellamy’s. Ida Tarbell, the founder of investigative journalism and the bane of The Standard Oil Company, wrote that if the President got his New Deal legislation through congress, Edward Bellamy would deserve a lot of the credit, because his ideas had become “woven into the thinking of Americans.”

Politicians of every stripe, Wall Street bankers, movie stars, journalists—they all thought fascism was an idea whose time had come. The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal both ran favorable editorials about Mussolini. President Roosevelt expressed admiration for him. Fortune magazine wrote: “The Corporate State is to Mussolini what the New Deal is to Roosevelt.” Referring to Mussolini, Will Rogers announced he was “pretty high on that bird.” Ida Tarbell dubbed him “the despot with a dimple.” The list of eminent, educated American “opinion leaders” (historians, scientists, economists, and journalist) who, in the 1920s and early 1930s, actually entertained the idea that fascism might be preferable to democracy is astonishing. They wanted a simpler, more unified society and failed to see how such a society would almost automatically, given human nature, become a totalitarian society. Actually, Herb knew more about fascism than they did, having lived in a city governed by Pendergast’s political machine, but he could never have explained what he knew to the experts. Pendergast even had a version of Mussolini’s Blackshirts in “Brother John’s” thugs.

At some point, a song from Cole Porter’s 1934 hit musical, Anything Goes, included the line “You’re the top—you’re Mus-so-li-ni” (possibly inserted by P.G. Wodehouse). But after the dimpled dictator invaded Ethiopia, that line disappeared, and suddenly none of our credentialed liberal thinkers could recall ever having admired the man.

Liberals admired fascism because they thought one-man rule would be more “efficient”—a word that had a magical resonance for people during the twentieth century. After all, who wants an inefficient government? A “do-nothing Congress?

The idea of “efficiency” appealed to Herb, too. He wanted Kansas City to be run like a business, but he had no use for dictators, with or without a dimple. He didn’t like to see political leaders strutting around in uniform. He wanted the city to be run by ordinary men who stuck to the basics. For a while he favored a city-management form of government. He assumed that a sensible, professional, apolitical city manager would make responsible financial decisions.

When Kansas City’s voters approved hiring a city manager in 1925, Herb expected to see improvements. But Pendergast simply got his man, Henry McElroy, hired as the city manager. McElroy promptly gave 2,000 Pendergast supporters no-show jobs and raised the property assessments of those who opposed the machine.

Herb’s political positions were based on experience and what he called common sense. He never understood the importance of ideas—of understanding and explaining the historical record of capitalism, democracy, and what has been called “the bourgeois virtues,” but that is little wonder, since the most highly educated people in the country have, for many years, been content to leave all the explaining to ideologues.

Herb didn’t share many of his opinions with his children, but after he died, I found a little vest pocket notebook in which he sometimes noted his opinions of events. His conservatism was not ideological. He didn’t read books by Milton Friedman or Edmund Burke. He just didn’t think it was right for Gram and Auntie to be receiving social security checks when they didn’t need the money. Nor did he like to see unmarried women make a career of having babies and collecting welfare. He thought the government tried to do too much too fast, and that bureaucrats had too much “leeway” when it came to making regulations. He thought taxes were too high, and that crime—he was writing this in the 1970s— was out of control. He said all the labor leaders he’d ever dealt with ran their unions to benefit themselves. But he did not embrace any of the conspiracy theories touted by the John Birch Society or any of its ilk. Speculation of any kind irritated him. He wanted to “stick to brass tacks.”

He had no doubt that Presidents Kennedy and Johnson were guilty of doing the same things the press was so exuberantly blaming President Nixon for doing. Nevertheless, he thought the Watergate scandal was “good for the country” because “it put the politicians on notice.” He was a hunter and scornful of those politicians who wanted to “control” firearms but was sympathetic to the idea of licensing handguns. He approved of preserving the wilderness but was disgusted by the anti-capitalist lawfare of environmentalist fanatics. Newspaper stories about hungry children appalled him, but he did not think giving money to their parents was a long-term solution. He approved of charitable giving by churches because it involved the poor in relationships with people who might change their goals and attitudes. He never took the complaints of feminists seriously, but one of the things that had attracted him to Mary Ellen was that she was a “business woman.”

When Herb “got down to brass tacks,” that is, when he was dealing with individuals, not abstractions, his views were always more nuanced and generous than my brother and I expected them to be. So why did he assert dogmatically, “Hubert Humphrey—oh, he’s a Communist,” without ever making clear if he meant he thought Humphrey was simply too liberal or that he believed Humphrey was actually a member of the Communist Party? 

I’m afraid the answer is that he didn’t want to argue with us. We were young and had been to college, so we were great arguers. Our ideas came from books, preshaped and ready to be deployed in argument. They involved assumptions he knew nothing about. And we couldn’t understand his ideas because they had grown out of events and experiences that we knew nothing about. I remember him telling us—boasting, actually—that when his car insurance went up, he complained to his agent, who told him, “It’s not your fault, Herb. It’s the other guy’s fault.” With great satisfaction, Herb then said, “So, I said to him, I said, I don’t give a damn about the other guy.” He seemed to think this was funny. I’m sure the agent, who knew him better than his sons did, understood him perfectly. They had been friends for years, and both had married KDs.

But I was a good liberal in those days and was appalled. I took his words literally, and missed the role-playing, the deliberate exaggeration. What he didn’t care about was “the other guy” when those words referred to an abstraction that do-gooders were always telling him he had to care about in order to justify their desire to raise taxes for some “socially responsible” scheme. In specific cases, he cared about the other guy, even when it referred to an abstract group of people, and he would never have said “I don’t care about the other guy” in reference to a specific person.

I was sitting with him one evening as he was going through some papers. One of them caused him to stop sorting and tell about a time he was a Scoutmaster and the boys in his troop found what they thought was an abandoned nightclub in the woods. They trashed it, sliding plates down the floor as if it were a bowling alley, among other things. He persuaded the owner not to call the police and paid him for the damages. (This was in the 1930s when he and Mother were pretty hard up.) He gave the boys “a talking to” but did not tell their parents. He was proud that they divided up the bill and repaid him—all but one. Dad gave up on him, but ten years later, here came a letter with the money and an apology. My father believed “every fellow deserves a chance,” or, as he once put it to me, “You don’t want to foreclose on a fellow too early.”

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At one time I kept a notebook in which I copied lines from the books I read that I thought were significant. From Theodore Drieser’s Sister Carrie, I copied: “Words but dimly represent the great surging feelings and desires which lie behind. When the distraction of the tongue is removed, the heart listens.”

“How true,” I thought, but my response was superficial. Leafing through that notebook a few months after my father died, I came across those lines again. This time I took them to heart.