15-07 Segment 2: Presidential Sidekicks

 

Synopsis: The next presidential campaigns are gearing up and GOP and Democratic hopefuls are already testing the waters more than 18 months before the elections. The people you see in front of the cameras and in the headlines are only part of the story, though. Behind the scenes are men and women who support the candidates in very important ways. We’ll hear about a few of these hardworking “sidekicks” who served some of our modern presidents, and even about one who made George Washington smile!

 

Presidential Sidekicks

Marty Peterson: The presidential campaigns are gearing up, with potential candidates testing the waters around the country more than a year and a half before voters have to make up their minds. Although the white house wannabes are the men and women everyone sees and remembers, there are some pretty powerful players behind the scenes that we rarely hear about. These “sidekicks” have been around through history, and we thought it would be fitting to give them a little recognition. We asked Jerald Podair, professor of history and American studies at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin, about some of the modern presidents and their sidekicks. Podair says that one of the most helpful of these unsung sidekicks worked for Franklin D. Roosevelt. His name was Louis Howe. Theirs was one of those chance meetings that ended up changing history…

Jerald Podair: Louis Howe is a person who I assume is completely unknown today. But in the early 1900s, he was a newspaperman in Albany, and he happened to run into a young, rising politician from a very prominent social family, named Franklin Roosevelt. And it was almost a form of instantaneous, I guess today we would say “guy crush” or something like that. Because Howe almost immediately decided that this man was going to be the President of the United States, and that he was going to help him become the President of the United States.

Marty Peterson: Podair says that Howe served FDR for 30 years in various positions — campaign manager, confidant, secretary and publicist…

Jerald Podair: When Roosevelt became ill with polio in 1921, and it seemed that his political career was completely over, it was Louis Howe who kept Roosevelt in the news, even though Roosevelt was incapacitated. Howe would write newspaper articles under his name, or magazine articles under his name. Howe made sure that the extent of Roosevelt’s illness was not made completely clear to the public. And indeed throughout his entire life, Roosevelt was able to conceal the extent of the damage that polio had done to him from the public.

Marty Peterson: Howe was so good at this that he convinced the public that FDR could walk – albeit with difficulty– when in fact he couldn’t walk at all. Howe also orchestrated Roosevelt’s comeback into political life in 1924…

Jerald Podair: When Roosevelt gives a very well-received nominating address for Al Smith, who was governor of New York at the time and a Democratic president candidate, Roosevelt with aid gets up to the podium and gives a rousing speech for Al Smith, which is as much of a campaign speech for Roosevelt as it is for Smith, and Howe orchestrates that. So Howe is the presence behind the throne for about 30 years, trying to make Roosevelt president, and of course in 1932 he succeeds in that. And then in the ultimate bonding between president and assistant, Howe moves into the White House, and he lives in the Lincoln Room for the first four years of Roosevelt’s presidency. He dies in 1936. Nobody really knows about who Howe is, but it’s very clear today at least, that unless Louis Howe happens to meet Roosevelt in Albany, New York, in the early 1900s, it’s quite probable that Roosevelt never becomes president.

Marty Peterson: Roosevelt’s successor, Harry Truman, also had a man behind the throne, although Podair says he wasn’t the kind of person that a candidate would want to crow about. Pendergast was the corrupt political boss of Kansas City, Missouri, who put Truman’s career in the fast lane…

Jerald Podair: You can’t get elected unless you go through Tom Pendergast. And he’s assembling a huge empire of bribery and extortion and sometimes physical violence to run Kansas City. And he decides that he is going to make an obscure businessman, who doesn’t even have a law degree, named Harry Truman, the judge, or a judge in Jackson County, which is the county that includes Kansas City, Missouri. And that is exactly what he does, he basically elevates him to a judgeship and there’s something that he sees in Truman that perhaps a lot of other people didn’t see: a basic honesty, which is ironic because Tom Pendergast is a corrupt machine boss, a native intelligence, a practicality, a sense of personal bravery. So he likes Truman and he promotes his career.

Marty Peterson: When Truman wanted to run for Missouri State Treasurer in 1934, Podair says that Pendergast tells him to aim higher — the U.S. Senate seat…

Jerald Podair: Truman is sort of bowled over by this, because it’s not exactly what he was thinking he could do, but he does run, and with the help of the Pendergast machine, he’s elected. Now it’s interesting that when Truman becomes a senator, he is associated with this political boss, Pendergast, but he is not really in his thrall. What Truman does is he vets all his patronage jobs through Pendergast, but he never gets involved in the bribery, in the extortion or any of that.

Marty Peterson: In 1939, Pendergast went to prison for tax evasion, yet Truman maintained his affection for the man, and never cut ties with him. In fact, Podair says that when Pendergast died in January, 1945, Vice-President Harry Truman was the only elected official to attend the funeral. So what’s in it for the sidekick? How does he or she benefit from working hard to bring fame and power to another?

Jerald Podair: That’s always an interesting question. For Louis Howe, he projects his own dreams on someone else. In other words, it’s very clear to Howe from the very beginning, he doesn’t have much of an education, he doesn’t have a lot of connections, that he’s not going to be a candidate, he’s not going to be the president, but perhaps somebody else can be the president and he can help them. And sometimes that’s a matter of somebody who is already in public life, but knows that he can go no higher than where he is, and decides that somebody else is going to make that step. And a good example of that is Senator Richard Russell.

Marty Peterson: Russell was not some obscure background figure, but the very powerful democratic senator from Georgia. He wanted to be president himself, but knew he’d never be elected because he was a staunch defender of segregation. Podair says that if Russell couldn’t be elected president, then he’d put his effort and influence behind someone who could…a young junior senator from Texas named Lyndon B. Johnson…

Jerald Podair: So he takes him under his wing, he teaches him everything that he knows about the way the Senate works, and he engineers Johnson being selected Senate Majority Leader, which obviously is a very, very important post, after Johnson is only in the senate for one term. It just wasn’t done. So thanks to Russell, Johnson jumped over all of these other more senior senators, and became the Senate Majority Leader, and became very, very powerful in the senate. And Russell worked to make Johnson president even in 1960, when Johnson tried to run for the presidency, he was edged out by JFK. But Russell was one of his strongest supporters to try to get him the presidency, and even advised him about taking the vice presidency.

Marty Peterson: Of course, neither Johnson nor Russell could have foreseen the tragedy in Dallas that would put Johnson into the White House…

Jerald Podair: When Johnson became president, just about the first person he turned to for advice about everything – advice about investigating the Kennedy assassination, he put Russell on the Warren Commission; advice about the Vietnam War, we now have tapes where Johnson and Russell are talking on the phone extensively about Vietnam. And, ironically, Russell is trying to caution Johnson about getting into Vietnam. And they’re even basically consulting about civil rights, albeit now from different sides of the aisle, as Johnson introduces the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Russell opposes and tries to filibuster the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and of course ultimately losing, there is still a tremendous bond of respect between the two.

Marty Peterson: Some sidekicks are prominent like Russell, some are obscure like Louis Howe. Then there are those who are visible, yet not considered by outsiders as having much power at all, like Rose Mary Woods, president Richard Nixon’s secretary…

Jerald Podair: She obviously works for Nixon, but every politician, every really successful politician at a high level, needs a Rose Mary Woods. Someone who, at least her official title is Secretary to the President, or Secretary to the Senator, or the Governor, but who does a lot more than that. And who is really a form of a gatekeeper: Who does the president get to see? What does the president get to see? It’s more than just type this memo. Think of the people who are coming into the Oval Office.

Marty Peterson: Podair says that Rose Mary Woods was there to help Nixon when he needs secrecy, silence and protection…

Jerald Podair: In those days were the days of Watergate, obviously, Rose Mary Woods had a tremendous effect on the Nixon Administration just by what she was able to omit. And that famous 22-minute gap which is clearly her doing and pretty clearly deliberate, is an example of how a Rose Mary Woods, who the public rarely sees or hears of, serves the president.

Marty Peterson: A sidekick doesn’t even have to work in the White House, as Julia Rothman found out. She is co-author of the book, “The Who, the What, and the When: 65 artists illustrate the secret sidekicks of history.” The book talks about the people behind great authors, inventors, gangsters and others, including our first president, George Washington. One of his sidekicks is, of all people, his dentist, John Greenwood. The legend goes that Washington’s teeth were made of wood, but Rothman says that Greenwood used a number of materials…

Julia Rothman: He had one real tooth, his dentures were actually made of all kinds of materials, like hippo tusk, lead, gold, horse and cow teeth. He met the most prominent dentist in New York and that guy was John Greenwood. But actually the capital of the US moved to Philadelphia, so they had to communicate through the mail. And George Washington was pretty embarrassed about not having teeth, so he was pretty secretive and he never specifically mentions teeth in any of the letters that they write back and forth. So they’re sending these dentures back and forth through the mail and letters about it for many, many years. And that’s how George Washington was able to smile. And when George Washington lost his last tooth, he sent it to Greenwood as sort of a present.

Marty Peterson: You can find out more about Rothman’s book, The Who, The What The When on her website also-online.com. To read more about Jerald Podair and Lawrence University, visit their site at Lawrence.edu. For information about all of our guests, log onto our site at viewpointsonline.net. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

 

 

 

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