THE twenty-sixth New York Congressional district is fifty miles from Union Square. It consists of Orange, Dutchess, and Putnam counties, and includes within its boundaries the cities of Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Middletown, Beacon, and Port Jervis. The Congressional district stretches from the border of Connecticut to the border of Pennsylvania. It contains 130,000 voters, most of them farmers or factory workers. It points with pride to hundreds of revolutionary landmarks within its borders, to Vassar College, the United States Military Academy at West Point, and the birthplace and home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at Hyde Park. It is represented in the Congress of the United States by Hamilton Fish, Jr., of Garrison, New York.
In the late summer of 1938, I was offered the Democratic nomination for the Congressional seat from this district. Fascinated by the idea of locking horns with the mythical Mr. Fish, I accepted at once, and began an intensive campaign to convert the healthy Republican majority of the district to the benefits of the New Deal. I was twenty-seven years old at the time.
My previous life had been entirely devoid of anything spectacular. Upon graduation from the University of California, I came to New York, where, in due time, I became associate editor of Judge, a husband, a father, and finally, in January 1938, I settled in Orange County to build a literary career. Literary careers are slow in building, and life in the country is unexciting, and so, not long after my arrival, I had entangled myself in local politics up to my neck. When the local Democratic Party sounded a call for a sacrificial Iamb to oppose Mr. Fish for Congress, I threw myself bodily into the ring. I was not coy about making the great sacrifice. I left my desk with a shout of relief and began to thump the political tub.
I did not enter a grueling political campaign merely because I sought excitement or because I enjoyed notoriety. I had a chance, albeit a small one, to win the election, and I should have thoroughly enjoyed being a Congressman. In my dreams I saw myself sitting just to the left of Maury Maverick. Unfortunately, Mr. Maverick was also a casualty of the 1938 election. Further, I had a full-blown set of opinions, all of them left of centre. I was a firm supporter of President Roosevelt, and my political opinions took the form generally known as New Dealism. To go before the people as a New Dealer, however, was not enough, and my first task was to draw up a statement fitted to the particular needs of my own district. After much rewriting, elimination, and condensation, I finally turned out a fivepoint platform, as follows: — 2. To interest the Federal Government in reviving the now idle Newburgh shipyards for the purpose of naval construction.
1. To set up Federal drainage-control projects wherever they are needed in Orange, Dutchess, and Putnam counties.
3. To set up low-rent housing and slumclearance projects in the cities and towns of this district.
4. To oppose railroad pay cuts; to work for modification of the Railroad Retirement Act to pension all workers after thirty years of service, regardless of their age; to provide decent and adequate old-age pensions; and to retain and extend all forms of social security.
5. To extend the Minimum Wage Law to include all workers, and to oppose any change in the present National Labor Relations Act.
For purposes of space I telescoped several planks into one in several instances. Each plank represents, I think, something definitely needed and desired in this district, and something that a representative in Congress, through his vote and his powers of persuasion, might secure. The platform was intended to appeal to farmers whose crops had been washed away or flooded because there was no system of drainage control; to unemployed shipyard workers who could remember the fat paychecks they had once received for building battleships; to those who dwelt in filthy urban tenements and rickety rural shacks; to railroad men, of whom the district had a great many; to those in the cold shadow of the mediræval county poor farms; to factory workers attempting to organize; to all those who wanted a better life than they had yet had. I had this statement drawn up, and I distributed it around the district all during my campaign. As time went on, I added to my platform planks of a more general nature: adequate relief standards, opposition to cutting WPA funds until private business had jobs to offer; increasing the scope of the National Youth Administration; and an enforcing act to guarantee every American the civil rights promised him in the Constitution. I made my play for the weary, the heavy-laden, and for those who know that the future is always better than the past.
After throwing my platform to the four winds, my next move was to go to an expensive photographer and have a photograph taken. The photographer was an excellent craftsman, a thorough Democrat, and an asset to any publicity build-up. He seated me, mussed my hair, rumpled my clothes, made his lighting very indirect, and bade me grin. I did. The finished product was delightful. It looked not at all like me, but extremely like Errol Flynn. I immediately dispatched a copy, together with a highly romanticized version of my past, to every newspaper in the district. I then had placards printed, on which the photograph was the outstanding feature, and had them nailed to every tree in the neighborhood. In all modesty, I think that many a thoroughly Republican matron had to wrestle long and earnestly with her libido before she could bring herself to vote against that photograph. Even now, driving along country roads, I see it tacked to a tree, somewhat frayed and weather-worn, but still grinning toothily, full of faith in the abundant life.
It is the custom for the political organizations in this part of the country to begin their activities in the late summer and early fall preceding the election by a series of clambakes. These serve the multiple purpose of bringing the members of the local party organization and all the party workers and heelers together above the festive board, it being hoped that amidst these happy surroundings the various intra-organizational differences and bickerings may be reconciled, and that the rank and file of the party’s active personnel will be able to see, hear, and even borrow money from their candidates, or front men.
The first step the candidate takes upon deciding to attend a clambake is to insert a five-dollar complimentary advertisement in the program printed by the committee under whose auspices the clambake is to be held. It is generally acknowledged that this money is prorated among the members of the committee and provides a tidy source of extra income for them. Nevertheless, it is considered a breach of political etiquette not to advertise in the program.
The clambake itself is a thing of beauty. It is held in any available outdoor grove or picnic ground, and the cooking, feasting, and general hilarity take place under the bright and sunny sky. All the constituent parts of the bake, with the exception of dessert and coffee, are cooked or baked together in one enormous tub. The courses, as they come out of the tub, are clam broth, white fish, baked clams, baked chicken (one to a customer), and sweet potato, with half a watermelon and coffee. This is salted down with as much draught beer as the customers can manage to contain. The food and beer are usually supplied free by local merchants and brewers as good-will advertising. The cooking at these bacchanals is, thank God, done by professionals, but the waiting is strictly volunteer. The waiters are usually impecunious but loyal party members willing to exchange their dubious talents for an afternoon of free revelry plus their share of the plate that is passed among the diners.
At my first, or maiden, clambake I was rendered very nearly hors de combat by an exuberant waiter who spilled about a quart of scalding clam broth on my tender shoulders as I sat coatless, as is customary, at the feast. The pain, needless to say, was real, soul-searing, and almost indescribable in its intensity. As the pain alleviated, my immediate desire was to crucify the waiter to the nearest tree, but since everyone else seemed inclined to pass it off as a bit of innocent whimsy, and since I could not afford to lose the waiter’s vote, I had to postpone my vengeance. Putting my coat on over my throbbing shoulders, I determined to suffer in silence, or better still to speak, when my turn came, like Roosevelt I at Milwaukee, with no regard to my wounds. I was spared this pleasantly masochistic ordeal by the fact that when my turn came to speak the audience had succumbed en masse to the influence of alcohol and were all very busily engaged in fighting, singing off key, or snoring under the table. Undeterred, I sent a previously prepared copy of my intended address to the local press, who printed it verbatim. It was a pretty good speech, and started a controversy in the letter columns of the paper that lasted for some weeks. Later on, I removed enough dead skin from my scorched back to make a good-sized wallet.
Politics accelerated the pace of my daily routine. My mail, of course, increased, and I was forced to hire a secretary, a luxury which I had hitherto been spared. Only a small portion of my incoming mail had any immediate connection with my campaign. There were letters from party workers giving facts about the situation in their districts, suggestions, speaking engagements, and so on. They were usually short and to the point, intelligently written, and of great value to me. But the great mass of my mail was from that section of the public given to writing letters to anyone in the public eye. Fully 50 per cent of these letters were requests for loans, ranging from a low of five dollars to a high of thirty-five hundred. This last tidy sum was requested by one of my colored constituents, who wanted to buy a farm with the money. After we had exchanged a. few letters without getting anywhere, he called on me unannounced and repeated his request. He was perfectly reasonable about it. He had read, or heard, that I was very rich and that I was for the workingman. Therefore it. seemed only logical that I should help this particular workingman to the tune of thirty-five hundred dollars. I could not convince him that, far from being rich, I was poor, and in debt to boot. He took my refusal very bitterly.
I made a point of answering every scrap of mail that came to me, even the inevitable semiliterate letters of condemnation beginning, ‘You dirty cur.'
I noticed early in my letter-writing career that most Americans seem to love to bestow and receive titles of honor. No sooner had I entered the primary contest than I began to receive letters addressed ‘Honorable Ben Martin.’ After the primary elections, when I became the official standard bearer of the party, my prefix was upped to ‘Right Honorable’ and, on occasion, ‘The Very Honorable.’ On one memorable day I received a letter on which the salutation was simply ‘Excellency.’
In the business of bestowing titles I gave as good, if not better, than I got. When writing to people who held no discernible office, I would address the letter simply: —
Washoe, New York
If the man were, let us say, a Democratic County Committeeman, the envelope would read: —
Member of the Democratic Town Committee
Washoe, New York
If Mr. Smith had risen to the chairmanship of his town Democratic Committee, the envelope read: —
Chairman, Town Democratic Committee
Washoe, New York
The superscription would be repeated again on the letter it self, and I followed the time-worn political trick of having my typist type out the salutation: ‘Dear Mr. Smith.’ Then, when I signed the letter, I would draw a pen line through the words ‘Mr. Smith,’ and above write in my own hand, ‘John,’ or, if possible, ‘Jack.’ Since James A. Farley had practically patented the use of green ink as a trademark, I had to use purple, which is almost as distinguished. I had thought for a while of using red ink, but the various connotations were too much for me.
My day began when I rose at eight in the morning. At breakfast I read the morning paper, with an eye to some ammunition to use in the immediate future. Then I would read my mail and dictate my answering letters. This was done more easily and quickly than it sounds, because most of my replies took a stereotyped form. The party had headquarters in every sizable town in the district, but I preferred to do my work at my own desk at home. For one thing, it was more inaccessible to supplicants. There was a great deal of desk work. Pamphlets, posters, and throwaways had to be planned and written. We sent out mimeographed letters to the members of various groups, such as the Railroad Brotherhoods, the CIO, the A. F. of L., and the veterans’ organizations, and, of course, to all WPA workers. This last activity, I suppose, could be called coercion. The letter simply stated that the Democratic Party had inaugurated the work-relief system, and that to the best of our knowledge the Republican Party would try to cut down relief and work-relief appropriations if it came to power. Therefore, the letter concluded, we believed that those voters in favor of continuing the WPA should vote for Democratic candidates. I don’t believe that we overstated the case.
The phone seemed to ring continually, which did not add much to our comfort. The most difficult chore of all was writing speeches. I spoke on the local radio station twice a week in fifteen-minute periods during the campaign, and I tried hard to make these talks honest and factual, if not eloquent. As to eloquence, I suffered from the widespread American failing of sloppy diction, which I remedied to an extent by finding a former actress who spent hours making me read passages in Shakespeare, rounding every syllable with a polish worthy of an Abbey Player. I can still roll out
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
with a brooding, nervous intensity almost worthy of Maurice Evans.
Despite my comparative inaccessibility, I had a fairly steady stream of visitors, most of them without much on their minds except curiosity, some of them members of various uplift organizations who would come, without warning, to my house, bringing with them notebooks full of prepared questions. They would enter my home as if it were a public place, and then open their little notebooks and ask me endless questions about my views on vivisection, birth control, liquor, venereal disease, divorce, modern art, and so forth, and my personal habits. After a bit of this we learned how to turn them away politely but firmly.
My afternoons were given over to driving around to the party headquarters in the various towns, calling on and seeking the support of those whom I believed to be ‘key’ people, and, on an average of once an afternoon, speaking to women’s gatherings. At these affairs I managed, whenever possible, to stay for the inevitable tea. This gave me an opportunity to work on the beldames personally and try to win them over to my point of view. The most active women’s organization in the Congressional district was the League of Women Voters. They had a chapter in every town, and it was the custom for all candidates for public office to appear before them at a certain time. These occasions were known as ‘candidates’ afternoons,’ and all of us — Republicans, Democrats, and Socialists — used to troupe through the district, like hoofers rounding a vaudeville circuit.
We would arrive at the meeting place almost simultaneously and sit in an are facing the assembled ladies. Madam Chairman would introduce us one at a time, and then we were allowed ten minutes to state our case. I always petitioned for an extra ten minutes, because, as the candidate of both the Democratic Party and the American Labor Party, I claimed to be two politicians, rather than one. My claim was never allowed, but I made a deal with the Socialist candidate to pour all his wrath on my opponent, and to damn the New Deal with faint praise. He kept his bargain, much to the discomfort of my Republican colleagues. There was no Communist candidate, as I understand that the Communists were supporting me without bothering to ask whether or not I wanted their support. My nemesis, Hamilton Fish, was often unable to attend these gatherings, since he was, with admirable foresight, out on the prairies, working for the Republican nomination for the Vice Presidency in 1940. Whenever he could not, appear in person, he would send a substitute preceded by a fouror five-page telegram given over to praises of the American flag, the American home, and American womanhood.
My nights were spent in speaking to meetings of all kinds. Every club made a practice of inviting the more prominent political candidates to speak to them on the topic of Good Government. Generally I would make the Townsend Club my first stop of the evening, ask permission to speak immediately, and go on to my next engagement, but on one occasion I was able to stay for the entire evening. I believe it to be typical of all Townsend gatherings.
It was in the Town Hall, and as I entered I saw about a hundred elderly men and women seated attentively in camp chairs. I went up to the speaker’s table, introduced myself to the officers, and sat down. The two most important officers were, of course, the president and the secretary. The president was a woman, a shriveled, hatcliet-faced female of about forty. From her accent I should judge her To be a, Florida cracker. The secretary was a man, full-bellied and florid, about forty-five or fifty years of age, with a great gift of gab. These two obviously ran the show. The other lesser officers were elderly, and from their appearance had been selected from the rank and file. They seemed to have no duties. The membership of the club was about equally divided between men and women, and all ran pretty much to type. The men were usually thin, old-stock Americans, and were mostly dressed in blue serge suits, white linen, and carried large, old-fashioned huntingcase watches, attached to heavy gold chains. The women were fatter, more robust and flushed-looking, and, naturally, of more variety in their dress. All, with the exception of the president and the secretary, were well over sixty, and they seemed to give off a note of painstaking cleanliness, of thrift, rather than poverty, and of almost scriptural respectability.
The president had just formally opened the meeting and we were about to sing the opening hymn. Everyone, myself included, had a hymn card published by the national Townsend organization, and we all sang. The hymn was unfamiliar to me. It was purely religious in content, and one of the older officers went down in front of the group and whooped it up after the manner of the old-fashioned evangelists. I was told that he was a retired minister.
After the hymn had quavered to a close, my little minister, being moved by the spirit, launched into a verbose and muddled talk on the Townsend Plan, He prophesied that the enactment of the Plan would abolish poverty, unemployment, and even divorce. His talk was interspersed with quotations, and occasionally members of the group would chime in with ‘Amen’ or ‘That’s right, that’s right.’ He used gestures generously, clapping his hands, raising his arms to heaven, and almost literally dancing as he spoke. YY hen he finished, though the room was not. overheated, he was perspiring freely, and his voice was strained and cracked.
Then the president rose and introduced me. I spoke under the euphuistic title of ‘Good Government,’ which at the moment meant liberal old-age pensions. I was not seeking the support of the Townsendites as such, but I was anxious to appear before every possible group in the district, friendly or no. I told them simply, and I think honestly, that as far as I was concerned good government meant democracy, and that democracy meant that the people were to rule themselves, and that having old people in want was an evil that democracy could not long endure. I gave them much more along these lines, and as I spoke my ministerial acquaintance sat at my elbow, chiming in every few seconds with a squeaky ‘Amen,’ ‘Hallelujah,’ or ‘That’s right, brother.’ I concluded lamely, saying that I was very much for any economically sound system of old-age security, and that I was sorry, but I felt in honesty bound to tell them that I could not approve of the Plan. The applause was deafening.
After a bit, the president announced that we should be entertained by a talented young local tap-dancer. The pianist took her place, and then from a dressing room in the rear came a girl of sixteen or seventeen in an abbreviated costume and a top hat. She danced. With adjournment came coffee and doughnuts, and I had a chance to circulate and talk to some of the members. Those I spoke to had a fantastic faith in the Plan, and believed that it would soon be the law of the land.
The thing that impressed me most strongly about the meeting was the fact that there was no agenda in the usual sense of the word; no motions came from the floor; there was no discussion, no voting on anything. It was just as if the people were in a theatre, or in church.
As my attendance at Townsend meetings would indicate, I endeavored to get before every sort of meeting in the Congressional district. I lunched, dined, and tea’d with various literary societies, associations of volunteer firemen, church discussion groups. In addition to these, we had our regular Democratic rallies. The party organization in every town, village, and city ward would be eternally disgraced if it could not hold at least one rally during the political campaign.
At first these rallies seemed to me rather futile, since everyone that attends them is a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. I soon learned, however, that this view of things was not altogether sound. A political rally serves several purposes: it tends to raise enthusiasm among the ranks of the party; it keeps the candidates before the party workers; it buoys up the confidence and bolsters the ego of the candidate by affording him a vociferously friendly audience; and, most important, it places the candidate in a position where his remarks will be reported by the press. I capitalized on this opportunity by always having my speeches typed out in full, with eight or nine carbon copies. Then, when I set out on my night’s speechmaking, I would have my pocket stuffed with copies of my speech. If I were in a town with a daily newspaper, I always gave a copy to the reporter as soon as I entered the hall. This action cut the reporter’s work down to a minimum and allowed him to leave immediately, thus saving him a great deal of boredom. I did the same thing with the weeklies, and I think my services were appreciated, because I was always quoted at great length, often in toto. In this way I had to write only one speech a day, and repeat it in each town I visited that night. I always tried to get my speech on the front page, by making in my opening paragraph some extremely controversial or sensational remark. Whenever I was stuck for material of this sort, I would steal an appropriate paragraph or two from one of Shaw’s prefaces, and throw it to the press. Whenever I did this, editorials would appear in the papers the next day refuting Mr. Shaw’s arguments at great length, but giving me complete credit for them.
The smallest political rally I attended was that of the Lebanese-American Democratic Club. It was held in the living room of a private house. An even dozen were present, counting myself. The smallness of the crowd and the courtesy with which I was received rather floored me, so I sat in a comfortable chair and talked with the men about everything under the sun except politics. The women went out to the kitchen, and when they returned they passed us tiny lacquered cups of hot bitter black coffee and small delicious cakes. As we drank the coffee, we smoked heavy Turkish cigarettes. I felt comfortable and a little like Lawrence of Arabia, and when, after a pleasant hour that I could ill afford, I made my excuses and left, with many thanks for their hospitality, my host assured me that they would vote for me.
While I, for reasons of greater mobility, drove about in a sleek black roadster, my wife was far from idle. She had the station wagon filled with campaign literature and literally covered with my windshield stickers. Accompanied by the gardener, she would drive the station wagon from one end of the district to the other, tossing candy to the children, seeing that the various headquarters had plenty of printed matter, ringing doorbells and talking to housewives and farm women, speaking to women’s clubs, and substituting for me at any meeting where I was unable to appear. For three long months she had less rest than I had, and spent fourteen to sixteen hours a day driving a heavy uncomfortable station wagon. The descendant of a long line of Republicans, she fought the G. O. P. as only a woman can light, with no idea in her mind except to see the enemy disemboweled at her feet. We both felt that the cause was good and the fight worth the fighting. We were no Tweedledee Democrats. We made such a row about the condition of local housing for lowincome groups that now, for the first time, Housing Authorities are being set up in the district. The New Dealism we preached was so thorough that our opponent, hitherto a leading conservative, became quite pink in his pronouncements, in an effort to keep up with us.
Toward the end of October we added another unit to our flotilla. We came across a man who owned a sound truck, and we hired him for the remainder of the campaign. He put a quick temporary coating of red, white, and blue paint on the truck, and had four large MARTIN FOR CONGRESS signs painted and fastened on the sides, rear, and on the top. Originally it had been a large delivery truck, but now it was a thing of beauty, with no mark of its commercial past about it. On its roof it had, in addition to an upright sign, two large amplifiers painted a dazzling silver. Inside there was a phonograph, with a dozen records, including ‘Happy Days Are Here Again,’ ‘Anchors Aweigh,’ and the ‘Washington Post March.’
The one weakness of this outfit was that the sound apparatus would not work if the truck was driven at a speed greater than fifteen miles an hour. Because of this, we never turned on our sound until we got into a town, when we would proceed in a slow, dignified fashion up and down the main street making music that could be heard for miles, until we had gathered a crowd. The driver of the truck had a son whose duty it was to play the records and, between records, broadcast campaign patter. I would follow the truck in an open roadster driven by the long-suffering gardener. We usually avoided large towns and concentrated on the crossroads villages. When we had gathered a crowd on the main street we would park and play a record for a few seconds, and then I would speak for two or three minutes, standing on the seat of the roadster. While I spoke, my crew would pass out circulars to the crowd. Then we would give them a final ear-splitting concert, and drive on to the next stop.
There was never any heckling. The general attitude of the small-town crowds was one of sullen surprise. We would try to make the rounds of any factories in the vicinity and speak to the workers as they ate their lunch. These people were much more alert than the average crowd. They usually asked intelligent questions, such as ‘Are you for the Wagner Act?’ ‘Will you vote for socialized medicine? ‘ A pressman in a large printing plant asked me if I believed socialism to be inevitable in America, no matter which political parties held power. I told him yes, but that a progressive and intelligent government could alleviate a painful transitionary period. He told me that he had voted Socialist all his life, but he would split his ticket for me.
Sometimes my wife and I would come home at two in the morning, sleep for a couple of hours, and get up at four and start out in the car to visit the regional farm markets, where I would speak to the farmers as they came into town around four-thirty or five o’clock to sell their products. I did very poorly as far as the rural vote went, because Mr. Fish, with great political sagacity, had confined his campaign to calling me a carpetbagger (because I was born in California), a left-wing New Dealer, and a Red. These accusations carried great weight with some voters.
Election Day, which we thought would never come, came at last. I rose early and spoke for fifteen minutes on the radio in an effort to catch the voters as they were getting up and going to work. When I had finished I drove home and ate breakfast; then my wife and I went down to the firehouse and cast our votes. When we came home I had to write another speech, for I was to be on the radio again at noon, for fifteen minutes. As I worked on the speech, the newspapers telephoned asking for a statement. I had one ready for them to the effect that ‘our victory is certain . . . tomorrow the House of Representatives will be free of its most vociferously reactionary member.’ When I spoke over the radio at noon, my voice was a hollow croak. I came home, went to bed for an hour or two, and then got up and shaved. A hot dawdling bath was a luxury I hadn’t had in months. It felt much better than my customary hurried showers. Then we went out and drove around to call on our workers at a few of the adjacent polling places.
When we returned home, we knew our fate. After supper we turned on the radio and listened to the returns. For a while We thought that Governor Lehman was beaten, but he squeezed through by about a 67,000 majority. The rest of the Democratic state ticket were elected by safer majorities. Hamilton Fish, Jr., thumped me to the tune of a 21,000 majority, but I had the solace of having run ahead of the rest of the Democratic ticket in the Congressional district. Around midnight, before we went to bed, Mr. Fish came on the local radio station and said that his victory was a triumph for the American way of life.
The next day my wife and I slept until three in the afternoon, and then took a train to New York. When we got there, we went to a good restaurant and had a couple of Martinis (the first in months) and an excellent, dinner. I had asked a friend to get me some tickets to a show, any show, and he had bought tickets to A be Lincoln in Illinois. It was an excellent play. Afterwards we stopped off for a nightcap. As we drank, we looked about us at the after-theatre crowd in the restaurant. Everybody acted as though nothing had happened.