Boss Crump's Town: A Cub Reporter's First Campaign
A square-cut, powerful Georgian, RALPH MCGILL has been editor of the Atlanta CONSTITUTION since 1942 and has long been respected for his courage and integrity. In the following account he tells of his initiation into politics when, as a cub reporter, he was assigned to cover an election campaign presided over by Boss Crump.
WHENEVER I hear the phrase “ personal journalism,” I think of Major Edward Bushrod Stahlman, and the newspaper days in Nashville, Tennessee, and of the time I was bred from my job as a cub political writer on the Nashville Banner.
When he died in August of 1930, Major Stahlman had been owner and publisher of the Banner since 1885. In all those years the paper mirrored not so much the news as it did his personality and convictions. Always on the attack, he gloated in victory and never asked quarter or whined in defeat. Politics was his passion, but he was always an independent, never affiliated with party or faction but fiercely supporting a candidate. He was ruthless and merciless in his opposition. Both affection for him and distaste of him were intense. He was picturesque in appearance, his thick, long, silver-gray hair combed gracefully and neatly back to his shoulders. He walked with a sort of rolling gait, employing an unusually heavy stick with a curved handle, because of a crippled foot suffered as a boy.
It was his custom to pick a young reporter from the staff and make a political writer of him as a backstop for the veteran who ordinarily covered the Statehouse. The managing editor, Marmaduke Beckwith Morton, informed me that I had been selected, and I went to the Major’s office in the Stahlman Building, two blocks from the newspaper office, for my first instructions.
The year was 1922, and the great political feud was raging between the Major and Colonel Luke Lea, owner of the morning paper, The Tennessean. The Colonel housed his paper in a building formerly occupied by a gambling house known as the Southern Turf. (Nashville, in that period, was a city with gambling houses, a sprawling red-light district back of the Capitol, and a Western spirit somewhat like that of Chicago.) The dislike between Colonel Lea and Major Stahlman had been so intense when World War I began that the Colonel, recalling that his political foe had been born in Germany, attempted to have him interned as an enemy alien. It was a petty and unworthily bombastic try, employed chiefly for local headlines, but it made the feud between the two publishers a bitter one.
The Banner was printed in those days in a threestory structure that once had been a furniture store. I he city room was on the second floor and was reached by a stairway. All but the more timorous reporters kept loaded pistols in their scarred old desks, along with a bottle of bourbon whisky. Nashville was legally dry, but there was a plentiful supply of red liquor brought in by bootleggers from neighboring Kentucky. Legend had it that one day the Leas would come surging up the stairway with revolvers drawn and the shooting would begin. All this was very thrilling to a cub reporter just out of Vanderbilt University. In a way, I guess, we lived our own Western TV stories.
Old Man Marmaduke Morton, a tall, thin martinet, was a Kentuckian who had worked under “ Marse Henry” Waterson on the CourierJournal. He was rarely seen without a canestemmed corncob pipe in his mouth. The three drawers of his desk contained loose, dark-leaf twist tobacco cut for his half dozen or more pipes and a pair of .32 Smith and Wesson revolvers, which he kept as secretly as possible, apparently not knowing that most of the staff was armed.
Major Stahlman spoke every election year in the city primary campaign. The meetings were held at night, and the speaker’s stand was a mobile pickup truck with holders on each side for two kerosene flares. I was assigned to cover the Major. Before I left the office Old Man Morton always called me aside and handed me one of the pistols, which I stuck inside my pants at the waist so that the summer seersucker coat would button over it.
I can still smell the stink of hot kerosene. The moths and a peculiarly offensive hard-shelled beetle would circle the flames in great swarms. The red shadows would flicker on the faces of the crowd with an effect both weird and exciting. It never occurred to me, standing there making notes on a wad of copy paper, that I was both bodyguard and reporter, but I guess I was. There were always police about. They knew that the reporters carried revolvers, and one of them, Sergeant Ed Wright, would walk up to me and ask, “ What’s that bulge there at your waist?” “An extra pencil, Sergeant,” I’d reply. “ Be careful and don’t let it shoot you in the foot,” he’d say and go away laughing loudly. At the end of the speaking, when the Major was safely gone, Ed Wright would hunt me up and say, “ Get that thing back to the office.” He didn’t laugh then.
We reporters all loved the Major because he was such a reckless and courageous fighter. Life was on a higher, exhilarating plateau when he was carrying the fight to the opposition. He wanted to be quoted exactly with none of the brimstone omitted. If he identified an opponent as a scoundrel fitted more for a penitentiary cell than public office, he wanted it printed that way. There must have been libel laws in those days, but politicians never invoked them. There was a legend in Tennessee, coming down from Andrew Jackson’s time, that a gentleman didn’t sue.
AFTER a few weeks, Major Stahlman sent me on the road with a Luke-Lea-supported Memphis attorney, Gus Fitzhugh, who was contesting for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate seat held by Kenneth D. (“ Kaydee”) McKellar, also of Memphis. McKellar had blocked the Lea efforts to have Major Stahlman declared an enemy alien. Thus, the lines were drawn in bitterness and revenge.
Before sending me to join Fitzhugh, the Major told me to count every crowd and report its exact number. He also wanted me to note every catcall and the response to each point. In brief, I was to do a hatchet job on Mr. Fitzhugh, although the language was not then enriched with that phrase. I went at it with great enthusiasm and succeeded rather well. I recall that in Tullahoma a delegation visited my hotel room after the speech and tried to send me out of town on the midnight train. The sheriff, summoned by the hotel manager, stopped us in the lobby and restored me to my room. The feeling grew so intense that the paper’s business suffered. The circulation and business managers suggested to the Major that he might ease up.
“Young men,” said the Major, “this is my newspaper. If f want to float it down the Cumberland River on a raft, I will do so.” That ended that.
The campaign traveled mostly on day trains and stopped at small country hotels. Often I found myself seated just across the aisle on the train from Mr. Fitzhugh or at the same breakfast table with him at about 5:30 or 6:00 A.M., with a sleepy waitress trying to serve us before the early train left. Fitzhugh used to lash out at the Major and me in his speeches. He had to do that. But I learned to honor him for never making a personal issue of it off the platform. The schedule was a strain, broken by occasional open dates in speeches and a return to Nashville and the Banner.
My stories were satisfactory, the Major said. They were top play on page one every day. They reported that local leaders everywhere predicted Fitzhugh’s defeat, that he frequently had been jeered, and that his speeches were flat.
This was all true, especially the latter charge. Fitzhugh was a very successful corporation lawyer and a man of some wealth. He was heavy-set, of average height, with a nice face, but he could never really break out of his shell of dignity and reserve. The more he tried, the more apparent it was that he was trying — and failing. He had no gift for small talk, and he was not at ease before the shirt-sleeved farmers and their families who filled the sultry courtrooms or gathered in some grove around a platform of new-sawed lumber to hear political candidates. Such ease is acquired only through experience, and it is not even distantly related to the confident mien which an attorney may assume arguing a case before a jury or a judge.
Invective at that time was even more an effective weapon than now, Fitzhugh didn’t know how to use this sort of firepower, and his instincts were against it. One week, he began to charge that McKellar was nothing more than a messenger boy in the Senate and declared that the great state of Tennessee needed a man who could provide some leadership and stature. “Tennessee,” he would cry, waving his right arm in an oldfashioned flailing gesture, “deserves more than a messenger boy.”
There was some truth in this. McKellar paid great attention to letters from constituents. He was forever badgering the various departments with petty requests and complaints received in letters. Whatever legislation he introduced was worked out with Ed Crump and his associates. McKellar almost literally was a messenger boy for Crump and the voters. This was, of course, his political strength.
It was not my opinion that the Fitzhugh charge was in any degree effective. If anything, it made Fitzhugh seem a little pompous to be suggesting that he, an awkward, unentertaining speaker, was really a great statesman. But it seemed to sting McKellar. He bided his time until a Saturday when lie spoke at the Middle Tennessee rural town of Sparta. The courtroom was packed with farmers and their wives. McKellar was an old pro. He had been schooled in Crump’s Memphis classes for years before being promoted to the Senate. A medium-tall, square-faced man, with modest paunch adding senatorial dignity to his silhouette, he was afflicted with a heavily veined, enlarged nose which suggested a man addicted to drink. Actually, he was a teetotaler and rarely failed to tell the rural audiences that he had promised his mother never to drink and had kept his word. Cynics, looking at the nose, sat always in the seat of the scornful.
He was, all in all, a true politician and knew all the old tricks of the campaign trade. He employed one at Sparta to disembowel the already feeble Fitzhugh. In Sparta there lived a gentle old couple who, when their son had been reported missing in the first action by U.S. troops in the great war against the Kaiser, had wired Senator McKellar for assistance.
After the usual ritual of introduction and remarks was out of the way, the Senator, who but for the nose would have resembled a pious deacon, reduced his voice to a sort of confidential whinny.
“ I see,” he said, “two old friends of mine in the front row.” He pointed and named them. He asked them to stand, and they did, and the crowd applauded. “You all know them,” he said. “Now, my opponent has called me a messenger boy, and I want to confess it. During the great war to make the world safe for democracy, their fine son was reported missing. His sorrowing parents wired me. Ladies and gentlemen, when I received that wire in Washington I did not telephone the War Department. I did not send my clerk. I did not wait and order a cab. I put my hat on my head and walked over there and I said to the Secretary of War, ‘I want to learn the fate of this fine Tennessee boy, and I want it quick.’ I went back again and again until they let me know he was wounded but would live, and then I wired them he was safe and would come back to their arms.” He paused, his hand held high, so that the sound of weeping could be heard, and then he brought his hand down sharply as he said, in a great, shouting voice, “ If that is being a messenger boy, I thank God for the title!”
The roar that followed was mighty and long. The Sparta courthouse box was safe.
Toward the end of the campaign a great McKellar rally was held in Memphis. It followed by a night or so the one for Fitzhugh, and I stayed over for it. Fitzhugh had a good crowd, which filled a large downtown theater. The rally was a dignified success, although there was an uneasy sense of futility about it. But the Crump machine turned out a torrent of people and sound for “ Kaydec.”
Ed Crump, a tall, thin man of velvet-covered arrogance, had created a sort of oligarchy as a front for the more sordid operations of his organization. He attracted some good names and reputations for his major candidates. He saw to it that the tax rate was low, that government was efficient, and that patronage went to the faithful. A card-index file of every citizen, his job, family, church, probable income, and credit status, was in his offices. Ward and precinct meetings were held regularly. Newcomers to Shelby County or Memphis, the county seat, had a prompt call from one of the precinct workers, who arranged for the water and gas connections to be made quickly and for an invitation to be issued to a “neighborhood party.” At most of these, sandwiches and coffee were served, although in some wards liquor flowed. The organization made sure that eligible voters were registered and, more important, that they voted. In Mr. Crump’s Memphis, the Negro was a Democrat, and he voted. There was never any restriction against Negroes’ voting so long as they voted right. I never believed the Crump machine stuffed boxes. It didn’t need to be so crude. It got out the vote.
Crump, when I first met him and saw him operate in my cub days, had an aura of romance about him. He was the first political boss I ever knew. He always took care to see that the “newspaper boys” arriving with candidates were “looked after.” A justice of the peace, whom we all knew as Louie, usually was assigned to us. We’d go late, after rallies, to the Silver Slipper or another night place for dinner and the floor show. It was during prohibition, but liquor and gambling flourished.
No bills were rendered.
It was Mr. Ed’s town. William Handy, one of the most successful and original jazz composers, first began to compose about Mr. Crump in Pee Wee’s Beale Street saloon.
Mister Crump won’t ‘low no easy riders here ....
The romantic idea of Ed Crump lasted maybe a month or two, though, actually, there wasn’t much choice. Fitzhugh and McKellar had no real issue between them save that one was antiCrump. There was an idea abroad that McKellar might be defeated by the upstate vote. Well before the summer was over I would have preferred Fitzhugh, for all his fatuousness, but for my loyalty to and delight in the feud.
It was just after the big Memphis rally that I got fired. Marmaduke B. Morton was an inflexible sort of man. He had a rule that every reporter had to be at his desk at 7 A.M. After one warning, a second offense meant firing. I managed a second one during one of the breaks in the campaign and was fired. I had no excuse and no defense. I checked out, drew my pay, and went up to tell Major Stahlman good-by. I told him it had been fun and that I was sure McKellar was safe. He heard me out. He said never a word, but stood and took his hat and cane from a hall tree rack.
“Come with me,” he said.
I followed him out. We took the elevator down to the street floor. We walked down Third Avenue to the Banner and climbed the stairs to the city room. Neither he nor I had spoken since we left his office. He walked to where Old Man Morton sat wreathed in acrid smoke.
“Morton,” he said, in a voice which crackled, “ I want you to know this boy is working for me. He will come and go as he pleases, and he will be responsible only to me. Is that understood?”
Old Man Morton nodded.
The Major turned and went out.
I returned to the road. McKellar won the nomination by almost ninety thousand votes. I was glad for the Major, but I had learned that McKellar was a machine-made mossback and that Boss Ed Crump was, after all, not really a romantic figure, as he had seemed, but a corrupt and corrupting boss. The feud had lost its savor, and I left Nashville not long thereafter with the hurt between Marmaduke B. Morton and me entirely healed.
I had somehow made a step in coming of age. Looking back, I realize there is something of the Major in me. I do not hold with his extreme, almost compulsive partisanship. But I believe in being strongly partisan on issues which require a choice. That constitutional freedom of the press guarantee is in there for just one reason — to enable newspapers to speak out. Also, it seems important that newspapers should have, as the Major had, an acute sense of right and wrong. There are some newspapers which are mute and others which carefully engage only editors with chronic laryngitis. But there comes a time in all controversies when one must hit the issue right on the nose or turn tail and die a little. The Major’s style was to walk right out of his corner when the bell rang and throw his Sunday punch. This, I learned, often leaves a man vulnerable to a hard counter. Sometimes it is better to spar for a while or back away for a good look. But finally the issue must be hit hard. In the Major’s day it was easier. The owners of papers were themselves vigorously partisan. The people didn’t get much news. The facts and issues were beclouded. But the people did know there was a fight.