There is a natural tendency to glorify bygone eras as more meaningful, more pure and better lived. Certainly, that is often the case when it comes to an appraisal of our politics: just about anyone with an opinion will say that today’s political culture – in particular Washington – is broken, beset by cynicism and petty game-playing, our current generation of politicians sorely lacking in the qualities of their wise and courageous predecessors.
In a moment such as this, with both Presidential and Congressional approval ratings at what must be a combined all-time low, it isn’t hard to fall for this comforting mindset. Books such as former Delawarean Ira Shapiro’s “Last Great Senate” (featured here on TSD) depict an idealistic, brainy community of 1960s-70s lawmakers working across party lines to address big issues both foreign and domestic.
Yet a recent Politico article tells of a time just a few decades past when the United States Senate resembled something out of Mad Men, an institution characterized more by graft and drunken debauchery than any kind of heroic statesmanship. Todd Purdom’s “Sex and the Senate,” draws on an extensive series of interviews conducted with the notorious Bobby Baker, the former Secretary of the Senate whose relationship with then Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson and mastery of the inside legislative game made him so powerful he was known without much overstatement as the “101st Senator.”
These interviews with Donald Ritchie of the US Senate Historical Office have been published for the first time and if even half of what Baker recounts from his Senate career (he started as a 14-year-old page in 1942 and resigned in ‘63) is true, the current crop of US Senators come off looking like regular Calhouns, Clays and Websters.
Baker’s rambling, stream-of-conscious storytelling makes for a salacious stew, depicting the world’s greatest deliberative body as a collection of drunks, duffuses, racists and rascals. “Little Lyndon,” as he was called, was a vote-counter par excellence, a staffer who knew the institution and its members – and particularly, their weaknesses when it came to booze, sex and cash – better than anyone, and he used that rare knowledge to work LBJ’s will.
Like all too many politicos enamored with power and money, Baker increasingly sought to translate his day job into personal fortune, crossing not a few ethical and legal lines in the process and attracting the attention of corruption busters, chief among them Delaware’s Senator John J. Williams.
John Williams of Millsboro, Delaware was a quite unlikely person to have gained election to the US Senate in 1946. Possessor of neither a college degree nor any real experience in government or elected office, the Republican Williams was the ultimate long-shot candidate, a successful small businessman who came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Senator James M. Tunnell.[i]
Williams was a strict Methodist. He did not drink. He did not dance. And, in so far as we can know, his vocabulary did not include profanity.
What he did possess, however, was a focused mind, a keen grasp of accounting and a ferocious impatience with and commitment to root out government corruption.
As Professor Carol Hoffecker explained in her definitive biography, “Honest John Williams”:
John Williams did not appear to his constituents as an especially warm personality. To them he seemed cool but observant…Among his greatest assets were patience and perseverance…He held every proposed program, every proposed tax break, every budget, every government agency to the highest standards of purpose and accountability…perhaps most important, he believed that, in fulfilling the watchdog role that he assumed, fairness should begin with careful attention to fact gathering, honest assessment, and a scrupulous effort to protect the reputations of the innocent.
The undoing of Baker’s empire-building began with the flamboyant opening of the Carousel Hotel in Ocean City, Maryland. Baker borrowed heavily to build the hotel, and promoted it as a place to “glimpse Washington big wigs at play, as well as Hollywood and Broadway stars in town for a few days of play, play, play.” Many senators attended the 1962 opening, as well as Vice President and Mrs. Johnson.
The following year, Serv-U, a vending company founded by Baker to take advantage of his Capitol Hill connections, was sued by a rival vendor angered by Baker’s influence peddling.
After two terms in office, John Williams had finely honed his investigative skills while developing a reputation as the go-to man in the Senate for whistleblowers, so the Baker case inevitably came his way. As Hoffecker recounts, “By early October John Williams had amassed considerable information about Baker’s business activities, some of which suggested that the Senate secretary was misusing his government contacts for his private advantage.”
Williams brought evidence of Baker’s misdeeds to Mike Mansfield of Montana, who followed LBJ as Senate Majority Leader and Baker’s boss. A meeting was arranged to confront Baker but after downing four double martinis at the fabled Quorum Club (he had been a founding officer), Baker decided to resign his position rather than tangle with the tenacious Sussex Countian.
By then the scandal was spiraling out of Baker’s control and this mailman’s son from rural Georgia was on his way to jail. In October 1963, Williams testified about Baker’s manifold corruptions before the Senate Rules Committee and the press was taking notice. Beyond the financial shenanigans, Baker’s “introduction” of a German party girl named Ellen Rometsch to numerous Washington friends – President Kennedy among them – gave the story all the elements needed to make it front page news and something many powerful people wanted to cover up.
Ultimately, Baker served 17 months for tax evasion and other charges. Williams served a total of four terms in office, retiring in 1971 with a reputation so pristine he earned the sobriquet, “The Conscience of the Senate.”
Clearly nursing a grudge, in the interview with Ritchie, Baker pretends not to notice Williams’ pivotal role in his downfall, taking a cheap shot along the way:[ii]
Ritchie: Does the old saw about Senators being showhorses or workhorse, did that really stand up?
Baker: Yes, that’s true. Absolutely. You know, a lot of them would do anything, Senator John Williams of Delaware is a good illustration. He attacked Donald Dawson, Administrative Assistant to President Truman. And you can’t show me anything that John Williams ever passed of consequence. But he, with Clark Mollenhoff, who was a reporter for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and the Des Moines Register, he would write speeches for John Williams and they’d be in the paper before he would make the speech in the afternoon the next day. I mean, some people loved to see their name in the paper and I think John Williams was one of those.
Baker never implicated his chief patron, LBJ, or anyone else in his crimes, and President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 left few ranking Senate members with an appetite to unwind anything that might damage the new president nor tarnish JFK’s reputation.
According to my former boss, Senator Bill Roth, Williams shared at least some of that sentiment. “I had a file cabinet full of documents, Bill,” Roth told me his modest predecessor and mentor confided. “They could have taken down the President.”
[i] It is interesting to note, given the recent dominance of major statewide offices by New Castle Countians, that downstaters controlled the “big four” – governor, both Senate and US House seats – during this era. In 1949, Elbert Carvel of Sussex was governor, Sussex Countians Tunnell, and then Williams held one Senate Seat, J. Allen Frear of Kent the other, and Cale Boggs of Kent was elected to Delaware’s lone seat in Congress.