Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny: Book Review: "Power and Glory"

Is this where I put in key words such as sex, lesbians, vampires, Christopher Lloyd and others things to which this blog do not pertain, but by putting them here, I may get hits from all the Christoper Lloyd lesbian vampire fans (and you know who you are)? This is the primarily humorous and occasionally rambling writings of Leon Tchaikovsky, humor writer. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Book Review: "Power and Glory"

Tchaikovsky Sounds Funny

There is a statute of Boies Penrose in the Capitol Park greeting visitors arriving from Third and Walnut Streets in Harrisburg. I wonder how many look at the statute and wonder “who is that obvious giant in Pennsylvania history who merits the only statue in this park?” Truth be told, Boies Penrose at best symbolizes the great era of corruption that existed when the Capitol was built, and in that respect, he was a giant. Beyond that, there is little else that would merit his statute.

There was once a valiant Democratic legislator who proposed removing Boies Penrose’s statute. The bill, though, went nowhere. By now, the statute is a part of our history, allowing tour guides to give their usual story regarding the dedication of the statue. Tour guides claim when the statue of Boies Penrose was dedicated, which shows Penrose proudly standing with his hands in his pockets, it was stated “that’s the first time I’ve ever seen him with his hands in his own pockets.” Whether or not anyone actually said that during the dedication, we can be assured: lots of people certainly were thinking it.

So, who was Boies Penrose? It is hard to find biographies on him. Fortunately, I came across “Power and Glory”, a 1931 book that looked back on the life of Boies Penrose, in a rare book store in New York City. As the book lacked a price, I feared learning how much this rare find would cost. I was greatly relieved when the store owner gave me one of those “you actually want this thing? I’ve been trying to get rid of this book for years. Two bucks, it’s yours.” Thus, I purchased what had to be the least expensive item sold on the island of Manhattan.

“Power and Glory” informs us that not only was Boies Penrose a crooked politician, he was proud of it. Indeed, practically the only consistency in his life was his defense of his ability to use and abuse power, and anyone who tried to say something about his honesty was immediately reprimanded for the error. He was a man who boasted of his ability to eat, love women, and wheel and deal in politics. He set a standard for dishonesty for Republican leaders that lasted for generations hence.

Boies Penrose was intelligent. He graduated second in his Harvard class, behind his brother Charles who graduated first. Yet, Boies set a standard of arrogance from the very beginning. He defended his first client as an attorney by arguing “I’ve been drunk with him twice and find that he is highly popular with the inmates of several reputable houses of prostitution. That, whether you believe it or not, is high recommendation of a man’s fundamental character.”

While demonstrating his ability to eat oysters and drink bourbon, a skill that won him $1,000 in a contest, he befriended another regular drinking customer. Buck Devlin. Buck Devlin was a Republican leader who, as the book explained, helped his constituents through saving them time by voting for them. Buck Devlin was impressed by Boies Penrose’s arguments that it was not political plundering that was despicable, but that it was the stupidity involved in much of the blundering. To Buck Devlin, Boies Penrose offered the Republican Party exactly what it needed: an intelligent, Harvard educated plunderer.

Devlin nominated Penrose as a Republican nominee for the Pennsylvania state legislature. Ironically, Devlin forgot to mention this to Penrose. Penrose, though, accepted the nomination, and a career was born. Penrose was an unusual campaigner, as he had an obsession against shaking hands, and later in his life, would totally refuse to shake hands. Still, the Republican nomination, in an era in the 1880s when the city didn’t bother printing the lists of all registered Democratic voters, was an assured victory for Penrose.

Boies Penrose burst into Harrisburg with deliberate exuberance. He purposely refused to meet with the Republican legislative leaders in order to get them to come to him. Penrose, ironically, gained legislative note as one who helped reform Philadelphia government by giving Philadelphia a new charter. He won this battle by convincing state Republican leaders that the current Philadelphia leadership was outdated and that a new leadership controlled by the state leaders should be established.

Penrose, at age 24, announced to legislative leaders after two weeks of legislative service that he felt he had learned all he needed to know to serve in the State House. He proclaimed “if my people send me to the House of Representatives for more than one term, I’d know they were trying to get rid of me.”

The next year, Boies Penrose, was elected a State Senator. While Senator, Penrose convinced Republican leaders that their error in directing banks that held funds of the state treasury was not that they failed to follow regulations, but in that they required the banks to follow the regulations. Penrose was added as a director to these banks. As Penrose explained “nobody cared what a man did with his own money, so long as he didn’t do it with theirs. And men never regarded money spent in taxes as theirs. Which is why candidates for office never got far howling about the public treasury.”

Penrose excelled at explaining legislative intent. He would tell employers “this pro-union legislation doesn’t mean anything to anybody except the politicians who hope thereby to induce votes. The unions think it gives them something, but it doesn’t. All it means is that they have the right to get something if they’re big enough—and can find it. But don’t get the idea I’m not for you employers. I am. You smell better.”

Penrose’s legislative triumphs included legislation that gave Philadelphia trolley routes to a trolley company he and Matthew Quay, another Republican leader, owned that existed on paper and which had no trolleys. Their company then sold these routes to existing trolley companies for millions of dollars.

Boies Penrose served five terms in the State Senate. It was Penrose’s career goal to become Mayor of Philadelphia, and he was close to receiving the Republican nomination, and virtual assurance of victory, when he was forced to withdraw or else an article about his relations with an African American woman would be published. To Strom Thurmond, Boies Penrose was ahead of his time.

Destiny would take Penrose elsewhere, if never Mayor. State Republican leaders, upset at Philadelphia Republican leaders who were supporting John Wanamaker for the U.S. Senate, decided to put the Philadelphians in their place by supporting Philadelphian Boies Penrose for the Senate. Penrose raised $250,000 from people unknown and distributed the funds to convince the legislature (U.S. Senators were legislatively elected then) to elect Penrose over Wanamaker by 133 to 75.

Penrose announced his main Senate issue would be Americanism. When asked to explain what Americanism is, he responded by explaining it is “something I get votes with. Outside of that, what do you care?”

Penrose was not a religious man. Yet, as Senator, he did announce “I’ll tell you what I will do: I’ll promise to distribute my drinking more evenly among the saloons most popular with the pillars of the various churches.”

A new generation of Republican leaders, the Vare brothers of George, Edwin, and William, despised Penrose and slowly eroded the Senator’s political power. Penrose won reelection to the Senate only after agreeing to pay William Vare an unknown sum of money, which turned out to be $230,000. Penrose told the Vare brothers “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if you boys were making a little profit on me. However, the public is the winner all around, and I’m sure it will be very glad to foot the bill.”

The Penrose political machine received tremendous financial support from the insurance industry. It was the duty then, of the Penrose machine to see that the state insurance commissioner acted favorably to the insurance industry.

The Penrose and Vare disputes grew. In one Philadelphia election, the Vares hired Tammany Hall political experts to beat up pro-Penrose election day workers. The Penrose campaign responded with the use of black jacks.

When Pennsylvania’s fellow Senator, Matthew Quay, died in office, Penrose explained the political system where the legislature chooses who serves in the Senate. As he put it, “there isn’t going to be any selection. There’s going to be an auction.” Indeed, it was rumored that industrial leaders located in New York City stated they would provide the legislature with the name of the new Pennsylvania Senator within a few days.

Boies Penrose did play a critical role in changing the course of American political history. Penrose was friendly with New York’s political boss, Tom Platt. Platt hated New York’s Governor Theodore Roosevelt and wanted to lure him and then exile him into political obscurity by making him Vice President. Penrose, who knew Teddy Roosevelt as a fellow Harvard student, correctly surmised that Roosevelt would not fall for such a scheme. Instead, Penrose suggested they needed to convince Roosevelt that there was a public demand that he take the Vice Presidential nomination. Penrose aided in getting people to write letters begging Teddy Roosevelt that the nation needed him to run for Vice President. The ploy worked, and Roosevelt overcame his refusal to run. Ironically, the exile plan did not work, as Roosevelt was elevated to the Presidency following the assassination of President McKinley.

Penrose was an arrogant politician. He would tell Samuel Gompers, President of the A.F. of L, that he agreed with Gompers on labor legislation. Yet, he explained to Gompers that “I can’t stand for a bill like that. Why those fellows this bill is aimed at—those millionaires—are good for $200,000 to the party.” On another occasion, Penrose explained his philosophy of politics as “once I thought success in politics required 90% brains and 10% guts. Now I know it’s just 10% gall and 90% wind.”

The book makes no mention of the supposed famous quote at the dedication of Penrose’s statute regarding his hands in his pockets. The book does, though, state that it was mentioned at the dedication that someone thought it was a shame there was not also a statute placed for Senator Matthew Quay, who was a partner with Penrose in many of their political and business misadventures. An anonymous person was quoted as responding with “Yes? And have the pair of them laughing at each other all night?”


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