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Wheeler’s Deal

by on January 13, 2021

This is inspired by a Jeopardy clue. A few weeks ago, after Alex Trebek had died but he was still hosting the program – a period that might be referred to as interhostum – there was a clue about Burton Wheeler, inquiring which film he inspired.

The answer is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The immediate question for my phone was, who was Burton Wheeler? A Senator from 1923-1947, Wheeler was from Montana. I must confess I’ve never watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a movie that Wikipedia refers to as one of the greatest movies of all time.

As fascinating as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is (I assume) what I have to say here involves Burton Wheeler

Sen. B.K. Wheeler, 12-8-22 LOC npcc.07484 (cropped).jpg
Sen. Burton Wheeler

and the U.S. governmental system (as did Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, although they adapted the story and the names). Doubtless in some way inspiring the movie that takes on a different story, Wheeler might best be known – despite running for Vice President as part of the Progressive Party (Wikipedia) – for his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal.

Involvement is actually the wrong word. As part of the Senate Wheeler was part of investigating the scandal. The scandal, which sent a cabinet member to prison for the first time in U.S. history, involved the granting of rights to oil-rich land in a no-bid fashion, and receiving a kickbacks. Albert Bacon Fall, the Secretary of the Interior, who granted the rights to the Mammoth Oil Company and Pan American Petroleum Company, received $200,000 in bonds, and other members of his family profited (I don’t know if $200,000 refers to 1920’s dollars, or current money; it shouldn’t matter.

Despite this abuse of office one might consider the scandal a victory – or not defeat – of democracy. The Supreme Court ruled that the President Harding didn’t have authority to put Albert Fall in charge of the lands and Congress told Harding to cancel the loans.

Whether Fall became a fall guy for the system – the system being the system of bribery in government – or whether the system of bribery is part of governing is to ask us to predict the future. We can look only at the past and present, and decide what future we have.

Doubtless written before the Trump administration took office Wikipedia says that until Watergate Teapot Dome was the biggest scandal in the history of the U.S. As far a bribery and abuse of office for financial gain is concerned that’s probably true.

We now live in the era of Citizens United with an executive branch the flaunts the Emolument Clause. Compounded with the executive branch – and its supporters inside and outside government – continuously reinforcing to the public that bribery and abuse of office is normal, the democracy we envision is in question.

Burton Wheeler was a progressive Democrat from Montana (at a time when the Democrats were associate with Jim Crow views in the South). A supporter of the New Deal Wheeler did not toe the party line, and was an non-interventionist against war – at least until Pearl Harbor.

Beyond the conclusion that bribery and malfeasance is bad, and that our system can prosecute such things, it’s important to note that like in Wheeler’s time ninety years ago, we too have a progressive party and that at no point in U.S. history has there been only two parties. We too can have a elected representative that does not always support the party, and is willing to stand against war. We too can have a system that represents the people and not the corporations.

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