Tuesday, February 14, 2012

February 29, 1932 – Alfalfa Bill Murray Begins his Road to the White House

Future President of the United States William Henry Davis “Alfalfa Bill” Murray appeared on the cover of Time Newsmagazine with a quote from comedian Will Rogers who noted, "I guess he ain't got much chance." Murray’s chances were indeed slim as he did not win a single primary, but he still appeared at the Democratic National Convention, where he came in eighth on the first ballot with 23 votes. He was set to jokingly endorse Will Rogers as a write-in and head home when William Randolph Hearst broke news of a long-running affair by frontrunner New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt with his wife’s secretary. It was well known that FDR was a playboy before contracting polio in 1921, but the news exploded with the sensation that he was still carrying on with his wife’s secretary after some fifteen years. Additional articles added another affair with his personal secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand, and the news-hungry Depression public went crazy. Roosevelt bowed out of the race, leaving over six hundred votes suddenly up for grabs. It was understood by the party machine that their pick, former New York Governor Al Smith, would collect the votes, but his old rivalry with FDR turned off supporters, including Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. In a midnight call between Kennedy and Hearst, who supported Speaker of the U.S. House John Nance Garner despite him never asking to be president, they determined to select the biggest Blackhorse candidate since 1844’s James K. Polk. Murray seemed someone they could influence, and he was already famous for his relief activities in Dustbowl-stricken Oklahoma. Much to his own surprise and frustration of Al Smith, Murray found himself picked as the Democratic candidate on the fourth ballot.

Murray was born in 1869 in Toadsuck (later renamed “Collinsville), Texas. He worked as a laborer while attending public school and tried a number of careers before passing the Texas bar exam in 1895. Murray soon started a law practice in Indian Territory, where he earned his nickname from speaking tours in which he often mentioned his alfalfa field. In 1905, he served as the Chickasaw Nation representative to the constitutional convention of the proposed state of Sequoyah and a year later in the convention that created the singular state of Oklahoma. Using connections through his wife’s uncle, former Territorial Governor Douglas Johnston, and first state governor Charles N. Haskell, Murray managed a moderately successful political career with stints as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives and U.S. Representative. He retired from politics in 1918 after losing his bid for governor and aided local ranchers in founding a colony in Bolivia during the 1920s.

In 1930, Murray reappeared in Oklahoma and again ran for governor. He won handily, with a margin of some 100,000 votes. When he came to office, the state was crippled with the Dust Bowl as well as a $5 million budget deficit as the government made attempts to provide work and welfare as the Great Depression began. Murray proved a creative and effective leader. He collected money voluntarily for food programs for the poor, donating even his own salary. To save on government expenses, he ordered the capital lawn to be used to raise sheep, limiting the need for landscaping. When any need arose, he called up the Oklahoma National Guard and declared martial law, such as enforcement of his executive order to limit oil production in 1931 to keep prices strong and support state exports. In July of 1931, he instigated the Toll Bridge War in which he forced open a bridge on the Red River closed on its Texas end by an injunction due to a disagreement with a toll company. Perhaps most beneficial was his June call for a national convention on relief to be held in Memphis, TN, which shot him into the press. Riding his wave of fame, he announced his intentions to run in 1932.

The race against Republican incumbent Herbert Hoover was a firm victory for the Democrats. Votes poured in from the South and West, where the ravages of the Great Depression had been the deepest and President Hoover’s plans for relief agencies had not yet reached. The Northeast was firmly for Hoover, even New York where stalwart Roosevelt fans rejected Murray’s “yokel” (and notoriously racist) policies. Inaugurated on March 4, 1933 (the last late inauguration before the Twentieth Amendment came to be), Murray’s first one hundred days proved to be among the busiest in American history, responding to an earthquake in California only a week later and the Akron airship disaster in New Jersey the next month. When “Machine Gun” Kelly kidnapped Oklahoma oilman Charles Urschel, Murray gave the FBI unprecedented powers and reinforcement through US Army, including spotter planes. Beer became legalized, cannabis was outlawed, and the dollar was taken off the gold standard to enable more free-flow of cash. Roosevelt, still holding political clout, criticized Murray’s use of armed forces and suggested instating agencies, but Murray showed himself as a man of action, appearing himself at many of the trouble-spots.

Most famous, however, was Murray’s reaction to the “Business Plot” of 1933. Retired Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler testified in 1934 to the Special Committee on Un-American Activities (founded to investigate propaganda contrary to the Constitution, particularly Nazism) that a group of businessmen responding to “socialist” possibilities after the removal of the gold standard had contacted him about the possibility of a coup d’état. While many contemporaries ignored the accusations or, at most, chuckled (General Douglas MacArthur called it “the best laugh story of the year”), Murray’s increasing paranoia after the death of his friend Haskell latched onto the idea of conspiracy. He tasked J. Edgar Hoover with finding conspirators and pressured the McCormack–Dickstein Committee to call in every name under suspicion, including banker Thomas Lamont and Admiral William Sims. Many accused Murray of fear-mongering and distracting from his only somewhat successful relief programs. Murray and his supporters, however, reacted violently to potential fascists, even though Murray himself had applauded the busy activities of Mussolini and Hitler. In the Battle of Wall Street, FBI agents supported by US soldiers seized several New York banks and firms, clearing out papers to be reviewed by the Justice Department.

In 1936, the Democratic convention in Philadelphia became a circus of accusations. Kennedy had long removed himself from Murray and hoped to reinvent the Democrats despite him. Murray eventually broke away with his own Plowman’s Party after his quote that “civilization begins and ends with a plow.” The move split would-be Democratic votes and handed the election to centrist Republican Alf Landon, whom Murray once proclaimed was a Nazi spy. Landon, however, proved himself much less rightist than Murray and achieved the bulk of the Black vote. He won a second term in 1940 as he prepared America for another world war as Nazism was generally feared thanks to Murray’s stand. After the war, the Republican dynasty continued under Thomas Dewey and General Dwight Eisenhower.

Murray, meanwhile, returned to Oklahoma where he wrote extensively and lost further attempts at election. His son, Johnston, would become the governor of Oklahoma in 1951, but did not seek higher office.


In reality, Murray’s presidential run was unsuccessful. Roosevelt (whose alleged affairs would not be spoken of until the ‘60s) would go on to be elected four times as president, serving through the Great Depression and much of World War II. His policies of moderated socialism and extensive spending in the New Deal established modern American government.

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