Friday, March 04, 2005

Today in History Dept.

Seventy-three years ago this week was the kidnapping of Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. That incident is revealed in Philip Roth's over-praised novel The Plot Against America (2004) to have been behind the presidency of Charles A. Lindbergh Roth concocts.

I read the book, which is up for various awards and is likely to be a Pulitzer finalist, because of its alternative history about the 1930's, a period that interests me greatly. I was under the impression from the press that the politics were the central element, but rather it focuses on the family of a character called Philip Roth, who live in Jersey City, New Jersey. In Roth's fictional world, Charles Lindbergh decides to enter politics, an isolationist opponent to Franklin Delano Roosevelt's efforts to manoeuver us into the war in Europe. Lindbergh wins the Republican nomination and chooses Burton K. Wheeler, a Democratic senator from Montana, as his running mate, then wins the 1940 election.

Roth posits that Lindbergh as president not only would engage in friendly (i.e. peaceful) relations with Germany, but he would actually import their treatment of Jews to America. Absurd, but what bothered me most of all was his depiction of one of America's great United States Senators.

Burton Kendall Wheeler (1882-1975) was born in Massachusetts and, after law school at the University of Michigan, set up his practice in Butte, Montana. (Thus the clever title of his memoir, Yankee From the West.) When Wheeler arrived in Big Sky Country, Montana was practically a wholly-owned subsidiary of Anaconda Copper. It was the biggest landowner and employer in the state. It owned most of the banks and newspapers. And it owned the legislature.

Wheeler, a dedicated Progressive, fought the company on the side of the small miners and the workers. He won a seat in the legislature and was appointed United States Attorney by President Wilson. After an unsuccessful bid for the governorship, he was sent to the Senate in 1922 where he continued to fight for the little guy, work that earned him the enmity of the Justice Department when he uncovered scandals and the Bureau of Investigation (then as now a den of iniquity and repression) attempted to frame him to cover-up the government's lapses. He served as LaFollette's running mate in his 1924 presidential bid against Coolidge and Dawes and Davis and Bryan.

When FDR was elected, Wheeler was 110% behind the New Deal. There was scarcely a member of Congress more behind the President's program. But in 1937, the Democrats having made substantial gains in the 1936 elections, Roosevelt decided to take on the one branch of government that had not surrendered to him. His proposal to pack the Supreme Court with like-minded cronies raised Wheeler's hackles and he was one of the Senators instrumental in killing the plan. At one Judiciary Committee hearing, Wheeler dramatically produced a letter from Charles Evans Hughes, the chief justice himself, stating that the court was fully up to date on its docket, showing that Roosevelt's claim the measure was simply to speed up justice and ease the workload on the justices was nonsense and was exactly what his critics said: a power grab.

That was Wheeler's first break with the President, though he still supported his domestic measures. The second break was on the international front where Wheeler adamantly opposed Roosevelt's efforts to get us into the war in Europe, Wheeler being an isolationist. (Wheeler's famous line was the President had a "triple-A foreign policy, one which will plow under every third American boy," a reference to the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, a New Deal program that paid farmers to plow under their crops.) Wheeler voted against the President and a few days before the attack on Pearl Harbor was thought to have leaked the administration's Pacific war plans to the press (though this was never proven). The war turned public opinion and when Wheeler sought re-election in 1946, he was defeated in the primary. He remained in Washington practicing law until his death.

In Roth's book, President Lindbergh vanishes, whereupon Wheeler assumes the role of acting president. He locks up Mrs. Lindbergh, turning into a dictator who goes after the Jews. Impossible. Wheeler all his life fought for the downtrodden. He was a committed progressive who simply believed, as most Americans did at the time, that we had no business involving ourselves in these foreign conflicts. For Roth to depict Wheeler in this manner is a libel on a great American. It is disappointing that Roth hasn't been called on the carpet for this lapse. Either he is ignorant of history or cynically hoping everyone else is.

For Wheeler's official biography and a photo, click here. For The Wall Street Journal review, see here. And The American Conservative's review "Heil to the Chief" here is exactly right on the outrageous depiction of Wheeler.


At Saturday, May 14, 2005 6:53:00 PM, Blogger Stefanie said...

But I don't think you can condemn the book based on an inaccurate depictioin of Wheeler. It is a novel after all and not a real history. I think the main point of the novel was not the historical figures, they served only to place the story in a somewhat realistic context, but rather how subtlely and insidiously such policies against a particular race or religion can become widespread and acceptable without there even being much of an uproar about it. That, I believe, is what is making people take notice of Roth's book, especially given our current political climate.

Thank you for all of the information on Wheeler. I didn't know much about him. He seems like he was a good person.

At Monday, May 16, 2005 4:06:00 AM, Blogger Jabberwock said...

Ditto to the comment above. AUF, I’m sure you’re right about Wheeler (I know very little myself about most of the people mentioned in the book) but I don’t see why that should affect an appraisal of the book’s literary merit. Especially since the entire story is built around a little boy’s paranoia and by the very nature of the story the narrator must be seen as partly unreliable and blinkered himself.

At Monday, May 16, 2005 6:43:00 PM, Blogger Manhattan Transfer said...

Here, here, AUF. The novel is a work of paranoia and calumny dressed up as alternative historical fiction.


Post a Comment

<< Home