What explains Pennsylvania's paucity of presidents?
The state's illustrious history of corruption may have something to do with it
September 29, 2013 4:00 AM
By James M. Perry
You would think a "Keystone State" could come up with more than a single president in all its history, and not a very good one at that. James Buchanan, the 15th president, was born in Cove Gap, near Chambersburg. He was mean, conspiratorial, and he did little or nothing to prepare the country for the bloodiest war in its history.
Ohio, Pennsylvania's neighbor to the west, has given the nation six presidents -- William Henry Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding -- seven if you include Ulysses S. Grant, though he spent most of his early years in Galena, Ill. New York, to the north, has produced six presidents -- two Roosevelts, Martin van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland.
What's the problem?
Two possibilities come to mind. First, politics in Pennsylvania, for most of its history, was too corrupt even for machine politicians from elsewhere. Second, it was for many years such a solid Republican state that it was taken for granted.
Corrupt Pennsylvania certainly was. I can remember being given a tour of one of Philadelphia's river wards at the dawn of the post-World War II Joe Clark-Richardson Dilworth era by a reform-minded committeeman. He introduced me to William Parrott, who hadn't missed voting for years. Mr. Parrott, of course, lived in a cage. In Harrisburg, lobbyists for the Pennsylvania Railroad would give thumbs up or thumbs down so legislators would know how to vote.
Boies Penrose, from Philadelphia, was before my time, but no one was more corrupt, or entertaining. He served in both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature and then moved on to the U.S. Senate. He once said, though I can't recall the exact words, that the public's only interest in the national treasury was in how much of it they could get their hands on. More famously, he coined the line, "Public office is the last refuge of a scoundrel."
There's a statue of him outside the Capitol in Harrisburg.
Not to say that Western Pennsylvania didn't have its share of scoundrels. Matthew Quay, from Beaver, bossed the whole state. His house there is a National Historic Landmark. He was so rank that the U.S. Senate refused to seat him in 1899.
Simon Cameron, from Maytown, near Harrisburg, was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. He withdrew and threw his support to Abraham Lincoln, who rewarded him by naming him Secretary of War. He was so corrupt he lasted only a year. Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens once told Lincoln that at least Cameron wouldn't steal a red-hot stove. When Cameron called for a retraction, Stevens told Lincoln he had changed his mind. Cameron probably would steal a red-hot stove.
Cameron said, "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought." Pennsylvania's Cameron County is named for him.
Pennsylvania corruption isn't all ancient history.
Two members of the House delegation from Pennsylvania were mixed up in the Abscam scandal in 1980 in which federal agents, disguised as Arab sheiks, offered them bribes. Raymond F. Lederer and Michael "Ozzie" Myers, both from Philadelphia, each took $50,000. Myers, a longshoreman by trade, summed it up nicely to one of the agents on tape: "Money talks and bullshit walks." Myers was expelled from the House, the first to suffer that disgrace since 1861.
There have been Pennsylvania politicians who might, given the chance, have reached the White House.
My favorite is George Howard Earle III, from Philadelphia's Main Line. He was elected governor in 1934, the second Democrat to hold that office since the Civil War. Democrats were distinctly in the minority -- not a single Democratic candidate for president had carried the state since the ineffable James Buchanan in 1856. Change began with George Earle.
He was a bit of an aristocrat -- in World War 1, he commanded his own yacht, the USS Victor (it blew up and he won a Navy Cross for saving the crew and ship). Ancestors allegedly came over on the Mayflower. He played polo.
But FDR, swept into office in a landslide two years earlier, had no more loyal supporter than George Earle. He instituted the "Little New Deal" in Pennsylvania and introduced more than 3,000 bills in the Legislature to carry it out. He put 200,000 Pennsylvanians back to work with the Works Progress Administration and another 19,000 with the Civilian Conservation Corps. The state began paying unemployment compensation and reformed Pennsylvania's disgrace of a welfare system. Construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike began, the hated Blue Laws (no movies on Sunday) were relaxed, and teachers for the first time were given tenure. He made the cover of Time Magazine in July 1937.
No governor of Pennsylvania has ever done so much.
There was talk of a run for the White House, but, of course, Roosevelt stood in his, or anyone else's, way. And then, almost predictably, a number of other Democratic leaders were charged with corruption. George Earle, the most successful governor in state history, ended up as assistant governor of American Samoa.
Bill Scranton, a progressive Republican, from -- where else? Scranton -- was another successful politician, and he actually became a candidate for president in 1964 in a desperate effort to stop his party from nominating Barry Goldwater. His timing was bad -- the party's progressive era, begun in Pennsylvania with an exceptional governor, Gifford Pinchot, was over and the conservative storm had arrived -- first Goldwater, then Ronald Reagan, and now, thinking along with others of running for the GOP presidential nomination again, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Tea Party Republican living these days in Virginia.
Others come to mind. Congressman William J. Green III looked presidential, in the Jack Kennedy mold. His father, William J. Green Jr., was the Democratic boss in Philadelphia. Young Mr. Green's bad luck was he inherited a huge municipal budget deficit from Frank Rizzo when he was elected mayor of Philadelphia and made enemies trying to deal with it. Disgusted, he retired after one term and opened a restaurant in Manayunk.
Raymond P. Shafer, from Meadville, was Bill Scranton's hand-picked successor. He ran for governor in 1966 with a young Philadelphia lawyer, Attorney General Walter Alessandroni, as his running mate. Alessandroni died in a small-plane crash trying to reach a rally in the midst of a snowstorm. He showed great promise, as much as any young Republican from Pennsylvania I can remember.
Pittsburgh's David Lawrence was another loss. In his four terms as mayor, he initiated the city's first "Renaissance" and then accomplished much as governor from 1959 to 1963. But he collapsed in 1966 at a campaign rally for gubernatorial candidate Milton Shapp and died that November.
To end on a more upbeat note, while Pennsylvania has never come up with a first-class president, it has produced a world-class statesman. Benjamin Franklin was and always will be the state's greatest public figure, even if he never ran for office.
James M. Perry, a former chief political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, is the author of "A Bohemian Brigade: the Civil War Correspondents, Mostly Rough, Sometimes Ready." He writes regularly for the Post-Gazette.