It was simply without precedent.
The case of a prominent politician sending embarrassing messages, combined with the hijacking of a press conference by a combative, high-profile conservative journalist.
Except that the bizarre Anthony Weiner-Andrew Breitbart dust-up at Manhattan’s Sheraton Hotel isn’t without precedent at all. In fact, six decades ago, history witnessed an eerily similar altercation at a Philadelphia hotel news conference about a politician’s inappropriate communications—and his own confrontation with the Andrew Breitbart of his day.
The politician in question was uber-left-winger Henry Wallace. The journalist was Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler.
In 1948, Wallace was engaged in running for the presidency on the Communist-dominated Progressive Party ticket. Previously he had served as Franklin Roosevelt vice-president and secretary of agriculture.
Wallace was, to say the least, a bit of a mystic. In the early 1930s, while still agriculture secretary he had become engaged not in tweeting but in a paper-and-ink correspondence with a fellow visionary, the exiled Russian artist and mystic Nicholas Konstantinovich Roerich. Wallace (terming himself alternately “Modra” or “Galahad”) had sent to Roerich the so-called “guru letters”—mystical, altogether silly, documents that could only trigger disquieting questions about the cabinet officer who had composed them.
On March 5, 1933—just three days after taking office as agriculture secretary, Wallace wrote to Roerich:
I have been thinking of you holding the casket—the sacred most precious casket. And I have thought of the New Country going forth to meet the seven stars under the sign of the three stars. And I have thought of the admonition “Await the Stone.”
We await the Stone and we welcome you again to this glorious land of destiny, clouded though it may be with strange fumbling fears. Who shall hold up the compelling vision to those who wander in darkness? In answer to this question we again welcome you. To drive out depression. To drive out fear. . . .
And so I await your convenience prepared to do what I am to do.
May Peace, Joy and Fire attend you as always,
In the great haste of this strange
maelstrom which is Washington.
And later, Wallace wrote: “The rumor is the Monkeys [the British] are seeking friendship with the Rulers [the Japanese] so as to divide the land of the Masters [Manchuria] between them. The Wandering One [FDR—when better disposed to Roosevelt, Wallace alternately referred to him as “The Flame’] thinks this and is very suspicious of Monkeys. . . . He does not like the Rulers and wants adequate preparation for two or three years hence.”
By 1940, the incriminating correspondence had fallen into the hands of two Republican newspaper publishers, Roy Howard and Paul Block—presumably peddled by the Roerich clan. With Henry Wallace now Roosevelt’s running mate, their utility had increased a thousand fold.
“Oh, God,” exclaimed administration official Anna Rosenberg, on hearing Wallace’s letters were in GOP hands, “out of a hundred million Americans, we had to pick him for vice president.”
Wallace could not be removed from the ticket, but Roosevelt (“We can handle sex, but we can’t handle religion”) had, as usual, an ace up his sleeve.
Roosevelt’s opponent Wendell Willkie had been conducting an extramarital affair with a forty-nine-year-old divorcee, New York Herald-Tribune book editor Irita Bradford Van Doren. Until now, the wily FDR (with, at least, one affair in his own history) had possessed no desire to exploit Willkie’s predicament.
Now he did.
“[We can] spread it as a word-of-mouth thing,” Roosevelt strategized to his aide, former Washington Daily News editor Lowell Mellett, “or by some people way, way down the line. We can’t have any of our principal speakers refer to it, but the people down the line can get it out. I mean the Congress[ional] speakers, and state speakers, and so forth. They can use the raw material. . . . Now, now, if they want to play dirty politics in the end, we’ve got our own people. . . . Now you’d be amazed at how this story about the gal is spreading around the country. . . . Awful nice gal. Writes for the magazines and so forth and so on, a book reviewer. But nevertheless there is the fact.”
And no more was ever heard regarding the guru letters—until May 1947, when they somehow tumbled into Westbrook Pegler’s hands. Pegler (“I believe the author of these letters was off-center mentally”) verified the handwriting as Wallace’s and launched a series of columns exposing every bizarre facet of the correspondence.
Wallace stonewalled Pegler’s demands for comment. “To hell with your farm, your chickens and your strawberries,” Pegler publicly fumed to Wallace in August 1947, “For two months I have been calling at your office and telephoning to ask whether you ever were a disciple or pupil of Nicholas Roerich. . . . I have been trying to corner you to make you answer whether you wrote Roerich a lot of idiotic letters and whether you regarded him as a god or supernatural master of mankind as many of your associates in the cult did. . . . Wallace, you are nailed on most counts.” Unlike Anthony Weiner, Henry Wallace possessed sufficient sense to remain silent.
And so, in Philadelphia, on the eve of his presidential nomination, Henry Wallace conducted a news conference. Much to his surprise, questions flew regarding the Guru Letters. “I never,” he answered, “engage in a discussion with a stooge of Westbrook Pegler.”
A hush enveloped the gathering. From the back of Wallace’s audience, a man arose, his hair slicked straight back, his hands juggling his glasses, a pen, his sheaf of notes. “My name is Westbrook Pegler, Mr. Wallace” he announced, “You twice referred to the subject of letters in your remarks and you have reminded us journalists of the important duty of getting all the available facts. Therefore, I ask you whether you did or did not write certain letters to Nicholas Roerich, addressing him as Dear Guru, and his wife as Modra?”
“I will never,” answered Henry Wallace, “engage in any discussion with Westbrook Pegler.”
When it was finally over, H. L. Mencken, who was present, snarled, “Everybody named Henry should be put to death. If somebody will do it for Henry Wallace, I promise to commit suicide.”
Henry Wallace’s career already had.
So has Anthony Weiner’s.
David Pietrusza (davidpietrusza.com), is the author of 1920: The Year of the Six Presidents and Silent Cal’s Almanack: The Homespun Wit & Wisdom of Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge.
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