Saturday, December 2, 2023

Tempest in a Teapot

I'm leaving it to others to offer their cartoon eulogies of Rosalynn Carter, Henry Kissinger, and Sandra Day O'Connor (or dyslogies as the case may be), because you've probably been wondering when I'm going to get around to posting some cartoons about the Teapot Dome scandal.

"Getting Hot" by Daniel Fitzpatrick in St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Dec. 3, 1923

As luck would have it, a few editorial cartoonists decided to remind Congressional investigators of Teapot Dome just as December of 1923 got underway. 

It's a common misconception that the scandal only broke after President Harding's death; but a congressional investigation into former Secretary of the Interior Albert Fall's sweetheart deals leasing oil fields on Navy-owned land to Sinclair Oil Company subsidiary Mammoth Oil had been suspended when the 67th Congress adjourned in March.

Fall was in charge of Harding administration policy favoring private enterprise development of natural resources. Fall's Department of the Interior, in addition to taking control of naval oil reserves away from the Department of the Navy, also took control of the Alaskan territory from the Department of Agriculture. The Teapot Dome leases might well have gone unnoticed had not a Mammoth rival complained about the favored treatment Fall afforded his good friend Harry Sinclair.

"Suggestion for 1924" by Guy R. Spencer in Omaha World-Herald, Dec. 5, 1923

Fall resigned from office on March 4, 1923, the date when the 68th Congress would traditionally have convened. As it happened, however, the 68th Congress would remain out of session until December.

The reason for such a long interval between Congresses had nothing to do with Teapot Dome; rather, Old Guard Republicans were resisting demands from their Progressive wing for a greater role in House leadership. President Harding had agreed that Congress could well be kept out of session until year's end.

If Harding was interested in delaying further investigations into Teapot Dome, it was only one of many considerations he had. Harding generally opposed the Progressives on any number of issues.

"The Sphinx Slayer" by Edward Gale in Los Angeles Times, Dec. 8, 1923

Now that December had arrived, Calvin Coolidge, succeeding Harding as President in August, wanted to address a joint session of Congress; and that could only happen with the House in session.

The demise of "the Legend of Silent Cal" depicted in Gale's cartoon would turn out to be greatly exaggerated. Coolidge's speech was nevertheless big news, coinciding as it did with the announcement that he would run for a full term as President in 1924.

"His Platform" by John T. McCutcheon in Chicago Tribune, Dec. 7, 1923

Since few Americans knew much about Coolidge, aside perhaps from his breaking of a police officers' strike in Boston as Governor of Massachusetts, Coolidge's maiden presidential speech was an opportunity for him to announce his positions on a wide range of issues. Catching the attention and approval of many editorial cartoonists was his call for an immediate tax cut.

"Getting the Cooledge" by Tom Foley in Minneapolis Daily Star, Dec. 6, 1923

Tom Foley's cartoon is one of very few that were critical of Coolidge's speech. The proposal to send a bonus to veterans of the Great War started out with plenty of support from the nation's editorial cartoonists; but many cartoonists jumped off the bandwagon once cutting everybody's income taxes was presented as an alternative.

"Organizing Congress" by John T. McCutcheon in Chicago Tribune, Dec. 4, 1923

Your humble scribbler went into greater detail last January about House Republicans' difficulty electing a Speaker in 1923. To catch up for now, let's just say that the Old Guard had to make some concessions to the party's Progressives (personified by Senator Robert LaFollette, R-WI, in John McCutcheon's cartoon) in order to get a handle on things.

"The Candy Kid" by Tom Foley in Minneapolis Daily Star, Dec. 7, 1923

Progressivism, as it was known in the 1920's, crossed party lines. So did many issues of the day: there were isolationists, for example, on both sides of the aisle and among the most prominent Progressives. As for the Democratic Party, it was split between southern conservatives and northern liberals, Wilsonians and Bryanists, Wall Street and Big Labor, Drys and Wets.

"All Is Quiet..." by Edward S. "Tige" Reynolds in Portland Oregonian,  Dec. 6, 1923

Even if 1920's progressivism wouldn't have had much in common with the progressive movement of today, and even less with the Freedom Caucus in today's House, the one thing it does share with the latter is that it was an unruly stepchild of the Republican Party.

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