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After three years of painstaking investigation and hundreds of interviews, prizewinning historian and investigative journalist Roger Morris rivetingly reveals the untold secrets of perhaps the most ambitious partnership in the history of American politics. His work, based on real facts, attempts to fully understand the framework of our current political climate and the men and women that are part of that institution. Simultaneous hardcover release from Henry Holt.
Sikeston "Riding on a Simile"
They were local boys from the Missouri boot heel. John Lett and Chester Oldham were driving south toward Sikeston on a warm Saturday night when they heard the back tire blow an the big maroon sedan ahead of them on the curve. They-watched wide-eyed as the Buick swerved wildly off the narrow pavement of old Highway 60, skidded on the soft shoulder, vaulted across the drainage ditch, then turned over twice with the muffled crunch of mud and steel. In moments it was over. The car came to rest upside down on the edge of an alfalfa field, its radio still offering country music in the sudden silence, its headlights still reaching out through the darkness.
Lett and Oldham pulled over and made their way toward the wreck, "seared to death" of what they'd find, Lett told his wife later. The doors were closed, the driver's window down, but the car was strangely empty. In the hack seat was a case of bourbon, the bottles somehow unbroken. Nervously they began searching the dark field and the hank of the ditch. Others were stopping now, drawn by the accident, their flashlights darting in the country blackness. Somebody went for the state trooper in Sikeston.
"Finally we had to go into the ditch," Lett remembered. They waded and poked in the three feet of brackish water. At first one man thought he heard something up the road, "kind of a gurgle and a splash," he said later. But the sound seemed too far away. They continued looking near the overturned car with its ghostly lights and tinny music.
It was near midnight, May 17, 1946,and America was changing. Three months before, US diplomat George Kennan had sent his fateful "long telegram" from Moscow about generic Russian treachery, impressing on receptive officials in Washington the sinister threat of the Soviet Union. In March, not far up the read from Sikeston, in Fulton, Missouri, Winston Churchill had spoken much the same amen and fear in the famous "iron curtain" speech. Across the country, powerful interests were financing the great red-baiting campaigns that would bring to power the Congress that launched Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon, the Congress of Taft-Hartley, the Hollywood Ten, and the Hiss case. This same weekend in May the deadline was to expire on a nationwide railway walkout. Part of a vast wave of labor grievances that had built up during the war years, it was an opening struggle for economic democracy in the coming boom. In a few days, however, a defiant President Harry Truman would seize the railroads and break the strike, a historic act of his own instinctive aversion to deeper reform, his own accommodation to whet he and other Democrats saw as the forces of the moment. It was the beginning of the postwar era in the United States.
In the darkness along Highway 60 in southeastern Missouri near the Arkansas line, they were searching for a man none of them knew. Some had glimpsed him as he passed their cars on the road a few minutes before, speeding by in his shiny 1942 Buick, "a nice-looking young fellow," one said later, "somebody in a hurry . . . a stranger who didn't know the road."
His name was William Jefferson Blythe II, and in a sense his car came hurtling that night out of a different America, a country before the cold war and its anxious politics of Sear and reaction.
The family called him W.J. to set him apart from his father and namesake, Willie, a lean, hawklike man who had married a thirteen-year-old girl named Lou in Tippah County, Mississippi, near the Tennessee border, and then had moved west across Arkansas in a covered wagon to settle on the hot, windy plain of north Texas. W.J. had been born there in 1918, the fourth of nine children. He grew up in a cramped four-room farmhouse of canvas and paper walls, without plumbing or electricity, pitched on forty acres of hard-scrabble cotton and scanty pasture near the Red River, halfway between Sherman and Denison.
They were never far from want, and with the depression they be came one more story of the torment in rural America. By the early 1930s, the scorched farms of north Texas were dying, and Willie Blythe along with them, a slow, agonizing death from colon cancer. The oldest son still at home, W.J. rose at three in he morning to keep the farm going and worked eight hours every day after school at nearby Ashburn Dairy, bringing home a little extra milk or butter with his few dollars in pay. His sisters remembered that his bed was set in the front room of the farmhouse, near the door for his comings and goings, and that he scarcely slept in it. They could never afford a hospital or regular medical care for Willie. Toward the end, their father lay in the back of the little farmhouse, shaking and screaming with convulsions. W.J. would calmly take a crippled sister and others out of the house, then go back in to give the writhing man some morphine, and emerge a few minutes later to assure them everything was all right. "He was always smiling," one of them remembered, "always so easygoing no matter what was happening or what he felt inside."
For two years, as Willie suffered and died, they had held on to the homestead with an emergency loan through a New Deal farm program. But in the summer of 1936, two payments behind and which less than a hundred dollars due on the note, they lost it to the bank. W.J. watched as his mother became a hotel maid in Sherman, a destitute widow in her midforties—almost the same age at which her grandson would become president of the United States fifty-seven years later. "There wasn't nothin' wrong with the Blythes 'cept they was poor," a relative who lived with them said afterward. "Rag poor," another added.
But there was to be something more about W.J. than poverty and pain, more than the loyalty and sacrifice of a young man trying to save the farm and care for a broken family. In this son of tender feeling there was also a more self-seeking purpose and ambition. Out of the boy who gave with such innocent ease there came a man who used others easily and took advantage of their own innocence. "He wasn't ever going to be a farmer or least of all be poor ar unimportant," said a sister. When they lost the farm, the family moved to a shabby apartment in Sherman. From there eighteen-year-old W.J. was soon gone, on the road selling auto parts in Oklahoma and beyond.
He had quit the old White Rock School after only the eighth grade, but he would seem more educated than he was. He now called himself Bill Blythe, relying on a quick, naturally glib intelligence and on the methodical sunniness that became with strangers a winning, lasting charm, and he found his calling as that legendary American figure of two centuries, the traveling man, the itinerant salesman—"the fellow that chats pleasantly while he's overcharging you," as one country humorist put it.
Yet Bill Blythe was so likable, so sincere, so smooth without ever seeming smooth that even the sale—or its wounds afterward—could seem unimportant People remembered how he was always touching, patting friends and customers on the back, often holding both their shoulders as he spoke or, more important, listening intently. "He made you feel like you were the only one in the world," said a close friend and customer. "A gentle, conscientious, beautiful person," another called him. "He was a wonderful salesman, a perfect salesman," said a member of his family. "He was always eager to please. And he sold himself."
It began, and ended, with the territory. The traveling man took it as he found it, the easy sells and the hard, the spenders and the cheap, the competitors honest and corrupt. There was the business as the public saw or imagined it—and then there was the inside reality of the favored, the exclusive, the rigged. The traveling man discovered early those seamy secrets of the trade and, dike his fellow salesmen, kept them as a kind of private possession, not for the ordinary world to know or use. The salesman's route was the end of a relentless food chain on the raw outskirts of American capitalism, at once free and easy and unforgiving. "When they start not smiling back, that's an earthquake," said a famous figure in the trade. "And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat and you're finished."
The good salesman never changed ar openly challenged his brittle, perishable world; he talked and smiled his way through and around it. There was no hard or soft sell, only the smart or the stupid. Technique took over, became substance. He drawled with the good ole boys, spoke fluently with the city people, learned just enough about every product, every customer to talk with seeming authority, without threatening or losing them.
In the late 1930s and on into the early 1940s, Bill Blythe sold car-alignment equipment throughout the Midwest and middle South for the J. H. Pereue Equipment Company of Memphis, driving from dealer to dealer, big town to small, hotel to tourist court, often towing a tool of the trade, what one account called "a-bulky wheel-alignment-and-balancing contraption." It was a white-collar life of company cars and ample pay, of "relentless good cheer," as another account described it, and of many people well-met, some of them becoming friends, though none too close or for too long. In the end, if he al lowed himself to think about it, the traveling man was mostly alone, with the next sale, with the run. "There is no rock bottom to the life," Arthur Miller wrote about a kindred Willy Loman. "He don't put a bolt to a nut, he don't tell you the law or give you medicine. He's a man out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine. . . . It comes with the territory."
Then, too, as in the folklore, as in all the bawdy old jokes about traveling salesmen, there were women-especially for Bill Blythe.
Less than a year after his father died, W.J. drove across the state line into Oklahoma to marry, somewhat furtively, a girl he had known in Sherman, eighteen-year-old Adele Gash. For a while they were crowded together with another Blythe son and his-wife in one of the tiny rooms of the old farmhouse. "I never lived-with so little," she would say later. But when Adele went to visit an aunt in Dallas, W.J. didn't come for her as he had promised. "I knew it was over," she would say, "when I got this package from him with all my clothes." They were divorced at the end of 1936, and by then the new Bill Blythe was on the road. Still, he went back to Adele often after the divorce and, the following spring, fathered a baby boy by her, Henry Leon, born in January 1938. Adele and her sister soon moved with the baby to northern California and for a time lost touch with Bill completely. "He was a wonderful, good-looking ladies, man," Adele would tell her family. "He wanted so much to be liked. Everyone liked him."
At a Nevada, Missouri, roadhouse early in 1940, he met a pretty dark-haired seventeen-year-old named Wanetta Alexander. She was skipping choir practice on a lark from a nearby town across the line in dry Kansas. "I was just standing there by the jukebox when a handsome young man walked over and asked me to dance," she would say. "I said no, but then "Alexander's Ragtime Band" came on. He insisted, `You are going to dance with me.' And I did." He was stocky then, just under five feet ten inches tall, weighing about 180 pounds, with blue eyes and dark brown hair combed straight back. Wanetta thought him "a living doll . . . good-looking, good clothes, smart, classy." Later that year they met often at the Netherlands Hotel in Kansas City, where Bill sometimes stayed for weeks while making his rounds in western Missouri and Kansas. "We'd . . .hit all the hotels, restaurants, and dance halls," she recalled. "He was wonderful, gorgeous, fun, and happy-go-lucky."
By the end of 1940 Wanetta was pregnant, end Bill Blythe had gone to northern California, supposedly to see Adele and his first child. "He played with the baby like he loved it, and he was just his old self," said a friend. But after a few days Bill had suddenly run off with Adele's pretty younger sister, Minnie Faye. "W.J. wanted to marry Faye because he got another girl pregnant and wanted to get out of it," one relative explained. "He was a traveling salesman, I'll tell you," said another witness. "He sold himself to the ladies."
Bill and Minnie Faye Gash were married on December 29, 1940, in Durant, Oklahoma. That, too, was soon over. "Faye was railing Adele back in California and saying she had to come home," a member of her family recounted, adding the familiar refrain about Bill Blythe the charmer, the irrepressible seducer. "But she almost always spoke highly of W.J., just like everybody else."
Under pressure from the Alexander family, his hasty marriage to Minnie Faye was annulled in Little Rock in April 1941, and in less than a week he was in a judge's chambers in the Jackson County courthouse in Kansas City, marrying Wanetta. He had hurried through the rain to be there, and arrived just minutes before the ceremony. Eight days later, he was on the road again while his new wife gave birth to a baby girl. They named her Sharron. "Sure am glad that you are all right," he said in a telegram to the hospital. "How is the baby? . . . I love you always. Love, W.J. Blythe."
He traveled with Wanetta and the baby about six months that summer and fall, driving through southern Missouri and Oklahoma in his trademark robin's-egg-blue Buick, feeding and diapering the infant in the back seat of the car. They settled for a time in Monroe, Louisiana, in an apartment she remembered as "a dump." But within six months Wanetta was gone, too, taking their baby beck to Kansas City. "Bill was cheating on me," she said later. "I know there was a lady at one of the nightclubs."
Over the next year and a half following Pearl Harbor, Bill Blythe stayed on the road, a man in his midtwenties facing the expanding wartime draft even with a wife and child. "The war has about drove me crazy," he wrote Wanetta in the spring of 1942. "Tell everyone hello and kiss the baby for me." Over the following months he wrote her often, worrying about his job and his draft status, thinking about joining the Coast Guard. "I was very glad to here [sic] from you," he wrote her again in January 1943. "I am going to Calif. Maybe then if you still want to we can start all over again. Love, Bill."
Six months later, on a trot duly night, he was out with a woman in Shreveport, Louisiana, when she suddenly fell ill. He took her to Tri-State Hospital, and while she was being treated he noticed the pretty personable student nurse on the evening shift. She was Virginia Dell Cassidy, from a small town in southwestern Arkansas. Then barely twenty, with large eyes, full red lips, and long raven hair, she had an easy laugh and an air of worldly exuberance that belied her age or origins. She was engaged at the time to a high school sweetheart but was immediately taken with Bill Blythe and his striking good looks. The salesman had started to leave the hospital but then hesitated, turned back, and walked up to the young nurse to ask about the ring she we; wearing. Without hesitation she replied that it didn't mean a thing. surprised at her own response. They went out for a soda that evening and kissed good night. He rented an apartment in Shreveport and took a job selling cars. "Yes, she's lying right here beside me," he once said with disarming candor when her roommate called looking for her Swept away, Virginia would later describe the courtship in words the, took on the flavor of a country western ballad. She soon pressed him to marry. He had not told her—and never would tell her—about his current wife or his children or any of the others.
Though Blythe did his best to resist marriage, Virginia was not to be denied. It wasn't long before he hurriedly wrote to Wanetta, saying he had "met a nurse down in Louisiana," and wanted out of their marriage. The young mother in Kansas City agreed and filed papers immediately that summer. "He was my first and only love," Wanetta would say afterward. On April 13, 1944, a Missouri court granted the divorce, ordering the absent William J. Blythe to pay forty-two dollars a month in child support. But even then it was too late. On September 3, 1943, after their swift late-summer romance, Bill Blythe had committed bigamy by marrying Virginia Cassidy before a justice of the peace in Texarkana.
He joined the army and was sent abroad only five weeks after his marriage to Virginia. A mechanic in an auto-maintenance battalion, he served first in North Africa, then in the liberation of Rome and the bloody Italian campaign north to the Arno River. A niece in the Blythe family remembered writing him once during the war, asking for a leaf from Europe for a school project. "Sorry, there are no leaves on the trees. They're all shot off," he wrote her back. Faithfully, Blythe sold his GI-issue cigarettes at a profit and sent the proceeds back to Virginia, who had finished training and returned to live with her parents in Hope, Arkansas. She wrote him, she remembered, "every day."
He was discharged as a technician, third grade, in December 1945 with a commendation for his service. He went back once after the war to see Wanetta and their daughter, and she remembered him walking with a limp, even using a cane, though there would be no military records of his having been wounded. "The boy had been through hell," an employer would say later.
For reasons of sentiment and privacy, she remembered, Bill had his reunion with Virginia in Shreveport, and after a brief stay in Hope they soon moved to Chicago, where he had a job selling on the road for an Illinois equipment company. He planned to settle down there eventually and open his own business. Virginia became pregnant almost immediately. Her conception came at the beginning of the great postwar baby boom.
That winter he was still driving two hundred miles a day, coming back at night to their apartment near the Loop; his rural Arkansas wife walked about the great lakeshore city somewhat wide-eyed. In an echo of his own painful past, Virginia flew back to Texas in February to nurse his dying mother, but Lou Blythe was gone before Bill could get there himself.
They had bought a small bungalow in Forest Park, just west of downtown Chicago. The transaction was taking longer than expected. Her baby due in August, still suffering acute morning sickness, Virginia planned to go home to Hope to give them both a respite while their suburban house was vacated and cleaned.
On a last evening out together with friends at the Palmer House, they posed for a nightclub photographer. Later they sent relatives the portrait, inscribed, "All our love, Bill and Virginia." She is in dark lipstick and long false eyelashes, with bright nail polish, a corsage, and a cigarette, he in a natty tweed sport coat showing the white points of his pocket handkerchief, a full-faced young salesman of twenty-eight, giving that reassuring smile.
In mid-May the Forest Park home was ready, their furniture moved in. Bill was hurrying his Buick through the Missouri night to get her, carrying a case of bourbon for his father-in-law, down country roads he had traveled so much in another time.
It was nearly two hours after the accident that they finally discovered the body lying face down in the shallow water several yards away from the wreck, out in the unsearched darkness near where one of them had first heard the faint sounds. He had been thrown clear or perhaps had crawled from the car. When they found him, handsome Bill Blythe's hands were still clutching the ditch grass, trying to pull him self up and out. Though barely injured, only a small blue bruise visible on his head, he had been stunned enough to drown in the ditch where he fell, a simple narrow drainage channel dug by the New Deal to reclaim swampland and rescue poor farmers much like his own family in Texas. He was still forty miles from the Arkansas line, more than three hundred miles from Hope.
Virginia mourned big Bill Blythe as the great love of her life. Family and friends, ex-wives and abandoned children all gave the martyred young salesman the benefit of their fonder memories, discreetly burying the rest.
The good-natured baby born three months later bearing Bill Blythe's name would become president of the United States. Much of the father is evident in the son he never knew. Equally important, the salesman's death meant that his talented little boy would grow up not in Chicago but in Arkansas, with quite another father, another heritage—and that, too, would shape a presidency.
In 1993 his own side of the family often wondered what the charming, stoic traveling man might have thought of it all. There were differing memories about Bill Blythe's political views. Some thought him a Roosevelt Democrat, others a business Republican. But then a good salesman's convictions had to fit the moment—or else were put aside. His real politics, after all, were the sale.
A relative visited Bill Blythe's grave the week his son was inaugurated in Washington. "It made me feel better," she said. "But, you know, you could just never tell about W.J. Not really."
Copyright © 1996 John Calvin Batchelor. All rights reserved.
|Prologue: "Times When Hope Is Palpable"||1|
|1||Sikeston: "Riding on a Smile"||15|
|2||Hope: "Bright Little Orphan"||24|
|3||Hot Springs: "The Power to Save"||36|
|4||Georgetown: "They'll Know What I'm Doing Here"||60|
|5||Oxford: "Every String He Could Think Of"||79|
|6||Park Ridge: "She Had to Put Up with Him"||107|
|7||Wellesley: "Tomorrow, When You Are the Establishment"||124|
|8||Yale I: "She Saw Right Past the Charm"||139|
|9||Yale II: "She Never Drew Her Identity from Him"||153|
|10||Fayetteville: "An Aura of Inevitability"||170|
|11||Regnat Populus: "The People Rule"||193|
|12||Little Rock I: "A Guy Who Supposedly Has an IQ of a Zillion"||216|
|13||Washington I: "A Slow-Motion Coup d'Etat"||251|
|14||Little Rock II: "You'll See They Love You Again"||268|
|15||Washington II: "A Little Too Much Like What It Really Is"||292|
|16||Little Rock III: "Best of the New Generation"||308|
|17||Washington III: "A Culture of Complicity"||335|
|18||Little Rock IV: "A Feller Could Live Off the Land"||359|
|19||Little Rock and Mena: "A World Nearly Devoid of Rules"||389|
|20||Little Rock to Washington: "We Saw in Them What We Wanted to Believe"||428|
|Sources and Notes||472|