Despite our compulsion for appending "-gate" onto every governmental misstep, Watergate was not our first scandal and Richard Nixon was not the first politician to abuse his office. As Nathan Masters lays out in "Crooked," the origin of both American political scandal and the playbook still employed when investigating such crimes dates back more than a century, to Warren G. Harding's administration. Some of these improprieties may be familiar, like the Teapot Dome scandal, but this enlightening and well paced history focuses on two figures who are not household names: Burton Wheeler and Harry Daugherty.
Daugherty was U.S. attorney general, having earned his post at the Justice Department by being Harding's campaign manager, toiling behind the scenes to such a degree that the expression "smoke-filled room" was coined in reference to his efforts. Wheeler, a former U.S. attorney with a gift for extemporaneous speaking, was elected Montana's junior senator in 1922, at the age of 40. He was spurred to run by what he saw as "Washington's subservience to Wall Street," epitomized by an injunction preventing a railroad union strike. The man responsible for that injunction, who had personally traveled to Chicago to ensure that a judge who owed him a favor would keep the nation's trains running: Daugherty. Once Wheeler took office, Daugherty became his bête noire, and both men embraced the confrontation.
Wheeler's investigation initially probed Teapot Dome's secret leasing of military petroleum reserves to oil companies, but soon became a wide-ranging investigation into Daugherty himself. No criminal charges were filed against the AG, but Wheeler's efforts uncovered a network of bribes, blackmail and graft featuring money belts full of $500 bills, illegal films of the Dempsey-Carpentier Fight of the Century and a special agent posing as a newspaper reporter.
A diverse slate of malefactions requires a disparate cast, and Masters sketches indelible portraits of Roaring '20s characters like Daugherty's roommate Jess Smith, "an influential fixer, dealing in favors, loopholes, bribes, and discretion"; Smith's ex-wife Roxie Stinson, who remained privy to his secrets and "insider gossip"; spy chief William Burns, who ran the Bureau of Investigation, DOJ's "in-house detective agency"; and Burns' "fresh-faced" deputy, a 24-year-old "former Library of Congress cataloguer" named John Edgar Hoover.
"Crooked" reveals the statesmanship that has been lost in Washington, as members of Congress repeatedly put principle above party, but the main takeaway is how little has changed. Politicians attack Roxie's virtue when they can't attack her substance. Recalcitrant men refuse to comply with subpoenas. Wheeler even addresses an empty chair at a campaign rally, presaging Clint Eastwood's 2012 Republican National Convention stunt.
Most of all we see with aching clarity how unscrupulously unscrupulous men react when they are attacked. It's a sobering read, yet remains immensely entertaining both because of Masters' craft and because it happened so long ago that you can remain detached. Masters never connects the dots between the past and the present, but the ties are apparent. It often feels like you might be reading today's news, except the outcome is already determined, our fate already sealed.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer.
By: Nathan Masters.
Publisher: Hachette Books, 384 pages, $30.