William Lorimer circa 1911 (Courtesy Library of Congress via The Commons on Flickr)

William Lorimer (1861-1934), was a rare bird indeed: a Chicago political boss who was Republican.  By the time he paused to have this photograph taken, he’d risen to a seat in US Senate, but under circumstances that steeled reformers’ determination to amend the Constitution, so that nothing of the kind would ever happen again.

Lorimer had the bored, jaded look of a man who’d been around the corner and back again.  Known as the “the Blond Boss,” Lorimer, who’d been born in Manchester, England, had risen to wealth from poverty, the son of a Scotch-Presbyterian minister who died early, leaving his family to negotiate the late nineteenth-century Chicago immortalized in works like Sister Carrie.  From the age of ten, Lorimer worked various jobs, including in the stockyards; he received negligible education.

In his early 20s, he became a street-car driver, married a woman who was Irish Catholic, and converted to her religion.  Known as a clean liver who did not drink, smoke, or attend the theater, he fathered 8 or 9 daughters, many of whom later worked for the city.

Lorimer’s determination to enter politics on the Republican side is said to have dated from 1884, when a Chicago polling place could not provide him with a Republican ballot to cast for James G. Blaine.  Lorimer became the political favorite of ethnic voters on the city’s west side, including many Russian Jews, Bohemians, and Irish who had previously voted Democratic.  Lorimer was not a reformer; he believed in competition.

He thrived by delivering on promises to supporters and friends, and by wedging himself between the Democrats and the reform wing of his own party.  Exploiting these divisions, he managed in 1908 to defeat a rival Republican for the US Senate, at a time when all Senators were chosen by state legislatures.  A year later, one Illinois state assemblyman claimed to have been paid $1,000 for his vote.  Several others joined him, claiming to have received payments from a jackpot fund set up to influence decisions in the Illinois assembly.

The allegations were investigated over the next several years by state and federal legislative committees, which could not find evidence of Lorimer’s personal wrong-doing.  But the winds of change had been blowing strongly, and eventually grew strong enough to blow Lorimer away.  Ignoring the detailed conclusions of the committees, the Senate voted to expel Lorimer in 1911.  Two years later, the nation ratified the 17th Amendment, which empowered voters to elect US senators directly.

Though Lorimer dropped dead in a Chicago train station decades ago, something of his spirit still haunts Chicago.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, from this source.

Boss Lorimer and the Illinois Bribery Scandal,” New York Times, 1909.

The Political Animal at Rest #2

The other day I watched Frost/Nixon, the 2008 film adapted from the 2006 play adapted from, well, the 1977 bit of history.  Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprise their Broadway performances as David Frost and Richard Nixon, respectively, working out their divergent fates in the series of on-camera interviews that the British television personality set up with Nixon three years after he resigned from the presidency.

I wasn’t too blown away by the movie but think it’s worth seeing for several reasons.  First, I’m in favor of anything that gets a person thinking about an important historical event or personality.  This, the movie does.  It suggests the complex emotional currents swirling around in the aftermath of Watergate, as a chain of ridiculous and unnecessary crimes brought down the entire inner circle of the White House and prompted the most powerful man in the nation to flee ignominiously rather than face impeachment or say what had happened—what he had done—while he was in office.

Yes, the ignominy of Richard Nixon’s end was astonishing.  More to the point, his furtive escape from the machinery of justice left the American people full of frustration, disappointment, and hostility.  They were entitled to something more and better from their leader.  Nixon’s violation of their contract left them degraded and cheated.  They watched powerlessly as Nixon climbed into his presidential helicopter (which belonged to them, by the way) and flew away from blame.  The film doesn’t really do justice to these precipitating events and their effects on the public, but it channels enough of the flavor of this peculiar historical moment to give viewers the idea.

Second, Michael Sheen is brilliant as David Frost, depicted here as a benign, happy-go-lucky risk-taker.  Now something of a British national treasure (the Australian-born Frost was knighted and is still working at age 73), he was then at risk (we are to believe) of becoming a nobody.  Adrift professionally, Frost latches on to the desperate and expensive scheme of interviewing Nixon as a way to save himself from oblivion and irrelevance.  Bleak prospects and a yen for respectability drive both characters into a wary relationship and a mediated struggle for supremacy.  Will the seemingly careless Frost manage to wrest anything valuable from his cagey and formidable adversary?  Frost’s success in doubling down at a critical juncture and exacting admissions from Nixon that ostensibly relieve a troubled nation makes this the ultimate Brit feel-good movie.

Frank Langella’s Nixon is evocative enough to send you off on a quest for vestiges of the real man, and this is the final reason the film is worth viewing.  The question of Nixon’s role in history is essentially a question of personality, a topic this film treats inconclusively.  Yet even its cursory sketch of Nixon’s discordant makeup raises questions that Americans will be debating for years to come.  Curiosity sent me to YouTube, where, for a time, footage from the original interviews was on view.  The memory of Nixon assessing his own failings will stay with me a long time.  It’s compelling stuff.

The Political Animal at Rest #1 (on the 1942 Capra film Meet John Doe)