Raymond G. Barnett on machine politics

Boss Tom Pendergast posterNot long ago, while working through an agglomeration of municipal election coverage that citizens of Kansas City would have heard over local airwaves during the early 1940s, we came across a rather unusual political broadcast pertaining to the Kansas City mayoral election of 1942. In what initially seemed to herald yet another fifteen minutes of electioneering characterized by the formulaic repetition of cliched political phrases and the championing of hackneyed party platforms, as would have been consistent with other broadcasts we had theretofore encountered, the KMBC host introduced a Captain Raymond G. Barnett, who would speak on behalf of the Citizens’ Campaign Committee (an allegedly non-partisan, anti-corruption organization). In what followed, however, Mr. Barnett surprised us all. To call Mr. Barnett’s speech an impassioned plea to the Kansas City electorate would do it little justice. One might more appropriately label Mr. Barnett’s speech, at its climax, a vehement jeremiad of near-Shakespearean caliber, in which he condemned the corruption that had plagued Kansas City politics in recent decades and besought the local citizenry to recognize that machine politics were no mere specter of bygone years. What upon first hearing elicited amused laughter from all of us for its sheer eccentricity, however, must not be treated as an inexplicable oratorical aberration purely attributable to colorful idiosyncrasies of the speaker. Out of respect for this fragment of the past, which would likely but for the Arthur B. Church collection have been lost in the airwaves of history, we must endeavor to distill some concrete meaning from Mr. Barnett’s speech in order to discern its historical significance. To listen to an excerpt from the speech, click on the audio player below. [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/2011-11-09_RaymondBarnett_Church_kmbc-247.mp3|titles=Raymond G. Barnett Speech]

Born in 1882, Raymond G. Barnett was a western Illinois native who spent the later part of his youth in Kansas City, where he completed his high school education. He matriculated at the University of Missouri and later at Stanford University, where he earned both his Bachelor of Arts and law degrees. He later returned to Kansas City where, aside from a brief and unsuccessful candidacy for local office, he would serve as a legal professional for much of the remainder of his life. Notably, Mr. Barnett’s otherwise local lifestyle was interrupted in 1917 following his induction into the Army officer corps upon the United States’ entrance into the First World War, after which he was sent to serve in France. After the War, Captain Barnett returned to Kansas City where he would continue his professional career and remain politically active in support of the Republican Party into the late years of his life.

In view of Mr. Barnett’s personal background and the political context in which his speech aired, the visceral conviction that shone through his radio tirade becomes much more comprehensible. Having witnessed many horrors in the First World War suffered in what he certainly saw as the service of freedom, Captain Barnett must have been incensed by the corrupt political dynamics that emerged in his adopted home of Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s. The very undemocratic nature of Tom Pendergast’s machine politics was clearly an affront to his sense of the democratic values that America represented, especially as his speech aired during the early months of American involvement in World War II. This comes through rather clearly in his insistence that Kansas City demonstrate that it was “keeping faith with the heroes and martyrs of the past who gave us freedom’s priceless heritage,” as well as his colorful, though unpleasant allusion to the human sacrifice unfolding on the battlefields at the time of his speech. A man of roughly 60 years of age at the time, Captain Barnett likely crafted both the prose and the delivery of his speech with the hope of cementing what he viewed as the true and hard-won legacy of his generation and that not yet secured by the young men then fighting overseas. Sidelined from active duty in the second Great War by the decrepitude of age, Captain Barnett likely saw himself as a soldier fighting for the cause of freedom on the home front.

Dustin Stalnaker, KMBC Project staff/History (MA) student

To access the complete recording, you may request the recording from the Marr Sound Archives.

The more things change…

Harry S TrumanIn light of the recent debt ceiling showdown within the federal government, the continuing gridlock in Congress, and the increasing popularity of the Occupy Wall Street movement, it is important to remember that America has fought this same type of ideological battle many times before. Perhaps the most relevant historical examples for our own situation are the administrations of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman. In the Arthur B. Church KMBC Collection, there are many speeches available for listening from this period. I’d like to focus on one in particular, a national address given by President Truman on 13 July 1949. It’s startling to hear the connections to our own time. Here is an excerpt from the speech. [audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/2011-10-24_TrumanOnEconomy_Church_truman.mp3|titles=Truman on the Economy]

Consider the scene in July 1949: still fresh from World War II, less than one year from our foray into Korea, right in the middle of the Alger Hiss saga. Unemployment is high due to the influx of veterans and young people newly arrived to the American workforce, and the growth of the economy has slowed down significantly. In the midst of this, Truman is fighting a battle over the budget, a battle that extends back to the 80th Congress, called the “Do-Nothings” in a completely non-affectionate way by the President. At issue are government spending and the national debt. What to do about it is an answer that, clearly, we still haven’t figured out.

Truman, perhaps not the most gifted orator (especially when compared to his predecessor), is nonetheless appealing because a) he’s folksy and b) he sounds furious. He is the last president without a college education and that simple fact adds to his appeal, in this writer-with-crippling-student-loans’ opinion.

The speech itself is compelling because it may as well have been given last week. Confronting what he considers backwards logic from people with “selfish interests,” Truman argues that the worst things to try and cure a slow economy are cuts in spending or cuts in taxes. Instead, the government should increase revenues and spending in an effort to stimulate growth and reduce unemployment, and focus on deficits down the line. For a guy with no college education, he sounds suspiciously like numerous economists today.

It is interesting to note here, as with many historical documents, the ideological shift of the country’s two primary political parties over the years. Truman was a Democrat in many ways that are familiar to us today: expansion of the New Deal programs, increased regulation, etc. But it is fascinating to hear him argue with great vehemence for substantial military spending, a position that sounds much more like the Republican Party of the post-9/11 universe. Did he know that there would be an upcoming engagement across the world at that time? It’s hard not to assume so; there were certainly plenty of skirmishes at the 38th Parallel in Korea at the end of Chinese Civil War and through the remainder of 1949.

Most people are familiar with George Santayana’s quote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to fulfill it.”  Perhaps as many as are familiar with Carlos Santana’s quote “I don’t actually speak <insert guitar riff here>.” When it comes to matters economic, it is hard to tell if our current lawmakers remember Santayana’s exhortation about the past, or Santana’s smash hit “Smooth” featuring the dulcid tones of Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas for that matter! It is somehow both comforting and disconcerting to know that we’ve struggled with these same issues, frankly, since the birth of our nation: comforting because America may have reached its zenith in the decades after this speech; disconcerting because we’ve come full circle–and then some–and still don’t know what to do.

Erik Klackner, guest contributor

To access the complete recording, you may request part 1 and part 2 from the Marr Sound Archives.

Labor Days of yore

2011-09-01_LaborDay_Church The first Monday every September is Labor Day, and it has been ever since legislation was rushed through Congress in merely six days in 1894. Americans celebrate Labor Day by engaging in the most relaxing pastimes: closing public pools, preparing for football season, putting their white linen pants at the back of the closet, and partaking of a staggering array of grilled meats. The day was initially proposed to celebrate the “strength and esprit de corps of trade and labor organizations” at a time when unions were incredibly powerful. Their power has eroded in the 107 years since Labor Day was declared a national holiday, but I think I can speak for all of us when I thank the gentlemen from the Pullman Strike of 1893 for getting a Federal holiday as a token of reconciliation from President Grover Cleveland and company.

Labor Day 2011 comes at an ironic time, with unemployment at 9.1% and the economy still not recovered from the crisis of 2008, but one need only to look back 70 years to see a Labor Day on the exact opposite end of the spectrum. And thanks to the Arthur B. Church KMBC Radio Collection at UMKC, we cannot just look back, we can listen up.

On September 1, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivered a radio address rife with the emotion of impending war. Less than a month earlier, Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill to draft the Atlantic Charter; within a month, the USS Greer was fired upon by a German submarine and the first Moscow Conference began. A mere three months later, Roosevelt would deliver the most famous speech of his life on “a day which will live in infamy” and war was declared on Japan.

American labor in September 1941 was engaged largely in the task of producing weapons of war despite the United States’ neutrality at the time. Roosevelt speaks to this dichotomy by declaring that “We have never sought glory as a Nation of warriors. We are not interested in aggression. We are not interested—as the dictators are—in looting. We do not covet one square inch of the territory of any other Nation. Our vast effort, and the unity of purpose that inspires that effort, are due solely to our recognition of the fact that our fundamental rights-including the rights of labor—are threatened by Hitler’s violent attempt to rule the world.”

It is endlessly fascinating to view this speech through the lens of the history that we know occurred after it was given. Two things particularly leap to mind. First, Adolf Hitler was an actual living person, a world leader in the middle of an intensely terrifying quest for world dominance. Over the course of time, that fact has been obscured by the invocation of Hitler and Nazism as code words for anything we find disagreeable, but there was a time when Hitler was “current events,” and hearing Roosevelt speak about the need to support the Allies in their efforts against the Nazi regime reminds us of that. Second, it is startling to hear the evolution of the United States as an international power. It took less than twenty years for us to go from Roosevelt’s powerful message of weaponry production as a defense for our fundamental rights to perhaps the greatest presidential farewell address of all-time, Dwight Eisenhower’s profound warning about the ever-expanding military-industrial complex.

You can read this speech online, as you can with lots of great speeches, but it’s really amazing to hear the words spoken.[audio:http://info.umkc.edu/specialcollections/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/2011-09-01_LaborDay_Church.mp3|titles=FDR Labor Day address]Roosevelt was an incredibly gifted speaker, filled with extreme intensity, and the Labor Day 1941 speech is a perfect example of his skills.

Of all the ways to document history, audio is the most captivating. This is an obvious thing when you’re talking about a speech, perhaps, but it holds true for anything. Watch video of the Hindenburg disaster with no sound and it is certainly eye-opening. But it really becomes heartbreaking when you hear Herb Morrison fight back tears and try and put into words what happened. Ditto the Kirk Gibson home run in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series, perhaps the most famous play in baseball history. The story is great, the video is great, but it becomes a transcendent moment when you hear Ernie Harwell’s call of “I don’t believe what I just saw!”

There are a lot of great historical audio recordings to be found in the KMBC collection at UMKC, including a great deal more from President Roosevelt. History comes alive when you hear it, and when I listened to the Labor Day speech I felt connected to a time and a place that I have no real comprehension of. I could practically taste the doctor-recommended Chesterfield brand cigarettes! Roosevelt’s Labor Day speech, and many of the others available, give us an opportunity to be in the moments that our parents and their parents lived.

Happy Labor Day, America!

Erik Klackner, guest contributor