Watergate has become the default historical template for the Obama scandals, as charges about enemies lists, executive-agency politicization, and high-handed federal snooping dominate the discussion. But those hunting for historical analogies would do well to consider the even closer parallels between these events and occurrences during the New Deal and Fair Deal.
Franklin D. Roosevelt routinely audited the income taxes of such critics as Representative Hamilton Fish, a Republican who represented the president’s hometown of Hyde Park, N.Y. Democrats of that era not only found creative ways to intimidate conservative and libertarian organizations, but also, like their modern counterparts, eventually attracted charges of witch-hunting.
The modern Tea Party, however, has yet to find a more effective symbol of defiance than Edward A. Rumely. Though he is largely forgotten today, the publisher’s appearance in June 1950 before a special House committee to investigate lobbying was a defining moment.
When Rumely showed up to testify, nobody was quite sure what he would say. For the most part, he answered the committee’s questions, but he stood his ground on one issue: He refused to name the Americans who had purchased a book critical of the New Deal. Pointing to the First Amendment, he asserted that the committee had “no power to go into a newspaper publisher and say, ‘Give me your subscription list.’ And you have no power to come to us.” If the House wanted to cite him for contempt, then he promised to give it “an education on the Bill of Rights.” Chairman Frank Buchanan warned that the unfriendly witness risked a contempt resolution, and vowed not to “divert this hearing into an argument over constitutional rights.”
The elderly, affluent, and bespectacled Rumely seemed an unlikely free-speech martyr. He was born in La Porte, Ind., in 1882 and helped run the family tractor-manufacturing business. His first political experience was as a loyal ally of Theodore Roosevelt, and he depicted himself as a Square Dealer for the rest of his life.
In 1915, Rumely purchased the New York Evening Mail as a means to promote Roosevelt’s political agenda and presidential ambitions. To make the purchase, Rumely used funds borrowed from Hermann Sielcken, an American citizen living in Germany. After the U.S. declared war on that country, Rumely reported this transaction to the Alien Property Custodian. In 1918, however, the federal government charged that Rumely had violated the Trading with the Enemy Act, claiming that he had concealed the German government’s role. Rumely responded that he had not known at the time that German law required that all such loans had to be first funneled through that government. Although the alleged offense occurred two years before the U.S. entered the war, Rumely was convicted under the Act and, after appealing the case, briefly served time in 1923. When it later become known that the federal government had refused to allow Sielcken back into the U.S. to testify, a majority of the jurors, the trial judge, the prosecuting attorney, and U.S. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone all recommended clemency. Although President Coolidge responded by issuing a full pardon, Rumely’s enemies brought up the case repeatedly over the next three decades.
During the 1930s, Rumely formed an alliance with other New Deal critics, including newspaper publisher Frank Gannett and the well-known conservationist and civil libertarian Amos Pinchot. On the same day that Franklin Roosevelt announced his court-packing plan in 1937, the trio organized the Committee for Constitutional Government (CCG). Gannett wrote the checks, and Rumely ran day-to-day operations. CCG led perhaps the first successful offensive against the New Deal, pioneering the use of direct mail and helping to defeat the court-packing plan.