Butte loved Burton K. Wheeler, and he loved Butte back.
Now, an important new book — the definitive political biography of the fiercely progressive and iconoclastic senator — has been published.
"Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Senator Burton K. Wheeler of Montana," was authoritatively researched and written by longtime Western journalist, political aide and consultant Marc C. Johnson, and he will be at the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives this Wednesday to talk about it. (See attached information).
Wheeler, an ambitious young attorney, was elected to the Legislature to represent Butte in 1910 — but as Johnson explains, when he found out just how beholden he was expected to be to the Anaconda Copper Company, he bowed his neck — and became a one-term legislator.
Wheeler was deeply moved by the murder of Frank Little in 1917, and the attacks on freedom of speech and civil liberties that followed in the Mining City during World War I.
That experience was the crucible of a career that Wheeler spent fighting the concentration of power in all places. Deeply influenced by Wisconsin Republican Robert LaFollette, Wheeler became one of the leaders of a bipartisan progressive Western faction that included Idaho Sen. William E. Borah.
Wheeler became the first senator to endorse Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1932. Both Wheeler and Montana's senior senator, Thomas J. Walsh of Helena, had significant roles in Roosevelt's campaign.
Johnson makes the case in the book that Montana never played such a pivotal part in a presidential election, before or since, as it did in 1932. Walsh was ticketed to be Roosevelt's attorney general, but died before he could assume the office.
After the election, Wheeler would be increasingly disillusioned and disappointed that he wasn't able to exert more influence on the Roosevelt presidency. As Johnson relates, FDR and Wheeler had "a long and bumpy relationship."
Deeply antiwar, Wheeler fully expected to capture the Democratic nomination for president in 1940, only to be further disillusioned and disappointed by Roosevelt's cannily crafted "draft" to run for a third term.
Throughout his illustrious career, Wheeler was never afraid to buck his own party or the president on principle. And Johnson's skillful telling of Wheeler's story is particularly apt given the political situation today.
That seemingly perfect timing is at least partly accidental; Johnson has been working on the Wheeler book, on and off, for nearly two decades.
"It certainly took a long time to put together," Johnson says with a self-deprecating chuckle. "But Wheeler's story is absolutely relevant now — even more than when I started."
Johnson credits the University of Oklahoma Press, which published the volume, for "wonderful assistance. They have a great tradition of publishing Montana history, starting with K. Ross Toole."
Johnson, who now lives in Oregon, was a longtime broadcast journalist and a top aide to Idaho's longest-serving governor, Cecil Andrus.
The Wheeler research wasn't particularly easy. Wheeler was not a diarist nor a document pack-rat — he apparently destroyed many of his own papers. But with visits to the Montana Historical Society, the library at Montana State University, the Hoover, Roosevelt and Truman presidential libraries — and the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives — Johnson painstakingly "rebuilt the archival record," he says.
The enormous influence on Wheeler of the tumultuous World War I years in Butte became very clear to Johnson.
"At a time when dissent against government, even at the margins, was considered unpatriotic or un-American, Wheeler's values were forged in Butte, America," Johnson says.
"People ask me what current politician reminds me the most of Wheeler," Johnson says, "and my answer is, "Frankly, nobody."
Johnson acknowledges that the current political climate "makes it difficult to be as courageous" as Wheeler was. "Independence of party is just not a characteristic you see in politics today."
Johnson maintains that Wheeler was "the most powerful politician in Montana's history," adding, "It must be something in the water but Montana has certainly produced more than its share of gutsy, independent politicians. Wheeler is not unique in that respect, but he is at the center of it."
Butte and Silver Bow County was Wheeler's political base throughout his career. Time and again, the county would vote for him by heavy margins. "Organized labor being what it was, it was clearly a political boon to him," Johnson said. "He very closely identified with Butte's Irish population and enjoyed its political support."
Did he come away liking Wheeler more or less after so many years of research?
"I like him more," Johnson said. "I believe aspects of his foreign policy were unfortunate and could have been disastrous. But he was a man of amazing courage and principle."