I penned my original 500-word series of related character sketches, Aloha, Oklahoma!, in 1987 to demonstrate Apple Computor’s prescient Hypercard technology. While a quick read on the surface, Hypercard links gave the engaged reader immediate access to related materials including photos. While Hypercard operated only on one’s computer, two years later in 1989, Sir Timothy “Tim” Berners-Lee announced the World Wide Web and I was able to put Aloha, Oklahoma! on the WWW for the world to see. The technically interested can compare how far the visual aspects of WWW technology have advanced since 1989 by taking a quick look at my original version HERE.
The expanded WordPress version below introduces more bigger-than-life characters and spans some 45 years. The story was the seed of my written perspective of the dramatic social and political changes in the United States beginning in the mid-20th Century. The book in progress includes many other political Masters of The Universe I’ve happened upon (and those who thankfully happened upon me) during the past half-century while working in, seemingly, the family business of politics.
If you’re not playing the great game of politics, then you’re being used as a pawn by someone who is. – Scott Foster –
Tishomingo Oklahoma around 1900
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, my mother and I would spend a few weeks during the long, hot Oklahoma summers with my great aunt and uncle, Lovie and Judge John Stobaugh in Tishomingo Oklahoma. Dad would drive the 100 miles, as the crow flies, down from Oklahoma City to the large Victorian house with a 3rd-floor tower room. His arrival was announced by the sound of tires on the long, circular gravel driveway beneath a magnificent canopy of native Pine.
Uncle John had moved the solid furnishings to the small southern Oklahoma town by horse-drawn wagon from his original homestead in Chickasaw, Arkansas – near the Louisiana border and just across the state line from Poteau in southeast Oklahoma. Uncle John had bought his acre of land in 1902 following the “Great Oklahoma Land Run” of 1889.
Glamorized in Edna Ferber’s 1929 novel, “Cimarron” and the 1931 movie, in reality “The Run” was just a land grab enabled by Republican President Benjamin Harrison to steal two-million acres of land (later expanded to 40-million acres) from the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains; the Indians of the Five Civilized Tribes during the shameful era of Indian Removal in the 1830s. This is how Oklahoma came to be.
Uncle John was an early Oklahoma judge and his law partner, William “William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray was, among other things, the first Chair of the state’s first Democratic Party Convention. One historian wrote, “William H. (Alfalfa Bill) Murray is the most important figure in the political history of Oklahoma. No other individual contributed so greatly to the formation of its political institutions – and no more colorful or controversial character ever strode onto the state’s political scene. Flamboyant, unpredictable, and stubborn, Alfalfa Bill became a legend to several generations of Oklahomans.”
Somebody please say “Amen!”
Also known as “The Sage of Tishomingo” throughout Oklahoma, in Little Rock, Austin, Baton Rouge, and in Washington D.C., Alfalfa Bill was elected as a Democrat to the Sixty-Third and Sixty-Fourth Congresses and was the ninth Governor of Oklahoma during the Great Depression years. Alfalfa Bill had run for President against Franklin D. Roosevelt, and of course lost. As Governor, he later fought many of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” projects, preferring to set up his own versions of the President’s Works Progress Administration (WPA)public employment programs using Oklahoma’s enormous oil income.Born in Toadsuck Texas, Alfalfa Bill got his nickname after introducing alfalfa to the many farmers and ranchers needing a crop that would rebuild the land after “The Dust Bowl.” He was way ahead of his time and on many issues save one — segregation; a sad legacyindeed.
Uncle John and Alfalfa Bill’s close friend, Thomas Pryor Gore (Al Gore’s great uncle) had “been with ’em” during the 1906 State Constitutional Convention in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory. Blind, Gore became the new state’s first United States Senator. Senator Gore’s young grandson, Gore Vidal, was both his his eyes and his constant companion and confidant — on the floor of the US Senate or at important White House dinners.
Senator Gore’s headstone in Oklahoma City reads, “Great Is the Memory of His Character.” While it doesn’t, Alfalfa Bill’s headstone could very well have read, “He Is The Greatest Character Of Memory.” If people were animals, the cantankerous and defiant Alfalfa Bill would have been a bantam rooster. Alfalfa Bill assured his rising political career by helping the first Governor of Oklahoma, Charles Haskellto move (some said “steal”) the capitol from Guthrie to Oklahoma City. Local lore has Alfalfa Bill saying, “Guthrie’s too damn far from Tishomingo.”Gore Vidal later became a very successful writer and “… public intellectual known for his patrician manner, epigrammatic wit, and polished style of writing.” He was born at the military academy at West Point where his father was an instructor and was raised near Washington DC by his grandfather where he “… grew up among political and social notables.” Vidal also spent time on the Virginia estate of his stepfather, Hugh. D. Auchincloss– later to become Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s stepfather as well. Suffice to say, Gore Vidal knew which fork to use at an early age.
“Great is the memory of his character”
So, on June 11, 1910, the state seal was “moved” to Oklahoma City, and along with it, Guthrie’s entire economic base. A “special election” was hastily arranged and they “made it legal,” as Uncle John was fond of saying. Oklahoma City became the new state capitol. The growing railroad traffic shifted the 30 miles south and Guthrie was relegated to the role of small picturesque county seat. More than a few large landowners in those parts grumbled, “Tishomingo’s an Indian word meaning ‘pack of goddamn Democrats runnin’ the whole goddamn state.'” While not of record, the Indians must have at least been mildly amused by the turn of events for the Republicans who had originally taken the Great Plains lands from the Indians during The Run. Today, Guthrie Oklahoma is one of only 12 American towns to be listed by the National Historic Trust in its entirety.
Guthrie Oklahoma Today
Ironically, in 1919, “One of the world’s largest Masonic Centers” — the great Temple of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry was constructed in Guthrie. No one living knows exactly why this massive edifice (400,000 sq. ft.) was built in Guthrie — nine years after the state capitol was moved to Oklahoma City — but my guess is that it was because Uncle John and Alfalfa Bill (and my maternal grandfather and namesake Shelby Jennings) were Woodmen of The Western World. That we will never know for sure. Take a virtual 360-degree tour of this spectacular Masonic Temple HERE
The new marble and Tishomingo granite Greek-Revival capitol building was erected near downtown Oklahoma City where William Skirvin’s fine new hotelwould later rise from the oil-rich Indian lands. Literally boarded up after the oil crash of the 1980s (finally refurbished and reopened in February, 2008), the Skirvin Hotel with its grand, glittering lobby and ballroom and regal suites quickly became the social and after-hours political center of the young state.
Bill Skirvin’s daughter, Pearl Skirvin Mesta was known in Washington, DC as “The Hostess With The Mostest’.” Already a wealthy heiress, Pearl later “struck oil at the alter” when she married steel manufacturer and engineer George Mesta in 1916. She was widowed in 1925 and Pearl was sole heir to his $78 million fortune (in 1925 dollars).Bill Skirvin’s daughter, Pearl Mesta was known in Washington, DC as “The Hostess With The Mostest’.”
Already a wealthy heiress, Pearl later “struck oil at the alter” when she married steel manufacturer and engineer George Mesta in 1916. She was widowed in 1925 and Pearl was sole heir to his $78 million fortune (in 1925 dollars).Long before Pamela Churchill Harriman married the wealthy railroad baron, billionaire Averell Harriman and moved to Washington to later “discover” Bill Clinton, Pearl used her own money and great political influence to cut a wide swath through the annals of 20th-century national Democratic Party politics — including her 1940 appointment as U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg by President Truman.
Pearl’s fascinating WIKI bio reads, “In grand jury testimony after Watergate, in June 1975 President Richard Nixon testified, “Perle Mesta wasn’t sent to Luxembourg because she had big bosoms. Perle Mesta went to Luxembourg because she made a good contribution.” Her WIKI bio goes on to say, “Mesta is most noted for her festive parties, which brought together senators, congressmen, cabinet secretaries and other luminaries in bipartisan soirées of high-class glamour. Invitation to a Mesta party was a sure sign that one had reached the inner circle of Washington political society.”
Decades later, Pamela Harriman was appointed Ambassador to France by (some say “under”) President William Jefferson Clinton. Anyway, Pearl was far more famous than Pamela because her life story became another Broadway hit for Irving Berlin with Ethel Merman playing Pearl. The 1954 film version starring Dinah Shore won an Academy Award for “Best Musical Score.”
After World War II, one of the massive anchors from the USS Oklahoma, tragically sunk in Hawai’i during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was originally placed in front of the Skirvin Hotel as a memorial. The ship’s 65 pound Gorham sterling silver punch bowl with its mirrored plateau and 100 sterling silver punch cups, “mysteriously” removed before the Pearl Harbor attack, now reside at the elegant Oklahoma Governor’s Mansion. Perhaps worth knowing, comparable silver services had been removed from the entire fleet sometime before that fateful day.
The Summer of ’52
On a sticky-hot summer afternoon in 1952, Uncle John and I walked up Main Street in Tishomingo toward his law office. By age ten I knew it could take a while to stroll even a few blocks with “The Judge.” People tended to congregate, waiting to pay their respects to the man who had helped many of them hang on to their farms during the devastating Dust Bowl during the Great Depression, later recounted in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Uncle John enjoyed all the fuss, considering it “important local politickin'” – an art form he practiced until a stroke felled him at age 84.
Pausing on his office steps, Uncle John’s big voice boomed down at me, “Ears open, mouth shut!” – as Alfalfa Bill’s son, now Governor Johnston Murray and his wife Willie pulled up in a long black Cadillac behind a police car with red lights and fender-mounted chrome sirens blazing, nearly stampeding the horse pulling a passing Amish carriage.
Arkansas’ U.S. Senator William Fulbright arrived a little less loudly in a silver Cadillac convertible with “Uncle Lyndon,” then Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson. The last to appear was Oklahoma Senator Robert S.”Bob” Kerr, flown over from his Poteau Oklahoma mountaintop home in his new Douglas DC-3. While a warm, generous and kind man to his friends, Kerr was a different ilk of Democrat from Uncle John, Alfalfa Bill and Senator Gore. As Uncle John often said, “Kerr got rich off it.” In fact, very very rich, as his company was one of the country’s largest independent oil producers, having discovered vast oil reserves under the former Indian lands. One of Senator Kerr’s early campaign slogans claimed, “I’m just like you – only I struck oil.”
Kerr-McGee also produced massive quantities of asphalt and owned large uranium-ore leases and processing facilities. The Kerr-McGee Atomic Fuel Division was later scandalized by the nearly-true movie about Karen Silkwood. It starred Meryl Streep and Cher as Karen’s Lesbian roommate. In real life, Karen was the Lesbian. I knew Karen from the Oklahoma City Gay bars where she often came to party. Although Bob Kerr
was alive for Karen’s plutonium contamination, he didn’t live to see the movie. Some said that it was just as well because he would have “likely dropped dead” from the resulting international scandal. After every Lesbian in the world sawSilkwoodand the later Frontline documentary, “Nuclear Reaction: Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power,” the public assault on the international nuclear industry escalated to near meltdown.
Anyway, it took four years to build Kerr’s 11,000 square-foot mountaintop estatein Poteau, Oklahoma and for years, Republicans loved to repeat the story that “Kerr’s 30-mile driveway” had been paid for by the taxpayers. While not exactly true, it could have been because Bob Kerr – “the king of the Senate” – was, by far, the single most-powerful Senator in Congress; far more influential than Hawaii’s U.S. Senator Dan Inouye later became, as Senator Dan would have told you.
When asked, “Why in the hell are you going to a little town in Oklahoma to dedicate a road that goes to nowhere?” President Kennedy replied, “I’m not going to dedicate a damn road, I’m going down there to kiss Bob Kerr’s ass in public.”
Such was the power gathering in Uncle John’s office, its ceiling fans slowly moving the heavy Oklahoma Summer air.
Willie Murray was a handsome lady of great wit, dressed in the tailored suits of the day with matching hat, bag, high heeled shoes, requisite pearl-buttoned white gloves, and discreet old Harry Winston jewelry. The Governor’s wife hung around long enough to greet everybody and was then whisked away to join Aunt Lovie and her local “lady friends” for refreshments. Oklahoma being a “Dry State,” Willie, a classically trained musician, carried her own refreshments in a silver flask and thus fortified played a mean whorehouse piano.
Truth be known, Willie would have preferred to stay and argue politics with the men but in those days politics was strictly a “man’s game.” That sort of thinking came to a screeching halt in Oklahoma when Willie ran for governor herself. She lost, but not by much and the power couple soon divorced.
Uncle John had called this group of old associates together because “Ike” (General Dwight D. Eisenhower) was running for President and the moderate Republican was already stirring up trouble for the Democrats who could not seem to agree on anything, much less a strong enough candidate who could beat “Ike” and “I Like Ike” signs were already showing up all over the place. The Democrats problem was simply that General Eisenhower was a much respected household name because of his well-deserved fame as the US European Front commander during World War II. The Democratic candidate was Adlai Stevenson II. Stevenson, a close personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, was “a lawyer, politician, and diplomat, noted for his intellectual demeanor, eloquent public speaking, and promotion of progressive causes in the Democratic Party.” Sadly, he came across as being “a bit stuffy” and “too New Yorkish” next to the charismatic Eisenhower. Glancing up at the two dusty autographed portraits peering down from behind his desk, Uncle John muttered, “It was a damnsight easier electing Franklin D. and Harry.”
According to Kerr, Eisenhower was going to push hard to build the long-debated US interstate highway system. The Democrats realized that the enormous amount of money it would take to forge ahead with the massive highway project would have to come from somewhere. They knew the “where” would likely be from the already-shrinking federal projects in the then-solidly Democratic states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas – and from the many so-called “Roosevelt ‘entitlement’ programs.”
As far as Kerr was concerned, he saw nothing much the matter with U.S. Highway 66. After all, it was well-maintained in Oklahoma and through six other states with Kerr-McGee asphalt. “Hell, Ike’s a talkin’ ’bout usin’ mostly concrete!” Kerr lamented.
While my eleven-year-old brain could not comprehend everything said that day, I do remember animated hollerin’ and cussin’ that seemingly lasted for hours. That ceased only after Uncle John finally brought the room to attention by ringing his cane against one of the large brass spittoons near his desk.
“If he were here,” roared Uncle as he pointed to the empty seat across the old partner’s desk, “he’d kick our withered butts! We all know what its gonna’ take to beat Ike. First it’s gonna’ take a plan and its gonna’ take lotsa’ money to beat the Republicans. And its gonna’ take the Democratic Party. The Party’s our fishin’ net, turnin’ out folks on election day.” And most important, the Party’s the safety net protectin’ our poor, our old and infirm. Just remember what it took gettin’ it all there; minimum wage, Social Security, and protectin’ our workers health! The damn Republicans are blastin’ holes in us, so can we just lay this all to rest and get on with it?”
By then, all heads were quietly nodding in agreement. It’s likely I was the only one near enough to hear Uncle John mutter under his breath, “…at least ’til after the next goddamn’ election.”
Alas, candidate Stevenson and the Democrats lost “the next goddamn’ election” and the one after that to Ike – who indeed began building his “mostly concrete” highways. But eight years later, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States. When I recall that hot summer day in Tishomingo, I like to believe that meeting somehow had something to do with it.
Willie Murray didn’t live to see the Democrats win back the White House, but Johnston Murray, Uncle John, Bob Kerr, William Fulbright, Uncle Lyndon, and their younger associate Carl Albert were there. After Mr. Albert retired as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he moved back to his home in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, a few miles up the road from Tishomingo, where he died gently at 92 in 2000. Now they’re all gone.
When people can’t seem to understand why I view Oklahoma and Hawai’i as being so very similar, I say that I can relate to the strong sense of community and the slower pace of life in Hawai’i, and while not as spiritually based as Aloha, southern hospitality does work its own special magic. Tornadoes like hurricanes and tsunamis frighten, kill, injure, and do great damage to property and the economy. And the Hawaiian people’s fight for sovereignty reminds me of the plight of the Five Civilized Tribes. After years of seeing their cultures butchered, Oklahoma’s Indians came together to achieve at least a modicum of justice and redress for their once-demoralized peoples whose populations – like the Hawaiians’ – were decimated by the white man’s diseases and “progress.” Not only did the Oklahoma Indians get a large chunk of the oil money, they now own and operate– for better or worse — most of the casinos along the Oklahoma segment of Oklahoma’s Eisenhower interstate highway.
Even Hawaii’s depressed economy of the 1990’s reminded me of Oklahoma. The empty store fronts, “For Sale” signs, and friends moving away were all too familiar. Oklahoma was also a one-industry state whose economy was devastated when the price of oil (made artificially high by the 1970s Arab Oil Embargo) dropped by half literally overnight. There too, many, many businesses failed when the changes wrought by powerful and uncontrollable outside economic forces brought a once-prosperous economy to its knees. The economic cataclysm gave the Oklahoma Republicans enough leverage to elect only their second governor since 1907, and just a few years later in Texas, the feisty Democratic Governor Ann Richards lost the Governorship to George Bush Jr. Hawaii’s Democrat Governor Ben Cayetano’s slim margin of victory in 1998 stirred up unsettling political memories for me.
After thirty years of unparalleled growth, during the ’90s a harsh new economic reality established itself in our islands. Just as I had witnessed during the Oklahoma boom & bust, I watched many in Hawai’i who had thought themselves so brilliant slowly realize they were not; they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those were particularly uncertain times for the many still locked into old patterns of doing business and politics; one in the same in Oklahoma and Hawai’i. Many powerful folks in Hawai’i remained without a clue as their small, once tightly-controlled worlds crumbled. Many were swept away completely, especially those who speculated too heavily in real estate at the end of the “Japanese-investment bubble.” Fear, greed and nepotism are about the same everywhere, and as the pie shrinks the well-connected continue to vie for less largess and to fight new ideas, technology — and against the “new” people who bring them. As happened in Oklahoma, people in Hawai’i finally became fed up with the cronyism and the resulting bungling of opportunity and so the 2002 election of a Republican governor in Hawai’i should have come as no great surprise. The Democrats just stayed home and didn’t vote.
But what really took me back to my years in Oklahoma was watching the H-3 Highway, the last segment of the Eisenhower National Defense Highway System, being constructed in Hawai’i!
Growing up in Oklahoma, I had watched as Eisenhower’s interstate highways accommodated faster and faster cars and bigger and bigger trucks. America’s long romance with the automobile quickly moved into high gear, and as people and business bypassed the smaller cities and towns, thousands of once-flourishing communities withered on the vine. Route 66, once “America’s Main Street,” died along with our efficient and comfortable passenger trains. Some argue they were “murdered.” Of all that can be said, there is no disagreement over the fact that Eisenhower’s interstate highway system forever altered the face of America, symbolized, at least to me, in Hawai’i by an enormous gray concrete scar across the face of the magnificent Ko`olau Mountains. Pau
35-years after it all began, Oahu’s H-3 was the very last last segment of the The Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways to be built. The entire history of America’s Interstate system is HERE.