Harold Knutson: 32 Years of Trial and Transformation

In 1916, Congressman Charles Lindbergh, Sr. of Minnesota (yes, the father of the famous aviator) decided to run for the Senate. He had throughout his career stood on the progressive wing of the Republican Party and was adamantly opposed to getting involved in World War I, the latter which cost him his Senate bid. Succeeding him was Harold Knutson (1880-1953), who almost immediately upon taking office found himself facing a vote of great importance: American participation in World War I.

Harold Knutson in 1917.jpg
Knutson in 1917.

Voting on War and Backing Harding

Public sentiment was overwhelmingly on the side of going to war given Germany’s increased aggression through unrestricted submarine warfare as well as the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram in January 1917, in which German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann offered Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they should ally with Germany and prevail. Despite public pressure, Knutson voted against declaring war on Germany, one of fifty representatives to do so, a group that included the first woman in Congress, Jeanette Rankin, and the only Socialist in Congress, Meyer London. Those who voted against faced accusations of disloyalty. The electoral consequences for those who voted “nay” were real: seventeen representatives who had voted against lost reelection or renomination. Senators James K. Vardaman of Mississippi and Asle J. Gronna of North Dakota lost renomination in 1918 and 1920 respectively. Senator Harry Lane of Oregon had also voted against and was facing a recall but died only a month later. Fortunately for Knutson, his district seemed to like his vote and reelected him. In his first few terms in Congress he was a staunch advocate for farmers and veterans and politically was moderate conservative. Knutson gained enough respect as a legislator to serve as majority whip from 1919 to 1923 and in this role, he broadly supported the policies of President Warren G. Harding, but differed on veterans bonuses, voting to override his veto. In 1924, however, an event occurred that threatened his political career.

The Sex Scandal

Police found him in a parked car on the side of the road in Arlington, Virginia, with Labor Department employee Leroy M. Hull and arrested him on a “grave moral offense”. Knutson tried to bribe the officers with $100, but was indicted. This “grave moral offense” was probably sodomy, but a jury ultimately acquitted him after Congressional colleagues testified as character witnesses. Homosexuality was regarded as an unspeakable matter in 1924 (“don’t ask, don’t tell” comes to mind) and this incident may have given him some problems in his reelection bid, as his race was closer than in 1922. Nonetheless, Knutson survived.

Knutson: The Survivor

He continued to take some stances that were rather courageous, including changing his mind on Prohibition and voting against immigration restrictions when they had reached the height of popularity in 1924. Knutson even managed to thrive: he was one of the Republican legislators who managed to stay in office the entirety of FDR’s presidency. This was an impressive feat given the dire straits of the GOP during much of the Roosevelt Administration. He was initially open to some New Deal measures, such as the National Industrial Recovery Act, but by FDR’s second term he had become a staunch foe. A supporter of lower income taxes, he didn’t appreciate the hefty tax increases that came with maintaining the New Deal bureaucracy. On civil rights, Knutson’s record is mixed. He voted against an anti-lynching bill in 1937 and an anti-poll tax bill in 1943, but voted for anti-poll tax legislation in 1942 and 1947 as well as an anti-discrimination rider in 1946. Consistent with his views on entering World War I, he was a staunch non-interventionist up until the attack on Pearl Harbor. This time he voted to declare war.

Knutson and FDR’s “Fala Speech”

In 1944, Knutson had learned of a rumor that President Roosevelt had accidentally left his Scottish terrier, Fala, on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a Navy destroyer from Seattle to pick him up. Republican Thomas Dewey seemed to be riding high and Roosevelt’s campaign was not going so well: there were rumors flying about the poor state of his health and he had delivered a weak campaign address in Bremerton, Washington on August 12th. On August 31st, however, Knutson spoke in Congress about this rumor and accused Roosevelt of extravagance, which was echoed by Republican leaders and newspaper columnists. After the Navy issued a denial, Knutson instead charged that a plane had been sent, but this was denied as well. This gave Roosevelt a chance for a comeback, and he used it well. On September 23rd, he delivered a speech before the Teamsters Union which also played on the radio where he covered the matter:

“These Republican leaders have not been content with attacks on me, or my wife, or on my sons. No, not content with that, they now include my little dog, Fala. Well, of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them. You know, Fala is Scotch, and being a Scottie, as soon as he learned that the Republican fiction writers in Congress and out had concocted a story that I had left him behind on the Aleutian Islands and had sent a destroyer back to find him – at a cost to the taxpayers of two or three, or eight or twenty million dollars – his Scotch soul was furious. He has not been the same dog since. I am accustomed to hearing malicious falsehoods about myself – such as that old, worm-eaten chestnut that I have represented myself as indispensable. But I think I have a right to resent, to object to libelous statements about my dog” (Lewellyn, 66-67).

This speech helped reinvigorate his campaign and got the public to see that Roosevelt was good for another term. Exactly eight years later, Richard Nixon would invoke his own dog, Checkers, to save his career. As it happened, FDR wasn’t good for another term given his health and died three months into his fourth term.

Harold Knutson vs. Harry S. Truman

https://historycms2.house.gov/uploadedImages/People/Listing/K/K000301.jpg

Knutson as chair of House Ways and Means Committee.

Knutson proved no friendlier to his successor, Harry S. Truman; he was one of his leading Congressional antagonists. The 1946 election gave him a chance to strike a blow for lower taxes. With the election of a Republican Congress, Knutson became the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and succeeded in getting passed a bill reducing income taxes over President Truman’s veto. He also remained non-interventionist in his views as evidenced by his votes against the Greek-Turkish Aid Act and the Marshall Plan. However, Truman’s numerous attacks on the 80th Congress, particularly on the issue of grain storage, proved quite effective against rural Republicans. In 1948, he lost reelection to political newcomer Democrat Fred Marshall. The last time a Democrat had won the district was in 1892. Knutson chose to retire rather than try for his old seat in 1950. A lot had changed since 1917 for Knutson: he was much older, far more conservative, and the American political consensus was behind internationalism rather than the unilateral nationalism of old. His MC-Index score averaged 70% in his first ten terms (1917-1937), but it averaged 93% in his last six terms (1937-1949). Knutson had become too confident in his ability to retain elected office and it cost him.

References

Congressman Knutson Arrested on Grave Charge. United States House of Representatives.

Retrieved from

https://history.house.gov/Collection/Detail/15032450540

Kestenbaum, L. Politicians in Trouble or Disgrace: Minnesota. The Political Graveyard.

Retrieved from

http://politicalgraveyard.com/geo/MN/trouble.html

Llewellyn, J. (2010). Paws, Pathos and Presidential Persuasion: Franklin Roosevelt’s “Fala Speech” as Precursor and Model for Richard Nixon’s “Checkers Speech”. Communication and Theater Association of Minnesota Journal, 37(5), 64-75.

Retrieved from

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