George H. Bender: The “Clown Prince” of Ohio Politics

Behind great men are great helpers, and example of one of these helpers was George H. Bender (1896-1961), who was the protege and aid to Senator Robert A. Taft. Bender got his start in politics quite early, and in 1912 at the age of 15 he was an early supporter of the idea of Theodore Roosevelt running on a third-party ticket and gathered 10,000 signatures for a petition to encourage him to run, which he gave Roosevelt personally (Hill). He along with most other Bull Moose Progressives returned to the Republican Party in 1916. Bender’s first major election win was to the Ohio Senate in 1920. During this time, he was something of a reformer and initially staunchly supported Prohibition, up until his house was raided on an anonymous tip. Then, he staunchly opposed Prohibition. In 1930, Bender decided to try his hand at Congress, and lost four times before finally being elected in 1938 to one of two At-Large Ohio districts, the same year Robert A. Taft was elected to the Senate.

Bender was a non-interventionist, voting against the repeal of the arms embargo, Lend-Lease, and arming merchant ships. He opposed most of the New Deal and became a consistent supporter of Senator Taft’s runs for the presidency. However, Bender proved more willing than many Republicans to maintain certain price controls. Although he supported the Taft-Hartley Act, he was also friendlier to organized labor than many Republicans. Bender voted against overriding President Roosevelt’s veto of the Smith-Connally Act for injunctions against strikes impacting war industries and he voted against the Case Labor Bill in 1946 only to vote to override President Truman’s veto later in the year.

In 1948 and 1952, Bender was the organizer of Taft’s campaigns for president, and he was the man to arrange the fun activities for supporters of the serious Taft. He arranged for singing, entertainment, and rang cow bells at every mention of Taft’s name at his events, which led some to mockingly label him the “clown prince”, despite him being a prominent figure in his own right.

Bender in the 80th Congress

In 1946, Republicans won a majority in the House for the first time since 1928, and Bender played a central role in two debates: the Greek-Turkish Aid Act and the poll tax ban. He ripped on the former, regarding it as a bailout of the British Empire. Bender proposed amendments to strike all aid to Turkey, to eliminate all military assistance, to require that Greece and Turkey hold fair and free elections permitting all adults to vote, and to explicitly affirm that the United States does not commit to intervention or unilateral action disregarding the UN, all being defeated by voice vote (CQ Almanac, Aid to Greece and Turkey). He voted against the bill while Senator Taft voted for. Bender would join Taft in voting for the Marshall Plan in 1948. However, Bender sponsored the poll tax ban, which would if enacted would “make it unlawful for any State, municipality, or other governmental subdivision to require payment of a poll tax as a prerequisite for registering or voting in any election for President, Vice President, Senator, or Member of the House of Representatives” (CQ Almanac, Anti-Poll Tax Bill). His bill passed the House 290-112, winning the support of all but fourteen House Republicans for passage. The legislation had previously met with a little additional opposition due to its sponsor being Vito Marcantonio (ALP-N.Y.), who was openly pro-communist, giving more room for Southerners to launch attacks connecting the legislation to communism. Bender was, of course, no communist and generally backed the conservative agenda of the 80th Congress, supporting the major measures such as income tax reduction, the Mundt-Nixon Bill, budget cuts to Agriculture, Interior, and Labor appropriations, and the Reed-Bulwinkle Bill. In the 1948 election, Bender had a temporary setback in losing reelection to Democrat Stephen Young, but he quickly made a comeback, winning back his seat in 1950.

During his next four years in Congress, Bender voted to grant states the title to offshore resources, voted against establishing the Cox Committee and for the Reece Committee, voted to maintain price controls but not rent controls. In 1952, it was Bender who asked the crowd before an Eisenhower speech after Nixon’s “Checkers” speech, “Are you in favor of Nixon?” and in response the crowd “went wild, screaming, whistling, and leaping from their seats.” (Olshaker).

Bender and the Eisenhower Years

In 1953, Senate Majority Leader Taft was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died on July 31st, leaving the seat open in a special election. Governor Frank Lausche appointed Democrat Thomas A. Burke as an interim replacement, but a special election was to be held in 1954 to serve the remainder of the term. Bender ran for the nomination and faced in the primary Ohio’s Speaker of the House of Representatives William B. Saxbe, a formidable moderate who called him an “old-style ward-heeler type of politician” and “the song-singing, bell-ringing voice of doom of the last two Republican national conventions” (Hill). Bender won the nomination with 57.4% of the vote to Saxbe’s 42.6%, but Saxbe would be elected to the Senate in 1968 and later briefly serve as President Nixon’s attorney general.

Bender faced stiff competition in the general election, as Democrat Thomas A. Burke, the interim replacement for the late Taft, was running to finish the term. Burke benefited from the support of popular Governor Frank Lausche as well as the usual midterm winds against the president’s party. However, Bender campaigned hard and was able to win a switch in endorsement from Burke from the powerful Teamsters Union. On Election Day, Bender won by less than 3,000 votes.

As a senator, he was a bit of a departure from Taft in the moderate direction. He voted against foreign aid cuts, for Davis-Bacon wages for the Interstate Highway project, for increased income allowances for old age benefits, and against eliminating authority from the Federal Power Commission to regulate the price of natural gas. He also opposed popular election of the president and vice president, US participation in the International Labor Organization if any communist nations were part of it, the civilian atomic power program, and the Hells Canyon Dam. Bender was also one of six senators to dissent on the Senate’s decision to postpone consideration of civil rights legislation until after the 1956 election.

In December 1955, Democratic Governor Frank Lausche announced he would challenge Bender. Lausche was a formidable foe as he had a reputation as a conservative Democrat and was popular with many Republicans. Although Bender campaigned as hard as he could and attached himself to the popular Eisenhower as much as possible, he lost by over five points with a significant number of Republicans splitting their tickets. Bender’s ADA score, when not counting absences against him, was a 34, and his DW-Nominate score a 0.179. He would afterward campaign heavily for Alaska statehood, which helped its statehood become a reality (Hill).

An End of Ignominy: The Teamsters and the McClellan Committee

In 1957, Senator John McClellan (D-Ark.) persuaded the Senate to form a committee investigating connections between organized labor and organized crime, which him as chairman and Robert F. Kennedy as counsel. In the course of the committee’s investigations, it was alleged that Bender had been investigating the Teamsters and dropped it upon winning their endorsement. In 1958, Jimmy Hoffa hired Bender to head up a three-man committee to conduct an “independent” investigation of racketeering in the Teamsters. The manner in which he conducted the investigation was described by TIME Magazine (1959) thusly, “Breaking an understanding with the other two commission members—a Detroit judge and a Washington lawyer—Bender went ahead on his own, using an investigative method roughly comparable to trying to solve a murder case by going to an open window and yelling, “Is anybody out there guilty?” To Teamster officials around the country—Hoffa’s own men—Bender sent a form letter asking for information about racketeering, if any. Back came brief, negative replies. That was that. Without even bothering to draft a written report, Bender informed Hoffa that everything seemed to be O.K. Hoffa announced Bender’s finding to the press”. This produced zero ousters of mob-connected figures in the Teamsters Union. He was thus called up to the McClellan Committee and his testimony proved damaging…to himself. Bender testified that he had named “a prostitute as Republican precinct captain in her red light district” and went on to state, “You don’t have to become a prostitute yourself, you have to get their votes” (Hill).

Bender’s role working for Hoffa and producing a whitewash outcome ended his political career. In 1960 he was denied a post as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and in 1961, he even lost an election to be a Republican Precinct Committeeman. Bender didn’t live long afterwards; his wife found him dead from a heart attack at home on June 18, 1961.

References

Aid to Greece and Turkey. CQ Almanac.

Retrieved from

https://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal47-893-29543-1397927

Bender, George Harrison. Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.

Retrieved from

https://case.edu/ech/articles/b/bender-george-harrison


Hill, R. George H. Bender of Ohio. The Knoxville Focus.

Retrieved from

https://www.knoxfocus.com/archives/this-weeks-focus/george-h-bender-of-ohio/

Labor: Confessions, Anyone? (1959, January 5). TIME Magazine.

Retrieved from

https://content.time.com/time/subscriber/article/0,33009,810788,00.html

Mollenhoff, C. (1958, November). The Teamsters Defy the Government. The Atlantic.

Retrieved from

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1958/11/the-teamsters-defy-the-government/642644/

Motion to Adjourn for Five Minutes. Parliamentary Move to Bring Civil Rights Legislation to the Floor. (1956, July 24). Govtrack.

https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/84-1956/s213

Olshaker, E. The Speech That Made Nixon’s Dog Famous. History News Network.

Retrieved from

https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/989

Republican Primary: May 4, 1954. Ohio Secretary of State Office.

Retrieved from

https://www.ohiosos.gov/elections/election-results-and-data/1950-1959-official-election-results/republican-primary-may-4-1954/

5 thoughts on “George H. Bender: The “Clown Prince” of Ohio Politics

  1. Truly Fascinating Character. Politics WAS More Fun Then. Adds To the TAFT Story As Well. They Are Certainly A Neglected Family These Days. Along With The BRECKENRIDGES! Will Have A BENDER This Weekend, Dave Is IN TEXAS.

  2. Was There A Theme To BENDER Besides Fun?! How Did His Voting Record Relate To Public Opinion? He Was Around For Quite A While. Did He Have Any Proteges Of His Own? Just Wondering, Dave. Have A Good Holiday!

  3. Amazing What You Bring To Life… You Might Try A Point/Counterpoint Between Vito Marcantonio Of New Yoek & Martin Dies Of Texas… Both Had Considerable Influence Over Time LEFT N RIGHT What Was Their Relationship IN The House?! Also, You Might Continue Your Series ON Forgotten Conservatives…. Badly Needed At This Time! Thanks From Dave IN TEXAS. Happy Thanksgiving.

  4. Frank Everything IS Made For Love BOYKIN Was Something Of A Clown Prince Of Alabama! Also Claimed He Helped Save Lister Hill IN His 1962 Race. BOYKIN Signed The Southern Manifesto & Dealt With Blacks At The Same Time. True Of Others! Thanks From Dave IN TEXAS.

  5. Happy Thanksgiving! Oh yeah, Frank Boykin was a bit of an interesting fellow on civil rights. He apparently privately favored anti-lynching legislation but did not dare vote for it as the consequences for him would have been politically fatal. George Huddleston Sr. was another legislator who was a bit more ahead of his time on the matter of race from Alabama but could not vote that way.

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