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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

So Old It’s New Again

Forget Michelle Obama’s speech and dress. Never mind about The Big Dog’s nominating appearance. Ditto Paul Ryan’s thoroughly fact-checked speech and Chris Christie’s “it’s all about me” keynote. Let’s talk some more about Clint and his chair.

Dirty Harry probably didn’t know it, but his empty chair routine dates back at least to 1924 when a young, very upstart and very liberal United States Senator from Montana pioneered the use of the empty chair in a quixotic third party effort to unseat an  incumbent president. Calvin Coolidge won that election and the Montana Senator, Burton K. Wheeler, went on to serve 24 often courageous and even more often controversial years in the Senate.

B.K. Wheeler may have been the original practitioner of the debate with the empty chair. Wheeler, a rookie senator, bolted the Democratic Party in 1924 to run with Wisconsin Sen. Robert M. La Follette on the Progressive Party ticket. Bob La Follette, “Fighting Bob” to his friends, was the kind of Teddy Roosevelt Republican who doesn’t exist anymore. He left the Republican Party in 1924 out of disgust with Coolidge’s conservative politics. La Follette’s politics – openly hostile to big business and banks, an isolationist on foreign policy, pro-labor union – are about as far from his contemporary fellow Cheesehead Paul Ryan as it is possible to imagine.

When La Follette and Wheeler teamed up in 1924 they were the ultimate fusion of old-style Midwest progressivism (LaFollette) and newer Western liberalism (Wheeler) that rejected monopoly, the House of Morgan and U.S. Marines deployed in Central America. La Follette made his third-party presidential run as his last hurrah – he died in 1925 – and his age and health prevented him from engaging in anything like the kind of campaigns we have today. He made a few speeches and left the heavy lifting to Wheeler, who relished the battle but grew frustrated that Coolidge, a well-known man of few words, refused to engage in the political back-and-forth. In his frustration, Wheeler started featuring an empty chair on the stage as a symbol of Silent Cal’s, well, silence. It was effective, by most accounts, apparently much more so than Eastwood’s rambling monologue last week in Tampa.

Peter Foster in the Financial Times wrote that Wheeler would ask a question on, say, prohibition and turn to the chair and wait for a response. “There, my friends, is the usual silence that emanates from the White House,” he would say and  the crowd (at least as Wheeler remembered it years later) “roared in appreciation.”

The great Montana Sen. Mike Mansfield, still the longest serving majority leader in Senate history, told me shortly before his death that one of his first experiences with politics was seeing Wheeler on a stage in a big hall in Butte, Montana with his chair. Mansfield was working in the copper mines in Butte and, because he was curious, went to see Wheeler speak in both men’s adopted home town. Mansfield, later in his life not much of a fan of Wheeler’s, but a man with a prodigious memory, thought the gimmick was pretty successful.

La Follette and Wheeler carried only one state in 1924 – Wisconsin – but despite ballot access problems came close in most western states and actually ran ahead of the Democratic ticket in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

The Democratic candidate in 1924 was John Davis, a respected Wall Street lawyer and former Congressman from West Virginia. One reason Wheeler bolted his party was his belief that Democrats had sold out to Wall Street by nominating Davis. When the party goes to Wall Street for a candidate, Wheeler said, they go without me.

Eastwood, it turns out, wasn’t the first to do the empty chair routine and, as the reviews continue, not the best, either.

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May 13, 2022

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