Robert Scheer SI Podcast

The Teapot Dome Scandal: When Democracy Worked to Hold the Fat Cats Accountable

In what is now considered run of the mill business in Washington, the Teapot Dome corruption scandal in the 1920s signified a time where politicians and the corporations that bribed them could be brought to justice at the hands of courageous representatives.

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Over 100 years ago, the United States had corrupt politicians who could actually be prosecuted for their crimes in gaming the economy.  As mythical as it may seem, the history of a small band of radical and gutsy senators who were willing to put it all on the line for justice can serve as inspiration for those who have only ever seen their political representatives bought and paid for. In Crooked: The Roaring ’20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, a Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal, author, producer and Emmy winner Nathan Masters explores the remarkable time in American history.

Masters joins host Robert Scheer in this week’s episode of Scheer Intelligence to dive further into the fundamental aspects of the book, highlighting the disparity in politics now compared to a century ago. Before Watergate, the Teapot Dome scandal involving all the same elements of modern day corruption—big oil, bribery and a complicit presidential administration—set the stage for just how muddy the waters can get in Washington. Because of the level of spectacle the persecution of this corruption presented, along with the coinciding momentum of the trailblazing mass media, “The entire nation was following along. The entire nation was outraged that the Department of Justice was being run like a criminal organization for the personal benefit of the attorney general,” Masters said.

Without a group of Bernie Sanders-esque senators, as Masters describes, investigations into the matters wouldn’t have been possible and the scandal wouldn’t have been exposed to the level that it did, which had implications for the succeeding Coolidge administration. “[The senators] were able to control the Senate, they were able to get their preferred chairman elected to the Interstate Commerce Committee, they were able to launch this investigation into the attorney general that wasn’t just a show hearing,” Masters described.

Apart from demonstrating courage in politics, the story, as Scheer and Masters point out, signifies a more innocent period in American history, one where politicians could impose meaningful change and take on powerful interests, despite threats to their freedom and life. “There is a certain innocence in Wheeler and in thinking that he can take on these entrenched powers: the railroads, the mining companies, the attorney general who’s the mastermind behind the Harding administration. And yet he did it.”

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Robert Scheer


Joshua Scheer


Diego Ramos


Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests and [Nathan Masters] who has written a terrific book. I just say by way of introduction, I should know you, since we’re both at the University of Southern California. But I got to know you through reading this really incredible book, in a sense. We know so little. You know, Gore Vidal once said where the United States of Amnesia and, you know, we’re now talking about crooked presidents and scandals and everything. And of course, we did have Watergate. And you’ve brought up what… It was considered the greatest scandal before Watergate, which was the Teapot Dome scandal. But your book goes much further than that. It’s a discussion of the Harding presidency and the early 1920s, a crooked attorney general and what really… I want to quibble with something. Now, let me give the book some promotion here. It’s just come out and it’s Harcourt, no, it’s Hachette. I should know. I once had a Hachette book and it’s out now and it’s called Crooked: the Roaring Twenties… Here. I should show the books as we’re doing video. Nice picture. 

Nathan Masters: Thanks. I got my copy too. 

Scheer: Crooked: The Roaring ’20s Tale of a Corrupt Attorney General, A Crusading Senator, and the Birth of the American Political Scandal. And I want to quibble with that only in the sense of what do we mean by scandal? Because if scandal is something that we should be outraged about, I would say the American Constitution, the birth of a nation was a scandal. We didn’t mention that only privileged white men could vote. We didn’t you know, we hardly discussed slavery as an incredible horror of the experience and the treatment of women. We go with the destruction of indigenous people. So we’ve had scandals since the nation started. What you’re really talking about and this gets into mass media, which is so critical in your book, is the emergence of a mass media, which actually, we’re talking about the beginning of the Roaring Twenties, came into its own. And so what you have here is really the first public scandal, there’s scandals all the time. Most of the time we don’t even know about them, discuss them or so forth. And you’re talking about well, first of all, let me say this book is very readable and has great, great writing, great readability, and obviously should be made into a blockbuster movie. 

Masters: Thank you.

Scheer: Let me quibble again, it’s not really just about one senator, because if one goes to Wikipedia and looks up the Teapot Dome scandal, yes, you’ll find a Senator Walsh, who deserves a lot of credit and was the senior senator from Montana. And this really, though, features the junior senator, Wheeler. And what’s great about it is a reminder that we once had crusading progressive, enlightened senators out there in the great yonder of America in places like Wisconsin and Montana and elsewhere. There were others that came after. But you feature, you know, sort of a guy who was on the side of striking railroad workers, a guy who, by today’s standard would be considered, you know, a Bernie Sanders type, I suppose, and, you know, took on the big railroads, took on the mining interests and so forth. Managed to get elected and you had a president who… This also goes into the birth of the FBI and the whole notion of Congress and an agency of the executive branch and the Justice Department actually being able to go after bad guys, this is where the power of subpoena is established first. And what your book shows is that the Teapot Dome was really kind of the tip of the iceberg. I’ll let you take over here and you show just a web, you know what I got out of this book? First, I thought, you know, what am I, that this is America as the Mafia? You know, this is a swamp of corruption. And so, you know, the fact is corruption, government corruption, corruption between private industry and government. That’s the real point of this book, I think, is that it’s as American as apple pie. It’s always been with us and occasionally, again, progressive congressional people, public officials, when you have a vigorous media, occasionally it’s exposed. But one of the disappointing things about this book is that no one goes to jail for bribing. I mean, it’s like the banking scandal that we had in the last couple of decades. These people are obvious crooks, they do terrible things, but they aren’t really held accountable. In this case, there is accountability as far as the president, the attorney general, really quite minor. So for all the great attention that it deserves, the corporations involved in taking over land that was supposed to be Navy land, turning in to private, you know, contracts and so forth, that basically they bribed their way and so forth and they were not held accountable. Am I wrong? 

Masters: That’s right. They got away with it. They got away with it. And I should just say, you know, thank you for having me. It’s an honor to talk to you. And, boy, really, I should just let you keep talking because you’re selling the book very well. But no, you’re absolutely right. There are essentially two big scandals in this book. One of them is the setup to the other. And the Teapot Dome is the first one. Teapot Dome, you know, bribery, scandal, bribes for oil, for drilling rights on government oil reserves. And yeah, neither of the two principals… So there are three principals, the interior secretary who accepted the bribes and then two oil executives, Edward L Doheny, who’s a… That’s a name familiar to anybody on the USC campus, and Harry Sinclair. Those two executives, neither of them served a day in jail. They were both acquitted. Albert Fall, the interior secretary… 

Scheer: Tell them the, I’m sorry, the Doheny connection since you dropped it. 

Masters: Of course. Yeah. 

Scheer: We are a campus of robber barons, actually. 

Masters: Indeed we are. Well, I shouldn’t say that. But yes, Edward L Doheny was an L.A. based oil executive. He was the inspiration for Daniel Plainview, the Daniel Day-Lewis character in There Will Be Blood. You know, “I’m an oil man!” And he ran a huge oil empire that encompassed a lot of the United States and Baja California. He, in order to secure the rights to what was called the Elk Hills Naval Petroleum Reserve in California, he dispatched his son, Ned Doheny, to Washington, D.C., with a black satchel containing $100,000 in cash, which Ned Doheny delivered to the interior secretary as a quote unquote loan. And that was of course, it was in reality, a bribe. That got him rights to this oil field that was worth, he admitted himself, at least $100 million, which was a lot of money. And Edward Doheny, the connection to USC, his son, died under mysterious circumstances with what some people speculate was, at the hand of what some people speculate was his lover. But, Edward L. Doheny, in his grief, endowed what is the flagship library on the USC campus. The Doheny Memorial Library. And there’s a rumor, speculation that that gift, that endowment was compensation to the university president, Rufus von Kleinschmidt, that’s a name that’s been canceled on the USC campus. His name’s been erased from buildings because Von Kleinschmidt testified in Doheny’s favor when he was put on trial and Doheny was acquitted. So the speculation is that in return, Doheny donated a lot of money to endow this library. 

Scheer: Where you work, right? 

Masters: Where I work. Yes. I have an office in that building. 

Scheer: Yeah.

Masters: I’m not sure if this will get me in trouble. 

Scheer: I worked there, too. And von Kleinschmidt, who also was accused of being a geneticist who believed in racial breeding and superiority, but the campus hopefully corrected that. And, you know, Harvard has this list, Yale, of actual war criminals and what have you. Who all contributed money and other things. So, yeah, we’re not singling out USC, we’re Trojans and love it, but I love the idea that you did basic research. And this book is incredibly well done. I just want to praise the book. I really do. Because first of all, you know, it’s hard to get, you know, it’s hard to get young people to care about what happened in the 1920s. But I want to tell you, if you want to understand Bernie Sanders now and indeed, if you want to understand populism of the right or the left, the anger with big… This is the book showing why, again, as I said, it’s as American as apple pie, we had decent senators who were outraged about ripping off the resources. This is an early conservationist story of ripping off the environment and everything and they actually got justice. There’s a happy ending in this book. The big corporations, they never get caught. But they did get the attorney general basically booted. 

Masters: That’s right. 

Scheer: So, I’m not going to interrupt any more because that’s the main criticism of this show, is I do it too much. So please, just take us through the book now. 

Masters: No. Well, I do want to say, so you had a couple very fair quibbles about the subtitle, and I should just say that, you know, I do… The book is partly subtitled The Birth of the American Political Scandal. I do qualify that in the text of the book. I think that the subtitle was getting wordy enough, so I really couldn’t qualify it further. But what I was referring to was the first moment where really all of the nation was in tune with what was happening in Washington through the emergence of mass media. Tabloid journalism was brand new. It influenced the older, more established broadsheets which began to favor huge sensational headlines. They were drawn to anything involving sex or crime. And Senator Burton Wheeler, the sort of hero of this story seized on that. He knew that there was an opportunity and so he ran his investigation, not in some sort of boring legalistic way, but he ran the investigation to appeal to the public to this national press that was obsessed with spectacle. And he succeeded, I mean, this was the news story for several weeks in 1924. The entire nation was following along. The entire nation was outraged that the Department of Justice was being run like a criminal organization for the personal benefit of the attorney general, right? I don’t want to give too much away, but the attorney general was accepting bribes. There is clear evidence that he accepted bribes. There was clear evidence that he helped bootleggers procure whiskey from government bonded warehouses. He was by any standard, the most corrupt attorney general in American history. And I’m including recent attorneys general. 

Scheer: Yeah. By the way, give away the book because we’re trying to, you know, people are going to read the book and it opens, it is a great movie in the making because it opens with someone who just shot himself, right? In an exclusive hotel kind of setting and the top law enforcement officials in the country suddenly are involved. So it’s a great detective read. It’s a great murder story. So set the stage, you know, at least otherwise no one’s going to buy this book, you know, But if you tell him it’s a great detective… Which it is, we got a chance here. 

Masters: No, you’re right. You’re right. I wrote it… In fact, I did a lot of research on the source, on the historical source material. But I also read a lot of detective novels as I was preparing the book and actually writing it, because I did write it in a novelistic style in the guise of a detective novel. It should read like a page turner, page turning thriller if I did it correctly. And yeah, it opens with what appears to be a murder scene. It’s the apartment of the attorney general of the United States in Washington, D.C. There’s a man with a bullet, a gunshot wound in his head who happened to be… He was a man of mystery around Washington. He was the roommate of the attorney general, probably his lover. He was essentially, the attorney general, as we learned later in the book, essentially the attorney general’s bagman, because Harry Daugherty, the attorney general, was a smooth operator. He knew he couldn’t get caught in the same room as a bootlegger, but his friend, his companion, Jeff Smith, certainly could. So it starts off with a dead body and then you want to figure out, you want to find out, hopefully, why. But there’s a lot more to it than that. I mean, I was really you know, I started researching this around 2018, 2019, during the height of the Trump administration. And, you know, I was trying to think about historical precursors, what other administrations have been plagued by corruption scandals and what stories… Can I find a story that spoke to what we can do when somebody who seems to be above the law, you know, what can we do about somebody like that? How can we hold somebody who seems to be above the law accountable? And I found this story about Harry Daugherty. Harry Daugherty is a name that, I’ll admit, I never had heard of before, and he’s not a household name by any means. Everybody’s heard of Teapot Dome, but nobody’s really heard of the Harry Daugherty scandal. But he was the attorney general. He was the political mentor to President Warren G. Harding and basically engineered his unlikely election to the presidency in 1920. And as his reward, took the office of attorney general. And then proceeded to run the Department of Justice as a tool for persecuting his political enemies, protecting President Harding’s political interests, and enriching himself. I thought that was interesting enough. But then I came across the story of a young, idealistic senator, the Senate’s original maverick, Burton Wheeler, who started investigating him. 

Scheer: But Burton Boxcar… 

Masters: Boxcar was his nickname. That’s right. Because he famously, he was held under siege by political enemies, armed political enemies, and had to wait out the night in a boxcar. And so that that name just stuck. But Senator Wheeler launched this congressional investigation of the Department of Justice. Uncovered truth of just staggering corruption and just as he was cutting too close to the bone, he found himself in the legal crosshairs of the Department of Justice. And when I read that, you know, bells went off in my head, like that’s the story that I have to write. That’s a book there. And so I did. 

Scheer: So tell us the story. Really. It’s going to help. It’s not going to hurt sales. 

Masters: Yeah. 

Scheer: It’s wild… You know, the reason I want you to tell it. I am not easily shocked and I was shocked reading your book. And I think, frankly, I think it made Nixon and Watergate seem mild in comparison. Yeah, they have national security, of course, and there are a lot of things and a lot of, you know, it’s a big scandal. There are a lot of scandals. But this is like, what, this is Prohibition kind of stuff. This is gangster land, you know. And actually, when you say Boxcar Wheeler, the people who were trying to kill him might have been the railroad owners or something, because Wheeler, wasn’t he kind of a crusader. 

Masters: It was the mining interests. Yeah, because he came from Montana. Montana politics was controlled by one company, the Anaconda Copper Company. And they hated Wheeler because he antagonized them over and over. And when he ran for governor in 1920, they did everything they could to defeat his campaign. They succeeded in defeat. They tried to kill him, too. They almost succeeded in that. But he escaped. 

Scheer: They hated him because we forget America has a great history of labor struggle and a lot of that labor struggle took place in places like Montana. And this one where he got involved, was centered around the railroads and whether the workers had a right to strike. And you know what I loved about your book, we very rarely tell the history of America in terms of labor or class struggle. And right there in good ole Wyoming, which we now think of as a bastion of conservatism, and we could say Idaho, you could say a lot of places, that was the seat of some of America’s toughest struggles of the right of workers to organize, be in a union. And in fact, they got the president, United States to ban having a strike, right? 

Masters: Yeah, absolutely. The American West was a completely different place politically. There were I’m sure there were what we think of as rural conservatives, but there were a lot of rural progressives. Farmers and industrial workers made common cause. And Burton Wheeler was one of the politicians who benefited from that. But, yeah, you alluded to or you mentioned Bernie Sanders earlier. There were essentially 12 senators like Bernie Sanders in the Senate elected in 1922 or in office in 1922. And because of how closely the Senate was divided politically, because they had a pretty good block, they were able and because they were both on both sides of the partisan divide, right. Back then, the Democratic and Republican labels didn’t mean as much. You could have a fiery progressive who was a Republican just the same as you could have a fiery progressive who was a Democrat because of that partisan breakdown, this bloc of progressives who Chief Justice William Howard Taft, he could call them the yahoos from the West, he wasn’t a fan. But they were able to control the Senate, they were able to get their preferred chairman elected to the Interstate Commerce Committee, they were able to launch this investigation into the attorney general that wasn’t just a show hearing, right? It didn’t just scratch the surface, it really dug in deep and did damage to, well, what became the Coolidge administration. 

Scheer: You know, there has been a tradition, you know, and you celebrated… Well, both senators from Wyoming, amazingly enough, to think of Wyoming… 

Masters: Or Montana. 

Scheer: Montana. I mean. Right. Oh, I’m sorry. But, you know, the senior senator so called his junior was both on the side of this as the junior said… But I think, you know, people don’t even remember like Estes Kefauver fell over who, I remember in the postwar period because I’m an old guy, but he went after everything, organized crime, he went after the big corporations, he went after the automobile companies. And La Follette, you know, you’ve had out of the heartland of America, you had a radicalism. That’s why I keep bringing up that corruption was as American as apple pie and the objection to corruption and fighting for the little guy, you know, the Peter Fonda image, Henry Fonda image, that image of standing up. And as you point out or in the book, what came out of this is a very positive story in the very idea of the Senate holding people of power accountable, having subpoena power, being able to put them on what was the Watergate hearing right? That power to get them before you, raise the questions. That all started and that’s detailed in your book, that was the positive outcome. 

Masters: Yes, exactly. Congress’ power to subpoena witnesses and hold those witnesses to account if they didn’t comply with the subpoenas, was very much in question before this story takes place. And it was really Burton Wheeler’s investigation and I mean, it went all the way to the Supreme Court. McGrain v. Daugherty was the case that confirmed Congress’ power to enforce its subpoenas. And that’s sustained generations of congressional investigations. Up to the January 6th hearings in the House of Representatives or even today Congress, its investigative powers just wouldn’t have teeth without its ability to enforce its subpoenas. 

Scheer: So what is the takeaway from this aside that it’s a great story to read, you know, really, we present America, as, you know, the shining city on the hill, the model for the world, but the fact is freedom, whether you have this kind of constitution or that kind of party structure, what really shows is the fight for freedom is a free for all food fight. It gets more serious than that, people die, and your book as well. But, you know, you can’t take it for granted. You can’t take it for granted. 

Masters: Absolutely. 

Scheer: And that’s what the message of this book is. This is not, you know, and just because now we have Donald Trump and arguing and all that. No, you know, and you go right back to that period, you know, right after Wilsonian democracy and everything, and you go one scandal after another that’s exposed. But most of them are not exposed even then. And what made this period so, it caught the imagination of the nation. And at a time when it showed what a free press really should be. The press, then, was vital, It took different points of view and you could get the story out. It was before television and its three networks. It was before excessive advertising. I think that it’s a good story that freedom cannot be taken for granted and that these people had to put their lives on the line, right? I mean, they had… 

Masters: That’s very well said. 

Scheer: The theme of your book, I think in this climate now probably would have been destroyed. You know, they would have invaded his privacy. They would have found scandal. They would have showed what a conflicted person everybody is. And, you know, it was a time of some innocence in that people there and in Wyoming. Do I have it right now? No, it’s Montana. Yeah, people in Montana said I can take on the railroads. I can affirm the rights of the little guy and actually win. 

Masters: Yeah, it’s astounding to think. Yeah. No, it’s sad to think that that can’t happen today. I mean, the other element is, of course, back in the 1920s, it did seem like everybody could agree on a shared set of facts, right? Wheeler in his Senate investigation could expose this corruption and everybody could agree that it happened and nobody would just turn a blind eye to it. And that’s how he was able to build the political will in the Coolidge administration to ultimately get Harry Daughtery fired. And that’s what happened to the attorney general, he was fired later by his successor, put on trial and unfortunately acquitted. But he was essentially condemned in the court of public opinion. But that was only because nobody disputed the facts that Wheeler exposed in his investigation. They took issue with the way he did it. He played fast and loose with the evidence. He did not stick to strict evidentiary rules that he was taught as a lawyer. I mean, he actually was the United States attorney in Montana, where he very courageously stood up to the pro-war camp and who wanted to prosecute anti war dissenters. So he came from this legal background but when he got into the Senate, he quickly and shrewdly realized that he needed to shift into a more political mode. So people took issue with that but yeah, that’s what’s different. I don’t see any congressional investigation today really resounding with the entire nation in the same way it did in the 1920s. 

Scheer: Well, the point is that, you know, and we now have PR which really got launched, you know, Edward Bernays and all this stuff, you know, manipulation really around the same time of your book, you know, in the early 1920s and the whole idea of advertising and convincing women that smoking would be good for their health and their freedom, torch of liberty. So really you are in a period thereof kind of American innocence, you know, of rural justice, that somehow ordinary folks could actually take charge of the agenda, they’ll take risks and so forth. And there are the big mining interests, the big railroad interests can be challenged. And what happens then, it’s kind of a corollary to your story, you know, I’m raising with you because you have a very, very good reputation. So this is your, they described it as your debut book. But you also have used television effectively to, you know, show us different sides of American life. And, you know, I think you won an Emmy or something for this or I mean, you’ve effectively used mass media to educate us. But I think really when I read your book, I thought, you know, this is the Wild West. And yeah, a lot of people got hurt. But also, you know, the truth outed. You know, you’re right. There was a limit to lying. And now that lying is enhanced by public relations, by illusion, by maybe even by artificial intelligence, you know, and that’s where we are. So tell me, is this sort of a tale of American innocence in a way? Wheeler and these people willing to risk their lives for the truth? 

Masters: Yeah, I think you’re right. And they really did. I mean, again, Wheeler really did risk his life and he, in going after Harry Daughtery, risked his freedom. And I guess this is a bit of a spoiler for the book. But in the course of his investigation, Wheeler learned that he himself was being investigated. There were Bureau of Investigation agents—it’s the forerunner to the FBI—in Montana, sniffing out dirt, compromising material on him. And just a few days after Harry Daugherty is deposed as attorney general, Wheeler finds himself under indictment on trumped up charges which put not only his political career, but his freedom at risk. He could have gone to prison for two years, had he been convicted. Yeah, so there is a certain innocence in Wheeler and in thinking that he can take on these entrenched powers, the railroads, the mining companies, the attorney general who’s the mastermind behind the Harding administration. And yet he did it. 

Scheer: He did it. But again, I want to wrap this up with a warning that we, in a way, haven’t solved these problems. It’s a continuing struggle. And one of the interesting things is that your book describes really the birth of the FBI. It’s interesting because you just made this allusion to a homosexual relationship. I don’t know to what degree that could be documented, but this is sort of the same accusation that pops up around J. Edgar Hoover and his relationship to key agents. And you don’t want to feed that but, you know, the FBI, which at the beginning of your book, that agency is prevailed upon to do the right thing and investigate in a good way, but then evolves into a huge smear agency which ends up, you know, trying to get Martin Luther King to commit suicide and framed and all that. 

Masters: Yeah. The FBI is a big part of this story. 

Scheer: Yeah. 

Masters: The FBI is a big part of the story, right, because it had been used as the Bureau of Investigation had been used as a political weapon by Harry Daugherty in the same way that Congressman Jim Jordan is accusing the FBI of operating today to attack Donald Trump, right? The only difference is that that actually was the case in the 1920s. And as a result of this scandal, Henry Daugherty, successor as attorney general, did reform the Bureau of Investigation. And he unfortunately chose as the man to carry out these reforms, John Edgar Hoover, J. Edgar Hoover, who at first seemed like he was a reformer himself, right? He carried out the attorney general’s reforms. Pretty earnestly and only later did people realize just how much of a monster they created. 

Scheer: Well, you know, it really is the main warning of the Constitution. If we get back to that, some sense of innocence, that power corrupts. And yeah, you know, and in your book, we’re introduced to a set of characters that get corrupted. I mean, we know, you mentioned Harding, you mentioned Coolidge. I mean, these were not bad people going into politics originally, right? They had their virtues and so forth. And including, you know, if they were the way you describe it. These people were the attorney general and his aide were living, having the courage, really, to lead an alternative life, if that’s the case. Certainly if that’s the case that J. Edgar Hoover did, they then use that same alternative life as a way of smearing people, attacking them and so forth. And like you say, Wheeler who can show these people are corrupt, then they’re going to show he’s corrupt. And what you really have is… That’s why I brought up, you know, it’s a food fight to the death. It’s a very costly food fight. But these people are just hurling, I mean, it’s a caricature in a way of the free society that the founders presented with their wigs and their English courts and their manners. Suddenly, we’re in this America of, you know, shoot ’em up, kill them, bury the bodies and everything else, right? 

Masters: Yeah. You have Wheeler calling as witnesses against the attorney general. Bootleggers, convicted felons. You have, in response, the attorney general accusing one of the witnesses of having an adulterous affair. Yeah, it really is, you’re right, it’s a caricature. It’s a caricature of the republic that we were supposed to have. And you’re right to point out that one of the lessons is that power corrupts. And you can even find that in the hero of the story, Burton Wheeler. I mean, I deliberately drew him as a flawed hero, right? The power that accrued to him as a result of this investigation corrupted him. Right. It’s obviously still very noble what he did, but he became a little infatuated with how every obnoxious utterance could, you know, make a big splash in the newspapers. He made a virtue of being a contrarian. And later on, you know, those sort of character flaws manifested themselves in Wheeler, you know, opposing FDR’s New Deal, in becoming and in supporting the America First movement, becoming an ally of Charles Lindbergh. It led to charges of Nazi sympathy. I would say that he was at least an unwitting Nazi collaborator, which is certainly no compliment. And the origins of those mistakes you can see in this triumph, in his real triumph, he let that power corrupt him, unfortunately. 

Scheer: Yeah. I mean, in fact. You know, the power of Congress to go after people has certainly been as often used to bully and destroy innocent people and intimidate them as it has been to get at the truth of the matter. And that’s why I keep turning to the FBI, which becomes an agency of intimidation and destruction and, you know, Senate hearings, the Red Scare. And they go in and they destroy the very labor movement that your book celebrates… Well, maybe not your book, but that Wheeler and others would have celebrated, ends up being a victim of these kinds of attacks, you know? 

Masters: Absolutely. 

Scheer: And the hero that I mentioned, because he was kind of a hero of mine, Estes Kefauver, and he started to have hearings where he branded anybody that was organizing workers as a crook like Jimmy Hoffa or somebody, boom, that extended to every labor leader. So, yes, the unbridled power of Congress was used to destroy people, to have witch hunts and is being used again and will be used again. 

Masters: Yeah, absolutely. You can draw a straight line between, you know, from Wheeler to McCarthy, right? Who used a lot of the same tactics as Wheeler for much less noble purposes. 

Scheer: For students who might be watching this, as you mentioned, you’re talking about Joe McCarthy. 

Masters: Joe McCarthy. That’s right. Who led the witch hunt against communists within the United States government until finally somebody pointed out that he had no shame. Yeah. 

Scheer: And we should remember, like reading your book. I realize I’m rooting for guys who, you know, if they were using these same tricks against me or somebody I liked or cared about or respected, I’d be appalled. You know, I mean, they were… Forget about innocent until proven guilty. They just went with any little shred of evidence they had, scare these people with, you know, power to punish them. So, you know, the book I just want to be clear, because we wrap this up. The book is a page turner. You know, I would like to congratulate you for that. And it will make a great movie and I hope, however, if it’s made into a movie, that it’s not one in which the good guys always win or the good guys always stay good, it’s really a cautionary tale in how difficult it is to have accountability, particularly as a mass media comes to dominate a society. The gotcha moment. Then you’re guilty until proven innocent rather than what it should be. And your book really predicts that this could get out of hand and shows that even happening in real time. Yes, in this particular case, the good guys win, except not completely, because after all the people doing the bribing to get the, you know, the concessions and the mining of what have you, no, they’re not held accountable. I’d love to end this with the way we began. You actually did the research on this book, I didn’t realize that while reading it, you actually did the research in a library named after someone who is complicit in these kinds of crimes. And I’m teaching on this campus. You’re on the campus. We never tell our students that, as far as I know. And I have great respect for USC, I really do. I think it’s a terrific school. I love our location in the center of L.A. I think we have great faculty, but it’s really quite amazing until I talk to you about this book, to realize that the library is named after one of the really crooked. The book is called Crooked. The library that you worked in and did this research, I guess, is named after one of these was crooks, right?

Masters: Yeah, it’s true. It’s true. And, you know, it might have been the right decision… 

Scheer: Of Harvard, too. Yes, I want to put that out there. Any other top 20 school, yes, you’re right.  

Masters: There are a lot of crooked names out there. No, no, but I mean, yeah, it might’ve been the right decision to take the president, von Kleinschmidt’s name off of the buildings. But we can also use that history at USC as a teachable moment, right? We should, this history shouldn’t be suppressed. And, you know, I think I’ve actually been on one of our tours of Doheny Library. And I think the story of the Doheny family and Doheny’s criminal complicity, it is told, it’s not ignored. But yeah, we should be doing more to celebrate the great history in USC’s past but also talk about the darker moments. 

Scheer: Yeah. And that’s what your book does. It celebrates the complex and sometimes great and sometimes evil history of our own nation. So I want to applaud you for that. Again, the book is called Crooked. It’s a Hachette Book. And Nathan Masters, you deserve credit for that. And let me just end by, I’m going to forget my credits here, but I want to thank Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho, at KCRW, the terrific NPR station in Santa Monica for getting these things up. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer and a graduate of USC, along with Diego, who’s our executive producer, Diego Ramos, who writes the introduction and also graduated from USC and Max Jones, who does work on these shows, who’s about to graduate this week. And I want to thank the JKW Foundation in the memory of a terrific writer and public figure, Jean Stein, for providing some funding for the show. Thank you. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.

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