"Rising above Principle": Ezra Taft Benson as U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, 1953-61, Part 1

Article excerpt

What a strange game is politics. -Ezra Taft Benson1


Contemplating the 1952 U.S. general elections, David O. McKay, lifelong Republican and president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eagerly anticipated a Republican sweep. At the news of Dwight D. Eisenhower's decisive win as the thirty-fourth American president, McKay was elated. "In my opinion," the venerable seventy-eight-year-old Church leader recorded, "it is the greatest thing that has happened in a hundred years for our country."2 The next day, he wrote in a letter to the president- elect, "Your being placed at the head of the United States Government at the time of the present crises in our history . . . is a manifestation of Providential watchfulness over the destiny of this land ofAmerica. . . . I pray that Divine guidance may be yours continually as you assume the responsibility of directing the destiny not only of the United States of America but of the entire world."3

McKay's faith in the sixty-two-year-old retired five-star U.S. Army general was cemented two weeks later when he learned that Eisenhower wanted to appoint a member of the Church's second-tier Quorum of the Twelve Apostles as his new Secretary of Agriculture. The LDS prophet knew that the invitation represented an unprecedented honor in Mormon history and a new phase in the acceptance of the million-member church into mainstream American society. He also realized that the appointment would require that he take the extraordinary step of granting the churchman a leave of absence from his full-time ecclesiastical duties.4

Arriving home from his office on November 20, 1952, McKay answered a long-distance call from Arthur V. Watkins, Utah's two-term Republican senator. If Ezra Taft Benson, fifty-three years old and serving as an apostle since 1943, were offered a position in Eisenhower's cabinet, would he be allowed to accept? Yes, McKay quickly replied.5 Only moments earlier, Benson himself had told Watkins: "I'd be glad to try anything President McKay asks me to do."6 The next morning, Benson ran into McKay as the two men arrived for work at the LDS Church Administration Building in downtown Salt Lake City. "Brother Benson," McKay said, "my mind is clear in the matter. If the opportunity comes in the proper spirit I think you should accept." "I can't believe that it will come," Benson replied. "I've never even seen Eisenhower, much less met him or spoken with him." (Both men had originally supported Ohio Senator Robert Taft as their party's 1952 presidential candidate.)7

The following day, Benson and a colleague were forty miles south in Provo, preparing to help divide a local LDS stake. While browsing in a downtown clothing store for a suit to fit his six-foot-one-inch tall, 220- pound frame, Benson was told that his wife, Flora, was on the telephone. Eisenhower's office was trying to reach him, she said. "There's really something to it," Benson told himself moments later, concluding "to get off bymyself for a while" to "quietly consider a course of action." He drove to the campus of nearby Brigham Young University, where he soon located a vacant office and knelt in prayer. Afterwards, he telephoned McKay, who again stressed that he should "accept if it was a clear offer."8 For the devout Benson, McKay's counsel was received not simply as friendly advice but as heavenly inspiration.

When Benson finally returned the call, he reached Milton Eisenhower, whom Benson had known when the younger Eisenhower worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the 1930s and who now served as his brother's advisor. Could Benson fly to New York City to meet the President-elect at 2:00 P.M. on Monday, the 24th? Benson said he would be there, then immediately notified McKay, who urged that he leave the same evening. After meetings, Benson rushed home and caught a plane east departing a little after midnight. Arriving in New York City less than twelve hours later, he spent the rest of the day in his hotel room nursing a new cold. …