Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pennsylvania's Paucity of Presidents the State's Illustrious History of Corruption May Have Something to Do with It, Reports Longtime Political Analyst

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Pennsylvania's Paucity of Presidents the State's Illustrious History of Corruption May Have Something to Do with It, Reports Longtime Political Analyst

Article excerpt

You would think a "Keystone State" could come up with more than a single president in all its history, and not a very good one at that. James Buchanan, the 15th president, was born in Cove Gap, near Chambersburg. He was mean, conspiratorial, and he did little or nothing to prepare the country for the bloodiest war in its history.

Ohio, Pennsylvania's neighbor to the west, has given the nation six presidents -- William Henry Harrison, Rutherford B. Hayes, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, William Howard Taft and Warren G. Harding -- seven if you include Ulysses S. Grant, though he spent most of his early years in Galena, Ill. New York, to the north, has produced six presidents -- two Roosevelts, Martin van Buren, Millard Fillmore, Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland.

What's the problem?

Two possibilities come to mind. First, politics in Pennsylvania, for most of its history, was too corrupt even for machine politicians from elsewhere. Second, it was for many years such a solid Republican state that it was taken for granted.

Corrupt Pennsylvania certainly was. I can remember being given a tour of one of Philadelphia's river wards at the dawn of the post- World War II Joe Clark-Richardson Dilworth era by a reform-minded committeeman. He introduced me to William Parrott, who hadn't missed voting for years. Mr. Parrott, of course, lived in a cage. In Harrisburg, lobbyists for the Pennsylvania Railroad would give thumbs up or thumbs down so legislators would know how to vote.

Boies Penrose, from Philadelphia, was before my time, but no one was more corrupt, or entertaining. He served in both houses of the Pennsylvania Legislature and then moved on to the U.S. Senate. He once said, though I can't recall the exact words, that the public's only interest in the national treasury was in how much of it they could get their hands on. More famously, he coined the line, "Public office is the last refuge of a scoundrel."

There's a statue of him outside the Capitol in Harrisburg.

Not to say that Western Pennsylvania didn't have its share of scoundrels. Matthew Quay, from Beaver, bossed the whole state. His house there is a National Historic Landmark. He was so rank that the U.S. Senate refused to seat him in 1899.

Simon Cameron, from Maytown, near Harrisburg, was a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. He withdrew and threw his support to Abraham Lincoln, who rewarded him by naming him Secretary of War. He was so corrupt he lasted only a year. Pennsylvania congressman Thaddeus Stevens once told Lincoln that at least Cameron wouldn't steal a red-hot stove. When Cameron called for a retraction, Stevens told Lincoln he had changed his mind. Cameron probably would steal a red-hot stove.

Cameron said, "An honest politician is one who, when he is bought, will stay bought." Pennsylvania's Cameron County is named for him.

Pennsylvania corruption isn't all ancient history.

Two members of the House delegation from Pennsylvania were mixed up in the Abscam scandal in 1980 in which federal agents, disguised as Arab sheiks, offered them bribes. Raymond F. Lederer and Michael "Ozzie" Myers, both from Philadelphia, each took $50,000. Myers, a longshoreman by trade, summed it up nicely to one of the agents on tape: "Money talks and bullshit walks." Myers was expelled from the House, the first to suffer that disgrace since 1861.

There have been Pennsylvania politicians who might, given the chance, have reached the White House.

My favorite is George Howard Earle III, from Philadelphia's Main Line. …

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