Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Teapot Dome Scandal - Laton McCartney

Teapot Dome was members of Warren G. Harding's administration making under the table deals with major oil companies to let them drill in what were supposed to be naval reserves in exchange for cash, basically. McCartney's book looks at how those people - most prominently Harding's Secretary of Interior, Albert Fall - got into those positions, how they tried to pull off their deal, and the efforts of some members of the press and Congress to bring their crimes to light and prosecute them.

McCartney has a lot of threads going, because there are a lot of moving parts in all of it. Harding had appointed his campaign manager, Harry Daugherty, Attorney General, and Daugherty and his cronies where using the Justice Department for all kinds of illicit schemes that were largely unrelated to the oil swindle, but they were aware of it. And when one of them, Jess Smith, started to crack, he just so happened to end up with a hole in his head. But Smith had already confined quite a lot to his ex-wife, and she proved a key witness. The two owners of the Denver Post learned something was up from a man named Stack, who owned rights near one of the reserves that were sold off without his knowledge, and he felt unfairly compensated. The two newsmen agreed to help him shake down Standard Oil's Harry Sinclair (a major money mover in all this), to shut them up.

By and large, the corporate guys dodge any serious punishment. Fall is found guilty of accepting bribes from Edward Doheny, the other major oil man in this mix, but Doheny was found not guilty of bribing Fall in a separate trial. People are consistently able to dodge giving testimony before Congress by being out of the country on hunting trips or some other nonsense, and by the end, a lot of the people involved had died, or simply pretend not to know anything. Still, points for effort.

McCartney takes the approach that Harding was largely ignorant of Fall's misdeeds, but that it was by choice. He didn't bother to read Fall's reports outlining why the government should sell off the rights to these Naval oil reserves, or have them checked by a knowledgeable independent source. He trusted Fall, and wasn't really interested anyway, so why bother? It seems likely Harding realized some of the people he'd placed in power were crooks, but they were hiding enough of his secrets he wasn't going to rock the boat much. And then he died, and Coolidge is President, and if there's one thing he knew how to do, it was keep his mouth shut (Coolidge was apparently the first Vice-President to sit in on cabinet meetings, so he'd have been privy to the battles between Fall and Department of Agriculture head Henry Wallace over who should have control of those national forests and what's in them.)

McCartney occasionally throws in these wry comments in reaction to some development in the story as he's telling it to us, and they always feel out of place. Normally that isn't something I mind, but in this case, they don't work, because they usually take on a vaguely folksy feel, as though he's tellin' the tale while sitting on the porch, and just cain't help editorializing a bit. But it doesn't jibe with the tone of the vast majority of the rest of the book, so it doesn't feel natural, and throws me out of my rhythm when I'm reading. I appreciate the attempt to keep these discussions of Congressional hearings and trying to track down missing Liberty Bonds lively, but it doesn't work in this case.

'This was the first of several payments Fall was to receive from the oilman as reciprocity for the Teapot contract. Instead of cash, however, Sinclair gave the money to the interior secretary in so-call Liberty bonds, government bonds that had been issued to support the U.S. effort in World War I. Fall voiced no objections. After all, these bonds yielded at least 3.5 percent annually tax-free. They also had serial numbers, a detail that both Sinclair and Fall apparently overlooked at the time.'


SallyP said...

There really isn't anything new under the sun.

CalvinPitt said...