E.J. Stackpole was sorry to see the end of one-boss rule in Pennsylvania in the 1920s and the emergence of the primary system to nominate party candidates.
He deplored the growing influence of money in political campaigns and longed for a return to the days when party conventions dominated by a Matthew S. Quay or Boies Penrose selected candidates.
Stackpole had a foot in two camps as a life-long journalist and Republican Party regular. We know about Stackpole’s views because of his engaging autobiography “Behind the Scenes With A Newspaper Man” published in January 1927.
Stackpole (1861-1936) was similar in some respects to his contemporary and friend Edwin A. Van Valkenburg featured in a Nov. 20, 2012 post.
The big difference between the two is that Valkenburg, also a Republican, embraced the reforms of the Progressive era.
Stackpole was an open skeptic of reformers and an admirer and confidante of Penrose.
Stackpole’s skepticism about the reform mantle donned by Gov. Gifford Pinchot whom he describes as a “lone wolf” and refers to as “the Forester” is evident.
“Whatever may be said of Governor Pinchot, he cannot be charged truthfully with ignorance of political manipulation,” he wrote. “Of all the Governors that have passed in my time, not one has been more adroit in utilizing developments from time to time for his own advancement.”
Contrast that with Stackpole’s glowing description of Penrose:
“Senator Boies Penrose was physically and intellectually a giant,” he wrote. “He will live long in the memory of those who knew and admired him.”
While Stackpole was writing his book, a bruising three-way GOP primary battle for a U.S. Senate seat in 1926 demonstrated how the party became factionalized following Penrose’s death five years earlier.
Pinchot challenged the incumbent George Wharton Pepper only to find Philadelphian William Vare also enter the race.
Vare won the primary where liquor prohibition emerged as an issue and the general election. Yet Pinchot, preparing to leave office, refused to certify Vare’s election saying he suspected the victory was bought.
The U.S. Senate investigated some of the campaign spending and wouldn’t seat Vare. Pinchot’s successor, Gov. John S. Fisher, eventually appointed an interim senator.
Stackpole predicted that the 1926 electoral mess would lead to a restoration of the conventions that he favored, but that didn’t happen.
“In the development of the uniform primary the fundamental failure is lack of personal responsibility in the choice of candidates,” he wrote. “When the so-called party bosses did the picking of candidates, they understood the consequences of a mistake of judgment, and not infrequently close personal friends were rejected by the organization leader.”
As an example, Stackpole pointed to Quay’s steering of a party convention to pick Samuel S. Pennypacker as the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1902 rather than state attorney general John S. Elkin.
To provide a modern perspective to Stackpole’s views, consider an editorial board of a major Pennsylvania newspaper calling for a return to the ways of the pre-Bonusgate era of the General Assembly. Today’s editorial tone is quite the opposite – to advocate for more openness and sharing of power.
Stackpole mixed it up in his roles as a journalist and political insider, a blend not uncommon for the day.
He was a Capitol correspondent. His mug is pictured in one of the ancient class photos of the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association hanging in the Capitol newsroom.
He sometimes attended a GOP convention as a reporter, other times as a participant.
While owner and publisher of the Harrisburg Telegraph, Stackpole was appointed by the president to the patronage job of postmaster of Harrisburg. He quotes President Teddy Roosevelt as describing his two positions as an “Admirable combination.”
Stackpole describes himself as a “watchman on a tower” looking down on the public activities below. But it’s clear his view is at eye-level making his observations about bosses and reformers all the more interesting. – Robert Swift