Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Burton K. Wheeler

Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Burton K. Wheeler, University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. By Marc C. Johnson.

Burton K. Wheeler is a dinosaur.

His type doesn't really exist anymore, and most people don't know a lot about the former Montana senator. But in his day, he was a ferocious "hell raiser" who wasn't afraid of anything — from the huge mining interests that controlled the Montana to the powerful president of the United States.

Author Marc C. Johnson chronicles the former Montana senator's legacy in his new book, "Political Hell-Raiser: The Life and Times of Burton K. Wheeler" (University of Oklahoma Press, $34.95). Johnson speaks at 5:30 p.m. Friday at This House of Books, 224 N. Broadway. 

Johnson discovers the type of political giant who really doesn't exist anymore. He paints a portrait of a fiercely independent politician who often challenges his party's leadership, including the powerful Franklin D. Roosevelt, who considered many of Wheeler's positions bordering on treason.

Wheeler, the consummate lawyer, also came to believe the United States Senate's role was to keep presidential power in check and have a hand in foreign policy, something Johnson believes has largely evaporated in today's politics.

"He was willing to stand up to the president and his own party, even at substantial peril to his own political career," Johnson said.

Surveying today's politics and the U.S. Senate, Johnson doesn't see much that looks like Wheeler.

"Maybe the maverick John McCain in his younger days," Johnson said.

And yet Wheeler isn't a monolithic hero, either. The New England-born son of a Quaker finds himself on the right side of history when it came to resisting prosecuting those speaking out against America's entry into World War I, and he fought against his own Democratic party when Roosevelt tried to pack the United States Supreme Court with more appointees.

But Wheeler's own stance on entering World War II, and his initial objections to entering the conflict ultimately caused his own downfall in 1946, Johnson said. Returning soldiers came to see Wheeler's initial opposition to the war as a lack of support for them. 

Moreover, in the early years of the war, before America was bombed by Japan, Wheeler made a handful of spurious claims about what he saw as a Jewish-led media plot to convince America to go to war. He famously quipped that if America entered the war one out of every four young men would be lost.

A book-length study of Wheeler seems wholly necessary, though, because of the strong positions he took even before arriving in Washington, D.C.

"I was surprised by the almost universal acclaim he received," Johnson said. "He was described as both charming and self-effacing and a retail politician, but also a political machine," Johnson said.

Before that, Wheeler had been the U.S. Attorney for Montana, and resisted calls for him to prosecute those who spoke out against World War I for sedition. That refusal earned him the animosity of the Legislature and he narrowly avoided an official call to be removed. 

Before that, as a young lawyer, Wheeler became a champion of the average working miner and the unions, even thriving in Butte, which was by then dominated by the Anaconda Mining Co. His ability to pick strategic battles and find compromises earned him even begrudging respect from corporate mining interests.

Even after Wheeler's humiliating defeat in 1946 in the Democratic primary by Leif Erickson, who criticized the long-serving senator for being out of touch with the party, Wheeler never gave up on Montana, though never again entered politics in Montana as a candidate.  

"He's been dead for 40 years and out of the Senate for 70," Johnson said. "I hope this book serves as a catalyst for Montana to reconsider and remember him."

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Darrell Ehrlick is editor of The Billings Gazette.