Sunday, April 29, 2012

Don Munro


A  friend and I drove out to Vashon Island to visit Don Munro a couple of weeks ago, a mutual friend who was, it turns out, in his last days of life and would soon die, last Friday morning, of prostate cancer.

Don Munro in 2005
Seattle PI
Ultimately, we got around to the subject of death.  To paraphrase Don, he felt no particular fear about it. To him, death was merely the absence of life, a problem he could no longer make right, a state of being that would remove him from fixing other things that needed fixing, friends and colleagues who needed nurturing, keeping in touch with the business he founded, loving his wife, Carolyn, in the warm, simple and happy house on Quartermaster Harbor. 

Many prostate cancers are so slow growing that doctors decide not to treat them, like Warren Buffet’s recent diagnosis and treatment plan.  But doctors told Don he was soon going to die more than seven years ago when they found a particularly aggressive strain.  Then, other doctors at the University of Washington said he’d be an ideal candidate for this new, experimental drug that had not been tested yet on humans and Don was one of the first to try it.  He got seven years of a very good life from the experiment and suffered few side effects.  He was able to smoke the cigars he liked, consume the red wine he loved as the barbecue crackled on the back deck of his Vashon home, one he built, with his son, from lumber they salvaged at a torn down warehouse on the Seattle waterfront. The accomplishment of building that house together repaired a strained relationship and created a friendship to accompany the bond of father and son. 

Don grew up in the political culture of end-of-the-sixties Seattle.  We talked about that time when we were last together. At the University of Washington, Don became friends with Bob Gogerty, a young man who yearned to be at the center of political and business life in Seattle and they would talk about what they wanted to achieve over beers and cigarettes at the old Red Robin, just east of the University Bridge along the ship canal.  Don would become an engineer and work for a highway design firm.  He was busy there and designed an I-5 overpass that ‘is still standing.’ Don needed much more out of his work than freeway overpasses and Gogerty brought him to it.  

He hired him to work on Mayor Wes Uhlman’s staff right after the new mayor was elected in 1969.  It was a terrific time for Don.  The political culture in 1969 grew from a powerful optimism and sense of purpose with roots in the middle 50s when the region leveraged its technical dominance in commercial aerospace, demonstrated it could hustle the world at Century 21 and understood the need to address what were called in that day ‘metropolitan problems’ -- those problems that did not respect traditional political boundaries – water and air pollution, sprawl, transportation, recreation, open space.  King County voters approved a regional government, Metro, in 1958, similar to what citizens did in Toronto, Canada and later Vancouver, BC.  Metro began with a limited mission, the clean-up of Lake Washington, and its success, so obvious and complete, helped lead to a burst of civic energy 10 years later, Forward Thrust, that took the regional thinking into parks, recreation, open space and the building of a regional multi-purpose stadium, the Kingdome.  The only thing they didn’t get, though it had a slight majority, was a light rail system.  Three years after that, the legislature entrusted Metro with the authority to create a county-wide bus system.
This was Don’s time, the time when he was truly maturing as a person and a professional.  It offered tremendous opportunity to him and young people like him who would join government and have remarkable responsibility for their years. 

Many of these new people were thrown together in the savannah between City Hall on the hill and Pioneer Square below.  Metro’s offices were in the Pioneer Building, forming one side of the square, and many of its young workers would head out after work for the dark and smoky Central Tavern for beers or the J & M CafĂ©, three doors up the street, if a martini was necessary.  At the same time, five blocks up the hill, Wes Uhlman’s staff and those from a younger city council would leave city hall, obeying the gravity that pulled them to the same places.  Model Cities, the Johnson era urban renewal program, also contributed new young practitioners, many who had been denied opportunity in the past but who would seize it now.

Once gathered in the Pioneer Square, the work day proceeded by other means. “We’ve got to go to work tomorrow” they would say, after an evening of work -- gossiping, boasting, positioning, proselytizing.

Sometimes the same people would find themselves together during the noon hour in the basement of the Pioneer Building, the home of Brasserie Pittsbourg, once Pittsburgh Lunch, now turned into a French buffet by a real Frenchman named Francois.  Of the many cool things at Brasserie Pittsbourg was the butcher paper that covered each table for each setting.  Our young, eager bureaucrats would make notes during their certainly important conversations, tear off the piece of paper where this now vital information, partly obscured by the blotting of spilled water or a shimmer of butter from Francois’ Geoduck steaks with garlic, and head upstairs or up the hill to an afternoon meeting where millions were on the table and, quite theatrically, pull out the creased butcher paper and make the killer points they had honed so cleverly at lunch. 

Soon, Don was Deputy Policy Director and doing what he was really good at, creating and developing interesting ideas for the Mayor, who, by the way, really needed them.  Uhlman’s first term had been rough, a constant war with public employees, their unions and the council, and he was heading into a re-election campaign where it was clear he could easily lose. 

King County Metro
Don had an idea that there should be free bus service in the downtown and the Mayor jumped at it.  The Boeing recession was still biting sharply and retailers downtown were looking for anything that might help.  It was an instant success.  It was also a timely success.  Service began nine days before the 1973 primary election and clearly had an effect on that election, improving a dismal performance in which Uhlman finished a poor second, but also enhancing the general election where the mayor won handily. It was Don’s idea.  The timing was Wes Uhlman’s. 

Don moved on to Metro after the election to work on the bus system and was in charge of the planning for the bus tunnel in downtown Seattle. Later he handled the acquisition of the hybrid electric buses that would run in the tunnel, the first diesel/hybrid electrics to be deployed in scale anywhere.  Think about it – a fleet of hybrid electric buses in the late eighties when we are struggling to bring on a few thousand cars with the same technology today. 

He was very pleased to have thought up the idea to renumber the Metro buses the way it is done in the Paris bus system, an operation he admired.  Don would think of stuff like that but not always talk about it.  Sometimes, however, after dinner in a hotel bar, a cognac in hand, he’d reach over the table, grab a colleague’s arm and whisper:  “You know, I re-numbered Metro’s buses just like they do in Paris,” his eyes gleaming. There was an important purpose for it, but I never quite understood it, though you had to be happy for Don.

He left Metro for a while, consulting, and created the Ben Franklin Transit system in Tri-Cities.  He did everything and was proud that he not only ran the election that approved the bonds but hired and trained the drivers.

His real talent was business and he was successful because his greatest skill was recognizing talent in people and nurturing it. Don was no magician, but even if you lacked talent, Don could conjure up a bit of it in you.  With Don, you always felt like the most important person in the room.  In fact, you were, because Don told you to your face that you were the most important person in the room.  This sentiment was quietly shared with many others, often on the same day and sometimes in the same room.

Coastal Environmental Systems
He co-founded a company in 1981 with $500 that became Coastal Environmental Systems and was its CEO for 30 years.  Originally selling weather buoys for ocean use, then weather stations in the arctic for scientific purposes, Munro found those markets too limiting and began experimenting with other uses for scientific caliber weather systems.  Over the years, fire departments began using Don’s weather sensors to make hazardous materials response safer and more effective and, as the software development at Coastal improved and then became the very best, his products found their way to airports to feed excellent weather information to pilots and air traffic controllers.  First with the military and then for hundreds of civilian airports across the world, Don’s remote air traffic control weather systems became a standard.   
 
Don’s company was a regular on the Deloitte Touche Northwest 50 Fastest Growing Companies for many years and he was once runner up for the 2004 Ernst and Young National Entrepreneur of the Year.  The winner got a $100,000 prize.  Trying to look like he didn’t care, he would say:  “I never got a damned penny!”

Coastal Environmental Systems
I worked at Coastal a couple of years on a team developing new software for a product that would use a variation of his weather stations for public safety.  It was the first place I ever worked where people actually manufactured something.  Located in a brick building in Pioneer Square across from the football stadium, you can’t miss it.  The roof is covered with weather apparatus being tested. 


Inside, software designers in flip flops clack away at their several computers while in another room someone is bending metal into a container to hold their software and maintain it at just the right temperature.  There is an international look to the people in the building and a consultative culture.  On my second day at work, Munro called a meeting of all employees and asked me to tell them what my job was going to be and how I hoped to do it. 
During baseball and football seasons, Don allowed a group of his employees to make some extra money by bringing a food cart to the parking lot and sell food to passing fans. Some of his employees were new to the country and had limited language skills in English.  But over the year, Don would corner each of them in the shop where they assembled the systems and say to them in ways that pushed through any comprehension problems that he or she was the most important person working here. 

Don was deliberate in most things and moved very slowly around the shop, but his slow movement disguised a lot of energy he needed to work out. He adopted the management-by-walking-around style and would come into one of the small offices, few of which had doors, and plop down in the extra chair, if there was one, or simply lean against the door sill, staring silently across the desk and its computer to its operator.  Sometimes I tried to wait him out.  But I always talked first.

He had an unusual sense of humor and it gave him great pleasure.  Once I walked into his office, really a wide spot off a hallway, and saw him working along at his computer, I supposed he was working on an Excel spreadsheet at which he was highly skilled. 
“Get a load of this, Royer,” he said, turning the screen my way. 
It was a letter from Charles T. Firbolg, an alter ego of Don’s that emerged more than 30 years ago and who complained, on Don's behalf, to the Vashon Beachcomber and other publications or customer service departments of large companies, about pomposity, failed communications, ignorance or whatever else got under Firbolg’s skin.  He had other alter egos, but Firbolg was writing the letter I saw on the screen, a note to the late Kim Jong Il of North Korea.  Firbolg had heard that the dictator’s favorite song was “Song of Comradeship” and was hoping that Mr. Kim could send along the words and music to Don, the entrepreneur, in America. 

Don also had a striking resemblance to the actor Donald Sutherland, particularly when he was clean shaven and on one of his diets.  Once, on a business trip together, we were ordering breakfast and I could see the light of a potential celebrity sighting in the waiter’s eyes.  After Don had ordered and the waiter turned his attention to me, I confirmed what the waiter was thinking: 
“I’m having what Mr. Sutherland is having.”
Actually, Don didn’t think it was funny.  He did not approve of deception even though he tolerated Firbolg’s misrepresentations. 
When Don retired from Coastal, a year ago, the employees in the shop fashioned a plaque and presented it to him.  It contains these words:

Coastal Farewell

     Coastal has brought us together from all over the world with various aspirations and hopes of fulfilling the "American Dream."

     Your fairness and generosity regardless of faith, color or nationality, were invaluable tools in our quest for meeting personal goals and also becoming a professional team.

  In a final tribute and expression of gratitude you shall be remembered as the guy who meant a lot to us and give practical meaning to the words:

"He's not heavy, he's my brother."

ABC News
Don loved to say, as part of his introduction of the company, that Coastal 'landed the space shuttle' because his company had weather systems at the Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force Base.  During the George W. Bush administration, he didn't say much about Coastal's systems at Andrews Air Force Base that also provided weather for Air Force One.  He did, however, thoroughly enjoy the idea that he was making life a little safer for Barack Obama.
King County, the successor to Metro, decided to scrap the free bus zone this year after 40 years.  The story was in the paper his last day of work at Coastal.  On the day he died, the shuttle Enterprise was flying low over New York on its last flight and I was reading that story online when I heard that Don had died.
"I know the guy who who helps bring that sucker back to earth," I thought. 

He was a wonderful citizen of Cascadia.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dave Beck: The most amazing thing at the World's Fair

Beck at about 30 years
UW Libraries
The biggest story in 1962 Seattle was, of course, the World's Fair, Century 21, which began on April 21, the first day of Spring on the Puget Sound calendar. But a second story was crowding onto the front page that year, the continuing demise of Dave Beck, the local union leader who rose to the leadership of the International Teamsters Union in 1952 and ten years later would take the least popular ferry ride in Washington state, the one to the McNeil Island Penitentiary, where he would serve two concurrent 5 year sentences for tax fraud and grand larceny.

If we think at all today of Dave Beck, we remember him dimly as a corrupt labor leader. But there is so much more to Dave Beck than the acquisition and disposal of Teamster Union assets for his own benefit and the benefit of his friends and family. He is, without question, one of the great up from under stories we have. He rises from the Charles Dickens world of 1898 Puget Sound – the stink of the great fire nearly gone, the gold rush just underway, the well-dressed salesmen, the loggers and shingle weavers with eight fingers side-by-side at the many bars and whorehouses in the newly rebuilt town, just now discarding the old name, Skid Road, and taking on a fancy new one, Pioneer Square.  The sawmills were still visible from the new downtown, but now were joined by the hiss of the gas lamps and the new electric trolleys displacing the horse-drawn, though thousands of horses still trod the streets, their urine splattering the dust, 20,000 of them, creating then about half the volume of solid waste Seattle disposes today.


Moving here from Stockton at age four, he lived on the margins of the city, his father a carpet cleaner and his mother working in a laundry, but soon enough Beck was supporting her – first delivering 350 newspapers a day, then running errands for the whores in Pioneer Square and delivering narcotics for their second strata of customers– tincture of laudanum, opium, product gained in trade. He worked in the same central laundry as his mother but soon began driving laundry delivery trucks. He became a Teamster in 1915.  He was in the North Atlantic in World War I and came back to more responsibility in his union, soon running the laundry workers union and then the milk truck drivers.

He built the foundation of his community involvement by establishing a reputation as perhaps the best Elk Club member in the history of the local chapter, showing a knack for special events that led to remarkable ticket sales and proceeds to the Boys Club, Children’s Hospital and other favorite local charities. At a very young age he became its Exalted Ruler, a position that is a bit like an elder, a kind of senior advisor.  He loved the Elks, loved the respect the people gave him even though they knew he was a high school dropout.

His time supporting his mother and sister never allowed for much education, something he regretted because he really wanted to be a lawyer.  But when you can cause lots of other people to give money to local institutions, when you buy 40 season tickets to the Husky football games, when you have the franchise to control nearly every business venture that depends on a rubber wheel rolling on asphalt, it is not unusual to be asked to serve the community where others with less influence but more education usually serve. The governor appointed him a Regent at the University of Washington and he became Chair of the Board of Regents.  The governor thought he'd be an asset on the Parole Board and the Mayor wanted him for the Civil Service Commission.


UW Libraries
Beck became a west coast organizer for the Teamsters and soon after would do something that more than a couple of generations of newspaper reporters would never forget. He threw the support of the Teamsters behind reporters at the Post Intelligencer trying to organize their own union. It was not going well.  A handful of union members were walking the picket lines, outnumbered by the security placed there by William Randolph Hearst, the paper's owner.  After Beck weighed in, over a thousand people walked with the reporters, the 1930s labor version of ‘Shock and Awe.’

The Seattle Times, the arch-enemy of Hearst, found common ground in its hatred of Beck.  C. B. Blethen, leader of the family ownership of The Times, started saying some awful things about Dave Beck.

In a front page editorial, Blethen wrote:

"Seattle is now the plaything of a dictator. The suspension (Beck’s pickets had shut down the paper) of The Post-Intelligencer is more likely than not to mark the place where Seattle lies - dead. How do you like the look of Dave Beck's gun?”

“The shame of it!"


Beck ended up suing The Times for libel -- and succeeded! Beck took home $25,000 and his calculation paid off with the lasting respect of most Seattle print reporters.   Beck never struggled with bad press while he was a local leader, even at The Times, which would follow the P. I.  as a union shop. 

One of the reporters who remembered Beck sending his cavalry over to the P.I. was reporter Emmett Watson who wrote this way about Beck on his 97th birthday:

He was Seattle - all Seattle - the original rain-soaked kid. As a young boy, he shot rats for bounty near the University Bridge to bring home money to his mother.

He would get his dinner in the free-lunch saloons because a kindly cop let him do it. He ran errands for the whores in the old Skid Road district (now Pioneer Square) and it was only later that he found out (to his mother's horror) that he was running dope for the hookers.

When he became International Teamsters president in the 1950s, he had to spend a lot of time in Washington, DC. The Washington sophisticates were appalled, then amused, because Dave proudly showed off his Elks pin at formal dinners.

They could not figure him out when he said, "I'd rather lean against a lamppost in Seattle than own this whole goddamned city."





Beck and Joe Ryan
President of the
International Longshore
Union during the 1934
west coast dock strike

Labor politics in the western United States during the thirties were frequently radical. Perhaps the best example was the creation of the International Longshore and Warehousemen’s Union in 1934. Its leader, Harry Bridges, was an Australian transplant to the US and defined the interests of his members in terms of the class struggle. Beck, on the other hand, believed that business was a good thing for his members, as long as they received a fair share. As Colliers Magazine put it:  

It is with respect to philosophies, however, that the two leaders are in sharpest conflict. Bridges stands frankly for the socialization of business, and insists 'workers have nothing in common with the employers.'… Dave Beck, on the other hand, has no larger concern than wages, hours and working conditions. In the same breath that he charges Bridges with being a Communist, working to overthrow America's democratic institutions, he affirms his own faith in the capitalistic system.

One of Beck’s friends had a perceptive view of Dave Beck and how he worked:

“Dave doesn’t organize workers. Dave organizes employers.”

The Longshoreman and the Teamsters had a natural antipathy for one another. The nature of their businesses created a constant stream of conflicts as they jostled alongside one another on west coast docks.  Dave Beck was out-hustling them, organizing something called the Western Conference of Teamsters.  Beck started this regional concept to consolidate control of many small, disparate unions.  It would be duplicated by an organizer named James Hoffa who was organizing in the Midwest from his base in Detroit.  In 1932 the Teamsters had just 82,000 members in relatively small locals across the country.  By 1940, there were 530,000 Teamster members in the United States. Twenty years later, Hoffa would sign the first national contract in 1964. In 1971, a million and a half American workers were Teamsters.

This effort completely outflanked Bridges and his longshoreman. The Teamster organization had organized nearly every trucking company and many other jobs working the docks, down to vending machines, and pinned the longshoremen inside a narrow strip dockside.  Twenty years later, as shipping technology changed from break bulk cargo to containers, the relationships and strategies Beck established with the trucking companies, copied by Hoffa and others, positioned the Teamsters to take over the loading of cargo into ships by stuffing containers off the docks, away from ILWU jurisdiction.

Beck’s pro-business views were good news to Seattle businessmen and he was amply rewarded with recognition and supplication.  When people wanted a union voice, they most often chose the one belonging to Dave Beck. When people needed something, Beck was an early ask.

In 1930, banks in the area were working against the constant flow of bad news on the economy. They selected forty worthies from all walks of life in greater Seattle, put them in a full page ad in the Seattle Times with the headline “Builders of Greater Seattle.” Of course, Dave Beck was among the forty.


Beck applauding, Dan
Tobin on the right
UW Libraries
In 1940, Beck was named a Vice-President of the Teamsters and became a member of its national board. Dan Tobin, who had been the International President of the Teamsters since 1907, was ready to retire after the war, and in 1952 stepped down, naming Beck as the leader. Beck named Hoffa as the first Vice-President as part of the overall deal.

Years ago, while in Washington, DC, I was organizing photographs in Senator Warren Magnuson’s office and came upon a photo of Dave Beck in the center of all the important political figures from Washington State at the time plus some of the key business leaders. Beck is holding one of those big ceremonial checks and it has an enormous number on it, made out to Seattle First National Bank. It is the Teamster Pension Fund being transferred to Beck’s home town. The date is 1952. That was the high water mark.

Testimony before the McClellan Committee – The Senate Select Committee on Improper Activities in Labor and Management -- in 1957 showed that the first national perception of Beck after he took over the union was that he was a reformer. He made some early personnel moves that got the attention of people who were concerned by corruption and mob activity in the labor movement.
  

Time Magazine

The reformist bloom faded quickly enough. Hoffa was not as well positioned as was Beck when Tobin retired and never truly contended for the top job before 1952. However, as soon as it was Beck’s, Hoffa began working to tip him over and used his network of mobsters, reporters, politicians and government insiders to that goal.  Also, the IRS was kicking the tires on Beck’s tenure in Seattle and was finding a good deal of revenue that arguably should have gone to Uncle Sam. A third factor was Beck himself. He was not a careful record keeper and enjoyed the fact that his position attracted many supplicants bringing gifts. Beck hardly drank and did not gamble or chase women. He did, however, like nice stuff.  

The IRS had noticed a pattern going back to 1934 in which reimbursements had been made to Beck even though Beck had not incurred an expense. These early indicators brought on greater scrutiny.

In January, 1954, IRS agents met with Beck at his Seattle Office on Denny Way. They asked for his personal and his union records going back to 1943 so that they could check them against his tax returns. Beck said he would make them available.

In early February, there was a flurry of activity at the Denny Way office.  All of the financial records going back from 1953 were placed in cardboard boxes and taken to a combination storeroom and vault in the basement. A bit later, other records collected from other Teamster entities were placed in the vault. Then, union officials called the building custodian in and instructed him to “clean out the storage room.”

The custodian called Seattle Sanitary Service, the garbage company, who sent Joseph Romedo by with a truck. With the help of two Teamster officials, they loaded the truck and drove to Interbay, the valley between Seattle’s Queen Anne and Magnolia neighborhoods which was then the city dump.  A car followed the garbage truck onto the site and the two men in it monitored the incineration of the records  for 30 minutes.  After several other IRS requests for the records over the next six months, the Teamsters revealed that the records had been inadvertently destroyed.

Over the years, Beck had received many payments from several different Teamster unions -- expenses, fees, various reimbursements  – which were frequently placed in his personal account, even though others may have paid the original expense. Beck also had the use of automobiles for business and personal use.  These benefits added up to a tidy sum -- $370,000 over ten years between 1943 and 1953.

Confronted with these facts by the IRS, Beck and the Teamsters came up with the explanation that these monies were, in fact, loans to Beck from the Teamsters. On the stand, Beck was asked about them and responded this way:

Q. And what authority did you have to borrow money from them?

A. Well, I was in charge of the organization, I think I had that authority, though I had no specific authority secured by paper or anything of that kind.

Q. Now; how did you go about borrowing this money from the Joint Council Building Association?

A. That was all handled through Fred Verschueren who was the fellow that handled all the financial transactions of every kind for me in and around the building and generally when I was traveling in the United States and Europe.


Q. And what promissory notes did you sign?

A. I signed no promissory notes.

Q. And what were the terms of repayment?

A. There was no terms set forth.

Q. And what was the interest rate?


A. There was no interest rate. It was all moneys that was in commercial banks, no interest to any of them, of the various organizations.

Financial statements from this time were filed by Beck at banks and with insurance companies did not mention any of the loans allegedly given Beck by the union.

Beck loved real estate. The Teamsters were heavily invested in the Denny Regrade and along Denny Way going down to the area we now call South Lake Union. He had as many as forty properties there, either personal or controlled by him through the Teamsters. He also enjoyed development. In the 1940s, he and ten other Seattle Teamsters began buying land and building homes at Sheridan Beach, a lovely area along Lake Washington, north of the city.

Beck’s home was furnished with the help of a Chicago Sears Roebuck executive, Nathan Shefferman, who found Sears items on discount and delivered them to friends at the Teamsters. Between 1949 and 1953, the Beck residence nearly doubled in size, perhaps the most notable addition a ‘small home theater for entertaining business associates.’ The theater seated 60 people and would show Hollywood features. Beck contended that it was built by ‘a grateful Hollywood mogul for whom Beck had intervened with President Roosevelt.’ 


Beck's son pulling his father away from reporters
after returning from McClellan Hearings
UW Libraries
Soon, Beck was in front of the McClellan Committee, in 1957, testifying before a national television and radio audience.  It was a catastrophe. Estimates as to how many times he asserted his constitutional rights against self-incrimination vary wildly, from as little as 116 to as high as 200.

His inquisitor was committee counsel Robert F.  Kennedy who, Beck noticed, had no under to his considerable up.  Of course Beck hated him.

UW Libraries
Fundamentally distracted by the IRS, Hoffa and the Mob and a growing exposure to prosecution, Beck left his national position in 1957 and the Teamsters belonged to Hoffa.


When Beck became president of the union in 1952, it purchased his house for $163,000 and Beck lived there rent free until just before he went to jail in 1962. The union was also paying Beck a pension of $50,000/year. His son, mother and sister lived in it while he was in jail, after a time paying $400/month rent. His wife, Dorothy, had died in November. The union sold for it $75,000 in 1965.

Beck was convicted on two counts, one federal and one state. The prosecution had much to choose from, but focused on the charges that it felt would be ironclad against the repetitive appeals they knew Beck would mount. The state charge was the sale of a union car for $1,800, the proceeds going into a personal Beck account. The second charge was a tax return for one of the Teamster entities under Beck’s control. Beck didn’t sign the return, but it was clear the return’s accuracy was Beck’s responsibility.

Beck would market the charges and convictions as mere ‘technicalities’ but it is clear that many other charges could have stuck if the prosecution wanted to spend the time and money necessary to convict and tough out the appeals process. It’s not pretty and it leaves many ambiguities, but there is some justice in a minimal strategy that closes the case and allows people to move
on.
 

UW Libraries
Beck took the boat to McNeil Island on June 20, 1962. That morning, the World’s Fair promotions people were putting together a fact sheet for the Alaska Yukon Pacific Day, the 1962 World’s Fair nod to Seattle’s first World’s Fair, in 1909. They had a great fact for how successful the fair was becoming. In June 22, 1909, the AYP had attracted 10,000 patrons. Fair management estimated that the same day, 1962 would bring 10,000 people through the gates of Century 21 in the first hour.   But the Beck surrender story topped the fair, once again.


Beck’s lawyer, who was with him at the ferry dock, told him to keep his mouth shut and let the statement, which the lawyers had mostly drafted, do the talking. For the first few minutes, Beck was silent. And then begin speaking from the heart:

Dammit, why should anyone think I would try to cheat? I’m wealthy. I don’t need that kind of money. I’m not that kind of man. My word is respected among business leaders all over the country.


As his lawyer’s winced, Beck then revealed that he had a net worth of $2,000,000 and would overcome the business difficulties in front of him.

Beck stayed at McNeil for 26 months.  His job was canning vegetables from the prison garden. He also worked out constantly and steered clear of the high starch prison diet. When he was on the return ferry on December 11, 1964, he had dropped from 204 pounds to 171. Beck died at 99 years and attributed his health and longevity to his time at McNeil Island.

The death of his wife Dorothy triggered more tax inquiries during the probate of her will. He would learn his tax bill was in the neighborhood of $1-1.2 million. By the end of 1975 he had paid $600,000 and entered into an agreement in 1977 to pay the full amount by 1982. He did.

Beck was pardoned of the state felony charge, the sale of a car that he did not own, in 1965 by Governor Albert Rosellini, and of the federal charge, the false Teamster tax return, by President Ford in 1975.

Beck spent the rest of his life working in real estate, managing his properties so he could pay the tax bill and, remarkably, speaking throughout his community. He was hugely popular as a speaker. He spoke frequently at schools. I talked to a law student who was at a law school lecture where Beck spoke about labor law. The class broke into applause when he was done. For all that he took at the top of his career and for whatever complexity of reasons, he ended his life simply and spent his time sharing his considerable experience and energy right to the end. The felon had paid his taxes and turned into an elder.

I stumbled on the tax case, Re:  Dorothy E.  Beck, while getting ready to interview Dave Beck more than 30 years ago.  I read it again a week before starting this entry.  It made me disgusted then and now to read about Beck's remarkable inattention to the use of his members' money. 

But today, I am more forgiving.  I had no way of knowing then that he would ultimately pay his tax bill.  You could also see that he was not going to hide out in his town, that he would 'lean against a lamp post' right there on the busiest street in his home town.  He was completely available to reporters and historians, his name in the book.  He might have been a reformer at one time, but the Teamsters culture and Beck's problems at home made that impossible.  He was trying to drive a very big and complicated truck and all he could do was drive it home to Seattle.

When we talked back then, Beck was like a big, fierce, flightless bird, wearing an almost-baby blue blazer, cream colored pants, off white shirt and a yellow tie with almost-baby blue stripes. I remember nothing about what was said through Beck's acrobatic mouth -- though the topic may have been his pardon by President Ford.  I do remember very clearly the setting, with Beck in the middle of his living room in the condo just across the street from the Teamster's office on Denny Way, the room a cream colored monotone -- rug, walls and furniture all a creamy beige. Beck was the only color in the room and his neck and cheeks soon added bright red to the display.

I don't think I saw Emmett Watson's rain-soaked kid in that room, but it was as good a show as anything I ever saw at the World's Fair.

In re: Doroth Beck. Dave Beck's use of union funds. (Be sure to click unpaginated view at lower middle of page)

Emmett Watson's Obituary of Dave Beck



Monday, April 9, 2012

Gus Hall Rides a Golf Cart Into Eugene and the Demise of the Commonwealth Federation


Gus Hall in Soviet Style Image
Gus Hall MySpace
In the 1960s, Gus Hall, the President of the Communist Party of the United States, decided the party needed a break-out strategy.  He would start visiting college students around the country and connect the party’s ideology with issues young people seemed to be attracted to.  The party’s political strength in the US had peaked toward the end of the 1930s but had ebbed considerably over the subsequent 30 years.  At its peak, the party’s strength in Washington State would be the subject of Postmaster General Jim Farley’s joke that the United States was ‘composed of the 47 states and the Soviet of Washington.’ Like most humor, there was some truth attached to what he said.
University of Washington Libraries
Washington captured Farley’s left wing image in many ways.  Seattle was home to America’s first general strike, in 1919, the spiritual leader of which was a woman who would become the first woman Communist Party Superstar from the United States, Anna Louise Strong, a newspaper reporter at the Seattle Union Record, for a time, until she was recalled, a Seattle School Board member, a poet, travel writer and political commentator.  She was kicked out of the Soviet Union when she tried to run the Moscow News, the English language newspaper she founded in 1929, like an American newspaper.  She found her way to China where she died, a revered memory of the time when International Communism meant something. 

IWW Madison, Wisconsin
Washington State was also a center of activity for the Industrial Workers of the World, the One Big Union, which was an effective organizer within its forests, paper and saw mills.  Bloody confrontations involving the Wobblies such as the Everett Massacre and the Centralia Massacre resulted in nationally reported events and lengthy trials.  Those events also influenced young people who saw them or who lived nearby when the shots rang out and the confusion kicked in.  “Joe Hill,” the anthem of radical labor, was written by a Washington State kid.  

Harry Bridges, Labor Day, 1939
America on the Move
The great West Coast Dock Strike of 1937 created a new and radical union out of the east coast International Longshoreman’s Union.  The International Longshore and Warehouse Union established itself as a powerful presence on Washington state docks and was a polarizing force within the labor movement.  Was its leader, Australian Harry Bridges, a communist?  The United States Chamber of Commerce sure thought so.  So did Dave Beck, the head of the Teamsters here, who told the 1938 state American Federation of Labor convention in Port Angeles that “Harry Bridges should be kicked out of the United States by legal means if possible.”  Were the communists in the ILWU?  Sure.  Did Bridges care?  No.  As long as they could help him be tough as he wanted to be. 

Hugh DeLacy
UW Libraries
Finally, the Washington Commonwealth Federation, the left wing of the state’s Democratic Party, invited communists into its ranks and, given the cover of running as Democrats, some were elected to the state legislature.  When that group met in Olympia, they joked that it was a meeting of the Roads and Bridges Committee, a committee that did not formally exist in the legislative structure.  Hugh DeLacy, the President of the Commonwealth Federation, an English professor at the University of Washington and a former Seattle City Councilman, was elected a Congressman in 1944 and many of his contemporaries have him more likely than not a communist when he served in Congress from 1944-1946.

The Soviet Union’s behavior was constantly a problem for the Washington state communists.  As Germany rose, the message was strongly anti-fascist, urging Roosevelt to get tougher on Germany’s militarism, engage the United States in Europe more forcefully.  But the Soviet Union’s treaty with Nazi Germany in 1939 brought a different message.  Suddenly, Britain was Imperialist Britain, unworthy of America’s aid. 

Bob Bailey
Secretary of State Oral History
Bob Bailey, a young man growing up in South Bend, Pacific County and entering politics as Pacific County Clerk, remembers a whirlwind of left wing political activity in his small, quiet county.  A gifted organizer and writer, Terry Pettus, moved to town, publishing the Willapa Harbor Pilot and organizing for the Commonwealth Federation.  Pettus created a powerful county political operation and then ran for county commissioner, just falling short by a few votes.  Soon after, Pettus was gone, leaving to publish the Commonwealth Federation’s newspaper, “The New Dealer.”
At the Harbor Pilot, Pettus was passionately interventionist all the way.  After 1939, when the Commonwealth Federation shifted gears, turning on England, people would wonder “what the hell got into Pettus?”  In his oral history, Bailey says he didn’t know some of the people who became precinct committeemen, and wished, in retrospect, that he would have double checked their addresses. 

In 1940, the split that was widening between the Democratic Party of Washington State and its Commonwealth Federation partner erupted in many ways.  The Democratic Party Convention in Hoquiam was a bloodbath.  Senator Magnuson, who was there as a young Congressman, would always say when someone mentioned how tough politics were, would say:  “You should have been at Hoquiam in 1940.” 
Everett Herald
That year, in November, the split widened.  Lenus Westman was elected to the state legislature from Snohomish County.  An Arlington farmer, just 31 years old, a naturalized Swedish immigrant, Westman had great personal cache, though he was a Communist.  He stopped paying dues in 1938, admitting publicly that he felt he could do a better job of making society a better place if he didn’t have this communist label around his neck.   In 1940 he was elected to the Washington State Senate as a Democrat, though a lot of the non-Commonwealth Democrats in the legislature thought they saw a new member of the infamous Roads and Bridges Committee.  The Democrats were in control and, with Republican support, refused to seat Westman. 

Elected officials have a passionate reverence for the wisdom of voters.  Lenus Westman was the first and only case of a Washington State legislator denied a seat after a certified election.  While Westman fought in the legislature and in the courts, legislators declared the 39th District seat open and a new member was named in the special election. 

As World War II ended, the Soviet Union’s cynical and brutal treatment of Eastern Europe, its efforts to disrupt the American labor movement and its industrial espionage in the United States all led to a loss of what had been considerable support for a left wing agenda in the country and in particular, Washington State.  Also, government action at all levels made it uncomfortable to be a communist or even a suspected one. 
The federal government jailed Communist leaders under the 1940 Smith Act, which defined communism as advocacy for the overthrow of the United States government an further defined what is still today an uncomfortable list of specific, proscribed free speech activities.
Later, in 1947, the Taft-Hartley Act required signing an oath that one was not part of a communist party organization or front organization before being able to serve as a union official. 

In 1950, Congress passed the McCarran Act, requiring registration of organizations and their officers and any members of a ‘communist action’, ‘communist front’ or ‘communist infiltrated’ organization.

It was not easy being a Communist in the post-war era.  Not only were members or suspected members hounded by the law, there were substantial internal stresses of all kinds.  In the thirties, Angelo Pellegrini, food writer and beloved University of Washington English professor, told the Canwell Committee, which was investigating Communists at the university, that he went to some meetings as a young man, wrote a book review for a publication and spent a subsequent meeting, his last, listening to an evening of criticism of the book he chose to review. 

New Dealer Newspaper
Howard Costigan, a co-founder of the Commonwealth Federation and a communist beginning in 1936, left the party after Russia signed the non-aggression pact with Germany.  He was hounded from the left and right, for leaving the party and denouncing it, and for being a member.  He lost his job as a national broadcaster even after renouncing his membership and ran as an anti-communist in the 1944 democratic primary that selected former colleague Hugh DeLacy. 

The popular media was also a player in the growing negative context.  “I Led Three Lives” was a syndicated television show featuring a mild-mannered advertising man who was an FBI agent posing as a communist.  Actor Richard Carlson was the much put upon, always stressed out Herb Philbrick.  The show ran for over a hundred episodes, one plot after another foiled.

So, Gus Hall, the leader of the Communist Party and newly chosen as the communist leader in the US decided he would try to connect with young people on issues like civil rights, Native American rights and America’s role in the third world.  That’s how he found himself in a golf cart, speeding around the track of Hayward Field at the University of Oregon on a rainy Valentine's Day in 1962, headed for a podium in front of 11,000 students, who thought it pretty funny to see this latter day Great Satan, who was not welcome at so many colleges and universities in the Northwest, putt-putting to his date with a bunch of young Oregonians who grew up with Herb Philbrick and who would listen quietly to what a guy with a lot of baggage had to say, which I remember as not much.

February 14, 1962
University of Oregon
His significant audience was built not by his ideas, but by the ideas of others who had decided it wasn’t a good idea for young minds to listen to a hardened communist.  Many universities and colleges would not let Hall speak, including the University of Washington.  The fact is, the Pacific Northwest had no idea what to do with Gus Hall. A hotel in Tacoma booked Hall and a representative of the John Birch Society, the extreme right wing of American politics, as if this conversation would enlighten and inform.  Fearing the worst, local law enforcement convinced the organizer to call it off.  The governor of Oregon, Mark Hatfield, advised not letting Hall speak at public institutions in his state, and Oregon State University promptly complied, but the University of Oregon’s president Arthur Fleming did not, along with sister public institutions like Portland State, Oregon College of Education and Reed College, a private institution.

I keep scanning the remarkable picture for people I know and for my own image.  Is that Ken Baker in the first row on the right, his books in front of him?  While the faces are too fuzzy to reveal much, the picture creates meaning outside of the event it is tied to.   The picture shows the University of Oregon as the small school it was then, just 10,000 students in 1962.  The photo removes us from the big time athletics now residing in Eugene.  The football stadium paint is chipped and worn, the place itself is tiny.  High schools in Texas have stadiums as big as this.  The track, home even then to the best distance runners in the country, collects too much water on its old fashioned cinder track and the Nike shoe is still a gooey concoction in the University of Oregon track coach’s waffle iron.  There are no television cameras cluttering the front of the event. 

My friends and I took no particular lesson from the event.  Over beers, I think we decided never to enter a well-attended event in a golf cart.  One of our number in the stands that day clearly took a lesson home about forbidden fruit.  Lee Bollinger, somewhere in the photo as an undergraduate, would go on to become President of Columbia University and had to decide in 2007 whether to invite a far more dangerous person to the security of the United States, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to address his students.  Ahmadinejad got the invitation. 


The real lessons of 1962 and the failure of Hall’s breakout strategy occurred just eight months later, in October, when Soviet missiles were discovered in Cuba and all of us who had been in the stands wondered if our sophomore year would be our last and whether we would ever be back to see a football game at Hayward Field in November.

Elmer Kistler in 1985 with State Communist Party
Chair B. J.  Mangaoang
Years later I would meet Elmer Kistler at a protest event.  My data base of Communists was not all that statistically significant, but I always had Kistler as unique.  Kistler was comfortable chatting with a reporter who didn’t much care for the tired theatrics of a street protest and, even better, he didn’t try to explain the written material he was handing out.  He was funny, clever.  So, when I saw that a 1974 court decision in Washington State had made it possible for communists to run once again for the state legislature and noticed that Kistler had filed, I tracked him down and met him at his home in the 35th legislative district in Seattle’s south end. 

I asked him what he said when he was out doorbelling. 


“I say I’m Elmer Kistler.  I am a combat veteran of World War II, a good union man and I’m running for the state legislature on the Communist Party ticket.”


“So, what do they say, Elmer?”


“Where the hell have you been?” he said.


Gus Hall, Arvo Kusta Halberg, a native of Iron, Minnesota, a child of two Industrial Workers of the World parents, died in 2000.   He had served eight years in prison after a conviction under the Smith Act a few years before coming to Eugene. All the obits had him still a hard guy at the end, a guy who didn't really care who ran the party after he was gone and who still admired Stalin.  He lived to see Gorbachev come and go and hated him. 


After leaving the University of Washington where he taught English, Hugh DeLacy worked in the Seattle Shipyards as a machinist and served as a Seattle City Council member.  He served one term as Congressman and was trounced in 1946, losing 2-1.  He moved on to work in as a left wing political organizer in Pennsylvania and was Executive Director of the Progressive Party, the organization formed to support former Vice President Henry Wallace's failed presidential campaign in 1948, which received no electoral votes and just 2.5% of the popular vote.  Ultimately, DeLacy found his way to California, became a contractor and retired in 1967.  He was 76 when he died near Santa Cruz, California, in 1986. 

Floating Homes Assn
Terry Pettus lived on a houseboat in Lake Washington and wrote detective stories and performed other freelance writing work.  He left the Communist Party in 1958 and started the Floating Homes Association where he convinced homeowners and government to stop dumping their untreated sewage into the lake.  Pettus was dead by 1984.


Bob Bailey served 26 years in the Washington State Legislature and was a newspaperman and printer in Grays Harbor and Pacific Counties.  He served in the United States Navy from 1941 to 1946.  He owned the Raymond Advertiser, served as an administrative assistant to legendary Congresswoman Julia Butler Hansen and was a member of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission.  He also managed, for a time, the Port of Willapa Harbor.  Bailey died in 2005.


Howard Costigan went to Centralia High School and was a 15 year old high school student when the well-aware of its deadly politics and Centralia Massacre in 1919.  These events propelled him into left wing politics.  He was a co-founder of the Commonwealth Federation, was a passionate radio commentator for KIRO radio and developed a national audience for his commentaries.  Costigan twice ran for the democratic nomination for Congress against Hugh DeLacy.  He renounced his communist party membership in 1939 and lost his job at the Commonwealth Federation and on the radio.  He moved to Los Angeles, was involved in Hollywood labor organizations and became a witness at many hearings involving communist influence in labor and politics.  He died in 1985 and never finished the book he wanted to write about the Commonwealth Federation and what went wrong. 


Lenus Westman was very bitter about not being seated after winning his state legislative election in 1940.  He channeled that experience into more than 50 years work for the Communist Party.  He and his wife were regulars in protests through the years.  He was active in the Old Age Pension Union, a Commonwealth Federation Program that, for a time, was a powerful organizing tool.  Westman died in 1994 in Seattle. 
Elmer Kistler ran unsuccessfully for the legislature three times.  He served as a lieutenant in a mortar platoon in Europe after 1944, came home to go to school at the University of Washington where he led the University chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  He was a shop steward at Boeing and worked in the Seattle Shipyards, finding his way to the timber industry and sawmill work until he was blacklisted there as well.  Kistler was frequently in court because of his refusal to register as a communist.  Kistler died in 1996.




Monday, April 2, 2012

Eisenhower Memorial: In the Guts of the Living


Sometimes I start certain conversations, like I am today, with this disclaimer:

“You know, I do have a life -- but last night I saw something on CSPAN3 … “

What I saw was a hearing held by the House Natural Resources subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands on March 20, 2012, and the topic was a proposed memorial to President Eisenhower to be built on the Capitol Mall.

Most of the ingredients of a really good hearing immediately emerged. First, the witnesses for the agencies, the National Park Service and the General Services Administration, were defensive and overly reliant on the lawyerly text in front of them. Second, the ranking member of the committee, when given the opportunity to speak by the Chairman, threw it right back, saying the committee was really not competent to get in the way of a family dispute. Third, the first witness, Susan Eisenhower, daughter of the President’s son, John, was brutal, blunt and uncompromising – think Mike Tyson, top of his game, first round. Two members of the public, representing organizations that spend nearly all of their time thinking about monuments and memorials, were by turns, darkly conspiratorial and broadly clownish. The architect of the project was not there, a distant presence, the empty chair of the debate, though the hearing packet, which I rushed to discover on-line, contained a letter from him expressing his willingness to work with the family.

The issue is that the Eisenhower granddaughters – Susan, Mary Jean and Anne – and more recently, grandson David, have asked the Eisenhower Memorial Commission to halt the design process and start over. David, a member serving on the Commission through December of last year, came to this position more recently and explained an additional reason for resigning earlier in a letter released to the commission at the hearing by the family lead, Susan.

Proposed as four acres just off the Mall, across the street from the Air and Space Museum, it is designed by Frank Gehry of the Bilbao Museum, the LA Symphony and the smashed guitar Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center.

Additional testimony came from two non-profit organizations dedicated to the fostering of traditional public art, traditional meaning classical art, meaning further an adherence to the descriptions of Pierre L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission which resurrected L'Enfant's views in the early years of the 20th Century.  We'll get to that in a moment. 

The National Civic Art Society describes itself as 'in the vanguard of a traditional artist counterculture emerging as the indispensable alternative to a post-modern, elitist culture that has reduced its works of 'art' to a dependence on rarified discourse imcomprehensible to ordinary people." 

From that description, you can guess accurately that the NCAS savaged the Geary design and further, cast doubts on the integrity of the process, indicating the presence of a conspiracy to give Gehry and his collaborators the edge. 

The other organization featured in opposition at the hearings is the National Monuments Foundation, an invention of an Atlanta traditionalist from an old Atlanta family named Rodney Mims Cook, Jr.  He has, among other things, constructed a Roman arch much like the Arc de Triumph, though smaller, in Atlanta and rents it out for weddings and other events.  He operates a small museum there as well that shows classical interiors and is a friend of the Prince of Wales who shares Cook's passion for classical architecture and a disdain for the rest.

Cook ran an alternative design competition for the Eisenhower Monument and offered one of his own designs.  And it won!  His design is a monument he found more appropriate, less costly and taking up less space.  His testimony describes his concept:

"The rules of classicism are hierarchical.  Precedent matters and our research of General Eisenhower called for a martial design.  We studied some of the greatest military leaders in history and the tradition for the greatest of them was a triumphal column.  The tallest ever supports Lord Nelson, in central London, which is 170 feet.  Nelson saved England.  Eisenhower saved England and Europe and hierarchy calls for a taller column for the General.  At 178 feet, it would have been the tallest commemorative column on Earth.  Our design placed him in his preferred soldier's D-Day uniform.  The column is surrounded by 8 bands representing the years of his presidency.  The plaza surrounding the column base is circular and contains 34 stars corresponding to his being the 34th president.  There are five allegorical statures atop the fountains surrounding this circular plaza representing Family, Education, Progress, War and Peace. 

If the process is reopened, Cook pledged not to compete so that any perception of conflict of interest would be entirely swept away. 

Why does a monument to this great man have to come to this?  Why do the ugly assertions of personal motives have to come flying out of these marginal non-profit organizations?  Why does the Eisenhower Memorial Commission have to assert that its vote was unanimous, representing Commission Senator Daniel Inouye, the only member of Congress who actually fought for the general?  Why does the commission have to make an announcement reconfirming that there is 'NO BAREFOOT BOY SCULPTURE in the memorial?  Why does the New York Times have to weigh in and assure us that the memorial is okay?  And why is right wing Congressman Daniel Issa of San Diego investigating?

National Park Service
There are answers to most of these questions and not all of them go to the corrosive culture of Washington, DC in 2012.  Rather, they go to the corrosive culture in Washington, DC in 1791 when the Mall was conceived as the soul of the new Capitol by Pierre L'Enfant and when George Washington fired him.  Answers can be found in the Mall Thomas Jefferson wanted and didn't get and to the explosion of a steamship that took the life of America's first real landscape architect who drowned with the future of the Mall in his young hands.  Answers also exist in one of the most amazing resurrections in the entire American story -- a proud, controlling military man thrown out, unpaid. People forget him, now he is buried in his farmer friend's field, then elevated to the highest crest of the great city, a president eulogizing him. 

All of this is the struggle for the look and feel of the Washington, DC brand and it's a long way from over. 

L'Enfant was fired because he was plainly insubordinate, refusing to provide designs to the District Columbia Commissioners appointed by George Washington.  He also told the commissioners that the design for the Capitol was in his head and was going to stay there so that it wouldn't have to be shared with them.  With Washington's full support, they fired him in 1792. 

National Park Service
This was good news to Thomas Jefferson.  He didn't like the work L'Enfant was producing.  He didn't like the great distance between Congress and the President's House.  He disliked L'Enfant's eurocentric street design and wanted a simpler, more human-scale city grid.  Jefferson saw the L'Enfant Mall as a military thing, a parade ground whose vastness needed to be softened with gardens, trees and natural plantings.  These disputes in the earliest days informed the Mall battles to come. 


National Parks Service
In the district's first century, no one could really understand just how powerful the building frustration of inaction at the Mall was becoming.  First, the republic had no money.  Then it was rebuilding the buildings overrun and burned by the British in 1814, then the republic was stumbling into the civil war.  In the Mall, along with the slave pens, the grazing cattle and the malarial soup of Tiber Creek was a powerful symbol of this failure, the unfinished Washington Monument, forty years from groundbreaking to completion in 1884.

Library of Congress
Certainly, some things were happening.  The Washington Canal, completed in 1819, increased the ability to bring construction materials where they were needed and reduced some of the effects of Tiber Creek.  In 1823 a botanical garden took shape at the foot of Capitol Hill and a surprise gift from Englishman James Smithson provided the need to plan for the Mall's first major structure, in 1848, intended to become a national university or a center of scientific study, the Smithsonian Institution. 
National Park Service
An American architect, Robert Mills, was selected to design the building and landscape the grounds around it.  As he went to work, he kept seeking a context for his building and landscaping plan.  He kept coming back to an intersection of lines in the original L'Enfant design, the line that marched from the center of the Capitol Building down the middle of the Mall to where it intersected with a line from the center of the President's House.  L'Enfant had marked it with a notation --'Monument A.'  It is there Mills proposed the design of the Washington Monument, although it had a weird crew cut on top and, from today's point of view, a completely unnecessary temple at the bottom. 

Mills' work revealed how badly the Mall needed direction and President Fillmore asked Andrew Jackson Downing to take on the development of a plan.  Downing was one of the first American landscape architects and staked out the other end of the design spectrum from L'Enfant's geometric parade ground.  Downing's partner was none other than the architect Calvert Vaux (rhymes with box), who, with Frederic Law Olmsted, would go on to design Central Park.

Downing's Mall
National Park Service
Downing and Vaux were destined to drown.  Vaux's death was at the end of his career and, unfortunately, Downing would drown at the beginning of his.  In the summer of 1852, Downing was on board a steamboat which caught fire and sank in the Hudson River, killing 50 people.

Before his death, Downing's plan would have created something very much like Central Park.  He would have kept the canal, crossing it with a suspension bridge.  An impressive arch would have crossed Pennsylvania Avenue and been the main entrance to the Mall.  He proposed lakes around the botanical gardens, a stand of evergreens that would keep color in the Mall during winter and he would have assembled and displayed a great collection of America's trees. 

Downing was a believer in what would come to be known as the 'City Beautiful Movement,' the idea that design of natural spaces had a profound influence on the human spirit and led to a more ethical and productive life. 
Smithsonian
All that's left of Downing's considerable talent in Washington, DC is a single copy of his plan, rescued by the remarkable people at the Smithsonian, and an urn on the Smithsonian grounds, designed and placed there by Vaux, with this inscription from Downing's writing:

"The taste of an individual, as well as that of a nation, will be in direct proportion to the profound sensibility with which he perceives the beautiful in national scenery.  Open wide, therefore, the doors of your libraries and picture galleries all ye true republicans!  Build halls where knowledge shall be freely diffused among men, and not shut up with the narrow walls of narrower institutions.  Plant spacious parks in your cities, and unclose their gates as wide as the gates of morning to the whole people."

Washington's Monument in 1855
Library of Congress
Congress refused to fund the entire project, providing money only for the space around the Smithsonian.  Without the substantial presence of Downing to push his ideas through and in the chaos of the coming war, the Mall remained largely static. 

The Chicago World's Fair was the beginning of L'Enfant's resurrection.  After his dismissal, he rattled around Washington for years trying to get paid for and justify his work.  He died in 1825 on a friend's Maryland farm, his death unnoticed and, except for a few who still had to contend with the underlying street system he had put in place, unremembered. 

The Chicago fair changed design sensitivities across America and created a focus on Europe and its design consciousness, giving new cachet to the geometric precision of L'Enfant.  It also gave rise to what Downing was thinking about, the 'City Beautiful' movement.  It had a different emphasis than Downing thought of fifty years previous.  Well-designed places would now ease the strains of overcrowded tenements and slums and help move poor and immigrant people into the mainstream of American life  -- in short, something we would later call urban renewal. 

Following the design triumph in Chicago was the centennial celebration of the government moving into its new home in Washington, DC in 1800.  Senator Joseph McMillan of Michigan formed a sub-committee of the District of Columbia Committee called the Parks Committee and brought together a group of people engaged in the Chicago World's Fair led by Daniel Burnham, its principal builder and joined by Frederick Law Olmsted who had landscaped the Capitol grounds. 

Their report, captured the frustration of a Mall going nowhere.  And L'Enfant would be the idea to kick start it.  'The Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia,' while not focused exclusively on the Mall, was a next step in L'Enfant resurrection.  The report reversed Downing's direction, the Central Park model, and substituted the more formal L'Enfant version. 

L'Enfant's Bench in Arlington Cemetery
The next step for L'Enfant was his actual resurrection.  After all of the praise heaped on his 're-discovered' plan, he was removed from the farm field in Maryland, his remains transported to the Capitol Rotunda where it lay in state for several hours, and then to a hill in Arlington Cemetery near a marble bench in what was, before the Civil War, Robert E.  Lee's home.  Finally, the Mall had its hero and motive force. 

Vigorous contention is the central cultural fact of the Mall.  Recently, in what we can call the modern era of memorials on the Mall, those started or finished after World War II, there has been plenty to contend with. 

In addition to a host of museums, there are seven major memorials in the post war era.  First, Jefferson, finished in 1947.  Then the Vietnam Veterans groundbreaking thirty years ago, March 26, 1982.  The Korean War Memorial, Franklin Roosevelt, the World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial and now Eisenhower. 

National Park Service
The wide open spaces of the Mall drive larger memorials than would have existed under the Jefferson/Downing concepts and the size of the designs are certainly an issue with Eisenhower.   The largest is Jefferson, at 19 acres, the smallest is the Korean War Memorial, 2.2 acres.  In between are World War II and Roosevelt, about 7.5 acres each, MLK at 4 and Vietnam at 3.  Lincoln, completed in the twenties, is 107 acres.

The narrative of these monuments means everything and can no longer benefit from the subject's contemporary thinking, though ironically, each narrative must answer tomorrow's events as clearly as yesterday's.  As Auden wrote about Yeats: 

Now he is scattered among a hundred cities

And wholly given over to unfamiliar affections,

To find his happiness in another kind of wood

And be punished under a foreign code of conscience.

The words of a dead man

Are modified in the guts of the living. 

National Park Serevice
Is the scale of the narrative right?  My favorite, of course, is Lincoln's Memorial.  However, I have come to like the FDR Memorial more and more, though many call it trivial, because it represents how the attitude of today pushes back into the history.  The monument has a little dog, Fala, men in a breadline, a farmer couple beaten down by  events, a man listening to a radio, Eleanor Roosevelt standing in a doorway.  Today's politics make a clean history harder -- Roosevelt can't smoke cigarettes, Mrs.  Roosevelt's fox fur collar is gone and the President must sit in a wheelchair though he avoided that image all his post-polio life.  It even allows a clear and pointed rebuke, the President quoted in stone what everyone knows he failed to do in the western United States after Pearl Harbor:

"We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all citizens, whatever their background." 

Part of the issue in the Eisenhower design is whether the narrative has a scale too understated, whether the barefoot boy, even if he has shoes on, is simply too small a representation.  More important, in Susan Eisenhower's best criticism, does the narrative lead us to the accomplishment or is the accomplishment our starting place?  There is no log cabin, she would probably say, in the Lincoln Memorial. 

Eisenhower also surfaces the question of who should speak for the person?  Is the family's franchise such that they are owed more than respect?  Or, does the subject of the memorial 'belong to the ages,' as Stanton said of Lincoln?

In part of the communications frenzy after the contentious hearing, The Eisenhower Memorial Commission comes down clearly with Stanton:

"Frank Gehry has been a loyal soldier in our effort," the commissioners wrote.  "We confirm our selection of him, confirm our enthusiastic endorsement of his design concept, and express our regret and sadness at the tone and nature of the selected comments that have been made on Mr.  Gehry's design for the memorial."

Eisenhower Memorial Commission

National Civic Art Society

Lovely piece on the restoration of Downing's plan

Blog about Washington, DC in its early days


The Memorial Hearing. Well worth watching.