by Scott Foster
uring the late 1940s and early '50s, my mother and I often spent a few weeks during the long Oklahoma summers with my great-aunt and -uncle, Lovie and Judge John Stobaugh. Dad would drive the 100 miles, as the crow flies, down from Oklahoma City on weekends, his arrival announced by the sound of tires on the course-gravel driveway leading up to the towered Victorian house. Uncle John had moved the solid furnishings to the small southern Oklahoma town of Tishimingo, the Capitol of the Chickasaw Indian Nation, by horse-drawn wagon from his original homestead in Chickasaw, Arkansas - near the Louisiana border and just across the state line from Poteau in southeast Oklahoma. He had bought his acre of land in 1902 following the Great Oklahoma Land Run of 1889. Glamorized in western movies, "The Run" was just another land grab engineered by President Benjamin Harrison to steal more real estate from the indigenous peoples of the Great Plains; the Indians of the "Five Civilized Tribes." This is how Oklahoma came into being.
Uncle John was an early Oklahoma judge, and his law partner, William "Alfalfa-Bill" Murray was, among other things, the Chair of the state's first Democratic Party Convention. One historian wrote, "William H. (Alfalfa-Bill) Murray is the most important figure in the political history of Oklahoma. No other individual contributed so greatly to the formation of its political institutions - and no more colorful or controversial character ever strode onto the state's political scene. Flamboyant, unpredictable, and stubborn, Alfalfa-Bill became a legend to several generations of Oklahomans."
Known as "the Sage of Tishomingo" throughout Oklahoma, in Little Rock, Austin, Baton Rouge, and in Washington D.C., Alfalfa-Bill was elected as a Democrat to the Sixty-Third and Sixty-Fourth Congresses and was the ninth Governor of Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Uncle John
was a Roosevelt "New Deal" Democrat and this had badly rankled his old partner - as Alfalfa-Bill had run for President against Roosevelt, and of course lost. Later as Governor, Alfalfa-Bill fought every New Deal project that came along, preferring to set up his own versions of Roosevelt's WPA
public employment programs using Oklahoma's enormous oil income.
Uncle John and Alfalfa-Bill's close friend, Thomas Pryor Gore (great-uncle to Al) had "been with 'em" during the 1906 State Constitutional Convention in Guthrie, Oklahoma Territory. Blind, Gore was the new state's first United States Senator. Gore's young grandson, Gore Vidal, was both his constant companion and his eyes around Washington. Vidal "grew up among political and social notables." Born at the military academy in West Point, where his father was an instructor, he was raised near Washington, DC by his grandfather. Vidal also spent time on the Virginia estate of his stepfather, Hugh. D. Auchincloss - later to become Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy's stepfather as well.
Senator Gore's headstone reads, "Great Is the Memory of His Character." While it doesn't, Alfalfa-Bill's headstone could well have read, "He Is The Greatest Character Of Memory." If people were animals, the cantankerous and defiant Alfalfa-Bill would have been a bantam rooster. Alfalfa-Bill began his political career by helping then Governor Charles Haskell to move (some said "steal)" the capitol from Gutherie to Oklahoma City. Local lore recorded Uncle John saying, "Guthrie's too damn far from Tishomingo."
So in the middle of the night, on June 11, 1910, the state seal was "moved" to Oklahoma City, and along with it, Guthrie's entire economic base. A "special election" was hastily arranged and they "made it legal," as Uncle John was fond of saying. Oklahoma City became the new state capitol. The growing railroad traffic shifted the 30 miles south and Guthrie, (today one of only 12 American towns to be listed by the National Historic Trust in its entirety) was relegated to the role of small picturesque county seat. More than a few large landowners in those parts grumbled, "Tishomingo's an Indian word meaning 'pack of goddamn Democrats runnin' the whole goddamn state.'" While not of record, the Indians must have at least been mildly amused by the turn of events for the Republicans who had originally taken the Great Plains lands from the Indians during the Run.
The new marble and Tishomingo granite Greek-Revival capitol building was erected near downtown where William Skirvin's fine new hotel would later rise from the oil-rich Indian lands. Literally boarded up after the oil crash of the 1980s (finally refurbished and reopened in February, 2008), the Skirvin Hotel with its grand, glittering lobby and ballroom and regal suites quickly became the social center of the young state.
Bill Skirvin's daughter, Pearl Skirvin Mesta
was known in
Washington, D.C. as "the hostess with the mostest'." Already very wealthy, Pearl later "struck oil at the alter" when she married steel manufacturer and engineer George Mesta in 1916. She was widowed in 1925 and Pearl was sole heir to his $78 million fortune which she used to cut her own wide swath through the annals of 20th-century Democratic Party politics. The U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg under President Truman, her life story wound up on Broadway. Ethel Merman played Pearl and "Call Me Madam" was a long-running hit.
Later, one of the massive anchors from the USS Oklahoma, tragically sunk in Hawai'i during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, would be placed in front of the Skirvin Hotel as a memorial. The ship's 65 pound Gorham sterling silver punch bowl with its' mirrored plateau and 100 sterling silver punch cups, "mysteriously removed before the attack," now reside at the elegant Oklahoma Governor's Mansion.
One sticky-hot summer afternoon in 1954, Uncle John and I walked up Main Street in Tishomingo toward his law office. By age ten I knew it could take a while to stroll even a few blocks with "The Judge." People tended to congregate, waiting to pay their respects to the man who had helped many of them hang on to their farms during the devastating dust-bowl days of the Great Depression, later recounted in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Uncle John enjoyed all the fuss, considering it "important local politickin'" - an artform he practiced until a stroke felled him at age 84.
Pausing on his office steps, Uncle John's big voice boomed down at me, "Ears open, mouth shut!" - as Alfalfa Bill's son, now Governor Johnston Murray and his wife Willie pulled up in a long black Cadillac behind a police car with red lights and fender-mounted chrome sirens blazing, nearly stampeding the horse pulling a passing Amish carriage. Arkansas' U.S. Senator William Fulbright arrived a little less loudly with "Uncle Lyndon," then Texas Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson who had driven up from Johnsonville, Texas in his silver Cadillac convertible. The last to appear was Oklahoma Senator Robert S."Bob" Kerr flown over from Poteau in his new Douglas DC-3. While a warm, generous and kind man to his friends, Kerr was a different ilk of Democrat from Uncle John, Alfalfa-Bill and Senator Gore. As Uncle John often said, "Kerr got rich off it." In fact, very very rich, as his company was one of the country's largest independent oil producers, having discovering vast oil reserves under the former Indian lands. In fact, one of Senator Kerr's early campaign slogans claimed, "I'm just like you - only I struck oil."
also produced great quantities of asphalt and owned large uranium-ore leases and processing facilities. The Kerr-McGee Atomic Fuel Division was later scandalized by the nearly-true movie about Karen Silkwood. It starred Meryl Streep and Cher as Karen's Lesbian roommate. In real life, Karen was the Lesbian. I knew Karen from the Oklahoma City Gay bars where she often came to dance and party. Although Bob Kerr was alive for Karen's plutonium contamination, he didn't live to see the movie. Some said that it was just as well because he would have "likely dropped dead" from the resulting international scandal. Every Lesbian in the world saw the movie and the later Frontline documentary, Nuclear Reaction: Why Do Americans Fear Nuclear Power" and the assault on the nuclear industry escalated to near meltdown.
Anyway, it took four years to build Kerr's 11,000 square-foot mountaintop estate in Poteau, Oklahoma and for years, Republicans loved to repeat the story that "Kerr's 30-mile driveway" had been paid for by the taxpayers. While not exactly true, it could have been because Bob Kerr - "the king of the Senate" - was, by far, the single most-powerful Senator in Congress; far more influential than Hawaii's U.S. Senator Dan Inouye later became, as Senator Dan would have told you. When asked, "Why in the hell are you going to a little town in Oklahoma to dedicate a road that goes to nowhere?" President Kennedy replied, "I'm not going to dedicate a damn road, I'm going down there to kiss Bob Kerr's ass in public." Such was the power gathering in Uncle John's office, its ceiling fans slowly moving the heavy Oklahoma Summer air.
Willie Murray was a handsome lady of great wit, dressed in the tailored suits of the day with matching hat, bag, high-healed shoes, requisite pearl-buttoned white gloves, and discreet old Harry Winston jewelry. The Governor's wife hung around long enough to greet everybody and was then whisked away to
join the ladies for refreshments. Willie carried her own refreshments in a silver flask and thus fortified, played a mean piano. If the truth were known, Willie would have preferred to stay and argue politics with the men - but in those days politics was strictly a man's game. That sort of thinking came to a screeching halt in Oklahoma when Willie ran for governor herself, after her
husband's last term. She lost, but not by much.
Now Uncle John had called this august group together because "Ike" (President Dwight D. Eisenhower) had taken the White House two years before -
and the Republicans were stirring up trouble for the Democrats who could not seem to agree on anything, much less a viable political strategy. Glancing up at the two dusty autographed portraits peering down from behind his desk, Uncle John muttered, "It was a damnsight easier under Franklin D. and Harry."
According to Kerr, Eisenhower was going to push hard for further funding of the long-debated interstate highway system. The Democrats realized that the enormous amount of money it would take to forge ahead with the massive highway project would have to come from somewhere. They knew the "where" would likely be from the already-shrinking federal projects in the then-solidly Democratic states like Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas - and from the many so-called Democratic entitlement programs. As far as Kerr was concerned, he saw nothing much the matter with U.S. Highway 66. After all, it was well-maintained in Oklahoma and through six other states with Kerr-McGee asphalt. "Hell, Ike's a talkin' 'bout usin' mostly concrete!" Kerr lamented.
While my eleven-year-old brain could not comprehend everything said that day, I do remember animated hollerin' and cussin' that seemingly lasted for hours - until Uncle John finally brought the room to attention by ringing his cane against one of the large brass spittoons near his desk.
"If he were here," roared Uncle as he pointed to the empty seat across the old partner's desk, "he'd kick our withered butts! We all know what its gonna' take to beat Ike. First it's gonna' take a plan and its gonna' take lotsa' money to beat the Republicans. And its gonna' take the Democratic Party. The Party's our fishin' net, turnin' out folks on election day." And most important, the Party's the safety net protectin' our poor, our old and infirm. Just remember what it took gettin' it all there; minimum wage, Social Security, and protectin' our workers health! The damn Republicans are blastin' holes in us, so can we just lay this all to rest and get on with it?" By then, all heads were nodding in agreement. It's likely I was the only one near enough to hear Uncle John mutter under his breath, "...at least 'til after the next goddamn' election."
Alas, the Democrats lost "the next goddamn' election" in 1956 to Ike - who indeed began building his "mostly concrete" highways. But four years later, John F. Kennedy was elected President of the United States and when I recall that hot summer day in Tishimingo, I like to think that it somehow had something to do with it.
Willie Murray didn't live to see the Democrats win back the White House, but Johnston Murray, Uncle John, Bob Kerr, William
Fulbright, Uncle Lyndon, and their younger associate
Carl Albert were there. After Mr. Albert retired as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, he moved back to his home in Bugtussle, Oklahoma, a few miles up the road from Tishimingo where he died gently at 92 in 2000.
Now they're all gone.
When people can't seem to understand why I view Oklahoma and Hawai'i as being so very similar, I say that I can relate to the strong sense of community and the slower pace of life in Hawai'i, and while not as spiritually based as Aloha, southern hospitality does work its own special magic. Tornadoes like hurricanes and tsunamis frighten, kill, injure, and do great damage to property and the economy. And the Hawaiian people's fight for sovereignty reminds me of the plight of the Five Civilized Tribes . After years of seeing their cultures butchered, Oklahoma's Indians came together to achieve at least a modicum of justice and redress for their once-demoralized peoples whose populations - like the Hawaiians' - were decimated by the white man's diseases and "progress." Not only did the Oklahoma Indians get a large hunk of the oil money, they now own and operate most of the casinos along Oklahoma's "Eisenhower" interstate highways.
Even Hawaii's depressed economy of the 1990's reminded me of Oklahoma. The empty store fronts, "For Sale" signs, and friends moving away were all too familiar. Oklahoma was also a one-industry state whose economy was devastated when the price of oil (made artificially high by the 1970s Arab Oil Embargo) dropped by half literally overnight. There too, many, many businesses failed when the changes wrought by powerful and uncontrollable outside economic forces brought a once-prosperous economy to its knees. The economic cataclysm gave the Republicans enough leverage to elect only their second govenor since 1907, and just a few years later in Texas, the feisty Democratic Governor Ann Richards lost the Governorship to George Bush Jr. Hawaii's last Democratic Governor Ben Cayetano's slim margin of victory in 1998 stirred up unsettling political memories.
After thirty years of unparalleled growth, during the '90s a harsh new economic reality established itself in our islands. Just as I had witnessed during the Oklahoma boom & bust, I watched many in Hawai'i who had thought themselves so brilliant slowly realize they were not; they just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Those were particularly uncertain times for the many still locked into old patterns of doing business and politics; one in the same in Oklahoma and Hawai'i. Many powerful folks in Hawai'i remained without a clue as their small, once tightly-controlled worlds crumbled. Many were swept away completely, especially those who speculated too heavily in real estate at the end of the "Japanese-investment bubble."
Fear, greed, and nepotism are about the same everywhere, and as the pie shrinks the well-connected continue to vie for less largess and continue to fight new ideas, technology, and against the new people who bring them. As happened in Oklahoma, people in Hawai'i finally became fed up with the cronyism and the resulting bungling of opportunity and so the 2002 election of a Republican governor in Hawai'i should have come as no great surprise.
But what really took me back to my years in Oklahoma was watching the H-3 Highway - the very final segment of the Eisenhower National Defense Highway System - being constructed - in Hawai'i! Growing up in Oklahoma, I had watched as Eisenhower's interstate highways accommodated faster and faster cars and bigger and bigger trucks. America's long romance with the automobile really moved into high gear, and as people bypassed the smaller cities and towns, thousands of once-flourishing communities literally withered on the vine. Route 66, once "America's Main Street," died along with our efficient and comfortable passenger trains. Some argue they were "murdered." Of all that can be said, there is no disagreement over the fact that Eisenhower's interstate highway system forever altered the face of America, symbolized, at least to me, in Hawai'i by an enormous gray concrete scar across the face of the magnificent Koolau Mountains.
TO BE CONTINUED