On Tuesday, keep a sharp eye out for Baron Roorback

Martin D. Tullai

November 02, 1990|By Martin D. Tullai

IT WAS 1844 and James K. Polk, the Tennessee Democrat who is known as our first "dark horse" president, was running for the highest office against the Whig candidate, Henry Clay of Kentucky.

Just before election day the Ithaca, N.Y., Chronicle published an excerpt from the journal of one Baron Roorback. Titled "A Tour Through the Western and Southern States," the journal contained the account of a most damaging incident witnessed by the "baron." He told of observing the purchase of 43 slaves by James K. Polk, "the present Speaker of the House of Representatives, the mark of the branding iron and the initials of his name, on their shoulders, distinguishing them . . ."

With election near at hand, other newspapers of the Whig persuasion made haste to reprint the report of the Democratic candidate's inhumanity.

A public service? Hardly. In point of fact, it never happened. The sale was not made, the branding scene never took place and there was no Baron Roorback. It was a smear concocted by an Ithaca abolitionist.

Candidate Polk won, but the deception hurt his cause. (It took a while, but over the years, the deserving Tennessean overcame this and other unfair tactics so that today he ranks in the top 10 in most estimates of our greatest chief executives.)

As a result of this bit of political chicanery, the word "roorback" became a common noun known to generations of political practitioners with the meaning: "any false or damaging story about a political candidate published too late in a campaign to permit effective refutation."

With the Maryland general election only four days away and several races heating to the boiling point (especially the contest for Congress in the 1st District), is it possible that something like this could occur? More than maybe. After all, it was in Maryland that an exceptionally rotten trick -- the faked photograph -- took place.

It was 1950 and Democratic Sen. Millard Tydings, who had served for 24 years, was up for re-election. In the spring of that year he headed a special subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to investigate Sen. Joseph McCarthy's charges of communist infiltration of the State Department. The most sensational accusation held that Owen Lattimore, a Johns Hopkins professor who was a State Department adviser on Far Eastern affairs, was the "architect" of the State Department policy that "surrendered" China to the communists.

One of those summoned during the hearings was Earl Browder, the American communist leader. His testimony, however, clarified nothing. When he completed his questioning of Browder, Tydings concluded with a courteous, "Oh, thank you, sir."

During his campaign following the hearings, Tydings' literature said, in part, "The committee stated it had not found evidence in the [FBI] files to support Sen. McCarthy's charges." But McCarthy had charged that the files had been "raped" and "rifled" and that they were "incomplete." There was a gap between the positions of Tydings and McCarthy on this and other aspects of the controversy. McCarthy's allies were furious at Tydings and raised questions about his judgment and motives.

Pro-McCarthy people suddenly appeared in Maryland and worked to raise questions about the manner in which Tydings conducted the hearings. The effort seemed to be aimed at convincing the public that a whitewash had taken place. The most significant piece of political chicanery was the use of a composite photograph that showed Tydings looking attentively and respectfully at a benign Browder, who looked back soulfully at the senator. Between the two figures was a fine white line.

Actually, the Browder photograph was from April 17, 1950, and ** had to be reversed and reduced in size so that he and Tydings would appear in the same proportion. The Tydings picture had been made 12 years earlier, and the circumstances explain his expression: He was listening to the election returns in 1938, the year he survived Franklin D. Roosevelt's purge.

No one can be sure how many voters the picture influenced. But certainly some of the 43,000 people who voted Republican were swayed by this dirty trick.

In the same election, Tydings' camp apparently also used some photo fakery. He was shown in an ad appearing on the cover of Time magazine. In fact, while he was cited in a story in Time as one of the 10 most effective members of the Senate, Tydings did not appear on the cover of the issue cited. While less offensive than his opponent's tactics, this, too, went beyond the bounds of political propriety.

Since one of the accepted functions of a political party is to act as a "bonding agent," each party ought to perform this responsibility with diligence. Failure to curb those few who feel little compunction about employing deceptive practices does a terrible disservice to the electorate and the party. As George Washington counseled: "A fire not to be quenched, it [party spirit] demands a uniform vigilance to prevent it bursting into flame, lest, instead of warming it shall consume."

Martin D. Tullai is chairman of the history department at St. B Paul's School.

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